I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

RR goes to the races

I'm not into horses but my neighbour, Richy, is. He's associated with (take a deep breath) the Mid-Wales & Border Counties Racing Association Ltd and knocked on my door with free tickets for the nearby Allensmore Harness Races. He'd spotted my weakness as an ex-journalist - free anything and I'm there.

The brilliant sunny day put me in a bad mood. I was trying out my new smartphone as a camera; couldn't even see the world in general on the phone's screen, never mind the horses. Took lots of photos of nothing while daughter, Professional Bleeder (PB), photographed me doing just that. Then sent the pic to grandson Ian who cruelly asked: how long would it have taken grandaughter Ysabelle to say: "Put it away, Grandad, put it away."

Fortunately Ysabelle wasn't there but VR was. I expected her to remain in the car reading her Kindle. But no, she'd followed every race, knew who was fast and who was slow; only the handicapping system fazed her. Meanwhile, horses thundered past unphotographed, their drivers adopting a horrifyingly vulnerable legs-apart posture, uncomfortably seated in their vestigial chariots.

Finally the sun went in and I was able to make a fist of mastering the phone/camera and even to appreciate the spectacle. Races are commendably short, the programme was closely adhered to, and - unlike F1 - attempts at overtaking occurred regularly. Richy, as commentator, turned out to be one of the stars; speaking at 200 words a minute, he gave every competitor plenty of mentions and ensured duffers like me were properly informed. I even consumed an ice-cream cone on impulse. As did VR.

PB bought the ice-cream and took better photos so I used hers. Something of an unexpected rural idyll, a mile or so away from my doorstep.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Hot and sticky (keys)

I wrote this short story on holiday in France. The heat (up to 39 deg C) and the nearness of the keys on the mini-laptop’s keyboard caused many repetitive and frustrating typing errors, interfering profoundly with what I wanted to say. I rewrote it back in Hereford in comparative coolth and on my wonderful Cherry keyboard. The story may or may not be any good but this version is better than the first. RR

LOVE'S A VAGRANT
NEWTON PRIMARY SCHOOL in south London is overcrowded in the daytime, more so at 7 pm when grown-ups keen to better themselves replace the children. Descendants of immigrant stock, apparently ignorant of the popular canard that they exist only to create ghettos for themselves, have swollen the numbers signing up for Advanced C++ or Archaeology up to the Cambrian. So much so that certain classes must now share spaces and risk cross-fertilisation:  Tax Law’s severities being modified by the broader brush of Comparative Theology.

This social contiguity brings logistical problems.  Newton is one of London's densest boroughs and for years the evening emptiness of the school playground had seemed so tempting. Until, that is, the borough realised its potential and rented out the tarmac temporarily, first come first served, to harassed nightclass drivers who didn't care to park half a mile away.

But only early-birds profited. James Partridge, late as usual, could find no berth for his ageing Ssangyong and was further enraged to discover a large SUV wastefully bestriding two slots. Slowing as he drove past he noted a familiar registration. The cow! Typical! Perhaps the patch of grass he'd used before at the Nelson Mandela block of high rise flats would still be unoccupied.

Even so his inconveniences would be worth it. His interest centred on the Newton Quadrennial Festival for which the borough had granted disproportionate rehearsal facilities at the school. Twelve years ago local councillors in the "deprived" sometimes "troubled" borough discovered that inadequate public affairs could be excused or at least disguised under the slogan Newton Has Aspirations. Festivals were then currently fashionable and lottery money had financed the borough's first faltering steps at selling culture to its taxpayers. That festival, which added up to little more than a water-colour competition and some half-hearted DIY folk songs, had failed but failure only seemed to encourage those who distributed lottery largesse. A second festival had included a sprinkling of rock and had launched the brief career of a group then called Mahogany Newt, later gratefully extended to The Mahogany Newtons. Eighteen months later half the Newtons perished in a fiery Transit crash on the M11 but not before their evanescence had been recognised nationally. More cash became available for the third festival, currently in preparation, and this time the organisers had bravely added poetry. James Partridge, nominally an actor, had rarely risen above drinking beer and saying nothing in that mythical pub, The Rover's Return, but had kept body and soul together by employing his sonorous voice on poetry CDs and, even more marginally, on late-night BBC Radio 3. He had high hopes of the Newton Quadrennial.

Rehearsals for Love Poetry A&M, the two-handed recital Partridge was co-partnering, occupied the whole of the school's canteen and after chairs and tables had been stacked on the serving counter there was enough "depth" in the cleared floor area to cause positioning squabbles between the two actors and their director. As he entered through the kitchen door Partridge was already assembling just such an argument only to find events had moved on.

"An easy chair would be better," said Jill in a voice as ungiving as glass.

"Two plain kitchen chairs," said Tancred. "No distractions. We agreed that on day one."

"But this verse of Duffy's luxuriates in the senses. A hard chair would be at odds."

"Five minutes later and you'll be switching to Synge and his funeral. How would a Parker-Knoll fit that one?"

"So spend a bit more lottery money. The committee can afford it. Starkness is so... male"

"While Jim P. must make do with a kitchen chair?"

Jill gestured dismissively. "He wouldn't care tuppence. You're so sexist Tanc, you're no support at all as a director. I thought gays were supposed to be sympathetic."

"Two simple wooden chairs. For sitting on and interacting with.  Plain and interchangeable. Poetry doesn’t need complicating. It’s usually complicated enough."

"Shit on you, Tanc."

"Does the stage still satisfy you, Jill? Would you prefer agency management? Or the armed forces?"

Both sensed Partridge's arrival and turned. He raised his hands in surrender. "Don't mind me. Furniture's not my scene. I'm more into dialogue."

"Soundbites, more like," said Jill.

Tancred stared at the ceiling.

In a rare period of silence each froze into the sort of photographic pose displayed on theatre frontages, hinting at feasts of statuesque acting. Between Jill's parted lips the tip of her tongue peeped out, Partridge's faint smile was definitely wry, while Tancred as director, keen to identify his higher calling, still looked upwards but now hands on hips. Corny but unmistakably authoritative.

Gradually the poses melted back into reality as the chairs were forgotten.

"You're an educated man, Tanc," said Partridge, "How the hell do I pronounce Isoult?"

Asked to advise, Tancred became warner, more animated. "You're talking about the Binyon piece, of course. More particularly: is there a difference between Ysoult and Yseult?"

"At least Isolde's got another syllable." Partridge showing off.

Tancred said, "I need to know Binyon's exact dates. They'll clue me in on whether the spelling is historically justified or just a flight of fancy."

"I could mangle the lady’s name but it's fairly prominent," said Partridge, slipping into declamatory mode:

Isoult, Isoult, thy kiss,
To sorrow though I was made,
I die in bliss, in bliss
.

Tancred nodded. "We've got to get it right. The line cries out for emphasis."

"Full welly."

"Full welly, indeed"

Jill scented male conspiracy. Had detected it from the first rehearsal when they'd divided the selection of extracts chosen by an elderly Oxonian whom Tancred was keen to indulge. "More masculine speechifying," she snorted. "I've said it before and I'll say it again, why don't I get more gender-specific stuff. Half a dozen stanzas from our Poet Laureate plus Edith Sitwell at her most obscure are hardly enough. The Laura Riding's good, I admit, but mainly I'm making bricks without straw."

Neither Tancred nor Partridge cared to answer. Jill was right; the male bias was obvious. Tancred had driven to Oxford to raise the point but the old man had proved intransigent, rambling on about "an ineluctable rhythm" in the poems and their sequence. A rhythm that was beyond Tancred despite a year of eng. lit. at Durham before the theatre lured him away. When he persisted the Oxonian shrugged, told Tancred he could do what he damn well liked but any changes and he would withdraw the use of his name. Because the name brought kudos, if rather faint, Tancred gave in. None of which had been disclosed to Jill, of course.

"Bricks without straw," repeated Jill. "When am I due more straw?"

Tancred sighed. "We've done our best, Jill. You've got your Rosalind, and I've put it at the end where it matters. It may not be straw but it's a sextet of Bach trumpets."

Briefly the sharp grooves round her mouth softened and the eagerness for dispute disappeared. From her distant look Jill had to be recalling:

Love is merely a madness, and I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not punished and cured is that the intimacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too. Yet I prefer curing it by counsel.
Orlando: Did you ever cure any so?

These weren't the final lines with which the Oxonian had ended his ineluctable rhythms but Tancred reckoned the transposition was worth the risk if it placated Jill. Not forgetting Partridge as Orlando, of course, who had found himself signing off the recital on this piping minor note and had required a soothing pint or two for his agreement. The manipulation was, nevertheless, an act of genius Tancred told himself.

For Jill would never know.

Scouting as a freelance for the National Theatre Tancred had watched Jill play As You Like It in an upstairs room of a pub in Acton. He stood at the back, in the dark, and left before the end. At the time, more than a decade ago, Jill had a growing reputation in period drama on TV and had accepted this near-amateur production as a way of adding classics to her CV. Tancred had arrived with fairly high expectations and was astonished more than appalled at Jill's terrible performance. For one thing she was slightly too old for Rosalind, for another her recent appearance in a television adaptation of Marie Correlli's The Sorrows of Satan had been poor preparation for Arden's lighter antics. Luckily, days later, Jill was picked - by a casting director ignorant of events in Acton - as Beatrice in a BBC production of Much Ado which had led to qualified critical triumph. Her over-wrought Rosalind could be discreetly forgotten. But not by Tancred.

In bribing Jill to swallow the male prejudice of Love Poetry A&M he not only transposed Rosalind's words to the end of the recital but insisted the change was obvious and logical. "After Hamlet it's the part I love to direct most. OK, you'll only be doing a tiny part of the play but you'll enjoy yourself." Tancred paused to swallow much saliva. "You know you're a natural Rosalind."

Afterwards he reflected on the difficulties actors face saying lines they didn't believe in. The blank look Jill gave him showed Acton had scarred her, that she knew how awful she'd been. And how much she wanted that memory to be untrue. But how would she respond?

At first by becoming serious.

She said thoughtfully, "It looks gay and easy. But Rosalind is several different women. Women within women."

Was that a contraction of her throat? Some swallowed saliva?

She added, "I've had difficulties I must confess." - taking comfort from near-truth.

"But I’ve enjoyed the challenges," she said, Shakespeare merrily.

The lie direct! For Tancred had checked. Much Ado had proved to be a solitary success. Jill had played no Shakespeare since.

Thus she was permitted her outbursts. They carried no threat.

But James Partridge was unaware of the background to this deal. Although he broadly supported feminism in acting at least, he was supremely irritated by Jill's nagging references to an unfair world. For him poetry had arrived in his late thirties. Analysing its structure for his recordings had taught him a good deal about poetry's aims, methods and sentiments. Poetry itself had compensated for the poor financial rewards it dispensed. Jill's complaints were not poetic and didn't inspire poetry. He'd pondered a crushing rejoinder based on bricks and straw but had been hindered by thoughts of farm animals. Too crass even for Jill.

He said, "Surely there are male poets who are sympathetic? That piece by Oliver St John Gogarty which we haven't yet allocated:

Tall unpopular men
Slim proud women who move
As women walked in the islands
Temples were built to Love,
I sing to you.


You can't grumble there. It seems to acknowledge woman's superiority"

It was one thing for Jill to fence harmlessly with Tancred but Partridge was a professional enemy. Endowed with undeserved advantages - still able to play youthful leads, if only in commercials. Jill didn't intend being fair or rational.

"Yet the only time we rehearsed it you did it down-stage. Which defeated the object."

It had been an instinctive move at the time and Partridge needed a strong lie to defend himself. "I was opening the gate to you. Didn't you see that?"

"Chivalry, you say. Backing into the limelight, I say."

Partridge sighed histrionically. "Pity we're doing love poems. Whingeing comes much more naturally to you. Perhaps we could find space for:

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With old odd ends, stol'n forth of holy writ
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.


After all, it characterises many a love affair."

Her voice rose. "Many of yours, you wretched poseur. Richly deserved, too. There's no great credit these days in scraping Dick Three's barrel."

"One way or another isn't that what we all do?"

"Children!" said Tancred (aged 26) to Jill (48) and James (44). "We're out of here in three-quarters of an hour. Let's do a little theatre. Jill, dear, let me see you use the chair for the Dowson.”

As if a switch had flipped. Jill's angrily slitted eyes opened into brightness, her body became purposeful.  She stood behind the chair supporting herself on the back, then to the side as if the chair were an acquaintance, finally sat down, leaning back, legs irregularly apart, an expression of mythical weariness. Adjusted this latter position, eyes downcast, arms lying bonelessly on her thighs. Spoke quietly out of history:

I would not alter thy cold eyes,
Nor have them smile, nor make thee weep:
Though all my life droops down and dies
Desiring thee, desiring sleep
I would not alter thy cold eyes


Both men watched stilly. Tancred drew in an audible breath. "Quite, quite different. Last time you were...

Partridge broke in, was permitted to do so. "... slightly sorrowful. But this is adoration. Pure and simple. Well done."

"Just that," said Tancred. "Jim, quickly now, the Lawrence."

Partridge sat upright on the chair, deliberately anonymous:

Grief, grief, I suppose and sufficient
Grief makes us free
To be faithless and faithful together
As we have to be.


Immediately Jill raised her hand and Tancred nodded. She said, "Jim, there's so much in it. Contradiction and human awfulness. Are you sure one physical position can cover all that?"

Excitedly Partridge responded. "I knew straight away I was wrong. Right after the second 'grief'. How about this, Jill?"
Now he dropped his shoulders for the final line "As we have to be." and his co-thespians clapped enthusiastically in unison.

With three minutes to go before the superintendent arrived to turn off the lights, Jill asked for Tancred's "gay guidance" on a version of the Carol Ann Duffy that, through one of Jill's gestures, might over-emphasise the feminine:

... you stood waist deep
in a stream
pulling me in,
so I swam.
You were the water, the wind.


Tancred thought for ten seconds, perhaps fifteen, an eternity. Finally replied, looking away from her. "No, play it straight, Jill. It has to be universal."

Out went the lights.

In the dark, from the other side of the playground car-park Partridge watched Jill open the door of the huge SUV.

"Selfish old bitch," he said, almost loud enough to carry.

St Geniès-de-Fontedit. July – August 2017

Carol Ann Duffy extract from Forest, Rapture collection, © Picador.
All other extracts from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892 – 1935, chosen by W. B. Yeats. © Oxford University Press.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Divorce and other things

Here's a gruesome definition of leisure: "when one is not working or occupied; free time."

The Great Vacancy?

I was last salaried in 1995; almost twenty-five years of being unoccupied. And since shortly I will be on holiday I must, if I were playing the game, face a different level of inoccupancy. The equivalent of a medically induced coma, perhaps.

The hard disk of my netbook (a laptop that shrank in the wash) says otherwise. Two files contain a novel and a non-fiction work, both awaiting their final, final, final read-through. I may never open them. In my head is an idea for a short story: a male actor and a female actor (The Guardian style-book condemns "actress") who hate each other must combine in a presentation of love poetry. I had fun trawling comparatively obscure poets for the raw material; I look forward to juxtaposing these over-charged lines with the two malevolent thespians.

The two books and the story (assuming it gets written) may be regarded as junk by others. But they have the potential to keep me occupied.

I'll also think melancholy thoughts. Ideologues are cutting me adrift (if only psychologically) from two personal resources: the homelands of Richard Strauss and Francois Truffaut. Hatred is said to be bad for you but it can confirm vital signs.

We all know what an occupied country is. What about an occupied person?

I'll also sing. More Mozart but then I have limited aims.

Monday, 24 July 2017

L'abri

French written paper. Q: Fill in the missing accents
As Britain lurches through geographical, financial and cultural suicide more Brits ponder the future. Typically farmers ("You didn't imagine the UK would match EU subsidies, did you?) and pensioners ("You were lucky to live when you did. It's logical to penalise your good luck so  you may die in poverty.")

These days I need to speak something other than English. Cometh the holiday, cometh the opportunity. Normally we've avoided France in July - August but this year that would have deprived Zach of two weeks' crucial schooling. Because France is crowded in mid-summer it is now sensible to book our diversions, especially restaurants.

I go to France because I like showing off and speaking French there. I make no apologies, if you've got it, flaunt it. Yes, yes, it's an outmoded skill and soon it won't mean a damn. But while it does... Beyond, there'll be just an urnful of ashes.

Booking French restaurants by telephone is another matter. The vocabulary's simple enough but there's always the unexpected, a bank holiday or some such. The trick is to get a joke in; the person taking the call relaxes and what's exchanged becomes a conversation instead of a transaction.

Recently I booked a beach restaurant which impressed us last year. "A table far away from the kitchen and out of the sun," I insisted. The guy misunderstood: "Close to the sun?" he asked incredulously. "Far from the sun," I said briskly. "I know the system. Late arrivals get roasted." He roared with laughter and switched to English. I said I'd wasted my time speaking French. "No, no, monsieur speaks good French."

Balm to my remoaning soul. Usually in short supply.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Way to go

This year's big holiday starts with a 482.4-mile journey that's  more demanding than it looks. It involves skirting two capital cities - London and Paris; also we'll be using Eurotunnel during the school holidays, the busiest time of the year, to accommodate grandson Zach's academic obligations. Passed with flying colours I'm glad to say.

Although we've done the journey before it remains something of a 21st-century adventure. We must get  from Occasional Speeder's house near Gloucester, UK,  to our hotel, Le Gerbe de Blé, in the village of Chevilly, near Orléans, France. It should take 8 hr 17 min and since most of the route is on motorways that's a fair assumption. But we'll need to stop for fuel and to eat a picnic prepared in the UK. Why must we picnic in the gastronomic paradise that is France? Because French motorway caffs are no better than those in the UK.

The following day we'll complete the route to southern France.

OS and I will share the driving. We'll use electronics to consider route options depending on traffic conditions. We hope to leave Luddites who reject satnavs  whingeing in traffic jams. Satnavs provide directions and dispense psychological aid. On long journeys it's a comfort to know exactly how many kilometres have passed. Also to watch one's ETA converge with clock time. And to be pre-instructed about taking the right lane at complex motorway junctions. Meanwhile the front passenger will smartphone traffic ahead and, if necessary, change strategies on non-motorway roads west of Paris.

Such work passes time more quickly than staring out of the car window. VR will Kindle, doze, Kindle again. Darren, Zach’s Dad, will doze and talk to Zach. Zach will electronically manage an imaginary soccer team.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Stricken

Other dictionaries offer humdrum meanings for "epiphany". I prefer the longer, arguably more human, definition from the Cambridge:

A moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you.

● Note "important to you". It needn't be a universal experience. I was in my late teens before I saw my first car race. At Mallory Park circuit I stood on a earth bank overlooking a corner, quite close to and looking down on the cars flashing past. The sense of speed and of danger was, to me, epiphanic.

Rock climbing, my quondam enthusiasm as a youth, should have been a rich source of epiphanies but simply being afraid (a frequent state) didn't quite cut the mustard. Perhaps because I was mainly incompetent.

● My first controlled parallel turn in ski-ing was an epiphany. I was at the centre of the experience, travelling fairly quickly, employing little energy, touching on grace.

● James Joyce is famous for epiphanies although in his case the word's definition includes a rider:

The manifestation being out of proportion to the significance or strictly logical relevance of whatever produces it.

I like that. A third the way through Ulysses I found myself reflecting on the character of Leopold Bloom, recognising in him an exemplar of humanity, its failings and its magnificences. Definitely an e-moment.

● Making love? Not the first time but almost certainly the second. Important that it occurred in London.

● Music? The only endeavour where I anticipate epiphanies. A regular source: The Soave il vento trio from Cosi.

● The bursts of admiration and sympathy I feel for Gina Miller.

● Coming unexpectedly upon one of the Rembrandt self-portraits. Where? I can't remember.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Salt tears

Good on yer, Igor. Now his hair is fashionably short and he's bearded
I cried, yes I did.

Russian-born pianist, Igor Levit, played LvB's Third Piano Concerto at the start of the BBC's long-established series of summer music concerts, The Proms.

Then an unscripted encore: Liszt's transcription of the Ode to Joy theme from LvB's Ninth Symphony. Also known as the EU Anthem. Seems he feels that the European Union - created to stop european countries from fighting each other - was a cause worth celebrating.

As The Guardian headline said: Proms get political. Describes the piece as "a worldwide musical symbol of assertive unity".

Look, I know I'm a bit of a bastard, certainly cruel (as my previous post shows) but if I hadn't cried at that when would I ever cry?

A recording of the concert is available on the BBC's radio I-player service, alas only accessible to UK residents. You'll have to listen first to the Third Piano Concerto but you wouldn't mind that, would you? Link below.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08xyvdw/bbc-proms-2017-first-night-of-the-proms-part-1

Salt tears, I assure you.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Variations on an old theme

The News Reader
or
Does this make things clearer?


Some day when Kim Jong-Un acts childishly,
And purple clouds obscure the Golden Gate,
As heat and death flow down Ol’ Sixty-Six,
And Napa grapes show strange maturity.
When mutants shag high flies at Candlestick,
And bats out-number folk at San Berdoo,
As I routinely turn on News at Ten
And note apocalypse proclaimed by you.

Oh you, all textiles to your neckless chin,
Poached-egg eyes to lend a false solemnity,
Left arm outstretched to prop your gravitas,
Decay delayed with thickened maquillage.
A stuffy herald for our piping times,
World’s end described in awe-free, wearied words,
“We’ll analyse,” you say, but dust is dust,
And Bridgend lilt can only bring more dust.

As Californians curl up and fry,
We’ll need a Milton or a Stratford Will,
Instead there’s you and “What’s your sense of this?”
Dulling the edge of death with Gelusil.
This end, our end, should be both dark and grand,
An austere welcome to oblivion,
More than a kiosk and a rubber stamp,
More than the forming of an ordered queue.

And when your chalk-stripe suit is touched with flame
Will light obliterate more of the same?

Too tired to read it yourself? Click HERE and I'll do it for you.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Oh, not my nose!

We'd been shopping in Hereford. VR proposed we meet up in the bus station. I hate buses but today would be my lucky day: no buses.

As I arrived VR sat squeezed on the bench waiting for the Number 75. She hailed me and the woman beside slid sideways to allow me space. Genteel and quick-thinking. Three steps away I fixed my eyes on my benefactor intending to thank her. I should have looked to my feet.

I tripped on the kerb and fell flat on my face. Literally! My nose resting on the paving stones. My glasses, secured by a granny-string, tinkled somewhere.

I lay tranquilly, mentally palpating myself for injuries. Both knees abraded despite trouser protection. Left big toe compressed half a centimetre; I must have kicked the kerb. A circular flap of skin hanging from my right little finger. Left wrist strained slightly. Other minor pains.

Two women said “Oh! Oh! Oh!” and rushed over, their heads appearing inverted from where I lay. Behind, an elderly – even old – male grasped at my shoulders, pulling vainly. I assumed a kneeling position and stood up. The women said “Oh! Oh! Oh!” albeit more slowly. One gave me tissues; I dabbed at my nose and saw gratifying blobs of blood.

I explained I’d been intending to thank the tissue donater for sliding aside on the bench, looking at her not the kerb, falling as a result. “I have that effect on men,” she said. That’s pretty good, I thought. VR said we would take a taxi. I dabbed and said “Alas, my nose, easily my best feature.” The women laughed.

At home it was diet day. VR served my Braeburn apple cut fan-shaped on the plate. I watched the Tour de France live. Life resumed its predictability.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Going in harm's way

It's unfashionable (and dangerous!) to admit to hatred. Yet, it seems, I - alone in the developed world - was born with this capacity. Should I suppress it? Freud would say no. I may examine it.

Cucumber. Neural reaction between the vegetable's juices and my fungiform papillae which sickens me. No further explanation needed.

Orff's Carmina Burana. Similar to cucumber. Music seeks to stir emotions; this work's insistent rhythms, plus the sentiments of its libretto, does so admirably. Hatred is an emotion.

Austin Cambridge (an inadequate car). As an owner I endured its shortcomings. In retrospect I hate the fact that it was possible to sell it as adequate.

Margaret Thatcher. Not her, as such, but her willingness to reduce complex human relationships to gross over-simplification in order to support a harsh ideology.

A nameless living comedian. Unexceptional humour underlaid by an obvious, perhaps pathological desire to be loved. Better jokes might help.

Those who hate "pure evil". Their target is non-existent and an intellectual affront. Time spent in refining this claim might remove its supporters from this list.

Unthinking nostalgia. Frequently an enemy of rational thought.

Trump. Not him, as such, but those who support him merely to stay in power. Watch DT closely and you may detect pathos. Lear brought up to date. All we need is another WS.

The mis-selling of Brexit. Through gritted teeth I can – just about – admit Brexit offers certain attractions. But even now its risks and, especially, its costs remain undefined. The lying (which I truly hate) was predominantly by omission; by the time these omissions have been filled in it will be too late.

Long-distance flying. Resembles an extra period of National Service - a subtraction from the life I prefer to lead.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Crowning is bad for you

I'm not against DIY. How would I dare? - I'm so bad at it. But the sanctimony it tends to generate among its practitioners can be a turn-off.

Years ago I bought 20 m of garden hose spooled on to a wind-up pulley. But the pulley's lack of stability and the weight of the extended hose undermined winding-up. Any attempt at speed and the pulley "walked" leading to hose tangles and user irritation.

The pulley came with a mounting plate for attachment to a wall. This was supposed to promote stability. But the irregular forces generated by winding always unshipped the pulley from the plate.

I attached four eyebolts to the wall and used wire to hold the pulley in a fixed position as it sat on the floor. It was difficult to tension the wire which, in any case, quickly broke.

So I wired the pulley to a heavy paving stone and this worked for a year or two until the wire broke. This weekend I drilled holes in the paving stone, introduced bolts to which I attached wire, knowing before I'd finished, that this would fail. It did.

Yesterday I used three metal "laths", bolted down at either end, to hold the pulley's frame to the paving stone. This worked. You can see a "lath" bestriding the front bar of the pulley frame.

Then the sanctimony started. Last night when it was almost dark I went out simply to look at the secured pulley. This morning at 06.25, in my pyjamas, I photographed the pulley for this post. Simultaneously  the smugness grew.

This post is not about DIY (which only provides the background). It is about the effect DIY has on those who do it and communicate the fact. I liken it to self-coronation. 

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Perhaps it was a weed

Feeding me (aged 5 to 10) during WW2 was a nightmare. Not that I wasn't hungry - I ate morning, noon and night - but I was picky and there was so little to be picky about. Vegetables were the problem.

Carrots, parsnips - sweet, woody. Onions, leeks - slimy. Turnips - fit only for cows. Cauliflower - rare, bad karma since one had to eat the green bits. There wasn't much else other than dreaded cabbage.

These days I love cabbage: de-veined, chopped small, seethed in butter for a few minutes with caraway seeds. Then, there were no caraway seeds and anyway I was a suspicious little bugger; I'd have said my mother was failing to disguise cabbage's true and horrible nature.

Good grief, how my mother tried with cabbage. The deck was stacked against her since the only variety available was very dark green with thick leathery leaves and a rank un-vegetably flavour. No way I'd take it straight, even threatened with a light beating and I was normally a terrible coward when facing pain.

Covered with gravy didn't help. Grated cheese? Nah, cheese was rationed.  How about the “good” (ie, quasi-nutritious) water cabbage had been stewed in? No go; cabbage water is, unsurprisingly, cabbage flavoured.

Desperate to make cabbage water palatable mother added an Oxo cube (Ingredients: wheat flour (with added calcium, iron, niacin, thiamin), salt, maize starch, yeast extract, flavour enhancers (monosodium glutamate, disodium guanylate), colour (ammonia caramel), beef fat (4.5%), autolysed yeast extract, dried beef bonestock, flavourings, sugar, acidity regulator (lactic acid), onion powder.

Dig that ammonia caramel!

“Drink it quickly,” mother advised. As far I can remember I did. What followed I’ve forgotten. But then WW2 did finally end and ten years later proper food appeared in the shops.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Difficult, transient, worth it

Not a Cardiff contestant, just someone who's arrived
When were you happiest? The Guardian regularly asks celebrities. Many say "Now" for that’s the point when all one’s happy moments may be reviewed.

A stricter answer is trickier. Continuous happiness, without the brain reminding you of life's sorrows, is of very short duration. I might for instance cite my second date with VR (the first was blind, a more complex event) and on average that may be true. But there must have been self-doubt, embarrassment, the usual suspects. Anyone who claims unremitting happiness for, say, two hours must be fibbing.

The point arose as I watched BBC 4's TV coverage of Cardiff World Singer of The Year, a thirty-year-old international competition for youngish but established voices. Several had been guided by older acquaintances and the consensus was "Enjoy yourself." No doubt, but no performance is perfect and all contestants would remember their faults.

I sing and my faults (ie, unhappinesses) are multitudinous and ever present. But during my last lesson - for four or five seconds - I can, hand on heart, say I was truly happy. Yet again V and I were singing the Mozart duet and for one remarkable moment I was able to disengage and identify the sound we were making together. What happened next created the happiness.

Recognising the "rightness" of that combined sound I surged into a delicately controlled enthusiasm for the piece itself, music I have always loved. Very briefly I was able to simultaneously mobilise brain, heart and throat in a better understanding of the Mozart and to risk an interpretation. Not just singing; singing which contained a response to singing. Not perfect but better. Goodness caught on the wing.

Split infinitive? Never blindly follow rules, occasionally they’re meant to be broken.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Towards Cape Horn

Yesterday I bought the Daily Mail to check how it had reacted to Theresa May's doings, see my last post Foreboding Forgotten.

A bit like the Pope ordering The Story Of O under plain cover. The DM is (Ahem!) quite right-wing and edited by Paul Dacre who has campaigned 25 years against Britain's membership of the EU. It is Britain's most successful newspaper and targets the elderly middle classes. It dislikes the BBC.

A Guardianista I haven't read the DM for 50 years. Just how deep is the gap these days?

After several pages I became worried. With minor exceptions I had no quarrel with the DM's news coverage of May's catastrophic decision to hold an unnecessary general election. Had I fulminated out of pure prejudice?

Then I reached the regular columnists, often the source of the DM's distinctive, frequently shrill tone. Here's Steven Glover on perceived pro-Labour bias in a BBC debate programme:

Why should the BBC have afforded  Corbyn and the sinister McDonnell (shadow finance minister), not to mention the idiotic Diane Abbott, such latitude?... I believe many BBC employees cannot stomach Theresa May's robust approach to Brexit.

Robust? A DM news headline has her "haunted by a sense of failure".

In the DM's agony column someone asks: When Did Lefties Get So Illiberal? I was mildly cheered by the inference that lefties were once thought liberal, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Reading the DM had seemed like a good journalistic idea which turned out depressing. The DM represents the 51.9% majority who voted Brexit in the referendum; I belong to the minority (48.1%, not a negligible figure) who voted the other way.

The Ship Of Fools that is the British state creaks its way towards Cape Horn where storms are forecast. Ho-hum.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Foreboding forgotten

A MODEST HURRAH
Five weeks ago Theresa May, UK prime minister, was head of a Tory party with 338 seats in parliament - an absolute majority of 12 seats. A thin advantage, no doubt, but the polls told her she had a 20-point majority in popularity over the Labour party riven by internal strife and endlessly savaged by the right-wing press, notably The Daily Mail and the two Murdoch papers, The Sun and The Times.

If borne out, 20 points represented a potentially huge victory. TM called a general election, ostensibly to increase her majority and thus strengthen her hand in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations as Britain withdraws from the European Union. In fact to put Labour out of business for the next decade.

May looked awkward out on the stump but the Tories were convinced she was well-loved and agreed to personalise things so that the campaign became Theresa May vs. Labour. Her encounters with the public were confined to small gatherings of the faithful with no heckling. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's head, met the real electorate. The 20 points shrank but was still a very healthy 10 points yesterday when polling began.

Today the Tories are reduced to 318 seats, so Theresa May has lost 20 seats and her absolute majority. I fear VR and I consumed two bottles of decent red watching telly and went to bed at 4 am, knackered but full of praise for the young people who, we think, turned out in great numbers and made the difference.

Now I'm off to French. Tonight - ice cream

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Foreboding

UK POLLING DAY

THE GUARDIAN subscriptions department emails me and urges me to make sure my voice is heard. I'll do so but wish my voice was noisier, more like a trumpet (which I used to play), more like Joshua:

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho,
Ditto, ditto
And the walls came tumbling down.


A QUESTION I should have put to Theresa May: "When you're asked a question on telly and you either answer another much softer question or utter Tory Central Office boiler-plate, don't your evasions worry you? Do you imagine you've fooled me?"

VR NOTES we need ice cream but we can get it tomorrow. But will we be in the mood to eat ice cream tomorrow?

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

So, how was your month?

An unpleasant general election campaign is ending and conflicting events have flitted by.

Young innocents were slaughtered in Manchester, adult innocents (most, it seems, from foreign parts) were slaughtered near London Bridge.

In a tiny speck of national unimportance, V and I sing, full volume, Mozart's duet about the rightness of men and women getting together. V, exhilarated, to be married next month, applauds my progress and delights in lending her voice to the duet. I present her with champagne and, for a moment, we try not to dwell on Manchester kids also entranced by music.

The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Express and other newspapers combine to vilify Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he, one of life's natural protestors, comes over as more human on telly than Theresa May. The Guardian christens TM The MayBot for her mechanical, repetitive and hopelessly abstract responses to questions.

The Hay Festival, a celebration of cultural unity - from Jane Austen to the marvels of human microbiology - arrives and departs. An Italian professor at Oxford University (Oh, hateful, hateful Brexit) discourses wittily on the ways we must react to an IT-dominated world.

Donald Trump quotes the London mayor (a Muslim) out of context and sneers at him. A presidential spokesman suggests DT's tweets could well be ignored.

Our grandson, Ian, arrives early for Hay and prepares casseroles, etc, in advance for ourselves and our guests. An aid to VR whose shingles has now endured almost a year.

Sydney Nolan, Australia’s greatest painter, lived nearby during his final years and a new gallery of his work has opened. We visit. Observe vigorous yet profound paintings, each an unmistakable expression of his quirky personality.

We eat asparagus and refuse to be seduced by promising Labour figures in the opinion polls.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Into the unknown

For as long as they've been apparent I've loathed smartphones (especially Iphones). There are other reasons but I hate the way they invalidate conversation: an impasse occurs and instead of trying to work out the solution via communal reasoning, someone looks up the answer. Seemingly unaware that disconnected facts are quite different from intelligence. And lo, we know the exact height of the Eiffel Tower!

But I'm a reasoning being and I know I must eventually buy a smartphone. I live in an isolated city, Hereford. The ethos is agricultural, the speed of thought glacial, the white heat of technology is nothing more than a dull glow. Yet new, presumably expensive, systems have been installed in the multi-storey car-park and they allow for payment by smartphone. Good idea: coins are such a nuisance. If dull old Hereford feels the need I must ensure I am neither duller nor older than my neighbours.

Another point. Our family found itself sitting on the first-floor of a fish restaurant in Bouzigues, France. Yet the day's specials appeared only on a chalk-board downstairs. Zach was despatched with a smartphone to photograph the board and I, for one, ordered turbot.

Despite being comfortably off, I loathed smartphones because of their capital and operational costs and the sheeplike willingness of many to accept these gross outgoings. Yet daughter Occasional Speeder and grandson Ian held hands with me and revealed I could buy a smartphone for £90 (half that if I wished) and experiment with pay-as-you-go at about £10 a month.

There are other benefits including a real-time display of operational expenditure. I will not watch movies or telly, nor join Facebook, nor – God forbid! – Twitter. Perhaps I risk being corrupted; well, I’ve always stood firm against Murdoch’s Sky.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

An odd half-life

Time trial: A pedal-bike race against the clock; racers set off at one-minute intervals and ride for 25, 50 or 100  miles: 12½, 25 or 50 miles in one direction, then the same distance back. In extreme cases they ride for 24 hours. See MikeM's account (Time Trial) about what it feels like.

When I left newspapers and joined Cycling and Mopeds (now Cycling Weekly) in London I reported time trials. Harder than it sounds. The concept of riders racing each other was notional; the winner might be the last chap to set off, or the first. Overtaking was rarely observed since in a 25-mile time trial it could occur a dozen miles away from where the reporter was standing. A strange fictional prose was employed to create an "of the moment" environment which didn't actually exist.

For the reporter the logistics was severe. Time trials took place on Sunday mornings on flattish lengths of public road, often distant from built-up areas; to avoid traffic they started at 6 am or even earlier. I had neither a car nor a motor-bike so, in order to get some sleep, I would go by train (with a pedal bike) the night before to a nearby B&B then cycle out to the start/finish on Sunday morning. I would construct the report from interviews with riders as they finished: gasping and knackered, having given their all.

I was courting at the time. Faced with covering a time trial I simply wrote off the weekend. It was an an odd half-life and after a year I'd had enough. I moved to a magazine about tape recording thinking that my social life would improve. Then that mag went bust.

Journalism was and is ever volatile.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Exotica

Rare pic of RR going rural at snail's pace
Brother Sir Hugh's long solo walk from Berwick-on-Tweed to somewhere in Somerset (Check out the map, it's rather more than a step.) came to a painful end when he fell and broke his arm quite badly. A metal plate and all that. We picked him up from his home in Arnside and had him convalesce with us for a week.

The sun shone on Saturday and he suggested a gentle walk suitable for invalids or, in my case, unwalkers. Familiar with his obsessions, I knew it would have to be quantified - numbers play a huge role in his perambulations. I also sensed I must push against notional targets however piddling the distance.

A loop was devised around Dore Abbey (Cistercian, 12th century, thoroughly modernised in the 13th.) The first problem was parking: Herefordshire's rural roads are one car's-width wide and snake between high impenetrable hedges. The pedestrian route lay between a mini-river (name unidentified) and a seemingly endless field of early wheat - a word that always invites me to pronounce its internal h. Then an orchard, then narrow roads with a surprising amount of uphill.

Back in the car, surrounded by electronics, we got down to the good stuff: measurement. The walk covered 3.27 miles and took 72 minutes. Our rate was calculated as 2.85 mph which I regarded as pathetic - in my swimming days a mile's crawl took about 55 minutes. Sir Hugh, who seemed impressed by my gait ("As if you wanted to get if over with."), said it was OK... considering.

MORE ATYPICAL RR. Bought myself a stainless steel dibber, nominally £16 but reduced somewhat. Used it to plant cosmas, candytuft, Californian poppy, etc. Sir Hugh took the pix. That's it, Tone Deaf doesn't do horticulture.
Even rarer pic: RR gardening with expensive new dibber

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Story - part 1

DIMINISHED (Divided to please Google)
3057 words.

HE’D PASSED a lousy night but what else was new? Wearied, he sat on the rim of the garden lounger but the tubular frame rode hard against his bum. Loungers were for lounging on, weren’t they? But had he enough time?

Just a couple of minutes’ shuteye wouldn’t come amiss. He bestrode the lounger, sat down, lay back. The sun was intense, he reckoned he could see its nature  – a ball of heat - through his closed eyelids. With his forearm over his eyes he told himself: five minutes, no more. Wooo, it was almost too hot to...

“Mr T! Mr T!”

Spit had oozed from his mouth-corner.

“Wah,” he quacked, with the lounger gripping like a corset.

“Sorry to wake you, Mr T. But...”

“Wah. Guh – etting up.” Still he struggled. At least she was blotting out the sun and he could open his eyes.

Her long chestnut hair hung like a monk’s cowl; sharp corners outlined her thin lips, squared-off jaw and knife-edge nose. A face shaped for suffering. Haloed by the sun she burned like a medieval martyr.

“The train’s in...”

But the lounger held him and he sighed.

“London?” he said.

She nodded.

He heaved convulsively and the lounger, never entirely stable, flipped over. Arms flailing he half-rolled across the lawn towards her sensible court shoes, forcing her to step backwards.

“Mr T!”

A word flagged up: ignoble! Quick reactions were called for. Uncertainly balanced, he simultaneously stood up while toppling forward. Mustn’t fall again, mustn’t fall. Fighting gravity and momentum he lurched towards the gooseberry bushes, scuttling on bending legs. Then fell anyway and lay, moist grass staining his trouser knees.

Speed had failed him so how about slowness? He rose like a revivifying corpse, avoiding her face. “The car’s in the driveway,” he coughed.

There was time enough. He drove briskly but not excessively: Look! Panic’s left behind like the overturned lounger. Neither said anything. What was there to say?

Taking a right turn he looked to the left for oncoming traffic. Saw her erect, taut and expressionless, staring straight ahead, knees pale as leeks, twisted away from him.

As an HGV droned past he considered the pattern of his discomfort. Accepted that he – the bumbler - was fixed in her memory as he had been taunted by the lounger. That the lawn episode was a part of the misery which had broken out like a degenerating disease a year ago. That there would be yet another solicitor’s meeting in two days’ time.

Still she remained, statue-like, inches away but quite apart. An English panorama passed by - oaks, hedges, immobilised sheep – as the human condition played out: adults capable of speech but unspeaking.  Say something then. “We’ve plenty of time, June,” he said. “London’s fun. Going anywhere pleasant?” His aim was to be clear but the words spilled out noisily.

Silence hadn’t pleased her either. Her shoulders dropped slightly, she picked lint off her skirt and let the prow of her jaw subside. “Friend I knew at uni. Problems with her partner.” She shook her head and her voice rose in mild outrage. “And she’s asking me!”

A surprise. Because of her hawkish face he imagined she got her own way with men.

She said, “Why else would I move to the back of beyond?”

Meg had asked him something similar. Made it her excuse for being unfaithful.  Now she’d acquired a more rapacious solicitor she used their married isolation to pry loose more of his assets “...to compensate for the boredom and social deprivation you’ve caused me.”

June would have known all this, of course. Must have concluded it went with his gymnastics on the lounger. As a non-driver she saw his car as her convenience, reasoning that the forty-minute trip would no longer be his favour if she paid “for the petrol”. That fuel burned on the return was not her responsibility. Having further insisted that an extra half-hour be built in for emergencies and that he should linger at the station until the train arrived.

Depression and possible bankruptcy had allowed him to ignore his neighbours.  Anyone else he would have refused but June was different. She might have protested loudly enough to be heard at the village shop, recently held up at gun-point by a couple of masked men, thought to be Poles. Now armed, the shop owners waited impatiently to work off their feelings on anyone they deemed brutish.

Would June dispense comfort? Her face hardly suggested sympathy. Mind you there were those who went for that kind of detachment. Men mostly, he supposed. But not he. At the start Meg had been – how to describe her? – very physical. That he’d enjoyed. But then came shrewishness...

Anyway, no more conversation. Better he showed off his driving skills – the reassurance of a slightly older man, at ease with technology.

She sighed. Sunlight, from a different direction, dappled her face. Softening the hardness which, when all was said and done, was only a default state. There were other options.

“And she’s asking me!” she had said as if it were June who needed help. June who’d endured failures and disappointments.

Looking elsewhere, he noticed the green stains on his trousers. Out of the past  he heard his mother say, “That’ll never come off.” and smiled. In those days stains didn’t “come off”, you lived with them. The trousers were made-to-measure online and had cost £60; he’d throw them away. “Never!” his mother would have said, less shocked at the waste than at the product’s morality. Bought items had a foreseen life and were expected to endure.

June sighed again, more copiously. Looking for a response. Perhaps begging for one.

“London doesn’t appeal?” he asked neutrally.

“What on earth can I say to her?”

“Email her; say you’ve eaten one of those meat pies and are feeling woozy.”

“Meat pies!”

“Story in the newspapers. Horse may have been sneaked in at the factory.”

“I mean, but meat pies.”

“You a veggie?”

“It’s a question of style.”

He laughed, politely at first then growing in volume, finally close to hysteria. When had he last laughed out aloud? Days ago? Months? He wiped away tears with his shirt sleeve as she looked on, puzzled. Perhaps she’d not known about Meg.

He said, “Wit’s been in short supply recently.”

“I understand your wife...”

“Quite so. Maximum trauma.”

Silence resumed but it was no longer sullen. A pinch of understanding, a courteous decision not to pry. Both relaxed in their car seats.

He must have driven quickly because they waited a full half-hour at the station. Talk was desultory and unforced as if they were long-standing friends. Quiet humour when a pheasant walked spasmodically, stupidly, across the car park. A jolt, shared between them, as a military plane flying at house height, roared into and out of their world.

Within the closeness of the car he observed her covertly. A meaningless glance at the dashboard which inched towards her legs. And more. In repose the boniness of her face lost its meanness and became simply architectural – a planned arrangement of lines, peaks and planes which added up to a face like any other, together with a personality which might take off in any direction. More surprising was a plebeian accent – estuarine Essex at a guess – which she spoke unselfconsciously. Modified by the passage of time but not actively suppressed. So she wasn’t a snob.

With five minutes to go they loitered near the station platform. Now he had another concern. Picking her up on her return had never been discussed. He wasn’t obliged to raise the subject nor attracted by all that extra driving. But an etiquette that hadn’t existed had since developed. Finally he murmured, “When you get back...”

She smiled briefly. “Kind of you. But the whole thing’s up in the air. I may turn out to be helpful or she and I may fall out within five minutes. I don’t want to wreck the rest of your day. It’s a much longer drive than I thought.” She scrabbled in her shoulder bag. “You deserve more than the petrol...”

Knowing he would no longer be involved left him disappointed. Strange how little he drove these days. “When you get home will do,” he said abruptly.

And she, sensing something awry, didn’t look back as she got into the carriage.

In the garden the lounger still lay on its side and his earlier sense of wellbeing drifted away. For a time he stared at areas of the lawn – where he’d rolled, where he’d fallen a second time – realising these would have been June’s perspectives, a wider view of gyrations he had blundered through without appreciating their visual force. They were not scenes he wanted to revisit.

Papers on the coffee table demanded his attention. “Our client,” said the solicitor anonymously yet ominously, “feels that the value of the house should be part of any eleemosynary considerations.” The long adjective had been incorrectly applied but, at £50 a letter, it no doubt served to bulk out the sentence. He started to transcribe scribbled quotes he’d received from estate agents, worrying about how much Scotch was left for the forthcoming evening. Meg had cleaned out the drinks cabinet when she left, leaving only a half-bottle of Creme de Cacao. Which would linger on as an aide memoire, as no doubt Meg intended.

A Scandi-noir episode on TV helped him eke out the Scotch and postponed bedtime until eleven. Sleep was denied him. As usual Meg dominated his thoughts. What sort of man had she invited into what had been his bed? He knew nothing other than that the adulterer lived in Bristol. So where might he and Meg have met? Meg’s friends were limited to the shire and this crimped her style. There had, of course, been the class reunion in London but that was ages ago, dating back to the tolerant period. Surely Meg couldn’t have invented all those reunion reminiscences,  all that talk about Jackie, Frances and Glenda.

But hey – seriously - what kind of man? The opposite of what Meg had been dealt? A man who didn’t run an insurance brokerage, obviously; Meg had often sneered at that. Who didn’t go bird-watching – another stereotype. Who would readily have bought a “decent car” Who knew what Köchel numbers were. Prepared to buy books in hardback. Failings so frequently listed.

“Better off without her,” said two of his clients and he partially agreed. Present-day Meg had been hard to bear.  But there’d been an earlier Meg who had given up managing a spiffy West End design studio to marry him, had suggested their first fornications should occur in Hotel de Fleapit in The Marais (The wait agonising, the consummation definitive.), and who’d bought him Armani when they’d lived above a curry-house in Dalston. A Meg who had educated him and who, for a decade, had seemed to love him.

These amorous runes were restful; the twitches departed; his body took on the luxurious weight of imminent sleep.

The phone rang shrilly, like a voice in the midst of an emergency.

There was no one on the earth’s surface who cared that much and at that time.

Story - part 2

DIMINISHED (concluded)
TEN MILES out of Reading and June still hadn’t spoken. Passing a spotlighted church, she said woodenly, “Elspeth didn’t need me. Every suggestion I made she twisted into this mantra she’d worked up: ‘It’s a phase. He’ll get over it.’ Yet when I tried to catch an earlier train she found ways of holding me back. Another cup of coffee or some chicklit book she’d read. I was played for a fool.”

A fool! But without cap and bells, only the lounger.

“Someone to talk to,” he said, concentrating on winding unlit roads.

June nodded. “When Elspeth took up with him she dropped her friends. Now she feels the pinch.”


“But why Reading?”

“There were no more direct trains. Change at Reading but I missed the connection.” Then she trembled, gnawed at her knuckle.

“Something wrong?”

“I tried to negotiate a taxi but the driver wouldn’t have it and drove off. Left me alone on the forecourt. Then two young guys...”

A long silence ensued. “I found a police station but they weren’t exactly pleasant. No credit cards, no identity, no mobile, a woman who didn’t seem to know what was up and what down. Grudgingly they offered a free phone call and it was then I realised Elspeth wasn’t the only woman who’d dropped her friends. I have precisely two: one in Hamburg, the other in South Shields. Amazingly I remembered your landline number.”

She paused as if to phrase an apology but said nothing. The strain of getting out the right words was beyond her.
He said, “It’s nearly two hours’ drive. You could do with some sleep.”

The transition was immediate and she was still snoring when he pulled into his driveway. A gap in his hedge provided a tortuous shortcut to her house but he was reminded of her stolen shoulder bag. No house-keys.

As if in a badly rehearsed play he opened the car door from the outside and eased her feet on to the gravel. Cack-handedly he turned her body, conscious this was close to an act of violation. The chestnut hair smelled of shampoo and he needed to hold her firmly as she stumbled, more asleep than not, out of the car and in through the front door of his house. As he lowered her on to the couch her jacket slipped round her torso, he lost his grip and she dropped the last foot. But the couch must have welcomed her as she sighed, turned on to her side and curled up foetally. He found a duvet, laid it over her and that seemed to be that. Other than to remove those sensible court shoes he’d seen from another angle, a lifetime ago. Dawn was breaking as he got into bed, having first closed the bedroom door, normally left open. Not a hope of sleeping.

At nine he got up, shaved, made coffee in the hope that the smell would waken her. The snoring had ceased, replaced by profound slow breathing he could hear from the kitchen. It wasn’t just fatigue she was sleeping off but the shock of being robbed. Living alone he’d developed new routines and it was unthinkable that he should drink coffee without reading The Financial Times but that would have required a walk to the shop. Just his luck she’d wake up while he was out. And where might he leave a message she’d be certain to read?

In his study he booted up the laptop, trawling through City sources who might be willing to enter into a paid-up bond agreement with the parents of a twenty-two-year-old youth living in Goring who’d already totalled two BMWs. Knowing he’d find a finance manager whose view of risk – modified by greed – differed quite widely from his. Still the slow breathing continued.

Some time after ten there were stirrings and it became obvious she’d found the first-floor bathroom without announcing herself first. Slightly offhand, he reflected, then re-reflected; bladder pressure can be a more powerful imperative than social nicety.

In the kitchen she asked for orange juice which he hadn’t got, refused toast, and drank coffee distractedly. It was clear she didn’t want to enlarge on yesterday other than to murmur, more than once, “Played for a fool.” Her manner was dull and remote. There was nothing to say.

But they were both in accord in some ways. Waiting for the percolator he had slipped out into the garden, folded the lounger and put it away in the shed.

“Look, there are things you need to do,” he said finally. “Cancel your credit cards, talk to your bank. Whatever. Use my study for that. Meanwhile, I’ve had a look at your house and the bathroom window’s open. I have a ladder and I’m sure I can get in that way. Just tell me where the duplicate key is.”

As if he’d encouraged her to learn Mandarin; her eyes unfocused, mouth slightly open. A throat dead to sound.

“OK, OK. You don’t want me in your house. If you prefer, you can use the ladder. Or we’ll look for an unimportant, cheap window to break.”

Nothing was getting through. “I’m going to the shop for a paper. Can I get you anything?”

She made an enormous effort. “Er... milk”

Eventually they parted. Her side door proved to be unlocked, she was persuaded to make the calls on her landline and he convinced himself she wanted to be alone. By midday he was back at the laptop. Late in the afternoon he heard a slight shuffling noise at the front door. On the doormat lay a blank envelope containing two twenty-pound notes. No message.

The Scotch bottle was empty; the evening’s TV programmes shallow and meaningless. He stayed in the bath as the water cooled around him, reflecting on things beyond retrieval.

That a woman’s company - even a woman’s presence – could soften his misery.

That the contours of June’s unyielding face had been abruptly illuminated and dignified by memories of a Nuremberg museum. Where he, a callow exchange student who didn’t get on with the German family accommodating him, had killed time, examining engravings by the town’s favourite son, Albrecht Dűrer, and his contemporaries. Commissioned portraits of local aristocrats - serious men of authority and charitable instinct who might, on bone structure evidence at least, have sired June: die kleine Prinzessin.

That the scent of shampoo could be as intimate and erotic as that of knickers in a laundry basket.

Shivering in the tepid water, he was reluctant to reach for the towel and cause these thoughts to fade. Just suppose he’d passed off the lounger as comedy rather than humiliation, comforted June effectively, been less stiff-necked? But suppositions weren’t his thing.

Ultimately Meg had brought him to this state of affairs. And, ironically, Meg would have understood his confusion. Shrugging, laughing in mild contempt, swiftly, she would have drawn the necessary conclusions. Straightened him out. Then turned to her Bristolian lover.

But now all Meg wanted was his money. And he was bloody well freezing.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Superficialities concluded

OK, it was a trick (to attract your attention) but not a cheap one. If tricks can be priced in nervous energy and literary delicacy, this one’s pretty darn expensive. For one thing it demands supreme good taste and I’m not famed for that.

An erotic experience in Hereford County Hospital’s dermatology department. It happened. And, as with Brexit means Brexit (ref. Theresa May), erotic means erotic: tending to arouse sexually. But then many phenomena may do the arousing – from Botticelli’s Venus to an innocent ewe grazing on the Brecon Beacons. (And yes, I live near these hills but it’s not that).

I am particularly sensitive to the act of shriving, otherwise being made pure again. I gain pleasure from taking trash to the dump and returning with an empty car: intense pleasure. I anticipate pleasure when faced with rectifying (ie, purifying) the defects in a first draft. On Tuesday I entered the hair salon shaggy and came out smooth; it wasn’t my reflection that thrilled me but the discards I’d left behind on the salon floor. And pleasure, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is a wide spectrum.

Incidental to my dermatology appointment was the removal of a Giant Comedone, a blackhead with world domination ambitions. For US readers: a zit that’s read The Art Of The Deal. Google offers pictures but they’re more disgusting than the anaesthesia-free procedure itself, performed with finger pressure and tweezers. An analogy will serve: think toothpaste tube.

The resultant exudate is not revolting; it emerges like chips of granite. I was invited to check with my fingers.

Nevertheless those chips represented bodily imperfections and I was rid of them. I was – in my sense of the word – shriven. Pleasured, you might say.

Do you expect me to draw a picture?

Tasteful enough?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Superficialities

Visited Hereford hospital’s dermatology department where I underwent an erotic experience. Given my 300-word limit there may not be enough space to include this.

The building, located on the city’s ominously labelled Gaol Street, is surrounded by a paid-for public carpark. A strange form of discrimination is practiced. Dermatology patients are told not to use the park “as (they) will be fined”. This happens, it seems, even if they buy a ticket. Conclusion: skin conditions may inhibit car usage.

The tiny waiting room measures 5 m x 5 m and the door carries the single word: Waiting – as if the room itself were waiting for patients to come in and wait. On one of the walls are three separate posters offering the same rubric: “Have you booked in at the Dermatology reception?”  When you do you will be asked by the receptionist to confirm that the figures she has just recited are the last four of your phone number. This will take you slightly longer than you expect.

None of the people waiting showed any visible signs of skin problems. This is not remarkable since one of the many posters – entitled Guide To Checking Your Skin – shows by way of two decorously rendered mannikins that the areas most at risk are the arms and the legs. Surprising. Or as Donald Trump might say: Bad!

Posters proliferate. For those who demand the whole picture one poster illustrates ten steps to effective hand hygiene. Exhaustive as Donald Trump would not say.

Sun is definitely the dermatologist’s Satan. “Slip on a shirt” one is told; I actually swim in one during villa holidays in France.

During my visit I became familiar with the Giant Comedone, which I misheard as Komodo (ie, the dragon). The erotic episode will, alas, have to wait.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Good (-ish) news

I recently completed Opening Bars, a full length account of my singing lessons so far. Yesterday I emailed the MS to literary agents. Here are extracts from my covering letter:

Opening Bars describes what happened – and is still happening – following my decision to take lessons as a classical music baritone. Big deal, except that I was eighty at the time and had no previous formal training in music. The normal route, based on months of musical theory, was barred to me since it was clear I might easily be overwhelmed by the sort of thing that happens to all of us and especially octogenarians. ...I reckoned I could pick up the crotchet stuff as and when it became necessary.

Fifteen months have now passed and (my teacher) and I are presently working on the Pamina – Pappageno duet, Bei Männern, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. We sound pretty good.
 
Problem is Opening Bars is shortish (33,000 words) and may not be commercially viable... I’m pondering offering the story as a programme concept to BBC Radio 3 but I worry they may not regard me as sufficiently solemn. One of the problems with classical music.

By return one agent (Anne Williams, bless her) said this:

I read this and thought it was lovely - and in a line with others discovering a new artistic skill, such as Alan Rusbridger and his piano, and it would I think be of interest to all those people who join choirs in later (or mid, or early) life.   It de-mystified singing to an extent, taking the scariness out of having to stand next to a teacher and SING!  But you are right, it is too short for a book - it would need to be more than twice as long to be viable.  So I'm afraid I can't see how I would help.   My only thought it that it's more Radio 4 than 3...

Now that's being turned down the nice way. (Alan Rusbridger, BTW, is the former editor of The Guardian).

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Election: Brits explained


My post, Rather marvellous, mentioned a small singing lesson triumph. Marly commented: V (my teacher) must be pleased. I replied: V was pleased... she said "Well done you." Marly re-replied: That seems so British.

Which was nice of Marly. Many Americans can't decide whether British under-statement is a character flaw or a ploy to confuse foreigners.

A bit of both. Something similar happened yesterday.

The doorbell rang and VR (the first V; my wife of 57 years) answered. The caller was Jesse Norman, a fella not a lady opera singer, our Conservative member of parliament (see pic), asking for support in the forthcoming election. VR recognised him immediately and said, "I'd like to thank you for helping my husband, with his driving licence. But my family has a mining background and I'll be voting Labour."

Jesse said: "I perfectly understand."

Then stayed on.  VR told me: "He talked about canvassing in the nearby Welsh valleys (formerly the heart of Britain's mining industry) where Conservative voters are rare. He laughed a bit. We were polite."

As I hope I would have been. As an abstraction (Old Etonian Tory, son of a baronet, etc) Jesse represents the UK I detest. In reality (philosophy teacher, book writer, married to daughter of one Britain's most humane judges,  helped me storm the DVLA a fortress-like institution) he is admirable.

Politeness, used genuinely by VR, can also be a social weapon for Brits, as can under-statement. Both are lies disguised as self-abnegation. We admire others’ “authentic” modes of speech while secretly disparaging their inarticulacy. Giving to charity implies pea-nuts; adding “modestly” suggests hundreds. If a Brit, casually met, says “You must drop in some time.” he means “Not on your Nellie.”

Not for nothing did the French call us perfidious.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Rather marvellous

For the record, V and I didn't dress up
On January 4, last year, I had my first singing lesson. Yesterday, some sixty lessons later, I shared - imperfectly but recognisably - my first duet. Always my greatest aim.

Not just any duet: "Bei Männern" from Mozart's Magic Flute. Where Pamina (a princess) and Papageno (a birdcatcher), still lacking their intended but off-stage lovers, sing yearningly that "it is through love alone that we live".

Quite, quite difficult, but then, uxorially, it's a sentiment I feel I can share:

Its (ie, love's) high purpose clearly proclaims
There is nothing nobler than woman and man,
Man and woman, and woman and man


But something must be resolved. Soprano and baritone sing different tunes simultaneously: V's voice is more tuneful, powerful and confident; even throttled down it can pull my less positive voice off-track.

So V starts off humming.Things combine and she switches to quiet lyrics. I'm still in tune. V's volume increases and I continue to sing what I'm supposed to. At the end we're both going full blast. Ah, yes.

Ironically the listener gets the best deal, hearing the two voices united. For me I recognise the voices are in step but (given a head full of my music) they are separate.

A recording is technically beyond us. Here's how it should SOUND.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Election cast list, No. 2

Strong, definitely. Happy? Hmmm
Theresa May, UK prime minister,  insists  she is strong and stable, the Conservative Party (to which she belongs) is strong and stable, the government she runs is strong and stable, her policies are... well, you get the idea. During one recent speech “strong” appeared 31 times.

In my dictionary “strong” gets 14 different meanings, including “having a pungent or offensive flavour” and “tending towards steady or higher prices”. While “stable” can mean immobile. Just so we all understand our etymologies.

What TM is less strong on is giving straight answers. A BBC interviewer said that nurses in our National Health Service were underpaid and some were having to resort to food banks. To clarify matters TM said, “There are many complex reasons for using food banks.”

An incomplete statement. She might have added, “none of them desirable.”

British government is nominally democratic which means there is a ruling group and an opposition, sometimes called “the loyal opposition”. Perhaps because the rulers are often disloyal (I jest, of course). TM recently whinged that the other lot were seeking to undermine her Brexit policies. Another way of saying that the other lot were meeting their democratic obligation: that is, opposing the government.

TM is right to whinge. In some countries with strong leaders (North Korea comes to mind) governments have been so hampered by their oppositions they’ve been forced to do away with opposition altogether. Makes things far tidier.

TM will not take part in TV debates with other party leaders. It takes a strong prime minister to reject this temptation. One national newspaper which will remain nameless but has rightish tendencies ran the headline “Crush the saboteurs”, their word for opposition. Alas for Theresa May Kim Jong-Un has patented this meaning.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Getting from then to now


In a month Britain's political landscape will (sez me) change radically and for the worse. In two years, far worse. In ten years, I can't bear to think. But will I be thinking at all in 2027?

The rate of change is terrifying given my lumbering evolution:

Age 0 - 5: A world-view confined to the space beneath our kitchen table.

Age 6 - 10. Subsequently reduced to a single policy: hating a man with an unlikely moustache.

Age 11 - 16. I recall only impenetrable arguments between adults. My parents read Daily Mail (I blush!); by osmosis I learned to sneer at the unhandsome members of Labour government who were (I discovered much later) working a social revolution in Britain.

Age 17 - 20. Low-grade employment on newspapers. Sought to become a cynic in all things other than the opposite sex. Succeeded, perhaps even over-achieved. Unloved.

Age 21 - 23. National Service in RAF. As a tool of the government I was forbidden to even contemplate politics. Sneered at all uprisings: Suez Canal, Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya and (Not sure about either of these) Aden and Belize.

Age 23 - 25. Magazine work in London. Membership of National Union of Journalists led to leftwards tilt.

Age 25 - 32. Magazine work in USA. Became temporary if inactive Democrat.

Age 32 - 60. Magazine work in SE England. Read Times (pre-Murdoch) then Guardian. In a watershed moment I took out a mortgage. Involved passively in NUJ industrial action. Voted Lib-Dem since Labour hadn’t a prayer where I lived. As life got easier, theory became more attractive than practice.

Aged 60 to present. Retired to sparsely populated county. Now a mere fulminator.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Election cast list, No 1

On Thursday June 8, Britain – that basket of basket-cases which includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – will hold a general election. Today’s polls suggest the ruling Tories will oblivionate (New election, new verb!) the importunate Labour Party by 19 percentage points.

Why the bloodbath? Labour has weakened itself by internal argument but then such strife is written into Labour’s DNA and the party has a predilection for electoral suicide. However in this instance Labour can do little other than argue, the topic being Jeremy Corbyn, the leader.

Jeremy isn’t a name that hints at strength. Nor does his appearance. Boiled down for stock he’d not make half a litre. Also he’s very, very left. In the USA, where giving a quarter to a mendicant might be called socialism, Jeremy would be handled with tongs at Kennedy immigration. In his time he’s been friends with Hamas, has supported the IRA, and hates nuclear weapons. A decent guy but more of a protestor than a politician.

He became Labour leader almost by accident, a process too whimsical for me to explain. When his so-called failings were revealed, a new leadership competition was hastily engineered. That he won by taking 61% of the vote, yet many Labour MPs disown him. He is on record as saying he will not attack individuals only their political practices. And so he does. It chokes me to say it but an excess of decency is not necessarily a virtue.

I can’t ask for a miracle, I don’t believe in them. The ensuing weeks will be like watching a spider in the bath with the hot water on.

Poor guy.

Even poorer me.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Tone Deaf's manifesto

Woke up this morning and thought I'm eighty-one and might easily die under eternal Tory government. A government that makes me ashamed to be British - presently pondering economy measures that are also anti-foreigner: TO ELIMINATE ALL INTERNATIONAL AID! Oh Britain, you wretched, inward-looking offshore island dreaming of Empire and colonial slavery

Perhaps for most of the next eight weeks leading to the"snap" general election, I should forgo blogging about singing and persiflage. For it was V, my singing teacher, who unintentionally pressed my guilt button. As someone whose professional life has been moulded by Brahms and Mozart (while not disdaining home-grown Britten and Quilter) she found the referendum result hard to take. She admits she's never done a political act in her life before but she's now a signed-up member of a party and will at least stuff leaflets through letter-boxes.

Me? I've always voted, but tactically; there's never been a realistic option. My politics, if it can be considered that serious, has been to belong to a trade union frequently led by Trotskyists. Hot lefties urging me to scorn my long-time employer who - retrospectively - turned out both generous and benign and who financed my most comfortable retirement.

Tone Deaf aims to be satirical, for the potential is limitless. Britain is presently led by Theresa May who claims to be "strong". Margaret Thatcher was also "strong". It is said that Tory politicians, many of whom had Nannies, appreciate the "strong", disciplinary women who flogged their backsides with a hairbrush when they disobeyed nursery rules. Sometimes prickle side down.

I'll be their new Nanny. It won’t be a hairbrush and I won't be looking for reconciliation.