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.

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.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Nine bean rows I will not have

Why sing?

Mozart, Schubert, Britten, etc. More recently, Roberta Flack.

Do I imagine it'll raise me to a toffee-nosed elite? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make singing any easier. Singing is like poaching quails’ eggs (Very difficult; ask VR.) and it's cruel; errors cause a trapdoor to open in my colon.

I can end up épuisé as the French say. Exhausted.

But there's better news .

We oldsters are keen to hang on to our musculature and our little grey cells. T S Eliot says "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" and we shudder at that. We look to delay the dust moment.

Writing fiction exercises my mind but does nothing for my ever frailer body. Same thing if I'd taken up painting. Or decided to read improving books.

Singing lessons involve training the throat to resonate like an organ pipe. For me that's started to happen and it’s added a cubit to my stature (see Holy Bible). Before, I laboriously created notes and had to kick them past my teeth; now, from time to time, they slide away, eager to be out.

Effort's involved but it’s more intelligent effort. Better still, such singing promotes wellbeing. The noises I make are closer to what great men (and great V, my teacher) had in mind. OK Wolfgang, Franz, Ben? OK V? Can you guess what it's like to sing a song that's endured 250 years? I feel healthier and fitter yet I’m still sitting down. It sure beats jogging. And, ca va dire, gardening.

NOTE: Marly's written new words to Down by The Sally Gardens. I've slightly modified them and am now challenged to sing them. The song's called I MET MY LOVE

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Life not as we would wish

This theme arrived, ready-made, at about three this morning. Is it in any sense original?  Viable? Interesting?

We fall in love. For now love is not returned but there is no animosity. We are, however, allowed the presence of the beloved.

The beloved stands before us and that is the reality: the looks, the predisposition, the intelligence, the good, the bad. But reality is a neutral state conferred by nature, uninvolved and unjudging. We are involved and we do judge, thus our version of reality is distorted. The longer we see and communicate with the beloved the greater the distortion.

We go away and, in tranquillity, ponder the beloved. Without any immediacy to rein in our thoughts we speculate and we fantasise. We invest the beloved with qualities that may not be supported by any form of reality, ours or the neutral one; we may even imagine an improved appearance.

We return to the beloved. We may be refreshed but those speculations and fantasies do not necessarily go away; they may even be augmented because by now our means of assessing the beloved are defective, compromised by our feelings.

These distortions may be the result of trying to imagine a "better" beloved. A disagreement between us may test this tendency and we may suppress its effects. But as any psychotherapist will say: suppressed tendencies merely move to another room.

Perhaps the beloved relents and loves us back. We unite and live together, each with our distorted versions of each other. At a later, sadder moment, a distortion is recognised for what it is. Recognised but not accepted as self-wrought. We call treachery, we seek to blame. But what or whom may we blame?

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Innocent abroad

On Friday I went shopping; it's decades since I did. For me going shopping is moral depravity.

Going shopping's when you wander into Retail-Land wanting to spend money. On what doesn't really matter. You simply crave the transaction.

I had elder daughter, Professional Bleeder, for company and we were in Abergavenny Music. Theoretically I wanted a DVD of Bartok's opera, Bluebeard's Castle, but I knew they wouldn't have it. They didn't. I ordered it (which I could have done by phone). I asked for a score of Schubert's song, Du bist die Ruh, which I didn't need. Cost £2, but they didn't have that either. Instead I bought two bound collections of scores costing £28. I definitely didn't need them. Outside I noticed one was arranged for High Voices; I'm a baritone.

In a book-shop I discovered a tome-ish paperback on musical theory. I stood at the shelving, flicking through, wondering whether I'd ever read it. But standing proved irksome and wasn't helping me make up my mind. Then I spotted two easy chairs. I sat down, flicked some more, decided yes. Complimented the woman at the till on the chairs.

In an elaborate new butcher's there was brisket on the bone. I love brisket but was mildly surprised to find it associated with bone. Only the possibility that VR lacked freezer space (suggested by PB) stayed my hand.

Recently I bought a decanter that  turned out unusable. In a cheapo chain I saw a carafe, typical of French cafés. I hovered but PB discovered it cost a ridiculous £40. An industrial-size bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo was labelled £3.15. I sighed. My present bottle is still half full and will last well into 2018.

Buying isn't absolutely necessary when "going shopping". Exposing oneself to the risk is.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Daughter/Dad chat

In endoscopy you swallow a small fibre-optic thingummy plus 1 metre of cabling. A gift subject for a blogger.

Alternatively the thingummy enters by (Ahem!) the basement. Thereafter good taste governs what you write.

I described my top-end job (A journey to the middle of the patient) on May 21 2008 blogging as Barrett Bonden in Works Well. It drew one comment.

Unheralded, yesterday, came an email labelled "Endoscopy" from younger daughter, Occasional Speeder:

Well that was a barrel of laughs... All clear though x

I responded:

Were you told - four times, as I was, and by different people - you would be dosed with something tasting of lemons? The actual taste being definitely acidulé but magnified to the power of ten, intended to put you off lemons for the rest of your natural. And thus you lay and there'd be a little twitch way down; you told yourself "I mustn't gip, I mustn't gip." but you gipped anyway and it felt like you were wearing your backbone inside your throat, instead of outside as is normal.

OS responded
:
They didn't say “lemons”, they said it tasted “agricultural” - which was quite accurate as to me it tasted of the smell of chicken shit. Gipped quite a bit. Eyes watered but yes that weird backbone thing was there. There was a lot of soothing as my leg kept involuntarily twitching. It's possibly in my top 5 horrid things ever - along with childbirth, tooth abscess (in fact most teeth things), finding cucumber unexpectedly in your mouth and the Intermarché at Jct 54 on the A75.

The latter two shockers are deeply personal and need not concern readers. I asked to use OS's emails in Tone Deaf and I'm proud of her style.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Another world

London, where I once lived, isn't Hereford, where I presently live. London isn't even Britain. It's a crowded corral where an elite endures extreme circumstances. An elite that includes the poor and the rich.

Two nights ago I stood on the south bank of the Thames taking in this sight. These flickering decorations are the headquarters of banks - detestable institutions rendered slightly less inhumane by their remoteness.

VR and I had just heard a free Schumann recital by musicians based on an elegant campus influenced by Sir Christopher Wren. His other works include St Pauls Cathedral.

Previously a taxi driver had driven us through an area disfigured by long-standing construction work. What are they making? we asked. "Probably a cycle track," he said. The joke was he knew quite well.

We were staying with friends in the south-east of the city (part of the elite, I suppose). To reach the city centre we'd propitiated robots by waving plastic symbols of wealth at them; our railed carriage took us from one concentration of light to the next. In London light is profligately disbursed.

Two small plastic containers of strangely citrousy beer and a teaspoonful of malbec from Argentina would have paid for a week's labour from a Lithuanian working in Hereford. But not for long now.

Non-residents - both fearful and envious - are constantly aware of their role as transients in this city. From London Donald Trump becomes a black hole: menacing but distant and apparently empty.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

RR circumscribed


Life has been reduced by a heavy cold. The sort people who've never had flu say is flu. I once had flu, a near-death experience; heavy colds are unpleasant but nowhere near.

Going outdoors becomes a struggle. VR wanted - post-birthday - to buy a summer jacket and we went down to Hereford by bus. I made one outrageous suggestion after another and the project foundered.

I played music by Hovhaness and John Ireland, to prove my intellect was intact. The stool (see pic) allows me to sit at the mini-computer, browsing through 8046 tracks that form the extremities of my musical taste over sixty years. Previously I'd have shuffled back and forth on my knees, looking at CD spines. Now the CDs are in the attic, their content transferred to the mini's hard disc. Let's have no nonsense about the presence of CDs being a comfort.

Once I'd have eschewed drugs. But I'm old and these days I'll reach out for any solace. Day Nurse followed Night Nurse and I was disturbed by a highly charged nightmare about lost luggage. We share a bottle of champagne but I fret because VR doesn't consume her glasssfuls quickly enough.

I recognise pathos in Donald Trump. Earlier he described Alec Baldwin's Trump-parody as "unfunny" despite TV audiences roaring with laughter. When his infamous healthcare bill was withdrawn a day ago he seemed distrait, drumming his fingers and saying there'd been "no help from Democrats", as if this was surprising.

Handkerchiefs. No, I’d better not go into that.

My blocked-up sinuses create a novel, resonating cathedral nave inside my noggin. This allows me to sing entirely plausible low notes without effort. But are these notes for real? I record them on to a CD for playback on V’s machine. More later.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Scrapbook day

For complex reasons VR's birthday falls on a diet day and the celebrations are muted as we hang around, feeling the cold invade our bodies deprived of calories. I buy her a bonsai plus a Beatrix Potter owl pendant which I (brilliantly) imagine can be draped round the branches in decoration. But VR says the pendant is "good enough to wear" and I have mixed feelings about that. Instructions accompanying the bonsai suggest the mini-tree will be a demanding companion and we might as well have had a baby (I jest). Seamus Heaney's poetic translation of Aeneid VI represents a less equivocal prezzie.

I reflect on times since 1959, mostly repeats, I fear.

In London, that year, we both have Thursday off. We take the Metropolitan Line westwards, get off and walk to Amersham. Misty October, the month Britain does incomparably. Decades later I recall the day’s tactility and write a SONNET. Not my best but heartfelt.

Evening omelettes in Soho. Beyond the restaurant window a lady of the night disappears and reappears, plying her trade. We watch detachedly, unembarrassed by each other.

Delivery room, Charing Cross hospital, London. I hold VR's hand but heat and an incautious midnight hamburger combine to make me queasy and I'm sent to the viewing window. A nurse says, "It's a girl".

California: finalising a book for publication (It's about valves.). I drive a hired Dodge Charger between redwoods worried we're running out of gas.

Linden Crescent, Kingston-upon-Thames, our first owned house, December. The plumber’s finished and switches on the new central heating. To Hell with open fires.

Anytime. VR makes Eggs Mornay.

Along the Loire Valley, France, in the newly acquired Scirocco. Beethoven’s Andante Favori playing from a cassette. View and music in harmony.

Anytime. Me writing, VR fiddling with the Hudl.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Wrapping up Borderline

Rest of 23 movies seen at Borderline festival.

Jackie. Well-dressed, much smoking, I couldn't mesh. Jackie K, we must remember, soon became Jackie Onassis.

Frantz. In effect a post-war film of Wilfred Owen's war poem, Strange Meeting. Character study of two nations, now uneasily peaceful.

The Olive Tree (see pic). Feelgood, best-appreciated Borderline movie (97% pro). Youth's tribute to age; rural Spain vs. urban Germany.

Julieta. I've always enjoyed director Aldomovar's special strangeness but found this too complex, slightly hysterical. VR and Ian liked it so who am I to belly-ache?

Return to Ithaca. Two or three long conversations by four middle-aged post-Franco Spaniards who all suffered. Grew on me.

A Quiet Passion. See post: The Surprise Factor

The Handmaiden. Luxuriant Oriental lesbian porn (sadism added) with awkward flashbacks. Don't take your grandchildren.

A Simple Life. Modern-day Tokyo realism at its best. Age as an ineluctable force. Characters you wanted to hug.

Personal Shopper. Séances, high fashion and young folks' misery.  I'm too old for this, always was.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Youth buddie-bonds with age in NZ escape movie. Amateurish, less charming than it thought it was.

It's Only The End Of The World. Claustrophobic (too many close-ups) acount of Canadian family's failure to communicate. Stellar performances, though.

A Taste Of Cherry. Man in a car, on a mission in arid Iraq, puts dilemma-ish proposition to three others. Couldn't take my eyes off it.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Magically transformed

Modern-day Eldwick. The self-conscious rock is very new.
As if it were a pebble in my shoe I grumble about my advanced age too much. Stupid. Here, in my blog I may be any age.

Bingley, Yorkshire, circa 1953. I wear a dull brown mac (short for mackintosh, ie, raincoat) like most local males. Not through lack of imagination, that's all there is in the shops. My hair, as dull brown as my mac, has been cut by a barber; it sits like a wedge atop my head. The sides are shorn bare. I'm on a bus for which I've paid pennies, climbing away from Bingley's mills to a village called Eldwick. Part of my weekly schedule as junior reporter with the Keighley News.

I call at Eldwick's newspaper shop, run by Robin Teasdale, once huntsman with the Airedale Beagles. "Any news?" I ask. He says no, as he always does. Outside I ignore rolling farmland leading up to moors which, I suppose, are exhilarating. For me familiarity has bred contempt.

The school’s headmaster sees me as a relief; he leaves his classroom and smokes a pipe in his office as we chat. He has an appropriate surname (Stone?) which I have now forgotten. Also a nervous tic causing him to grimace every couple of minutes. He seems unaware of this and does it in public before audiences, once caught in full contortion by the photographer from my newspaper.

For news of Eldwick Amateur Dramatic Society I call on one of two quite lovely women, blonde and brunette, in their thirties. One invites me in, the other keeps me on the doorstep. I'm a teenager, full of teenage juices, and I fantasise about both, leaving reluctantly.

These people must now be dead.

A long wait for the return bus. I may walk, since it’s downhill.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The surprise factor

We may be impressed or moved or disgusted by great works of art. More rarely are we surprised. Even if we've led wilfully sheltered lives we've usually absorbed a host of trailers before we come upon the Rembrandt self-portraits, Boswell's Life of Johnson or Citizen Kane. We are prepared and this can interfere with the way we respond. After all, no one wants to admit - at first sight - that Hamlet's a right old load of rubbish. I should add in support of my High Cultural Virginity this wasn't my initial reaction to the great Danish time-waster.

But I was surprised by Madame Bovary. Oh I knew it was a French classic, a true "modern" novel. But even now, forty or fifty years on, I remember my first act on finishing it. I turned back to the title pages searching for small print that confirmed I hadn't read what the French call Texte intégral but rather an abridgement, perhaps even by Reader's Digest. There had been no hindrances, the story moved at great pace and with fearless clarity. Classics usually demand concentration, some allowances for obsolete language; Bovary moved like a rocket.

Moby Dick also surprised me but this was less admirable, I ended up smug. I'd been warned about the density, the detours and the fog coefficient but I read it straight through as if it were an Agatha Christie. What, I wondered, was the problem? Yes, you're right: utterly insufferable! Alas, Tone Deaf is frequently just that.

Nobody in my group much cared for A Quiet Passion, a recent movie about Emily Dickinson, the poet whose external life was a nothingness. I stayed silent, saw it as a masterpiece. Surprise may be incommunicable.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Easy going

The Cherry mechanical keyboard, above, represents an act of pure indulgence. It replaces a perfectly good membrane unit - recently cleaned! - which cost almost two-thirds less. It offers two barely justifiable advantages: a longer, more positive key-stroke with a noisier, clackety action.

In my lifetime I've typed millions of words and intend to type millions more. Only my toothbush is a more intimate companion than my keyboard. Its businesslike rattle is indirect yet audible proof of a brain doing what brains do. It is the sound of work, my kind of work, both reassuring and pre-emptive. If I were a dentist I'd buy a decent drill, the Cherry is my equivalent.

I jab the keys and their descent is abruptly arrested. I sense this dissipation of energy and it comforts me. Saws rasp, mowers drone, kettles sing and things get done. I'm getting this post done.

The surface of the keys is slightly rough, perhaps promoting a better link with my finger-tips. Certainly I type more confidently.

And more quickly. On a roll the clacks become continuous and this, I suppose, is a measure of my efficiency. Necromantic yet familiar labels - Caps lock, Scroll lock, PgDn - emerge and disappear beneath my flying fingers and I know I'm at home.

I type therefore I am. I type to say I am. I type for the sheer novelty of it. I am not a roomful of monkeys.

Friday, 3 March 2017

A real biggie

At Borderlines we could have booked for Abel Gance's silent five-and-a-half-hour epic, Napoleon. The breaks were kindly (50 minutes for late lunch, 20 minutes with optional tea/coffee and cake, 10 minutes for minor surgery) but we worried about the eventual state of our backsides. I bought the four-DVD set instead and we watched in upholstered comfort at home. In one go from 6 pm to near-midnight.

The film first appeared in 1927 but this version had been digitally restored over decades and includes a musical background adapted mainly from Beethoven's Eroica symphony. Submitting to this ordeal might have seemed masochistic but if you care for movies in the widest sense and feel you need to know more about French history you should take a punt.

Ironically this was only half the story, no mention of Trafalgar or Waterloo, of course. But never mind, for several years Napoleon retrieved France's glory and the preceding events are told with great passion. The central character (played by Albert Dieudonné) becomes part of your family by the end.

But the over-arching drama is the way director Gance pushes movie potential to the absolute limit. If you forget the mainly static camera and the lack of spoken dialogue this becomes a very modern film. Huge crowds are handled with great conviction (The Convention: France's maniacal revolutionary government; the siege of Toulon; and - grandest of all - Napoleon addressing the exhausted French army in Italy) yet the face-to-face scenes involve real people.

At nearly six hours for £22, it's a snip. With whatever wine you care to choose. Bring in the neighbours and gain a reputation for cultural philanthropy.

UPDATE. Checked with Borderlines management and discovered that 73 hardy souls with cast-iron bums (= half the Small Studio) had booked Napoleon. Felt mildly proud of Hereford.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Worldwide films

Ordered a moderately expensive Cherry keyboard - works mechanically and clacks, just like the old Underwoods in the news-room at the Telegraph and Argus in Bradford. Said to be therapeutic.

The Borderline Film Festival continues:

Alone in Berlin. Middle-aged couple distribute anti-Nazi messages in Berlin during war. Despite predictable ending their dogged courage is uplifting. (See pic; yes, that's Emma Thompson!).

Graduation. Slippery moral slope for doctor and family struggling to live in corrupt modern Romania.

The Unknown Girl. Idealistic Belgian doctor, racked by guilt at single minor act of negligence, investigates death of young woman immigrant.

The Salesman. Won Best Foreign Film Oscar this year. Yet another masterpiece from Iran (How do they do it?): assault on woman is explained by couple appearing in production of Miller's Death Of A Salesman. Detailed and persuasive.

La-La Land. Doesn't live up to hype. Musical with feeble tunes, modest dancing by principals and vestigial show-bizz plot lapses into inanition. Jazz sub-plot looks like five minutes spent on Google.

The Headless Woman. Mis-titled, over-ambitious and opaque  story from Argentine about woman whose personality is affected by car accident. Repetitive, uncommunicative and somewhat irritating.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

That time of year

Life is presently complicated. Grandson Ian is staying, Borderlines Film Festival started two days ago, eventually the three of us will see 23 titles in a fortnight. Fitting in blog responses and practice for Mozart's An Chloë (my most demanding song so far) is a real bastard.

We have seen:

Denial (Feelgood movie about Jewish US academic sued by Holocaust denier David Irving; protean performances; fascinating differences between US and UK law systems. See pic.).

Manchester By The  Sea (Manchester in Massachusetts not Lancashire; central character is guilt-ridden Boston janitor facing new responsibilities; a threnody to inarticulacy).

Hell Or High Water (Formulaic, modern-day bank-robbing in Texas but raised a notch by allusions to poverty).

Toni Erdmann (Over-long but witty/funny German tale about father's concerns for business-woman daughter  racked by getting ahead in unconvincing world of meetings and presentations).

Slack Bay (Grossly over-long French nominal parody about class differences in Northern France in Edwardian times; treated as fantasy-cum-farce but with excess knockabout; made irritating by incorporating six false endings just when viewer's resistance is weakest.


For MikeM

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Downhill all the way


Prelude: Brother Sir Hugh has walked heroically in his time: from sea to different sea, along mountain ranges, through gorges. Older now, he reports facing a 3-mile walk and fretting he'll lack material for his blog.
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It's upping time and a smear of light downstairs shows through the front-door windows. Fidgety dawn is arriving earlier these days.

I'm at the top of the stairs in my upping-time garb: PJs, heavy fleece dressing gown, loose furry slippers. A decade ago, half-way down, my heels slipped and I bounced on my coccyx; slippers aren't exactly secure and I must go down carefully. I too am older, plus four years more than Sir Hugh.

There are thirteen steps and I recall vaguely there was a similar number at Tyburn, the old public gallows in London. Unlucky for some. It behoves me to hold hard to the handrail but the physics isn't propitious; my grip is in line with the stairs, a grip at right-angles would be stronger.

VR has always urged a tight grip for another reason. Eventually the rail will smoothen and we'll have a patina. Not yet, though; my fingers slide over rough wood underneath the rail. Most descenders will never notice, though.

Directly above the stairs is a tall slab of wall, the backside of our bedroom’s en suite. Hanging on it is VR's huge tapestry of a cockerel. Alas, rarely seen. Going downstairs you don't look out, but down.

My feet slide over the carpeted rim between step and riser. The movement echoes the coccyx slip but today I'm aware and not at risk.

Careful at the bottom. To the unwary there is always one step more. An awful sensation: expecting the ground floor but finding only air.

Distance? 4 metres?

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Comfort's sell-by date

How do you measure time's passage?

Short-term with a wrist-watch (Don't talk about smart phones, p-uh-lease!) Longer term with a calendar. Even longer term by examining physical decay (Gruesome? Yes, but we've all watched those stark science programmes on telly.)

How about via one's material possessions? Because I’m finding that terribly salutary.

We moved to Hereford on VR's birthday in 1998. The house was new, we were its first owners. All those things to buy: three bog brushes because we now had three bogs, a huge load of light-bulbs, carpets. Carpets for a slew of empty rooms. A small fortune but never mind, we wouldn't have to think about carpets ever again. Or, let's say, for a very long time.

And nineteen years is a long time. Along the way we replaced the stair carpet and the one in the living room but we rationalised them; both had got a lot of hammer over the years.

But the bedroom carpet is another matter. It's a comforting dark green which we both love. When my feet touch its texture in the morning, it confirms I've survived another night. But now the dark green is faded and there are bubbles. Goodness we've hardly seemed to walk on it at all, and then often without shoes. It covers the floor as my skin covers my flesh but that isn't the analogy that most gives me collywobbles. I'm more concerned with another parallel: that non-renewable resource known as my mind. I suspect it too has bubbles. Certainly it’s faded.

The carpet we can replace...

Friday, 17 February 2017

A new world; the New World

"Stay at the Y," I was told when I reported for work at my new employer in Pittsburgh, late December 1965. Y stood for Young Men's Christian Association.

The USA differed in everything. Britain, now 2500 miles away, had YMCAs but I had no idea what went on inside. Possibly hymn singing and the throwing of medicine balls. In Pittsburgh the Y (see pic) was an inexpensive hotel. But as I walked down the corridor to my surprisingly generous room, old men, clearly retired, languished in the doorways of their rooms. All wore plaid shirts and trousers that started just below their armpits; they watched me speculatively in my three-piece suit, an odd bird.

Later, after a walk, I returned and asked for my key. The receptionist was talking to a visitor about jitneys. The word was new to me and their conversation left me no wiser. What mattered, however, was the visitor's behaviour; regularly he spat decorously into a tin that had contained peanuts. When he left I asked the receptionist if the visitor was ill in some way. Lungs? He laughed and his explanation was impenetrably idiomatic; eventually I worked out the spitting was a sequel to chewing tobacco.

Then it was New Year's Day and the TV in the lounge showed American football, a sport I had never seen. Coverage of the game lasted four hours. Then, quickly, another game began, another four hours. Then another. Dimly I realised the first game had been on the Eastern Seaboard, the second in California, the third in Hawaii. Coverage had followed the availability of daylight.

In my room I opened my portable typewriter and started an airmail to VR, then still in Folkestone, UK, with her parents. I had lots to say.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Boxes ticked and unticked

Most of the things I wanted to do, I did.

Toured much of Britain by bike and by hitch-hiking in my youth. Entered journalism. Moved from Yorkshire to London. Married and the marriage endured. Regularly and intentionally changed jobs in London. Worked in the USA. Got job back in London; acquired a house. Became magazine editor. Became francophile and bought French holiday home. Retired early, financially comfortable. Found the stamina to write novels. Discovered singing. Kept hair.

Things left undone

Rock climbing. Wish I'd been better at it.

University. Might I have profited? Unrealistic, really, like wishing I'd been handsomer. In terms of formal education I was - and am - subnormal.

Would have appreciated a girlfriend while living in Yorkshire. A few months no more, providing social reassurance there was nothing wrong with me. London proved (to me at least) there wasn't but it's as if Yorkshire defeated me.

Finishing The Brothers Karamazov. Four goes, last one foundering on page 360. Yet I've read and re-read Proust and Joyce.

Conversational intolerance. But might a cure cost too much? Might I now be quieter (=moribund)?

Introspection. An ever-present addiction?

Writing verse. Could I improve or would that be (as I fear) self-delusion?