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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Time warping by menthol

On the left, this post gestating

Vicks VapoRub, well over a hundred years old, now has a new label. As with many modernised product names the marketeers have over-elaborated: two type faces plus an impressionistic cloud over the lower-case a. Floating above in a white cloud is the company logo.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not nostalgic for the past. The new jar, still blue but plastic instead of glass, is probably easier to spot on the pharmacy shelves. And that matters to the customer as well as to the manufacturer. I didn't buy our present jar. I was coughing my head off with a chronic lung irritation and daughter PB, acting as my nurse, gathered a whole range of specifics in the hope that one would reduce my explosions.

I didn't read the instructions (yes, I know you should) I did what I've always done: smeared the unguent on my chest and then inhaled. Well aware that this would not cure anything but that the powerful smell of menthol would provide the sensation of healing. A kind of searing yet helpful rush up the nostrils, taking me back to the days of my extreme youth when everyone said I was suffering from one of my regular attacks of bronchitis, except, retrospectively, VR, who says more likely it was asthma.

I was most ill when I was young – ie, during WW2. These occasions had a ritualistic quality. I was moved from my bed into my mother’s, and a fire was lit in the bedroom grate. I lay there weak, weedy and inert; wanting nothing, not even a book to read. On one occasion I was attacked by a normally fatal malady which could easily have killed me off.

Suppose that had happened. Would this post have been written, or even imagined? I’ll ponder that.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

The ragged-taggle gypsy

Something new, then. Unexpected and uncharacteristic.

How about my relationship with clothes?

I’d like to say I don’t give a damn about what I wear but it’s not entirely true. I’’ve retained a casual shirt (see pic) for almost thirty years. Long sleeves, dark colours; I can wear it for weeks without laundering. The cuffs are ragged, showing the lining. Any stiffness has disappeared and it hangs on my body like a sack. My affection hinges on the fact that the inner surface of the lapels are contrastingly blue-and-white striped; they do something for my face and scraggy neck. Don’t know what.

I wasn’t sure I’d get the half-promised job in the USA in 1965 and had to be prepared for further interviews with other US publishers I’d written to. I decided to sell my Englishness in these chats and bought a speckled black/white three-piece suit from Hawkes of Savile Row in London. Bloody well cut. Though I say it myself I looked suave, even wealthy, quite unlike the real RR. As it was, I got the half-promised job so the suit was never truly tested.

Other than cheapness anonymity has been my goal. While still employed my outfits were just about formal. Retired, I lapsed joyfully into shabbiness. My trousers are either beige chinos or black jeans – the latter with tight-fitting legs concertina-ed into wrinkles. My winter shirts are single-colour fleeces, so light in texture they are utterly shapeless. The sort of clothing worn by a chronic invalid who finds getting dressed a chore. Yeah, there’s irony.

Have I become vain by striving to avoid vanity? It’s a possibility. My socks all have highly visible holes and my family constantly point this out. I am chuffed by their disapproval. I last wore a tie… do you know, I can’t remember.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Assassination two millennia ago

It’s about classical music. 

No one will read it.

If they do, they won’t comment.

On y va.

VR: There’s St Matthew Passion at the Proms tonight. BBC 4

RR: Uh-huh.

A Bach choral masterpiece, but demanding. Four hours long. Musically downbeat since Christ’s passion stops short of the Resurrection. We last saw it in Birmingham conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Beat that. But VR rarely utters a preference and we’re two old folk alone in our four-bedroom house. We’d missed the first ten minutes but I knew how it went.

One soloist was Roderick Williams (baritone). I’m the only other baritone  called Roderick but he wasn’t the main attraction. I’m not normally an enthusiast for counter-tenors (men who sing notes usually reserved for women) but Iestyn Davies, whose first name is Welsh, sang with soul and that seemed appropriate.

The main singing part is that of The Evangelist (Stuart Jackson – tenor) who tells the familiar narrative of events preceding the Crucifixion. A role that risks monotony but not the way Jackson sang it.

The libretto was written specially for Bach by a specialist in saucy words for what Brits would call music hall and Americans vaudeville. In German of course but with sub-titles in English. But I knew all that stuff about the Last Supper and Gethsemane.

Turns out I didn’t. Time after time things were expressed differently, if only slightly. The terrible story took on a grimness and force that seemed more like a Martin Scorsese thriller. Contempt for those anonymous soccer fans who wanted Christ dead for shoddy political reasons. The story vibrated with feeling.

In fact it lasted three hours, not four. I realised the Rattle version had two intervals. We were in time for the ten o’clock news.

VR: Pretty good, eh?

RR: Pretty damn good.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Adulthood: that mysterious transition

Democrats vs. GOP
Ordained at birth

Do you remember “growing up”? The Bible talks about “putting aside childish things” in assuming “man’s estate”. What exactly did we put aside and were there regrets?

Climbing trees. Yeah, I regret that. Going high to the thin branches which shivered beneath me. Weight would be a factor now.

Cutlery. Being forced to use a knife and fork instead of a spoon. English practice made things more complicated. In old age I’ve gone backwards – soup spoons for preference.

Discarding shorts. I wanted long pants badly but can’t remember why. With the RAF in Singapore shorts were mandatory, making us look silly.

Soccer in the street. Cars were fewer then but many suburban streets were unsurfaced. You fell and were abraded. Knees almost permanently bloodied.

Asexual outdoor sports. Girls joined in the rough and tumble. Suddenly this became taboo. Deep regrets on my part.

Carol singing. Titillating possibility of that rare commodity – money. And then we were said to be too old.

Sunday school. Stultifying. Couldn’t wait for this to be ruled out.

Sweets (US: candy). Even during WW2 supply for kids was maintained. Then it stopped. The specious justification: adults didn’t suck sweets out of doors.

Reading matter. From my mother’s point of view sexual references were permissible. But not physical cruelty and – especially – torture.

National (ie, military) service. Was this a measure of adulthood? But we were treated like children.

Blowing one’s nose. Shirt sleeve no longer an option. I missed this one since I’d been given hankies from the start.

Making unnecessary noise. Somehow this ceased quite naturally. It no longer offered any temptation.

Cemeteries. These ceased to be the subject of awe and speculation.

Grandparents. The first meaningful experiences of death. Less traumatic than I expected but I always was an insensitive little swine.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Ships passing in the night

The surgeon who re-arranged my jaw is Mr Hall, not Dr Hall. It’s one of those British medical peculiarities. I know his first name but have never aspired to use it. Our meetings have been on his territory where – as far as I’m concerned – he’s emperor, if not Lord God Almighty.

He had good news for me on Thursday. For the moment there were no continuing signs of malignancy and this explained why – just before he started to talk to me – a nurse slipped into the room, took a seat in front of me, and radiated a beaming smile that her covid mask failed to hide. And why not? Shared happiness can be a scarce commodity. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Which isn’t to say all is done and dusted. The next check-up is in mid-November.

Any questions? he asked. I mentioned my last singing lesson. That I wasn’t yet able to open my mouth wide enough for the higher notes, as before. Should I push against the restraint? I paused, then added, “Actually, my teacher taught me how to reach those notes with a half-wide mouth.” Said it deliberately.

“The body finds ways to adapt,” he observed.

“How far did you get?” Not wanting to waste his time, but suspecting he’d want to answer.

His mother had wanted him to become a singer. He’d joined a choir. But the academic grind of a degree in dentistry plus the long hours of being a houseman had squeezed out music.

Briefly I swapped roles with him. “Eventually you’ll retire. My singing teacher said, age is not a factor, only desire matters. I started when I was eighty. These days I’m singing Schubert and Brahms.”

He nodded distantly. I was out the door. If he wants to, he will.

MEDICAL DETAIL. Mr Hall (broddling about in my mouth): When did you last eat corn-on-the-cob?

RR: Probably the Mexican takeaway at the weekend.

Mr Hall: (To nurse). Tweezers please. (Broddles some more) Aha! (Reveals the empty shell of a corn kernel trapped in my mouth for three days.)

RR: (Dubiously). I suppose I could re-eat it.

The kernel drops to the floor and is lost to further examination.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Family Robinson goes Mex

Please note, we didn't eat the plate rack

Daughter OS prepares mise en scene

There are takeaways and there are super-takeaways. This was one of the latter.

A celebration for all the family which meant grandson Zach had to sleep in my study. He’s used to it.

Super-takeaways are characterised by their elaborate and highly individual packaging which ensures every grain of rice, every spare-rib (huge in this case) and every container of highly varied sauce arrived unharmed. The theme was Mexican but upper-middle-class Mex if that makes sense.

Why a takeaway given there are at least three Grade One cooks in the family? Simply because there was a good deal of champagne to be got through before we ate and we wanted no one scrabbling in the kitchen as the corks popped. Also, this meal was a genuine multi-course bargain: £20 a head. That wouldn’t get you very far in most decent restaurants these days. We’ d have spent more if it had been necessary but it just wasn’t.

We are a family of mixed preferences (two are veggies) and yet every container was scraped bare. The quality of the food demanded I explored the extremities of my wine cellar. Two bottles of red cost £34.50 each, but what the hell?

The last participant went to bed at 3 am. I fell asleep listening to their murmuring. Something about a strimmer, I think.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Fun is really hard to find

Dawn on another late-life day

Times are drear. I wanted to write about fun but couldn’t recall any.  Only being flogged at school, falling off my bike at speed, and being turned down by Northern girls when I asked for a date. 

Not wearing underpants until my teens should have been funnier. But the detail seemed to sicken people in the USA. Fun should be fun for everyone.

When I first stood up to speak in public my left leg fluttered uncontrollably. I wondered if the fluttering might reach the point where all support was lost and I toppled sideways. I’d written several jokes into my speech but none was visual. Toppling would be visual but should I improvise a comment?

“My next trick is impossible.”? 

But my audience were already laughing (they were well liquored-up) and I forgot about my leg.

I’m a lousy negotiator, especially when buying cars. I’ve always wanted to take things to the limit – after hours of banter – then walk away without a word. “That’ll teach him,” I’d say to myself, knowing nevertheless I was leaving behind the car of my dreams. An unexpected form of martyrdom.

I hate concerts where people clap vigorously trying to squeeze out an encore. I envisage floating over to the podium and shouting out “But would you pay for more music?” Looking down on mystified, inevitably middle-class faces.

VR has ordered me new PJs. More formal, thus enhancing my status as The Wandering Invalid. And less inclined to change into daytime clothes. I wear then opening the door to Amazon deliveries. Drivers don’t give a damn. I don’t give a damn. These are the undamned years.