I honour Lady Percy and her expression of love. YOU MAY CLICK TO CONFIRM.
Otherwise my novels, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations, responses, apologies. I'm only serious by accident. Education? Forget it. I hold posts to 300 words* since I've found less is better than more. One quasi-certainty in an uncertain world: I almost always re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* New exclusion: short stories.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Chance meeting

Sonnet: On reading lines of The Prelude under unpropitious circumstances.

I too was aching for that silent bay
Across the reefs of painful ignorance,
My awkward self devoid of unity,
Self-scattered victim of my malcontents.

An empty gourd, teaching's futility,
Unteachable yet wanting to be taught,
Turning away from light's felicity.
A thing outside, a thing as yet unwrought.

Flicking through books, but leaving most unseen,
A dabbler blind to any exemplar,
Blind to so much, but not to this bright sheen:
"To cut across the reflex of a star"

And who wrote that? Oh him. A northern hue.
The name itself is worth a word or two,

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The sirens now are silent

Years after, they said Britain's national diet during WW2 was utterly healthy. That we ate only what was good for us, held obesity at bay and kept fit by walking. Perhaps. But we didn't enjoy it. I didn't anyway.

The emphasis was on vegetables. since they weren't rationed. No one could persuade me to eat those woody orange discs called carrots. Turnip had a rank taste plus hard bits. Onion I found slimy. And cabbage...

Desperate to keep me alive my mother drained off the cabbage liquor, added an Oxo cube and gave me the resultant drink in a cup. I can bring back the taste now - compost! You've never drunk compost? Damnit, you've got imagination haven't you?

Scroll forward sixty years. Even Tesco - poor humbled retail giant - offers a choice of cabbage. And especially Sweetheart. I ask myself is that really cabbage? How then did it leave its ancestors so far behind?

Cabbage's rehabilitation pre-dated my discovery of Sweetheart. VR served up Savoy, or whatever, as a sort of stir-fry - including lardons and fragments of onion (its sliminess forgotten). But that's comparatively elaborate.

With Sweetheart remove even finest stalks, chop small, add caraway seeds, sauté 1 min in knob of butter, cover, simmer on very low heat, S&P. Kinda luxurious. Goes with pork - Hell, it goes with anything. Reminds you WW2 is over.

JOE'S NUDGE
Four lines in:

Straight I loosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth,
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;


Reasons why. Forget technique. "It was an act of stealth, And troubled pleasure" grabs you on its own.

Wordsworth

Saturday, 25 October 2014

I stand corrected

“Never perfect a self-tied bow-tie. It might look like a made-up.” RR to JH

When we miss someone are we being selfish? Or is it just me?

VR and I recently attended a drinks reception to honour Joe Hyam's editorship of the influential magazine, Caterer. The usual worthies were present, including telly celeb chefs Anton Mossiman and Anthony Worrall-Thompson. People spoke warmly for Joe was well regarded. Afterwards, on a more personal level, VR and I enjoyed a meal with Joe's nearest and dearest.

Back home I'm doing what I usually do. Rewriting one of my novels, Blest Redeemer. Thinking of Joe in a different context.

When Blest Redeemer starts Judith is 51 and has suffered. Time then steps back and a lengthy central section covers her mid-teens to her late thirties.

I concentrated on middle-aged Judith, thinking younger Judith would slide in naturally. How wrong I was. In effect I needed a new central character. Like asking the plastic surgeon for a replacement face.

I’ve never worked so hard on so much unusable crap. Joe, my editor, stayed calm, urged and suggested. Frustrating months passed. Finally Joe was able to say: "Time to have a bit of fun with Imogen.” Imogen is a secondary character and I could leave Death Row.

In comparison the current work is superficial, polishing not re-creating. Goodish bits are showing up. Joe deserves to see those bits; they are his as much as mine. Mind you, he might disagree. I miss him. Selfishly.

Blest Redeemer. Imogen had a theory about Middle European carnality and after three weeks it was made flesh. Momentousness occurred.  Since it wasn’t news Imogen felt could wait she told the tale still wearing an immaculate bandeau and sitting on Judith’s bed at two in the morning.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Antipathy sliced and skewered

Many have their dislikes; far fewer are prepared to explain them. Yet it's a great discipline and helps hone articulacy.

HUW EDWARDS (BBC news presenter). Operates to a formula; not a spark of life in that dead face. Two tones of voice: neutral and solemn. For great tragedies (eg, the tsunami) he slows down slightly.

CUCUMBER Remarkably aggressive taste. Behaves like a Nazi propagandist for freshness, insisting that slower, earthier tastes are somehow immoral. A Mississipi fundamentalist in vegetable form.

IAN McEWAN Much lauded British novelist, inhabiting small, contained, uninteresting yet frequently unikely worlds. Precious according to the third meaning (excessively refined, affected) and fourth meaning (used as an intensifier: highly valued but worthless). On top of all that: dull.

CONSERVATIVE/TORY PARTY Forget their so-called agonies about EU membership. They're in their element. Huge national deficit (created by bailing out the banks) is allowing them to follow their ideology and dismantle the welfare state. The nasty party gets nastier.

LADDISHNESS A negation of all that is glorious in having two genders. A delusion that laughter may redeem bad behaviour. The jettisoning of responsibility and a disdain for all that is not "immediate".

SOCCER Mildly entertaining team game where low scores mean it is obligatory to travel hopefully than to arrive. Tainted by class-wide oafishness of its supporters, the extremity of its mediators and a general sense of disintegrating values.

POPULAR TV (Dr Who, The Apprentice, cooking competitions, infantile quizzes, etc) A dislike which might be characterised as prejudice since I don't watch them. I don't have to. Programmes are trailered to the point of insanity, their banality heavily emphasised.

Please be advised; it is the reasons not the dislikes themselves that make for engaging conversation.

Monday, 20 October 2014

They say it's bliss

Cogito ergo sum.

Nothing like a Latin tag for alienating readers (unless it's a Greek tag, written in triangles). Mind you, in some cases, foreignness flatters readers.

Cogs, they say, it's about gear-wheels. Written by Spannerus, the first Latin car mechanic. Whereas those who know, pass by. How banal the old fool has become, they say.  He was better (but only just) when he knew his place and blogged as a ship's bosun.

I know you all know. But with Descartes' "I think therefore I am" it's the tone that puzzles. Was he implying that anyone who thinks exists, or just him, the French smarty-boots.

Because he was smart, you know. Newton, the English smarty-boots, gave him credit.

Presently I'm thinking about lunch. It's a diet day, thus CuppaSoup minestrone, apple, satsuma. Does that thought prove I exist? How about Beef Wellington? Not that Descartes would have eaten Beef Wellington. Or perhaps he would - vengefully. But the dates are wrong.

To qualify, the thought has to be an abstraction (ie, longish. No, that's not right, love's an abstraction. Memo to self: Get out of this, fast.) Ignorance is an abstraction.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

You know that, too. QED – which has just been demonstrated (in effect). Alienation next up.

Blest Redeemer (140,873 words. It’s shrinking folks).
When Judith got a chance to check the newly stored groceries she was relieved to find raw materials rather than made-up cottage pies and lasagne. Although why on earth did this matter? Were unpeeled carrots a proof of character? Did the chicken stir-fry Imogen subsequently made and shared help rebut her parents’ worst fears?

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The (less than) great debate


Sixth-form Swank
Short story. 1954 words

THE thick lenses in Arthur Gager’s spectacles radiated circles within circles,  spinning round eyes that yearned for light. No rugby or cricket for him, not that he minded. As a sixth former he had been reduced to umpiring and found he enjoyed the authority, liked being acknowledged for his pedantry and love of arcane rules.

His outside world had gradually contracted. Rather than squinch at it he preferred to read about it. As during this brief wait for the bus. Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower was elegantly written, but even so his sensitive ears picked up the voices, animated and high-pitched. Two girls at the other bus-stop wearing their navy blue blazers. Off to their grammar school in the other direction.

Something about the girls’ images needed decoding but they were too blurry. In his brief-case were umpiring glasses which gave him more distance. But his bus was arriving with a roar and he needed to step from the kerb on to the platform without making a fool of himself.

Sitting inside the bus he removed his glasses to blot out distractions. He’d not noticed the girls before which was odd since they, like him, were using the most obvious service for getting to school. But perhaps The Proud Tower had been more gripping. Perhaps too they were not always as vocal. Tomorrow, wearing his distance glasses, he’d get another chance.

RE-ENTERING school he forget about them as the sense of sixth-form privilege descended A group of four, all equally clever, all seriously committed to history, all manipulated skilfully by Arthur’s favourite master Ted Plaice.

“Beckinsale,” said Plaice, “give me your thoughts on Charles Grey.”

An incomplete question and therefore a trap, lacking the qualification “relative to the 1832 Reform Act”. Beckinsale was however unfazed.

“The prime minister was cautious, and for good reason. He had the ear of the King.”

“Why was that important?”

“The King supported the Act reluctantly,” said Beckinsale.

“Do kings usually favour greater electoral powers for the people?”

“Not as a rule. But their regal glitter can be dulled by so many rotten boroughs. Grey truckled to the King by selling the Act as essentially a conservative measure.”

Gentle approval. And so it went on.

At the break Plaice asked Arthur to stay behind. “Do you fancy a cigarette? Outdoors.”

“I don’t smoke, sir. But I’m flattered.”

They stood together in the courtyard. “Look Young Arthur, I could fix you up with a history class but you’d do that standing on your head. I want to test your adaptability.”

“Not maths, I hope sir.” Gager touched his pebble glasses. “The blind leading the blind.”

“How about geography?”

“Good grief!”

“It’s a bum subject. But if you fail – which I’m not expecting – no innocent young mind will be scarred.”

Gager nodded. “Peninsulas and coal mining in Lodz. I’ll be pleased to give it a whirl, sir.”

“Good man.”

TRANSITUS C consisted of fourteen-year-olds who were academically going nowhere. Their parents paid fees which ultimately ensured that more brilliant minds like Arthur got a shot at Oxbridge. Surveying the classroom as they filed in he spotted a wall map.

“My name’s Gager. Cordingley, who’s Cordingley,” he called out firmly, asserting himself.

A hand rose.

“Tell me, Corders, why should that map be ignored?”

“Because I’m not into world domination… sir.”

Perhaps Transitus C weren’t duds. Just lazy.

Gager said, “Let’s assume – however difficult – you are the oughties equivalent of Phillip the Great. You’ve been handed that map for your next campaign. You immediately put out the eyes of your map supplier. Why?”

Briefly he had their attention. Someone, not Cordingley, pointed out the USSR no longer existed. Gager asked them to identify Kazakhstan and Chechnya and they played along for ten minutes. But the mood was sluggish and he saw he was losing them. As a cop-out he asked for fifty words on the difference between physical and political geography.

“You have quarter of an hour,” Gager said. “After, I want them all read out aloud. In break time if necessary.”

It wasn’t teaching but at least Transitus C were under control. He walked the aisles hoping to generate menace. As he passed by, the boy who had known about the USSR pulled out his handkerchief. No doubt he would now blow his nose with a noise resembling a fart.

From the handkerchief something fell to the floor and Gager picked it up. A photograph of a plain-looking girl wearing the girl’s grammar school blazer, reminding Gager of his unfinished business. He handed the photo back and the boy unexpectedly blushed. “Thank you, sir. It’s Hoskins, by the way. And that’s the girl-friend. IT need her photo for the programme.”

“Programme?”

“For the debate, sir,” said Hoskins. “The annual debate.”

Dimly Gager remembered. An inter-grammar-school event that tended to cause much faux-sexual chat among the staff and the boys. Gager had never attended; the debate subjects had never seemed serious enough.

“What’s the subject this year?”

Hoskins said, “Feminism – success or failure?”

Typical, thought Gager. “It take it your… er, girl-friend is speaking?”

“Ooh yes, sir. She’s mega-clever.”

Plaice required a report on the geography class and pooh-poohed Gager’s pessimism. “I wasn’t expecting a Damascene moment, Young Arthur. No transfer of knowledge. You kept the barbarians in order. That was what mattered.”

Gager wondered whether Transitus C might have hidden virtues, that their defects might be due to other causes, not their fault. Normally he’d have discussed this but for once his mind was elsewhere. That a more or less unexceptional fourteen-year-old lad had a girl-friend.

UMPIRING glasses made things clear: the two girls – young women, Gager supposed – were carrying brief-cases, proof positive that they too were in their school’s sixth form. The traditional shoulder bag was useless for the heavy tomes of advanced learning. Both girls/women were immensely superior in looks to Hoskins’ mega-clever debater, even though they were chalk and cheese to each other. One tall, willowy, with scattered light-brown hair, the other darkly complexioned, a mildly voluptuous body and a polished-jet bob.

Gager stared at them transfixed, his mind empty of thought, given over to sensations. They noticed and the darker one waved. Gager felt his face warm up alarmingly. The first time he’d knowingly blushed.

On successive mornings he stared, they waved and finally he waved back. Both smiled. On the fifth morning the darker one called out. Gager stepped halfway across the road.

“See you at the debate tonight,” she repeated.

And Gager nodded vigorously.

Lord Melbourne’s compromises were pushed to one side as Gager, cloistered in the library, brought himself up to date on women’s politics. By his standards the sources were poor tack and he scythed expertly through book after book, unworried by the burden of dates, the validity of cross-references or of axes to grind. The authors’ names, seen previously only in newspaper headlines, ebbed and flowed in his consciousness and the range of subjects appeared to contract rather than widen. Repetition set in and he found himself drawn into the byways. Shaw engaged him with wit – a quality in short supply elsewhere – and he had time to tackle Simone de Beauvoir’s more technical journalism, untranslated from the French.

The sheets in the ring binder thickened until it was time to dash home for tea, put on a shirt and tie and walk out to the bus-stop. He had wondered whether he might share the bus with either or both of them but things turned out better still. A protective father was driving them and they stopped to pick him up. He found himself on the back seat with willowy Liz, a PPE in all but name and a degree. Pam sitting in front frightened him slightly when she confessed to organic chemistry. Gager had unaccountably suspected poor eyesight would be a hindrance with the hard sciences.

“Will you be speaking?” asked Pam, dark eyes merry and welcoming.

Gager held up the ring binder and Pam’s expression was immediately wiped away.

 “What’s that?”

“Some notes I put together. I needed a bit of background. Until today Bindel and Dworkin were just names.”

“Dworkin?”

“Mostly back-up. I expect you lot will cover the big names while I fill in the cracks. Shaw impressed me all those years ago.” Alarmed by Pam’s blank face, Gager added hurriedly, “But perhaps he doesn’t count these days.”

There was no further conversation and Gager realised something had gone wrong.

THE DEBATE informed him. No one else had made notes; no one else had apparently thought twice about what they were going to say. Within minutes Gager saw that the main speakers’ research was ineffably feeble, gathered from the Internet, magazines, even television.  Of all the names Gager had ploughed through only Germaine Greer’s emerged and that as part of a weak joke based on the title of The Female Eunuch. Hoskins’ girl-friend proved to be almost childish and he realised that his few hours’ work gave him the power to wipe her out. The concept of opposing views appeared lost in a welter of parrotting.

Glancing around Gager noticed the audience included two masters who, way back, had taught him. Studiously they listened, conscientiously they applauded.

Proposers and seconders stumbled on and Gager sank back, metaphorically shrugging his shoulders. He’d misunderstood the level, any contribution he made would be hopelessly out of key, and it only remained for him to restrain himself.  Perhaps even leave now, surreptitiously.

He picked up the ring-binder, shuddering at the thought that he might have strayed unwarned into this amateur gathering, trying to sell a handful of Anne Whitefield quotes from Man and Superman. Crouching he eased himself out of his seat, turning to the end of the row.

To a deafening silence.

He hadn’t noticed.

The final seconder had abruptly closed her mouth and the moderator had gestured to the floor. Making Arthur Gager, half standing, binder in hand, appear as the first volunteer. What then? Should he sign out with an acid word from Cromwell, say, or Lord Salisbury? The authentic voice of the sixth form.

Tasting a stream of instantly available quotations he glanced voraciously round the hall and his eyes lit on the barely familiar face of Hoskins. Hoskins! That meaningless fourteen-year-old, staring vacuously. Hoskins? Oh, not Hoskins. Thrice blest Hoskins.

Specs still in place Gager looked to his right and saw Pam’s face, frowning, even apprehensive. Had she intended to speak? Had she sensed his situation from what he’d said in the car? Pam, oh God! She reminding him why he was here. Not for any rubbishy debate but to help him re-create that delicious sense of unease.

Ineluctably the sixth form ethos took over.

Gager put his binder down. “I’d like to say something to everyone from the Girls’ Grammar School. But I’m male and the chances are I’ll raise suspicions. I have to say it anyway.

“I’d like to be liked but that’s obviously too much. To be thought honest – far too big. To be thought supportive – huh, I’m asking for the moon. I’m male and males have bad records.

“So I’m lowering my sights. Are you able to think of me as polite? Nothing more?”

Silence rang out with tinnitus added.

Gager looked around, avoiding Pam’s face but saw Liz’s. Typed it as quizzical.  He shook his head. “I guess not. Sad really. Now I’ve got a bus to catch.”

THE WEEK-END intervened. On Monday he left home ten minutes early and they were there at his bus-stop, changing their brief cases from hand to hand to ease the weight. Somehow Pam seemed slightly less voluptuous, while Liz had gained authority.

Liz said, “How about alternate dates? Or if you must, a threesome?”

NAME CHANGE. The school mentioned in this story and its associated practices are imaginary. This is inevitable since I have no direct knowledge of what goes on in sixth forms - I left formal education behind at age 15. However I needed a short snappy name for a teacher and I chose one attached to a teacher who for one year did teach me. Not history (no teacher had much success with that) but another subject. In fact his methods were exemplary and there were others reasons why I admired him. Rather than have his innocently chosen name tied in with my story, I have replaced it.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Divided labour

Which spouse/partner works harder? Rephrasing, which domestic chore brings the greatest benefit? Easy. Who cares about dusty carpets, grimy baths or sweated sheets if starvation  threatens?

The Robinsons eat two meals a day and I make my own brunch. Even so, the evening meal – VR’s territory - represents 60% of regular household work, consisting of daily drudgery, planning, invention, skill, awareness of what will/won't poison, etc.

My response? All washing up The car, computers and the electricals Choosing, purchasing and serving booze             • Processing garbage  Some gardening (we have a gardener) Organising external leisure and holidays Going online with the bank Stoking the washing machine Most ad hoc DIY Devising utility strategies  Entering the loft  Taking a neutral view of the weather.

However, much of this is intermittent and rarely absorbs the remaining 40% of necessary work.

Also, VR often bakes cakes, hangs out washing (cannot be shared for ideological reasons), does some gardening and converts my newly bought, diminishing-waistline trousers from belt to braces.

Hoovering, floor mopping, etc, are done by professionals.

VR and I share making the bed, grocery shopping, our diet regime (now into its second year), watering the garden, answering the phone (a growing chore), choosing the acquisition of DVDs and CDs. Unaccounted-for work… disappears. 

JOE’S NUDGE
A real shorty - in full:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands; and hee that will
Reach her, about must and about it goe;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, winne so.


Reasons why. Access to truth is difficult, admirably conveyed by a poem-long metaphor. The way is indirect (“about must and about it”), antique syntax (“hee that will reach”) powers the simplicity, while “hill’s suddenness” is a phrase for all time.

Donne