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


Friday, 28 December 2018

Post-Christmas lull

Easy on the toes
 
Musta costa fotune
The tide of guests flows and ebbs. Last night we were eight, tonight we are three. Last night we engaged in noisy, incompetent charades, tonight we'll probably read in silence broken only by the sound of sipping. Last night Beef Wellington, tonight spag. bol. albeit enlivened by a pinch of chili.

VR looks up from her smartphone and tells me Russian TV has sent Salisbury a chocolate model of the city's cathedral.

As a goodwill gesture!

Salisbury!

Where  KGB agents, recorded almost continuously on CCTV cameras, and subsequently identified by their fake and real names, strolled from the railway station and sought to poison two Russian natives. They failed. However their discarded poison (in a perfume aerosol) was picked up by a woman and it did for her.

More like: Yah-boo, catch us if you can.

The leg throbs and I shall shortly take a hot bath which won't do any good at all. But it will be a pleasure working the new lever taps with my toes. A step towards paradise on earth.

Far too much of The Observer’s full-colour supplement is devoted to fashion which is of no interest to me. However, flicking through the pages  some weeks ago I paused. Said to VR, “Just for once, something that appeals – a Paul Smith scarf.”  Guess what I got for Christmas. It’s gorgeous except for the fact I’ve forgotten the price, only that it was monstrous.

Blabbermouth guilt.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Let good prevail (much revised)

SECOND THOUGHTS
Christmas approaches. Reminding me of Christmases that entailed disaster, even tragedy. Raw material for novels and short stories but I've bundled all that (The Overturned Van. Pulmonary Affliction. Mother's Death. Cold Duck Hangover.) together, secured with Sellotape (US: Scotch tape), for storage in the loft.

Met Professional Bleeder at Hereford bus station yesterday, took her home to change, and we set out with VR for the tiny Gloucestershire hamlet of Brand Green to spend the night with Occasional Speeder, her husband Darren and son Zach. A pre-Christmas blast.

Their hugely decorated tree touched the ceiling, a furnace of light and a temptation to the new kitten who would have stripped it bare within minutes had we let her. A firkin (= quarter of a barrel) of ale was available, the others drank champagne. I stretched out my tortured right leg and gave in to raucous gossip. At some indeterminate time a hot-as-Hades tagine was served.

It wasn't the whole family: grandson Ian was with his Dad, granddaughter Bella in her new Tavistock house with partner, Daniel. But it was enough. Under these circumstances, conversation is a majestic boulder released down a mountain slope of infinite length. It may reach a small plateau and slow down; but it never stops. Impatience writ large on the faces of those waiting to break in.

 Denied the tree the kitten gnawed the feet of those likely to say Ouch!

Now we are back home, wrapping table presents to the assertive trumpets in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Messiah is kept in reserve for Christmas Eve. It’s the family that counts, of course. The boulder endowed with energy, source of uncaring laughter and often of revelation.

Disc 1 of the oratorio is finished. Those toiling with Sellotape need the impetus of Disc 2.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Small aside re. Joe

Joe, formerly Plutarch,
tie askew, looking BS
straight in the eye
Four years ago my pal, Joe Hyam, died. He and I were both magazine editors in and around London and I'd known him since 1963; others will remember his blog, Now's the Time. His initial blogonym, Plutarch, was later dropped in favour of his real name.

But why Plutarch in the first place? I’m mildly ashamed I never asked. So, seeing a dilapidated paperback of Plutarch’s Lives on the charity books table at Tesco, I decided to check. Published nearly sixty years ago. the pages have lapsed into that familiar orangy-brown, some fragile as ash. I have many books in that state. It’s a way of re-visiting my youth.

Plutarch was born a Theban in AD mid-forties and lived until he was seventy-five. Studied philosophy in Athens, travelled, held various magistracies, and wrote only about “men of action”. This version (there are others) of  Lives covers movers and shakers in a crucial period in Greek history “from the legendary times of Theseus to the end of the Peloponnesian War.” All news to me. I was not classically educated, not educated at all, really.

Theseus (Founder of Athens) was certainly an action-man. Periphetes, aka Club Bearer, was an early casualty, encouraging Theseus to adopt the club himself. He may have clubbed “Phaea... a robber, a murderous and depraved woman... whom Theseus afterwards killed.”

But now it’s confession time. I’m still on Theseus with eight more lives to go. But I may have answered my own question. Joe liked Plutarch’s essentially in-yer-face attitude:

...geographers when they come to deal with those parts of the earth which they know nothing about, crowd them into the margins of their maps with... “beyond this lie sandy, waterless deserts full of wild beasts” or “trackless swamps...

Plutarch and Joe, neither a purveyor of traditional BS.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Dining in tandem

Jokily I ended my previous post (Ping-pong for one) like this:

But I had a conviction - possibly delusional - that if I thought hard enough I could communicate with VR. Wordlessly.

Colette ended her comment to this post:

And if you are able to communicate wordlessly with VR, please let us know.

I responded:

Should telepathy occur you'll be the first to know.

Last night VR, who has been following these exchanges with mild amusement, reminded me such telepathy has already happened.

Thirty years ago I was invited by the London magazine, Theatregoer, to become its restaurant critic - an evening  job that didn’t interfere with my daytime editorship of a logistics magazine. Sounds like a dream commission doesn't it? It wasn't.

Go out for a normal meal and you spend the evening eating, drinking, observing and chatting. As a restaurant critic you have to fit in the surreptitious taking of copious notes, correctly spelled. Harassment descends and enjoyment is eroded. And there's a further distraction.

VR accompanied me to help cover up my suspicious note-taking. Also to test more choices of what was on offer at the restaurant. Very quickly I learnt to choose two quite separate meals and be prepared to ditch the one I really preferred. Quite uncannily VR always chose the same (as yet unannounced) meal I had in mind, forcing me to switch from, say, Escalope de veau à la Zagreb (see pic) to Filet de sole bonne femme. With subsequent adjustment to the choice of wine.

Does this qualify as telepathy? In fact this tendency still continues when we eat out normally. Although by now we acknowledge it laughingly.

OK, Colette?

Monday, 10 December 2018

Ping-pong for one

In our substitute German Christmas Market visit we switched from our home (see First steps?) to Occasional Speeder's. Watched grandson Zach do snowplough turns on Gloucester’s ski-slope in preparation for his school ski-ing trip to Canada next year. He is ape at all sport and made good progress.

We also visited Webb’s famously upmarket garden centre at Wymondham where I succumbed to my recurring ailment - legs simply not working, groans pitiful. OS guided me to a seat in the café and bought fizzy water to aid my pill-swallowing. When I opened the bottle super-active fizz spilled water all over my trousers. Surprisingly I didn't groan. Instead, played Solitaire on my smartphone until the hurt subsided.

An elderly couple joined me at the table and it was clear the man wanted to talk to his spouse. She neither wanted to talk, nor to respond. He launched a chain of non-sequiturs, possibly fragments left over from other aborted conversations. Stolidly she poured tea and sipped, staring into the middle distance.

Sitting allowed my mind to roam. I couldn’t make head nor tail of the man’s utterances other than they seemed domestic. But the gap between husband and wife spoke volumes. How long had her silence endured?

Lacking pain I was able to consider my own good luck. VR and I still talk to each other. Avidly. After more than half a century. Conversation dispenses with the need for lovey-dovey professions - the mere exchange of thoughts is sufficient proof of mutual interest. I was alone in the café while OS and VR shopped for table presents. But I had a conviction - possibly delusional - that if I thought hard enough I could communicate with VR. Wordlessly.

Abruptly the couple got up and left. In silence.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

First steps?

A strange evening.

This is the week we should have attended the Christmas market in Aachen. Instead Occasional Speeder is spending a few nights with us to push out the boat in local watering holes. Back at home more indulgence.

West Midland News was lurching to its feeble end when it was replaced by songs from the Simon and Garfunkel Central Park concert. OS had linked the TV to her Iphone and it was music I'm very familiar with. I sang along as best I could, amazed at S&G's pell-mell speed.

One thing led to another. I sang a couple of my warm-up songs to illustrate some musical point or other and OS seemed amazed. I explained that these warm-ups were merely preludes to more serious songs like Mozart's O Isis und Osiris. Which I also sang. OS was even more amazed. How long had I been learning, etc?

OS played an Adele song, saying longingly she wanted to be able to sing it. I listened to Adele and said fine but first OS would have to learn a form of recitative singing (In German, Sprechstimme - speak voice) and widen her range. OS doubted her ability. I said pick a carol; we sang In The Deep Midwinter together. I then deconstructed OS's singing, getting her to lengthen her vowels ("...frosty winds made m-o-o-an") and make her consonants cleaner. Then we sang an ascending sequence of scales.

I listened to Adele again and imitated the first line slowly. Got OS to imitate me. Told her she had the basis of a singing voice.

It was 01.50 am, time for bed.

There we left it.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Peas in a pod

Some posts lack universal appeal, as today (No. 956). The audience will be limited, though no one is actively discouraged.

Inevitably it’s about singing.

Most people sing, or at least make musical noises. La-las, whistling, humming, one repeated line from some dim song. Not me. I find myself murmuring stuff  I've been taught. If from a recent lesson I may envisage the score and follow it in my mind's eye. Such swank! Non-singers will see this as stultifying, more like self-discipline than music-making.

They may have a point.

But that's only the start. Recognising I'm sub-consciously doing, say, Schumann, I stop. Take a deepish breath, consider the opening notes, remind myself of their difficulty (all openings are difficult), call up my proper singing voice from a point north of my bladder, re-start. Seriously.

I make an error. I stop, find the solution, re-start. Spontaneity is lost.

But what is gained? A sense of wholeness between my body (The parts that create sound; hands that sketch phrases; a bridge between consciousness and heartbeat which perceives rhythm) and my mind (Exhilaration at being a source of these sounds; relish at words now enhanced; critical awareness of technical matters).

Trained athletes must experience something similar. There must be parallels between preparing for - and putting - the shot and singing An die Musik – each for the thousandth time. Channelled wilfulness leading to  a conviction: he/she is now a shot-putter, I am now a singer. Immediacy counts. Otherwise the shot-putter goes back to a desk  in an insurance company and I to the unspecifics of retirement. Immigrants from another, demanding world.

Taking singing lessons without a final aim is self-regarding and futile. But I am those things anyway. To me singing is a willing companion and who’d reject that?

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Regrets? I've had a few

This is all rather vague and, in retrospect, poignant.

Herman Bruce (formerly Helmut Bruch) joined my primary school - see pic - during the war. I remember him crying to the teacher: "X (another boy) said I was a German spy." I was slightly shocked but did nothing.

We became "school friends". Why? There was some connection between our fathers. Herman's was a confident, jolly taxi-driver with a very strong foreign accent. Before my father could acquire a car, he took the bus to work (Impossible to imagine!) and he must also have used taxis. Occasionally my father spoke to my mother about Herman's father but I cannot remember any content.

Herman, himself, had no accent though his English and his attitudes were somewhat formal. Since I liked to use big words he may have seen that as an attraction. As a scholastic dumbo I left primary school to become a fee-payer at the grammar school. Herman expected to get a scholarship to the grammar school (by then he was confident and super-articulate) and told my mother he was disappointed when he didn't. He did, however, find a place in Bradford's second-best school where my father had been educated.

Herman, I and a closer friend went on a hitch-hiking holiday to London staying at YHA hostels. One evening my friend and I submerged Herman’s spoon in his soup and watched his fruitless search and subsequent outrage. By now his superiority was beginning to irritate me and I dropped him. I think he went on to uni.

I've dropped quite a few acquaintances and never regretted the decision. But being able to piece together what I suspect is Herman's no-doubt horrific life story and remarkable emergence I feel I should have done better. This post is poor compensation.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

A damned nice thing*

I garage my car at night. Most neighbours with garages don't. Some for good reason (too many cars), some inexplicably (garage given over to grass mower, discarded furniture, things in cardboard boxes).

I do so to hide the car from thieves and/or vandals, because I hate scritching away frost, because low temperatures reduce battery efficiency, because the house (which cost rather more than the car) looks prettier minus the car. Also the car insurance company prefers things this way.

But garaging can jangle the nerves. The car measures 2.017 m between side mirror extremities while the garage door is 2.130 m wide. That 0.113 m difference (roughly 5¼ in.) may sound like plenty of clearance but, don't forget, it must be halved for the two sides of the car. The side mirrors are foldable but for reasons I will explain I only fold the driver's side mirror.

Inside, the garage itself is wider than the door - it needs to be. The car has to be parked much nearer to the garage wall on the passenger side so that I may open my door sufficiently to get out. I use the edge of the unfolded side mirror to judge the gap - about ¾ in – but it’s a nerve-wracking journey. If it's been raining I get wet squeezing out between the car side and the other garage wall.

Recently frost was expected and I'd forgotten to garage the car. I did so in my jim-jams and dressing gown. Felt a bit of a fool, especially since the frost never arrived.

Widening the garage isn’t an option.

QUERY The utility company urges me to install a free smart meter. I’ve heard dreadful things about them. Are they true?

* Duke of Wellington. Often paraphrased as "a close run thing"

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Mike, it was an honour

Mike Raftus, a great friend during my six years in the USA, has died.

I first met him on the magazine I joined in Pittsburgh. A New Englander through and through, he wasn't entirely comfortable in western Pennsylvania. "Pick you up from the Y?" he said, possibly as one alien to another. We listened to jazz at a swish joint in Squirrel Hill and I was mildly shocked that a glass of beer could cost $1.25. At Riggs Lounge on Northside the price was 25 cents. Not that I really minded, I was doing a lot of listening.

He was 6 ft 7 in. tall and his style of speech was laconic. A terse, well-written screenplay, except it was entirely natural. He hated showing surprise. Later, emerging from a bar on Sawmill Run Boulevard he stared across the road at a hideous gin palace with a Wild West frontage. "That looks like the kinda place you could spend a lotta money... on nothing." It was the pause that made it.

His passion was WW2 planes, something I knew about since my father belonged to the Royal Observer Corps in the war. Later I was to be an usher at Mike's wedding in upstate New York. Strictly Catholic; when the others moved towards the rail I was to stay back. The family's ecumenicism pleased me.

He taught me US etiquette. We'd been throwing the football about on Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island. I indicated my glove and baseball. Mike looked severe. "You don't do that on the beach."

There’s more but now he’s gone I won’t overload him with detail. Written snapshots are better. I felt honoured he’d picked me out and our friendship stuck. For me he opened up the USA as if it were a book.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

This difficult world

ORACLE SPEAKS

How do you solemnise a marriage?
He: What's on telly tonight?
She: Try not to be vulgar, dear. Simply peruse the Radio Times.


Tune a motorbike?
Customer: I bought it to be manly. It sounds like Alka Seltzer.
Mechanic: Larger engine, sir. That will be £3561 plus VAT.

Leave the EU?
Welsh farmer: Can't stand foreigners, boyo. As far away as Basingstoke, look you.
Lib-Dem MP: Add water to this powder, fill a syringe, inject. Then dream.

Hit very high notes (Male singer)?
Vet with pincers: It's a very simple procedure.

Hit very high notes (Female singer)?
Wearied critic: Just screetch, dearie. This is Britain.

Find employment?
Desperate man in three-piece suit: I used to be big in sales admin management.
Man with smartphone: Trawler bound for Libya. Ask for Daesh Recruitment.

Find a book that's not about writers writing about writing?
Stall vendor, outdoor market: Here y'are, mate: Haynes Repair Guide, 1963-74 Ford Zodiac.

Find peace?
Aesthete: I just can't bear it. Any of it.
Financial whizzkid: There's the Thames.

Renew passport?
Panicky voice: Don't try there! Honest! Friend of mine never came out.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Notes on prodigality

Asked in a dream to react journalistically to The Prodigal Son, I awoke reluctantly. Refreshed by sleep I really fancied the job, so here we are. I didn't re-read the parable, I worked from memories dating back to primary school when the war was still on. For simplicity’s sake I call the sons Remain and Brexit.

For Brexit to leave with cash in his pocket the family estate would have had to be liquidated. A nightmare these days since the house would need to be sold. Did Palestinians then own their houses? Dunno. I'm more inclined to think it involved disposing of a flock of sheep and goats.

The division was into halves not thirds which was lousy for the father. In effect, the proposal involved bringing the future back into the present; in the future the father would be dead.

It is either said outright or implied that Brexit "wasted his substance in riotous living". I see wine (and shudder at its probable taste) and I see a red-light district (encore shudder). Would they be enough to ruin him? Ah yes, there's gambling, that would do it.

When Brexit returns, all tuckered out (Did disease play a part?), Remain quite justifiably complains. Dad talks about a son that was once dead and is now alive. Parental forgiveness outweighs legal fiddle-faddle. But did it work out? My worry is that Remain might not even trust his father again, let alone his ne'er-do-well brother.

The lessons are obvious. But here's another. A sub-text suggests Brexit was bored with his agrarian life amd set out to debauch himself. He achieved that but I doubt it was much fun. Debauchery is only enjoyable when it's incidental. And now a never-ending life of toil stretches beyond the horizon.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Fraternally speaking

Guess who's the brother who does the walking
The doctor's receptionist suggested an appointment date not far ahead; without thinking I reacted aloud: My brother's birthday!

The receptionist's eyebrows rose and I explained. "I need these sort of mnemonics." But it wasn't that at all.

My brother, Sir Hugh, runs a blog mainly about walking as a sport. In my youth I walked a bit, faute de mieux, but then took up golf and ski-ing. Sir Hugh's walks got longer and longer. As physical decreptitude overtook me I adopted less demanding activities but Sir Hugh - no less decrepit in certain functions - continued to walk.

You might have thought I nourish a sort of mutual sympathy for Sir Hugh, given he's my only brother now. If I do it doesn't show. Instead I read his blog and use it as a sedentary man's punch-bag, belabouring him with lengthy comments, usually of a critical and/or hortatory nature. This is slightly strange. Since school teachers did very little for me I'm appalled that in Sir Hugh's case I set up as a teacher.

Sir Hugh is remarkably tolerant. He either rides with the punch or admits to being ignorant about what I am trying to do. He also misunderstands other things I say and has made me realise what a powerful tool misunderstanding can be in dialogues.

Frankly I'm ashamed. I'd promise to reform if I thought I could hack it. Silence seems the only sure option but it is also a nuclear option. Instead I intend to recycle some handwritten notes I recently unearthed – my speech at Sir Hugh’s wedding. Since I was in the USA at the time, the speech was given by our late brother Nick. I’ve often wondered how that panned out.

Meanwhile I’m five words short of my limit.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Schrödinger country

They - that ominous, all-knowing group of nobodies - say time passes more quickly in old age. Alarmingly there's confirmation.

In the Guardian's deaths ads I noted a guy I knew distantly. He was big in the National Union of Journalists, of which I was a member, but it was his wife I knew better. She edited a magazine across the corridor and I last saw her on the day the company closed her mag. I found her weeping, not for herself but for her staff. I gave her a hug which was unusual because I wasn't into hugging in those days.

Her husband's funeral was far away and I sent a commiserating letter (Not condolences - a lumbering word I've always hated.) via the funeral home. She responded, incidentally providing some dates I wasn't sure about.

Dates that occurred within my working life. I reflected. I started work on August 20 1951 and finished for good on about the same day in 1995. Forty-four years if I include two years spent serving my sovereign. NB, the latter phrase is ironic.

Much happened during those forty-four years. Rather less happened in the succeeding twenty-three years. Other than my astonishment. I've done nothing significant for a period equal to half my working life. When I fill in the Occupation slot on forms, Retired makes more sense than Former Journalist. I can't say I like "retired" as a profession. To be poetic I'm an ageing surfer riding a diminishing wave that will soon dissipate all its force on the beach. The place where, as Robert Burns said, "the sands of time gang dry".

But, hey, that's for tomorrow and, as those nobodies say, tomorrow never comes. That's Post 919 out of the way.

Journo links for Colette (or any anyone else who's interested)

Journalism 1
Journalism 2
Journalism 3
Journalism 4
Journalism 5
Journalism 6
Journalism 7
Journalism 8
Journalism 9
Journalism 10
Journalism 11

I did two posts on each of the days I wrote Journalism 1 and 8.These confusing and irrelevant "extras" cannot be disentangled from the links. Ignore them. Since I posted this list I have cut some and added others. Ever the editor.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Goodbye old cold friend

We bought the Zanussi fridge-freezer twenty years ago when we moved in to our present house. VR was allowed a free hand and seemed to have spent a huge chunk of cash. "It's self-defrosting," she explained, and I was to bless her regularly for that.

It still works but bits of plastic (shelves, etc) have broken off and the door seal is disintegrating. VR is convinced it will finally give up the ghost at the most embarrassing time - Christmas Eve, say. Better be safe than sorry.

Choosing the replacement (a Samsung) took ages. Is an open-door alert a deal-breaker? And how about a two-year warranty when most of the competition is offering only one year? (We've dithered so long the warranty has now risen to five years.). Self-defrosting of course.

But VR has assumed the greater burden in planning the gradual evacuation of the freezer compartments. "We can have the leg of lamb on Sunday," she said. I know enough about refrigeration to recognise that LoLs are the most intractable of all food. Luxury items like rib-eye steaks bought cheap, have come and gone. VR's zealous accountancy, pencilled on to plastic sheets kept in the freezer door pockets, ensured there were no "discoveries".

The Samsung spec included an outrageous £35 for installation. For plugging it in??? But only if the door hinges need switching. We both willingly agreed to pay £20 to dispose of the Zanussi. Given the manufacturer’s five-year warranty Curry’s (the supplier) have shown some ingenuity with their insurance plan which includes a yearly clean-up. Even so we didn’t bite.

The Samsung should have arrived yesterday but a timidly voiced girl (Nasty job for no doubt the youngest employee.) offered Wednesday instead. I forgave her.

First feature to be discarded: the laughable wine racks.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Odd one out

Yesterday I attended a funeral (not my own nor VR's) at St Michael's in Garway. The terrible acoustic was probably due to age: the first stone-built church was established there ca. 1180, a tower was added ca. 1200. Ugly? Functional is kinder.

There were three hymns, none of which - at first glance - I knew. Strange, my hymn repertoire is huge. This aggravated a problem I share with V, my singing teacher. Her gorgeous and powerful soprano voice can be an embarrassment in congregations which don't pull their weight musically. The same to a lesser extent with me. But if I didn't know the tune (the words suggested this might be the case) must I remain mute?

The choir (old but not as old as me) launched into "Be still my soul; the Lord is on thy side" and a memory - decades old - stirred. I'd heard this tune, or part of it, once before. Most hymn tunes are predictable and I was able to guess at the way the lines ended. I even foresaw the point where the music became more obviously major key, the text changing from exposition to triumphalist. I sang louder and with greater certitude. Pleased, I might say, as Punch.

"I heard the voice of Jesus say" was completely new but halfway through the first verse I’d become fully prepared, except for a grace-note line ending that recurred regularly and always caught me out. As to the third hymn, the initial verse of each pair may have been unfamiliar but the four-line refrain I knew well: "How great Thou art" (learned, by the way, at another funeral). No problem.

Does this sound trivial? As an atheist I bring nothing in the way of belief. May purposeful singing compensate?

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Something new

This was the style of sandal but mine were always brown, always on their last legs
My blogging (first in Works Well then in Tone Deaf) started on May 4, 2008: I've done 1463 posts in 3600 days, ignoring leap years and assuming all months have 30 days. One post every 2.46 days.

Sounds reasonable. But not when compared with my lifespan of 30,370 days. One post every 20.76 days.

These figures are of course a nonsense - blogging as such didn't start until 1997. But the figures represent a personal criterion. Surely 30,000-plus days of observation and experience should be enough to ensure I haven't repeated myself in those 1463 posts. Alas, the archives reveal sad truths. All those subjects I've mined and re-mined: gross failures at school, journalism, life in the USA, novel writing. I'm no more original than a clanging bell in an RC church, bidding the faithful to Mass over a century or more.

Question: Is it possible to fashion an entirely new post without cross-referencing any post that went before? Perhaps.

I'm standing in Sherborne Road which feeds the terrace in which I live. My socks are down at my ankles, they have holes at the heel. I wear sandals because they accommodate my growing feet better than shoes. My knitted shirt/pullover has holes at the elbow. I wipe my nose with a hankie that has never been washed and may never be washed. There's a hissing/whirring as an electric vehicle passes on the main road. A thousand miles south men are killing each other in Normandy but I'm unaware of this.

I'm looking for a friend but hear no high-pitched voices. I'm lonely and almost certainly hungry. Thinking about the teacher with dyed blonde hair who lives next door, I experience sensations I cannot give a name to.

I am now very close to my 300-word limit.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Corny? Perhaps. Enlivening? Certainly!

Last year in Dusseldorf. This year the beer will remain undrunk
We've had to cancel our traditional visit to a German Christmas market. This year it would have been Aachen, followed by a short flip over the border for a couple of nights in Montreuil (France).

Many must wonder what we see in Christmas markets. The stalls sell stuff so why not visit a website and avoid getting cold? Gluhwein (mit Rhum) and potato pancakes are terrific but they may be simulated in the Robinson kitchen.

My reasons will sound grandiose, even sentimental. So be it. My bonds with Germany were born during a fortnight with a family living in the Ruhr valley in 1957. Since then they've grown.

Small moments. In Normandy there's an inconspicuous cemetery for German soldiers killed in the D-day aftermath. Yesterday the BBC's build-up to the November 11 centenary addressed German families: the perfect English of one elderly man broke down in tears. I'm reminded of the EU's primary aim - to discourage war between France and Germany. I sing magnificent songs by German/Germanic composers:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb' entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt


(You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life's mad tumult wraps around me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world.)

German Christmas markets attract three generations. The atmosphere is friendly, the spirit optimistic. It's all a bit corny; theoretically I should be above it. Instead I seek to chat in my vestigial German.

Yeah, I'm pissed off not to be there.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Jana is loved - again!

I write novels because of a self-lacerating urge. But the urge dies when I try to flog the end-product. I ask myself who would want to read the scribblings of an unknown stranger?

Luckily my friend and publisher is made of stronger stuff. My work sells (imperceptibly) through Amazon who offer ingenious and cheapish publicity schemes for authors. My friend understands these schemes and we tried one for Opening Bars (a non-fiction account of my singing lessons) but it didn't seem to work. Never defeated, he suggested trying again with Out of Arizona and this is producing results.

Including a four-star review!

My books have been reviewed on Amazon before and I'm grateful for the friends who took time off to say what they did. What makes this review different is that it is not only by a stranger, but a foreign stranger (US since you ask). And it is apparent he finished the novel.

I won’t regurgitate the nice things he said. There are limits... Here’s something else:

At times I found the story a bit slow, and I was disappointed in the editing of it, punctuated minimally, but my heart went out to the heroine...

....adding...

... and I predict yours will, too.

I can afford self-deprecation. For one thing journalism has taught me that over-punctuation is a worse sin than under-doing it. For another, OoA’s Jana is my best realised character ever and I was sorry to let her go. I’m delighted she found another admirer.

Perhaps this was inevitable. His review ends:

If I could have afforded it, I would have (continued to pursue) a pilot's license. It was familiar territory to get back in the cockpit, metaphorically, with this woman...

I’m almost jealous.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Music for bad back, hip, thigh, calf

At home, without letting V know, I’ve been teaching myself Purcell’s My Dearest, My Fairest. Difficult doing it alone, it’s a duet.

Meanwhile the sciatica which crippled me for four months in the winter has returned and the acupuncturist’s needles can’t reach it.

At yesterday’s lesson I reveal all and V suggests we try the first few lines of Dearest. I’m sitting because of the pain and V calls out from the keyboard, “It’s harder than anything you’ve done before.” Occasionally I get it right and my voice blends with V’s, more than an octave above. Bloody marvellous.

Looking at the detail is like opening a Swiss watch. As if Purcell were saying: yes it’s hard but I’ve built in assistance. In passage after passage he provides same-note reference points so that singers don’t lose themselves in a welter of minor keys.

I leave feeling euphoric but it’s a special euphoria. Buoyed up by information, not just inner feeling. Seeing the notation in my mind’s eye as I drive. Symbols for which I’ve never received any sustained formal instruction. Too old for that, I haven’t the time.

I join wife VR at the community centre in free exercise for the elderly, run – coincidentally – by the acupuncturist.  The previous week the standing exercises were murder but I’m determined to take advantage of the euphoria. My determination lasts almost to the end when the seated exercises begin and these are less demanding.

I dwell on the way music now affects my life. Think about Purcell, dead at 36;  me singing his masterpieces at 83, over three-hundred years later.

Here’s what the DUET should sound like, allowing for the domestic acoustic

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Aeternum vale

Julie, our cleaning lady, rang to say that dead wasps had accumulated "in hundreds" behind the books we keep in the bathroom for those whose motions (Britain is a country devoted to euphemism) have slowed down with time. I've already mentioned the wasp problem in Late-life Affliction and I sighed. Cleaning ladies are like jewels and Julie's epidermis could not be set at risk.

Steve, Wasp-Killer-General in full regalia
I googled Disinfestation, Hereford, not knowing what it would cost. Under such circumstances it's always "a lot" and so it proved. Also they demanded payment in advance.

Steve practising his deadly craft
I expected the process to be psychologically purging, that I would emerge in some way shriven. This was not the case. The aftermath was messy since I was faced with gathering up the corpses of wasps which had travelled far and wide in the house to do their dying.

For the wasps it was "like the Somme"
In the cardboard box which had served to deliver my coffee pods and which had been turned into a wasp mausoleum I noticed uneasily that some of the yellow/black striped invaders were still showing signs of life. I returned them to nature by dropping them over the garden fence hoping that predators higher up the food chain than wasps would deliver the coup de grace.

At night sleep arrives reluctantly as I try to separate my tinnitus from imagined buzzing.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Succès d'estime?

Have you or I been a success in life?

What an opportunity to fib our hearts out! For who dares say no? Much easier to say: "I've (you've) been a huge success but the criteria are so fuzzy and so personal I can't be bothered to define them."

I suppose this question can only be addressed to someone the French would call "of a certain age" - sixtyish and beyond. But what about those vague criteria? None of that snuggling down under the literary duvet of: "I'm a success because I feel metaphorically warm, I love the human race, I have no self-admitted enemies and people don't shudder as I pass them in the supermarket."

There are rocks ahead. Success can be measured in age itself, conveniently ignoring whether those accumulated years were happy ones. Wealth is another criterion but you won't get many Brits making a meaningful statement here; North Americans are, in comparison, more refreshingly honest. Size of family gets the nod, as if sperm strength or fecundity somehow denoted superiority. But it is when we assess intellectual achievements that we sail very close to the Winds of Mendacity.

I think for success to be real it must be observable, and approved of, by others. Better too if it didn't depend on behaviour for that may have another, darker side. I have been told (though not in so many words) that my greatest success was in marrying VR. But would that be my success? Shouldn't she have a say?

I'm proud of two things which I regard as successes. I type at the same speed my mind works. And in choosing to take up singing at eighty (and then persisting for three years) I proved I was still open to sudden change.

Go on, I double dare you. But I'd advise you to take note of the caveats.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Dark dream

Two days ago I woke from a nightmare: a daughter I was unaware of  (quite unlike Professional Bleeder or Occasional Speeder, my known daughters) wanted to marry a male offspring of Donald Trump. The pair had already reached "an understanding".

Try not to be obvious. Reflect on this as a parent. Let's assume you are not a fundamental Christian, a cast-iron, gun-toting Republican, a fan of cage-fighting and/or presently short of money. Let's assume, too, you have not spoilt your daughter but have accorded her a reasonable degree of moral freedom. That you have told her that, while there is no rush, you look forward to the day when she is able and willing to fly the coop.

Dissuasion? If her intended had been a heroin addict you would probably have intervened. But just which arguments would you mobilise in this instance? Assuming, of course, you are able to suppress haunting visions of future "all family" gatherings.

Parenthetically, the dream horrified me. Especially when I tried to sneak out of  his campaign visit to a manufacturing plant and found myself stonily observed by my daughter's possible father-in-law, that rosebud mouth pursed in disapproval. But my sleeping imagination is a mere shadow of that when I'm awake. I try to think on other things.

But I'm interested in your reaction. Play the ultimate libertarian and book yourself a dinner jacket? Draft some minatory sentences which carefully avoid social or intellectual snobbery? Take a one-way holiday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Or drink your way through the state liquor store (Pennsylvania residents only).

Briefly she's your daughter now.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Late-life affliction

2018: A bumper year
Surely one benefit of old age is knowing all the irritations the flesh is heir to (Quote: Hamlet). So how come I previously managed to avoid wasps?

First they manifested themselves as corpses on the windowsills, easily swept up. Then as lethargic groups, flying without conviction and easy to zap. Then as clusters of corpses jammed into the glass domes of light fitments above the bath. I should explain here that the lighting system in the bathroom is designed to help me read for long stretches while soaking; the dead wasps were blocking the light and perverting the system.

The bathroom's overhead lights can be accessed from the loft. So I extended the loft ladder, switched on the loft light and ascended to initiate a clean-up. But I was not alone. A dozen live wasps were drawn to this new source of light, circling tiredly and intent on bulb worship. They didn't seem terribly interested in me as I tweezered away the cadavers of their blood relations, but every so often one would fly into and out of my coiffure. Unnerving.

The clean-up concluded, I stood on the top rung of the ladder and watched the bulb worshippers. An easy target. I zapped them with an aerosol acquired in France, toxic beyond belief, and added them to the body count.

But I have no illusions. There are more of them up there and the general problem has been mentioned on local TV. Just recently I have been burdened with several heavy bills; in leisure moments I envisage a future bank statement with an entry attributable to insect infestation. What the sum will be I do not know, only that it will be large.

Do I, an octogenarian, deserve this new plague? I mean I'm liberal arts.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Butterflits

Proposition: Kissing is an under-used resource in 20th/21st century fiction.

Does this matter? Given the space devoted to lamentable and literary accounts of bonking I think it does.

Consider this. A 25-year-old man invites a 36-year-old woman to dinner at a restaurant. Six months before, the woman's husband abruptly left her and the trauma endures. She accepts the dinner invitation reluctantly and now wishes she hadn't. About to sit at the table she drops her handbag out of which roll typical handbag contents plus prescription drugs which might be tranquillisers. A minute later, reaching to accept the menu, she almost knocks over a glass of water. Her eyes widen in mild terror. The man, whose expression seems to mirror hers, stands up, leans forward and gently kisses her forehead. Comfortingly.

It's that adverb I'm concerned with.

The raw material of novels includes adapted personal experience, a tiny bit of pure invention plus stuff we've simply observed. Often from other novels. Yes we plagiarise! Are you surprised?

Were I to develop the above scenario I'd have to invent it. Offhand there's no one I could plagiarise it from. Kisses are rarely mentioned. And then only as hasty preludes to the snapping of bra straps and the jamming of trouser zips. As to a "comforting" kiss I'd be entirely on my own.

Why are kisses given short shrift? Probably through lack of reflection. They are spectacular events, rich in sensation, eloquently symbolic, pregnant with portent. Truth to tell I fancy constructing a comforting kiss in words because there are those who would call it a contradiction. I'd like to prove them wrong. But I’d like a few examples which show me what to avoid.

Dorothy Parker: Lips that taste of tears, they say, are the best for kissing.

Friday, 12 October 2018

The tyrant's heel unmasked

In retirement we repeat ourselves: lurching out of bed, doing the necessary in the tiled room, dressing (Oh, for a one-piece garment with zip!), devising reasons for not gardening, browning the toast just-so for brunch... Our working days no doubt involved repetition but there were more distractions then. Beyond 65 (60 in my case) the novelty graph tends to flatline.
      
Repetition should not describe life. Life should have the potential for change. Change is best exemplified when we learn something new but “new” doesn’t always mean “happy”.
      
I lay on the couch faintly uncomfortable. Why? Because my feet seemed remote. Why? Because I was wearing shoes and didn’t want to risk mucking up the couch. Gradually it dawned.
      
When I stretch out on the couch my feet are supported on the floor by the heels of my shoes. The heels have comparatively sharp corners. A year ago we replaced the 20-year-old living room carpet because the backing was showing through the pile. But just in one place. You’ve guessed it! Exactly where my heels grind the pile.
      
What appalled me was the time it took to make the connection. As my heels rested on the new carpet they transmitted a sense of unease but left the reason vague. After several months I saw – in my mind’s eye – those heels doing their mindless destruction. Time to consider slippers indoors.
      
Some of us do conundrums for fun. VR used to do the Guardian cryptic crosswords but I was hopeless. Yet I can isolate a writer’s intentions in badly composed prose and make corrections.
      
Finally recognising the way heels threaten carpets made me feel stupid. More ominously that I’m being overtaken by age, a reminder I don’t need. How long would it have taken Isaac Newton...?

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

I really liked telle eloquence

Letter to Michelin tyre company, France, April 1993

Je suis francophil, j’ai acheté, il y un an, une maison à  Loire Atlantique et je suis en train d’encourager ma famille d’accepter mon enthousiasme pour les traditions francaises.

Avant Paques, j’étais fièr d’amener, pour the premier fois, ma petite fille, Ysabelle, en France. Pendant le trajet de Cherbourg à Drefféac, elle regardait les affiches à coté de la route et était ravi par l’image de votre M. Bibendum. “Qui est-il?” demandait-elle, on repondait et, enfin, elle commencait dire: “Regardez, M. Bibendum.”

Ysabelle a trois ans: votre société doit attendre longtemps pour le moment dont elle devient consommateur de vos produits. Puis-je suggérer que si vous voulez encourager l’enthousiasme de cette cliente naissante, vous l’envoyez une grande image de son héro, M. Bibendum. Ysabelle habite à...

Veuillez, messieurs, acceptez mes sentiments tres distingués.

Sincèrement,

Roderick Robinson

Michelin’s reply:

Nous vous remercions de votre lettre, exprimée avec une telle eloquence en francais, qui est rècemment parvenue au service Relations Extérieures.

Comme suite à votre demande nous avons le plaisir de vous informer que nous venons d’envoyer à votre petite fille une sélection d’étiquettes à l’image de M. Bibendum, que, nous, espérons lui plaira.

Dans l’espoir que nous avons donné entière satisfaction nous vous prions d’agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de nos sentiments les plus distingués.

Katie Nicholls
Relations Extérieures.

Monday, 1 October 2018

A real pro

Tone Deaf strives for originality. Original subjects are hard to come by but the old war-horses (singing, writing, life in the USA, wine, sexual desperation in youth, speaking French, faking it in journalism, etc) can be given a new set of clothes by polishing up the style or the approach. Thus, not just singing but rehearsing while travelling on buses, not just writing but pretending I'm Shakespeare.

Tell the truth I've never tried either of these two possibilities so I'm already in profit today. Whoopee! Could be I'm gee-ed up by the prospect of a singing lesson in 2½ hours’ time.

My wife, VR, likes to be original too but doesn’t have a blog. Which means her innovations arrive with a bang.

Coupla days ago we're in Tesco and VR's rootling through the bargain shelf. I'm mildly outraged when she comes away with two tiny "tails" of fillet beef. The cost of these fragments is about £7 and I can't see that as money well spent. But then I can't see as far ahead as VR.

There's an event imminent; now look at those fillet "tails". Individual Beef Wellingtons with our initials emblazoned! That's original!

Which causes me to reflect. Some years ago I sat down to a plateful of spag. bol., a staple when there's just the two of us. But this one's different, more piquant. Seems VR decided - off the cuff - to chuck in a few chilli flakes. Now I wouldn't want spag. bol. any other way.

Ice cream is a dull dessert but not when it's scattered with raisins marinaded in dark rum. Much more grown-up and another simple VR modification. Grandson Ian christens it Rumraisin.

Any fule can tweak words. Tweaking food needs expertise and the effects are more beneficial.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Brotherly love?

My mind's restless, I search other diversions.

Here's one: bumping up to a hundred the total number of comments to one of the posts in my brother's blog, Conrad Walks. Where the idea came from I'm not sure but I found a kindred spirit and we'd reached 79 by this morning. I'd like to claim, as Seinfeld did for his phenomenally successful TV series in the USA, that my comments are about nothing. ("More TV should be about nothing," Seinfeld said slily.) But they aren't. Mine are of course mainly facetious (You'd expect nothing else, surely?), the associations are entirely random, but the subjects are often mega. Cooking, for instance. Always a winner.

Am I losing my marbles. Why not, you will ask, spend more time on the declining fortunes of Tone Deaf? Why not indeed?

I think the main attraction is a sense of irresponsibility. Slightly less lunatic is a desire to prove I can write about anything. That each sentence should carry the expectation of discovery.

The project has suicidal overtones. Sir Hugh's original post, called Holme, appeared on August 24. Given that more recent posts will eventually archive Holme under Older Posts there will soon be no immediately visible temptation for new readers to explore the long, lonq sequence of Holme comments. But my kindred spirit says this doesn't faze him and he remains entertained. I am thus unrestrained.

Could I combine this foolishness with a musical accompaniment? Who knows? Kindred Spirit may be disinclined to stop at a hundred.

Please understand, I am not proselytising.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

You do this for fun?

Singing is getting harder as V concentrates on how songs should be sung (ie, interpretation). Last Monday I had a significant failure when V, looking totally knackered, wondered if our attempts were a step too far.

Re. Quilter's setting of Shakespeare's O Mistress Mine. With "Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty..." the note supporting "kiss" is highish and the requirement was to sing it without strain. On my own I'd never quite managed this and the solution was fiendish. As I failed, I talked compulsively. I emailed V apologising for behaving like a half-wit. Her reply contained comfort and a further solution. We shall see.

Last night BBC2's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor had a scoop. Certain activities may "boost feel-good chemicals in the brain," with possible implications for dementia. Volunteers tested stationary bicycle work, dancing, and singing against a control activity (reading a washing machine manual) and blood samples were taken. Manual-reading resulted in virtually no change, bicycles and dancing showed encouraging increases in the higher teens but singing was way up with a 40% increase.

Singing had been chosen because singers admit to "euphoria". I can confirm that. Even more surprising, my euphoric outbursts have recurred over the past 33 months. It seemed ironic that these two events should arrive in the same week but V's reply allayed any fears. Not that I’d ever thought of jacking in singing.

Singing, as with all music creation, gets harder the more you do. It has to because you start matching yourself against the pros, many of whom did doh – re- mi in the cradle. I’m never going to get there. Age is one factor. More important I’m not intuitively musical and must compensate with enthusiasm and doggedness.

Here’s a slogan: Musical euphoria - cheaper than cocaine!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The milk train doesn't stop...

I come from a reading family and married a reading wife. At school I read all the eng. lit. set books the day they were first handed out.

One RAF weekend I read four novels between Saturday morning and Sunday evening.

Somerset Maugham's Ten Novels and Their Authors (Stendhal’s Red and Black, Balzac’s Old Goriot, Fielding’s Tom Jones, Austen’s P&P, Dickens’ Copperfield, Melville’s Moby Dick, E. Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s W&P, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov) appeared in 1954. I polished off those I hadn't already read in two or three weeks, except Bros. K languishing still at p. 350 after a fourth go.

I have read Ulysses three times, A la recherche... twice, and Musil's A Man Without Qualities once (quite sufficient, thank you very much).

Also fifty novels in French.

On a flight from London Heathrow to Pittsburgh I read the dozen sections of The Sunday Times and the whole (ie, 448 pages) of The Godfather.

None of which matches the voraciousness of my wife, VR. Since retiring in 1998 she has read an average of 220 novels a year.

Now I’m down to three books a month, often re-reads. Writing novels alters your reading perspective; you disassemble fiction rather than embrace it; novels become class-rooms.

Singing, a more instantaneous form of creation than novel-writing, has displaced book reading during the daytime.

Cutting down reading (I never imagined it would happen) has left me ignorant of many modern authors, both popular and “literary”. But there is no sense of loss. Music is another world and carries greater kudos. Substitute snobbism for kudos if you wish.

That said, Evelyn Waugh remains essential.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Batter tested

We'd gone to Edwards Plaice, our favourite fish-and-chip shop, frequently mentioned here; grandson Zach had perversely chosen battered sausages. Nothing would have deflected me from my haddock but I was left curious.

Sausages in batter are not haute cuisine but they're fiddly. VR continues to be a good adventurous cook but I urge her towards simplicity; I don’t like her spending long hours in the kitchen. This would be the exception. I did what I could to help.

The chip pan was last used years ago, its place obscure underneath the stairs. On my knees I retrieved it. The sausages were deliberately modest; VR had doubts about the project and wouldn’t put high quality bangers at risk. They were pre-fried.

Oil temperature was crucial (180 - 190 deg C), even I had a foreseen that. An opportunity for my electric cooking thermometer, a birthday gift from grandson Ian, another cooking enthusiast. VR admitted that without the device she might have started cooking the batter in oil that wasn’t hot enough.

The sausages, rolled in flour to ensure adhesion, were dipped into batter (milk, flour, egg) and dropped into the chip pan. The perturbation was fierce and encouraging and the batter was bubbly and crisp within three or four minutes. Since the sausages could only be done two at a time, the pairs were transferred to a plate (with paper towels) under the grill on low.

Everything had been done according to the rules and the batter consistency was perfect. But the batter brought no extra flavour to the sausages. What could have been added? “The sausages are pork, so possibly sage,” said VR using her formal voice. But both of us seemed tacitly agreed that the project could well have been a first and a last.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Two battles

Sonnet – An apology

Four thousand were at Lucton slain,
And Owen Tudor, kneeling in despair,
Soon sensed the sharpness of a loser's pain.
I note a plaque that says much blood flowed there.

A plaque proclaiming human misery,
Vile product of that awful field of bones,
I read the words and tasted irony,
Heard cries from my internal warring zones.

For I’m a conflict hosting right and wrong,
And wrong I fear has gained an upper hand,
The smell of wit has led my wits along,
A rocky route that lately saw me damned.

All words are bare and rarely plumb what’s right,
This rhyme – my plaque – may shed a little light

In 1464 The  Battle of Mortimer Cross, near Lucton, North Herefordshire, was said to be decisive in the Wars of the Roses.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Into (on to?) air

MikeM tersely twits me after the Low Cuisine post. Equally tersely I twit him back and pass the night worrying if I've been OTT. That I might have lost a friend. I needn't have. Apart from many other talents MikeM has rubber-ball resilience (see his comment).

What's more he was justified: he'd been working on a roof. Now there's a funny thing.

In my extreme youth, during the Plantagenet era, I did rock climbing. Not well, but then we aren't all Olympians. From this you might conclude I'd conquered vertigo. On natural rock, perhaps, less so with buildings. For one thing the “slopes” on buildings tend to be vertical, for another, buildings are man-made. Who knows whether the chippie, the roofer or the brick-layer wasn’t careless just when it mattered?

Our previous house sported an X-shape TV antenna. Defunct and loosely attached to the chimney. During the night it tapped, oh how it tapped.

I had a two-piece extendable ladder but needed to hire a roof ladder. Easy-peasy. One slides this device up the angled roof until two large hooks engage with the roof ridge. All that remains is to step across from the conventional ladder to the roof ladder.

Uh-huh! Those hooks were springy! As my weight transferred, the roof ladder stretched - according to a downwards and outwards vector. How many tentative goes before I put my faith in a pantheon of physicists and stepped up? A lot.

Removing the antenna was quickly done and I sat on the roof ridge, surveying my neighbours from a superior position, blissfully content. Contentment is best when it’s hard-won and I considered my earlier unease. Almost a sensuous memory.

Now I think of MikeM. Long past stretchy moments and entitled to be terse. Cheers, mate!

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Low cuisine

Orphans of the kitchen,
They toil and may even spin,
Metaphorically,
Then are cast freely aside.
An end without glory,
Amen


Dish-cloth.* Possibly infectious, definitely grey - eternally grey, lying boneless in the sink. That may be grease within its unspeakable folds. On the shelf in the supermarket it is fluffily white and sports embroidered red stitches along one of its borders. Expecting culinary gaiety it finds itself wedded to mess and detritus, mourns and is despisèd.
* Happy to confirm this is not VR's dish-cloth.

Roasting pan. What a fall is here, my brethren. At first the parfit gentil knight, in blue-ish mild-steel contours, courageously functional, subservient servant to a shoulder of lamb in the oven's inferno. More comically, Yorkshire pudding. Years pass and what's this blackened, crusted, misshapen trough? - perhaps its own sarcophagus.

The knife hardly anyone uses. Divorced in its youth from the steel it has descended into uselessness and then become simply a burden. Last cut something - a carrot at that! - five years ago. More recently, it tore futilely at a raw chicken drumstick. Were there an open fire it might have seen out its days as a poker. But flames these days are confined to boilers.

Eggcup. Bought for its Mrs Tiggiwinkle decoration, it now cups only dust. Too small even for a bantam's egg, while that of a quail would seem ridiculous. Made of china and therefore potentially frangible. Alas, its owner's secret wishes have never been granted. The Beatrix Potter collection was absorbed in a boot sale.

Loose knob on the unused lid of the wok. Which will, nevertheless, bring the grey hairs of its owner down with sorrow to the grave. Stare at it long enough, he swears,  and it rotates.

Click HERE for latest warm-up

Friday, 7 September 2018

Choices, choices

The Guardian doesn't permit casual use of "schizophrenia" when it simply means facing two choices. It's thought unsympathetic towards those with mental illnesses. Nevertheless...

Since an early age I've needed to arrange words in sequences that might make sense. Letters, lists, arguments, stories, articles, novels, verse - but, most important, shuffling the elements, creating something out of nothing.

For two years I've been trying to write my fifth novel, Rictangular Lenses, one-third complete. Lately in dribbles of one sentence at a time. Three days ago a bright vista opened up: a long scene in skeleton form which I knew I would enjoy writing. This, yesterday morning:

The holding company, Heung Fung Private Ltd, was based in Singapore, and was represented by three businessmen of Chinese origin. All wore carefully tailored suits in pale grey, somehow achieving far greater formality than the dark blue their western equivalents would have favoured. They approached in a triangular phalanx, one to the fore, the others two steps behind on either side. A hand extended.

With the next two thousand words clear in my mind.

Yesterday, too, a late birthday present: the 56-page score for Schubert's cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, 19 songs most of which I know fairly well, but only by ear.

I break off  from Rictangular to savour the printed notes of Song 8, Morgengruss. Sing along quietly for ten bars, then back to the keyboard and the novel. Then back to Song 3...

It's driving me mad but the two impulses are equally strong. What’s more, I’ve broken off to write this post. Remember the fable about the dog with a bone, seeing its own reflection in the stream, losing the bone? Yeah, but that story’s already written

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

A dangerous thing

I ignored tuition at my grammar school. My pitiful handful of  O-levels were for subjects absorbed intuitively, perhaps by osmosis.

Post-school there were skills I avidly wanted to learn, even to the point of spending cash: ski-ing, French, and now singing. "Wanting" made all the difference of course and some competence was achieved in each. But what is learning (ie, the process, not the synonym for knowledge)?

Repetition, or learning by rote, is despised because it is said to bypass the tender twitching heart of the subject matter. Pretentious bollocks. Learning ski-ing, for instance, involves overcoming the body's instinctive reaction to menacing forces. Socratic dialogue just doesn't work. Rise, dust off the snow, repeat, this time obeying the instructor. The body doesn't know best.

Learning is the search for a pattern, a matrix which we may impose on our thinking processes and on our body for later access. Data, both intellectual and physical, are added piecemeal - as with a spreadsheet. The embryonic matrix causes the data to interact, expanding the matrix's scope. Thus we learn.

Singing involves both intellect and body but you'd expect me to say that.

Learning is hard work and easily resisted. But enthusiasm - preferably an unhealthy obsession - conquers all. Overweening pride in one's achievement, regarded as impolite or un-British, is another effective asset. The cliché says learning makes you humble. More bollocks.

Learning has no fixed end. Without application it may fade. It must also be renewed. Most attempts at learning fail, suggesting humankind is predominantly lazy. Faced with learning the unlearned resort to insult, thinly disguised envy. The unlearned deceive themselves: I could do that, they say, and “could” echoes in their hollow interior.

Now read the comment.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The furtive burn

I resist new domestic gadgets. I come from the surly part of Britain where they rub their nose and say, "Never be a pioneer." It surprises me they're not still hanging eleven-year-olds for stealing 20 p.

When I acquire something new it's become old, not worth talking about. But Occasional Speeder bought an expensive chiminea in terracotta and the wind blew it over, smashing it irreparably. My Hacienda chiminea is metal, cut-price at Tesco and I had to assemble it. The rivet-headed screws were a bugger and Hereford seems devoid of self-tightening washers.

I think OS's chiminea was intended to warm the family drinking mulled wine at ten below. Mine is functional. It did the job last night but I was careless, tossing in glossy out-of-date Wine Society brochures which turned the flames to smoke.

Yes, I know, we're supposed to recycle waste paper and I do most of the time. But what about bank statements, credit-card accounts, and intimate reports from the hospital? One day I came upon VR quietly cursing at a huge pile of paper as she cut off the bits with the secret info. Shredding?  My shredder was a gift (for which I was grateful) but it only does four sheets at a time.  Otherwise it jams.

There are incidental benefits. VR is a latent pyromaniac and regrets the passing of open fires in the UK. She was quite free with instruction as I stoked the Hacienda until we both calmed down, she with her G&T, me with a beer.

The neighbours? Next door admitted he did the same. With more planning (No brochures for one thing) and crumpling paper into balls, the bi-monthly burn should be over in ten minutes. After all, some garden waste is incinerated.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Comment conundrum

I calculate the optimum length for a blog comment is just under a hundred words. Alas...

For months I've written long comments, fondly imagining these monsters would demonstrate my interest, would prove I took the recipient’s post seriously. Vain hope. Length risks being misunderstood. It may embarrass those less grandiloquent. The final paras may remain unread.

Not that I favour cyber-short-form. For twenty minutes I had a Facebook account. Terrifying! Like inspecting my own tombstone - faces of the damned inching their way across my screen. While Tweeting is surely for those who would prefer to bark, cheep, howl, miaow, hiss or otherwise imitate animals.

There are people out there who write well and interestingly and I want more from them. Most are polite and have indulged me. But over-stuffing is for turkeys not humans. I devised a formula for an optimum comment:

Lapel-gripping start. Obsequious compliment. Not forgetting the comment author. Changing to a more profitable subject. Ending with self-promotion.

Constructed an example but, dissatisfied, deleted it. Pondered the essence of a comment which is – surely – to respond. But more than: Great post! Your recipe for cupcakes really touched me. I didn’t get past page four of that book. Happy Birthday.

One may always fib but after 1441 posts I’ve forgotten most of them; I could be revealed as a fibber. Fantasy becomes wearing. Ignore the original post and write any old stuff but that’s kind of Olympian. Correct the grammar and “improve” the syntax; hmmm; ask brother Sir Hugh about his reaction to that.

Asking for help is often productive but may be inappropriate; cupcakes, for instance, don’t figure in my life. Quote a poem (and risk being a show-off). TV programmes? Nah!

Stick to long comments? Pro tem? Avoid Latin tags?

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Spine game


I find myself reading Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Precious Days - post-9/11 New Yorkers snorting coke (and worse), fornicating with their best friends’ wives, spending money and setting a bad example to their offspring. More interesting is the way I acquired it.

Recently our supermarket set aside a table for unwanted books. Collection boxes prodded the consciences of those who took away their choices. An optimistic project, I thought. Hereford is notorious for mean-spirited tipping. Happily I was wrong. Quite quickly several thousand pounds were accumulated for local charities and the scheme continues.

Eventually I was drawn in. I say “eventually” because the scheme first needed to pass through its self-purging stage – ridding itself of Da Vinci Codes and of Fifty Shades of Greys. An invasion of Readers Digest collections, bound in shining (ie, unread) false leather, further hindered the commercial flow. Then, predictably, Ian McEwan titles started appearing and I could start playing Spine Game.

How is it one can narrow down second-hand book searches via the meagre information on the spine? Often it may depend on a no-longer-fashionable typeface. Or less lurid colours. Or a more modest rhetoric in the title. Another giveaway is whether the cover is scuffed, for scuffing is a sign of love. No one reads Dan Brown twice.

More important still is the conviction that in swathes of junk treasures will be rare. One must pay attention. My friend the late Joe Hyam was especially good at this. How galling it was to see him picking out a horribly shabby Everyman of Burke’s essays which my eyes had slid over. I mean Everyman spines are immediately identifiable by their poorly conveyed information.

No Everymans at the supermarket. But the first fifty pages of BPD were dense and technically well written. Spine Game continues.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Why and how

I sing.
You garden.
He works wood.


We philatelise.
You (pl.) ice cakes.
They high jump.


What makes my indulgence unique? It requires no baggage. One short warm-up and a flabby octogenarian, unkempt and unsexy, becomes a musical instrument. Somewhat battered, pitch unreliable, rhythmically uncertain but - Hey! - capable of rendering Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden recognisably as a song. On a good day the score unscrolls in front of the inner eye. Not just a man but a baritone.

Singing's portable though it's not without effort. Taking in air becomes opportunistic; getting enough is hard. Forgetting the libretto is a failing the aged flesh is heir to. Best stay with the original since translations can be banal.

What’s a surprise is that the end-product is just as physical as stretching after sleep, diving into the pool, kissing the beloved. Like a pipe on a church organ the body resonates with what is created, offering its own applause. Away from the supermarket check-out the ear feeds on well-organised audio and is fulfilled. On a very good day the throat seems to relax (but doesn’t) and pitched sounds emerge stresslessly, flying like house martins.

The Song is You, sings Sinatra. And he’s right. The version you are creating has never existed before, it is the combined output of your memory, your inclination, your training, and your vocal mechanism. At the last note it will be gone: you may dwell on its successes and ignore its failures.

Your teacher plays/sings a repeated ascending phrase. You duplicate it. There’s no time to prepare, in realtime you draw it out of a ragbag mind and send it on its way. It is accepted. Now here’s another, half a tone higher. Afterwards – paradoxically – you ask: “Could I do that?”

Friday, 17 August 2018

Too late, I fear

A third of News at Ten (ten minutes - an eternity on TV) was devoted to Aretha Franklin who died recently. I was aware of her, notably via Sesame Street; Oscar the Grouch kept her records in the trash-bin where he lived. What I was unaware of was her worldwide significance. Big names were her friends and Obama wept at a 2016 performance.

Aretha Franklin sang soul and I have no idea what soul is. Rather I imagined it to be perhaps reflective, an expression of the black burden: yet last night’s initial extracts were fast, loud and assertive. The Obama extract (You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman - I've just looked it up) was longer, more varied and I had time to respond.

Yes, I could latch on. Time to hear it again in full.

Done that. I'll ditch emotion and dwell on one skill - the mastery of rhythm. The ability to float away from a comparatively simple accompaniment, to stretch out, to compress, to expand a single lyric word into a whole ode of meaning, to snap, to move physically, to find time to smile or (more often) to frown with concentration, without departing for a nanosecond from the swinging heartbeat of the chosen piece of music. Swing is at the core of US music. I’ve heard fire-brigade bands and hack ensembles of Boy Scouts swing. Franklin's swing is transcendental.

Soul comes poorly defined, a mix of several kinds of popular music although I like "impassioned improvisatory delivery". But what label could be worse than "classical", implying "hallowed by age". Categories are nearly always imperfect. I’m too late for Aretha Franklin since I have other fish to fry, the pan’s already hot and time’s a’wasting. Others, ignorant but younger, should find time.