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.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Blog-parted

I’ve given up verse but not doggerel. Below is a lament for Tone Deaf’s shrunken contacts list and should be sung to Pete Seeger’s most famous tune.

Lacrimosa dies illa

Where do all the bloggers go,
Self-extinguished?
Where do all the bloggers go,
Tomb-stones away?
Where do all the bloggers go?
To the new reality,
Faces that smile at them,
Words in the here and now.

Far beyond our dialogue,
Self-restricted.
To the land of give and take,
Handshakes? Here's mine.
Welcome raw immediacy,
Touch and sight available,
Humans not cyber code,
Breaths on each brightened cheek.

What must we remainers do,
Writing for survival?
Burdened by longevity,
Word-length is time.
Take the time and build on time,
Make-believe eternity,
Pick from the tones to heart,
Sing out with fervency.

OS in NYC: a PS


Younger daughter, Occasional Speeder, now back in Gloucestershire from NYC and jet-lagged into next Christmas, would like you all to know she did manage this while on holiday.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

... and wilderness is paradise enow

Occasional Speeder, born in Allegheny County in 1967, has returned after a few days in New York convinced she glimpsed paradise. Ironically one reason we, her parents, left the US in 1972 after six years, was because I couldn't face the prospect of working in the Big Apple. Pittsburgh I liked, Boston I aspired to, SF I dreamed about. As to NYC I had a blurred vision of my corpse stuffed full of H, slashed with a Stanley knife, riddled with 9 mm slugs, being slid overboard from the Staten Island Ferry. What a romantic I was! More likely I'd have died of poverty in Bellevue.

Come to think of it I was a romantic, but about the US in general. For a year I researched and planned, pleaded with magazines as far away as Duluth, finally found myself the cynosure of all eyes at Rimbach Publishing on the Iron City's Northside. ("Gee, I could listen to him talk all day.") For in 1966 the US was a kind of paradise.

A few local difficulties in SE Asia but what the heck: my draft status was 5A, a Macdonald's burger cost 15 cents and a draught beer the same. The Pirates were on the way and Dormont public library was full of novels I'd never read. For the first time ever I lived in accommodation that was centrally heated.

The mean-spirited on both sides of the Atlantic averred I'd gone there for the money. I was wealthy - on $6000 pa! On Fridays I bought half-a-gallon of Gallo rosé. The neighbours believed wine = wino, they drank Jim Beam so no risk there.

For several weeks I passed as an intellectual. I had friends, which never happened in London.

Paradise? Who needs Fifth Avenue?.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

OS goes overboard

How OS became Americanophile. Christmas in Philly, aged two-ish.
The wreckage in the foreground is what remains of a Cornish Rock Hen
 which OS has mangled, now, genteelly, she's washing her hands in the
water glass. Afterwards we took her into the garden and hosed her down
Younger daughter, Occasional Speeder, was born in the USA although doesn't remember much about it. As a birthday treat (one of the big ones) she's over in New York at the moment and posts the following:

Decision made to divorce parents today. If they hadn't selfishly taken me to the UK when I was four I'm pretty confident I would be living in Brooklyn, in THIS house (pic of brownstone), with THIS dog (some kind of puggish thing) with THIS view on my doorstep (you can guess). Bastards.

Just to set the minds of kind-hearted US citizens at rest this is an example of histrionic exaggeration which I've taught both daughters to practice and for which I'd score her an over-generous 6 out of 10. She's ignored opportunities for further snideities and I'll be reminding her of them when we drive to the Christmas market, in Düsseldorf, in a few weeks time.

In fact OS has solved a problem. Today as usual I rose at 06.25 am and Hereford was in total darkness. It happens at this time of year, I believe, although the vagaries of the natural world are of little interest to me. Yesterday Hereford caught the tail-end of Hurricane Ophelia with the sun turning a dusky red but you won't see me posting about either of those meteorological banalities. Humans have far more potential.

In my eighties I laugh less and today I fully intended to elaborate on this in a piece cut-and-pasted from The Anatomy of Melancholy (By R. Burton but not the famous one). OS's proceedings for divorce brought a wintry smile to my face and an even crueller intention to rain on her parade with a single word: TRUMP. Then I reminded myself I am a parent, I have both advantages and obligations.

I'll make do with "the rest is silence" even if in WS's case, he lied.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Black spots

What am I worst at?

First, an important ground rule. There’ll be none of those weaselly confessions (I over-forgive my enemies. Hiding my handsomeness. Being too literary.) which turn out to be self-serving. Here “worst” means bad: contemptible, incompetent, unmannerly.

I lack social nicety. The West Riding didn’t encourage it and I’ve never bothered to rectify the omission. Far from being trivial social nicety oils the wheels, especially during first encounters. Less to do with what is said, more a tone of voice that sets the other person at ease. Instead I challenge and am facetious.

Personal hygiene. By US standards I’d be stopped at immigration. Yes I do change my underpants but reluctantly. As to my PJs you’d be shocked... And for the sake of the comity of nations I’ll not say how often I bathe. Cleanliness is such a fag, more so as I get older. Nor are there valid excuses.

Impatience prevents me from doing good manual work. What’s more I can live with visible and gross imperfections; in some cases even romanticise the defects.

Writing too much encourages self-centredness. And not in a nice way. Even when I’m not writing it occupies my frontal lobes and colours what I say and do. It encourages “pronouncements” – not a lovable tendency. Makes me sneer.

I know I’m a physical coward because simulated warfare during National Service proved that. But I’m also guilty of moral cowardice. While editing a community magazine I backed down to a bully. An older man with little education stood up to the same bully and won the day.

I drink too much.

Here’s an ambiguous one. I’m amused by things I suspect I shouldn’t be amused by. Perhaps because I’m somewhat detached. Examples are needed but I’ve run out of space.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Could this be Brexit?

Yeah, yeah, pontoons and suits are things. The vacancy is in his head
Some cease to blog because they believe they're all written out. For shame. Subjects abound. How about the present intake of breath and the one that (we hope!) follows? The act of reading these words? The strange and rarely examined phenomenon of being alive? Or for that matter being dead? Momentous topics discarded in favour of mulching flower beds or chasing down bargains at Tesco.

Or we can write about nothing. Split that word and we get no thing, a biblical-sounding phrase intended to invoke a void. But there are more than things out there. Breathing in and breathing out are not things, they're events. Reading is a process as is living. Being dead? Hardly a thing.

And before you dispute the definition of thing - arguing that its very vagueness allows it to cover all experienciable and imaginable phenomena - try Googling "Thing, meaning". Never have I been so ashamed of dictionary compilers as a tribe. Most are overpowered by the difficulty and resort to puerile examples.

Were I still a versifier (I resigned the day before yesterday) I'd relish standing on an eminence and viewing nothing. Not a Rich Tea biscuit, nor a Rembrandt nor a TV remote in sight.

Not-I wandered, lonely as an un-thing
That floats - oh, somewhere - over various non-existing geographical features.


The Bard of Rydal could do better.

Mind you the view from that hill, tump or excrescence might be surprising. War might be ensuing (for war is an event) but the good news would be that nobody would be armed, for weapons are things. Nor would anyone care about the war since none of us would have smartphones on which to goggle at it.

Meanwhile I’ll continue to wrestle with the idea that nothing is something to write about. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Tracks in treacle

Sentimentality is "exaggerated and self-indulgent tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia." At first sight you'd say there were worse failings but closer scrutiny shows it to be based on lies, often in the face of incontrovertible facts. One pernicious form is the Golden Era Myth - the belief that yesterday was always better than today, wilfully ignoring such matters as cruder health care, greater authoritarianism, implacable racism, and an uncaring state.

I try not to be sentimental but since this is my 1347th post, virtually all of them 300 words long, no doubt I've let through a few fluffy kitten photos. What I dislike is that sentimentality bypasses reason: "Yes, I know X is wrong but I get this warm glow."

Or to bring things up to date, "I like Boris (Johnson) because he makes me laugh."

Unbridled sentimentality anchors its practitioners in time and encourages repetition. An allusion to Blackpool Tower and one winces in advance at: "In my opinion Bondi Beach doesn't come close; I was always happiest holidaying in the north-west." Implying, of course, that this view is set in stone and will never change.

And yet... a friend lugs round a huge coverless, self-destructing dictionary despite owning the same edition in much better repair. "Because a friend gave it me and she is now dead," I’m told and can't argue with that. Affection must be allowed to bridge the grave. But the dictionary has now reached the autumnal phase and is daily shedding unprotected pages at both ends. Soon my friend will be disadvantaged when it comes to words beginning with a and z. Will the earlier justification still be legitimate?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Caring vehicles

Recently we spent two nights in Cardiff, capital city of Wales, 58.4 miles away. For reasons too embarrassing to explain I chose public transport. Train would have been quicker but at a total cost of £76. Much as I dislike buses the total cost (£0 since we used our pensioner bus passes) made buses a no-brainer.

For me this was a new world. This service (run by Stagecoach) acknowledges that the majority of passengers will be pensioners and the bus interiors are designed accordingly. Travellers who are mobile are jammed into familiar cramped seats. Their elders not only have more knee-room but adjacent space to accommodate their shopping trolleys; some seats face the bus’s centreline and allow the ancients to drop into position rather than wriggle in awkwardly. Several of the grab-posts are curved to make access even easier.

No one else did the journey end-to-end as we did and almost no one paid cash. At Abergavenny, about half way, the bus virtually disgorged itself  then took on more of the same. Some very ancient ancients shuffled in, travelled a couple of street-lengths, then shuffled off.

Had I been a Tory, firm in the belief that indigent oldsters should be punished for living too long, I’d have fulminated.  But the route took in Welsh valley towns once populated by coal miners, now home to the unemployed and to those on benefits. Pontypool was a particularly poignant example. These middle-distance services are as much a form of social care as mere transportation. When I presented my pass to the scanner I made two or three errors of positioning. Patiently the driver instructed then re-instructed me; used to people of my age.

On the back of the seats were USB sockets for re-charging smartphones. Which I found cheering.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Modus vivendi

Ok, they're two fellers. But you get the idea
I like broad beans, the novels of Elmore Leonard, and impromptu conversations with French people. VR likes none of these things.

VR likes cucumber, the Ring novels and travelling on buses, all of which I detest.

Living comfortably with someone means shutting your eyes to certain antipathies. In some cases accommodating them.
I like cauliflower, VR tolerates it. VR’s favourite vegetable is spinach, I eat small amounts.

That phrase – “for better and for worse” – tends to apply to large-scale privations: the illness of a child, lack of money, unemployment. Happily such horrors are infrequent but the Pork-Pie/Debussy’s-Music Divide may endure for decades. Living together forces you to measure these smaller but nevertheless dark entities and ask: How much does this matter?

Forget the shared enthusiasms, they’re never the issue. Not flushing the toilet is more likely to loom large. I have not yet used the verb “tolerate” and don’t intend to. For me it carries the sin of self-regard. But there’s no space for that.

Why should two broadly intelligent, frequently introspective, differently brought-up people of opposing genders continue to live together long after the first thrilling glow? In some cases by ignoring each other. In others by habit. Even through fear of loneliness. None of these are inspiring reasons. One alternative is to ask: what am I getting out of this? An even harder option is: what am I putting in?

There can be small recognisable rewards. VR read A Dance to the Music of Time decades before I did; finally there was a concurrence. VR now likes string quartets.

I like Benjamin Franklin: He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Jobs and jabots

Aged eleven I told my father what job I had in mind. Confirmed it four years later and thus joined the local newspaper, aged fifteen and fifty-one weeks. Most agree journalism was all I was fit for but occasionally a maggot nibbles. Suppose my father had lacked influence, that I’d had to paddle my own canoe.

Anything requiring advanced education (doctor, lawyer, academic, scientist, engineer, etc) must be ruled out since I lack the ability to study. Forget too the flamboyant jobs (politician, musician, stand-up comedian, baseball short-stop) given I have neither manual skills nor a viable personality. Nor the nerve for crime, organised or disorganised.

Un-talented men like me often sell things, notably advertising space on magazines I’ve written for. The requisites are mendacity, which I might manage, and constant self-delusion, which would worry me.

The armed services don’t take kindly to those who argue.

Being a priest is fine provided the intercourse never rises above theoretical debate. But I suspect my sermons would be coarse-grained, I could hardly advocate the adoption of an unproven faith, and the super-natural does not appeal.  I have, however, tended to favour all-black ensembles in recent months.

Catering? For two years I cooked for VR who still liveth. But my repertoire is limited to fifteen dishes; enough for me but probably not for paying customers.

I interview well which is not to say I always get the job. To me this skill has always represented a cul de sac.

My late pal Joe and I once met a mendicant poet. A tenuous existence and eventually one starves. A noble end?

Certain court functionaries wear jabots which I’ve always fancied. But are their wearers paid?

Further suggestions welcomed.

Friday, 15 September 2017

An audience of two

Time passes and singing becomes ever more personal. I'll never sing for others so I must sing for myself. Yet singing is communication so I'm like a painter who works in a windowless garden shed and locks the door on his canvases after each session.

Honesty's the key, I mustn't lie to myself. Nor must I be self-indulgent. Home practice (from the score, for memory is treacherous) must always comply with V's instructions:

"This note's double-dotted, a bar later there's a single dotted note; the two differently sustained sounds must balance out over time," V says. Eventually they do and I'm closer to what the composer had in mind.

A fortnight ago, minutes from the end of the lesson, V gave me the score of Im Rhein, by Robert Schumann, words by the poet Heine, from Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) a song cycle I've owned on CD for decades.

Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,
da spiegelt sich in den Well'n
mit seinem großen Dome
das große, heilige Köln.


(In the Rhine, in the holy stream,
there is mirrored in the waves,
with its great cathedral,
great holy Cologne.)

It's very short, some parts have immediate appeal, some are subtler and it's those I fear. Over the week I listen many times to Jonas Kauffmann singing it, later to a Turkish baritone who is more help. Relating that which I hear to that which is printed, then imitating. At the next lesson I offer V an imperfect but complete version and there's enormous pride in doing that. Then we start on the detail.

Not for the world, alas. I remain in the garden shed but I do, of course, sing for V.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Me and aviculture

Earlyish on Tuesday we leave the house to Julie, our cleaning lady, for breakfast at Tesco's The Cafe. It's better than it sounds, the talk is often wide-ranging. Yesterday, with VR's help, I asked: had I been a good father to my two daughters?

My view tends to be pessimistic. But am I, in fact, equipped to answer? History can be hard to interpret.

I'm about eight, riding my bike on a dirt road past an urban farm. Hens run across the road and one is briefly entangled in my front wheel. I fall off. The farmer is on to me immediately. A fat authoritarian figure in a flat cap, about ten feet tall, laboriously records my address in a tiny notebook, warning me of legal wrath to come. As he writes the hen I hit, minus neck feathers, re-crosses the road with a censorious look. I blubber, out of control.

I ride home, still blubbering, confess all to my father. He's highly amused, says jokingly he'll counter-sue on behalf of my damaged trousers. I'm appalled by his laughter but my terror at this experience of the adult world quickly dissipates. Was that good parenthood?

My suspicions are it's the sort of parenthood I practised. Excluding my mother I grew up in a male environment with two brothers. I wasn't prepared for daughters and I sense my reaction was rough and ready. We're good friends now (I think) but is this despite those earlier years? Did I depend heavily on VR to smooth things out.

I don't know, I'll never know. When fathers describe the bond they had with their daughters I close my eyes and ears. Are some male embryos endowed with good fatherly instincts? I doubt I'm the one to ask.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Darkness lightened

Sod’s Law reversed! Bedroom curtains in our previous house in Kingston-upon-Thames fitted the present house in Hereford and have hung here for the intervening nineteen years. For me a further nineteen years would have been fine but VR has fussier standards. Replacements were acquired on-line at shocking expense.

Sod’s Law re-applied! We needed a new curtain rail. Foolishly I chose one operated by cord. Attaching it to the wall was a mini-nightmare since the thing is long enough for shark fishing. Apprehension immediately arose when the job was done. This is one of those systems where a single pull opens (or closes) both curtains simultaneously. Thus the cord is over twice the length of the rail and the friction is IMMENSE. It was clear the rail’s tiny mounting brackets, each held by a single inadequate screw and Rawlplug, would not stay put after a few tugs. A self-fulfilling apprehension.

Needless to say rail and brackets are custom-made and the room for improvisation was restricted. A lifetime of bodging came to my rescue and I eventually re-attached the rail more robustly. But the effort required to operate the system continued to be ominous. I mentioned this to VR.

“Why not take the cord out and open the curtains by hand?” she said.

Why not, indeed?

I reflected on the Stone Age. Life was harder then, but simpler. Few caves had curtains. “Why not draw curtains on the cave wall?” suggests Mrs Rubble.

Yes, pragmatism is ageless as is VR.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Another day but no dollars

The composite RR day, aspired to, never attained.

Rise 06.25. In PJs and Totes respond to Tone Deaf commenters. A tiny treasured group which must be cosseted.

Assisted by Jonas Kauffman on YouTube, rehearse Schumann's Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome. Wearing earphones, singing sotto voce since VR sleepeth. The fast staccato bits especially hard.

Consider doing a post: a list with coloured cannonballs, it's easier than writing. My austere life? Must avoid referring to advanced age.

Complete final preparation of Opening Bars - how V taught me this and that. Dedication reads: "To V who made it happen. To VR who said it should happen". Despatch to printer.

To filling station for The Guardian

Ten pages of Fred Vargas' Pars vite et reviens tard. Alas, Pat, French teacher, not well so no Friday lesson. Write her note about linguistic misadventures chasing up three-pin plug adapters in France.

Diet-day lunch. Cuppa-Soup plus half-tsp chili sauce. Apple, satsuma, black coffee. Eagerly read about Trump foolery. Doze on couch, a sensuous delight.

Glance glancingly at novel, Second Hand, rejected by two dozen agents. Virtually ready for vanity printing.

Choose photo of two urinals for front cover of short-story collection, Two Homelands.

More Schumann.

Look longingly at fifth novel, Rictangular Lenses, 28,572 words done. A low priority at the moment.

Ensleeve two guest-room duvets as favour to VR, her arms being shorter than mine.

Read a sonnet written four years ago. Tiring now. Creativity at low ebb.

Go downstairs. Watch Simpsons re-run. Slaver at thought of  microwaved diet dinner.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Searching for coherence

Since I retired my birthdays have been celebrated in some style. Once at the garlanded Stagg Inn at Titley, then at The West Arms at Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, deep in rural North Wales where the seven-strong group stayed the night. Often transportation is a major cost but VR and I have never stayed our hand for what else might we spend our assets on? Participants travel from Gloucester, Luton and Tavistock.

Both the above watering holes were fancy-schmantzy and the socialising was in my estimation a success. But money doesn't always make a dinner cohere. Poor quality champagne at one equally chic place led to an evening of disappointment, though my relations disagree with me and say things went well.

This time we demotically took the bus down to central Hereford, called in for a pint at the Lichfield Vaults in Church Street, then dined at Simply Thai, now a favourite of ours. They do a spicy soup based on coconut milk... Best of all it worked as a family gathering, I could tell. This type of atmosphere is always hoped for but never guaranteed; blood lines do not necessarily bring about comity.

Presents can be difficult. Last year, extravagantly, I asked that my car be cleaned and valeted. It rained. This year the sun shone and the Poles who run this service put their heart and soul into it. I stepped into a vehicle that shone and smelt with newness, as it did a year ago when I bought it. I was aware this was wilfully conspicuous consumption, that I was averting my eyes from food banks and the gloom of Brexit. Then I thought of the cat that greeted us earlier at the bus-stop, rolling and stretching in ecstasy on the dusty pavement. Yeah, a bit like that.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Life at eighty-plus

Today I'm having the stitches out.

I asked VR who was an SRN in the often times whether those in surgical practice used to thread the needle. She says they did. Now needles come pre-threaded to ensure good hygiene. Also to save time, I suppose.

They go even further. When they want to measure a corporeal detail they use a hygienically wrapped tape measure which is then discarded. And some cutting devices, once sterilised for hours in an autoclave, post-op, are now disposable.

There's an interesting minor dilemma here. We're against waste yet this form of waste inhibits infection. But hey, who wants to go down with a bad case of septicemia?

And I myself am part of the trend since I use disposable razors. An activity which is at odds with being born in the West Riding. For West Ridingers are stingy and I - following that grand tradition - tend to hang on to my razors far too long. It's not so much that they become blunt but they cease to have any cutting function at all. Yet my beard is kept in check. How can this be? I conclude that I go over my hairy face more than once and that the bristles are eventually ground away.

Please don't recommend an electric or a cut-throat or the latest Gillette ten-blader. Self-harm is another West Riding tendency, especially if it saves cash. Regard me as incorrigible.

Query: may thoughts be disposable? Or do they rumble on, blunt as toffee-apples? That possibility worries me.

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.