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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
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Monday 31 December 2012

The awful skeleton of truth

At three in the morning, two days before Christmas, flashing blue lights outside woke us. Outside our neighbour’s an ambulance and a car had been hurriedly and awkwardly parked. Later we were told Geoff had died of lung cancer.

Geoff and Wendy moved in five years ago. I lent him my aluminium double-ladder and from then on “Good mornings.” and Christmas cards were exchanged. This is how, to the horror of many Americans, Brits endure propinquity in the suburbs.

Last night, when Zach arrived, I noticed strong winds had blown over our outdoor Christmas tree. I re-erected it and it blew over again. Eventually, in my PJs and my new fleece dressing gown, I tied the top of the tree to the wall.

Zach is here for the Hereford panto, VR’s treat. He entered my office this morning at 7.30, half an hour earlier than had been agreed. Breakfast time for him. Two Weetabixes swimming in milk (my anti-milk hand trembled, doing this), a small carton of apple juice and a satsuma. I also turned on the downstairs telly for him, sound almost inaudible. As I returned to my office I saw the tree had remained upright.

One reason I persisted with the tree is because its flickering light might, conceivably, have been a nighttime reassurance of normalcy for Wendy, alone in her house. It might, but never in a million reasons would I have pre-rationalised such an idea. I am up here writing fiction and that, if ever I saw it, is fictional reasoning. I am desperately sorry for Wendy and will, I hope, attend the funeral. But I re-erected the tree because the lights look good at night.
Fiction, by definition, is not truth. It handles truth, but fictively.

Saturday 29 December 2012

Sliding towards 2013

Sir Hugh visits, having delivered daughter/granddaughter Jill/Katie to a wedding in Oxford, a horrible dog's leg that takes up most of Thursday due to overcrowded motorways. He looks knackered and sleeps til nine on Friday - quite uncharacteristically since he normally gets up early and attends to his own breakfast.

Friday, his only full day here, is fragmentary. In preparation for a group he belongs to he attempts to read Christ Stopped at Eboli but only manages a page here and there. His Iphone burbles the arrival of messages, one from a long-standing friend who passes on his reaction to Gorgon Times, saying it resembles David Lodge in some ways. I am absurdly pleased by this.

It's raining. Knowing there'll be a leg of lamb that evening we set out for a "light" pub lunch and end up at The Duck in Ewyas Harold, one of Hereford's pleasingly named villages. The return journey is deliberately stretched out through Grosmont, Skenfrith and St Weonards on deserted narrow roads that are glorious in summer and only slightly less so in winter, evoking the monochrome tiers of a Chinese water colour.

Emails from The Crow and Joe tease away at aspects of short-story writing and VR's lamb comes with sweetheart cabbage deliberately divested of its thicker veins and cooked (with caraway seeds) for three minutes in butter. Whereby it ceases to be an accompaniment, becomes a dish on its own. VR announces she wants to transfer her book reading records to the computer and I argue with Sir Hugh about the relative merits of a database versus a spread sheet.

Now it's 7.16 am and I finish this, wearing my new fleece dressing gown, adjacent to dark windows.

Pic: Ewyas Harold memorial hall, where VR is tutored in painting

Monday 24 December 2012

Out of Arizona - extracts

WHERE IT STARTED The urge to fly dated back to her troubled youth and had then evolved into looking for the toughest job on offer. Mere transportation wasn’t enough and by age sixteen her ultimate goal consisted of slipping an air-to-ground missile down the throat of a two-metre target. She’d even sorted out the morality, reassured that training would equip her with a professional pride, a knowledge (admittedly limited) of international politics and an adult form of patriotism. But everything depended on military correctness: a legitimate target identified and destroyed. Without that clarity the comfort and purpose of military flying disappeared.

JOY OF FLYING And this was that type of joy, wasn’t it? The carpet of south-west France at three thousand feet. Clumps of trees like tight green sponge, orange roof tiles, cars idling along narrow roads like iridescent beetles. A seat of privilege in a well-found vehicle she could trust, linked to like minds who spoke the same pared-down language.

“Auch approach. Foxtrot-Sierra Delta Romeo...

SPANISH DIVERSIONS Go unofficial, she’d said. Unemployed until the plane was serviceable she watched him thread his way through the cat’s cradle of cabling behind the bulkhead. It took him less than an hour.

“Those hands knew what they were doing,” she said as she ran up the engine to test the gauge, he sitting beside her in the passenger seat.

“They have other uses,” he said quietly. His eyes were almost black, deep set into his skull and they were watching her at work as she had watched him earlier. He added, “Most Yankees like paella.”

Thus it had started.

Some realtors had open-plan offices as big as bowling alleys and these she avoided. Instead she made for a smaller frontage claiming to be family-run, flagging the slogan: Coffee and Sympathy (Tea’s for  Sissies). At the door a tall grey-haired man in a much-scuffed suede jacket courteously stepped back and allowed her to enter first. She smiled back at him hurriedly and took this to be an augury.

LEFTISH LEVER "If I’d been sour I’d have been sour about myself. I dropped out of her circle and came to France, as I’d always wanted. My first girlfriend here was PCF, an activist with the railway workers and not terribly likeable. That didn’t stop me. I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: Tell me about women’s causes, I said. Convert me. The French love supplication, love being asked to teach.”

BRIEF LUXURY Now she had time to appreciate their comfortable way of life. She lay on a lounger on a huge terrace furnished in pinkish local stone, the Pyrenees as a backdrop. The location, south-east of Bayonne, was high enough for her to trace the minor road that led down to the bridge, over the Nive, into Cambo-les-Bains, up the Col de Pinodiéta and, beyond the mountain, southwest to Pamplona in Spain. There was Crystal in her glass...

SIMULATING DISASTER “Gliding at just under four hundred feet.  There’s something beyond two kilometres; a barer area, fewer trees but large rocks. Now we’re under three hundred feet. Nothing ahead. Two hundred. Just dense trees. Tree tops are better than ground level rocks, but only just. Decision time. Full flaps, nose slightly up. Body braced.” He started the port engine.

Jérome shook his head. “Doubt we’d have survived. At least trees are better than houses.”

CHRIS ON BOOKS “Don’t read them cover to cover, dip in, taste them, chuck ‘em into a corner if they don’t suit. Don’t treasure them as things. Books are what they leave behind, they’re not interior decoration. Hardbacks made me uncomfortable even when I had money. Too big, too stiff, too unnecessary. You can stuff a paperback into your pocket. If it falls out buy another. Better still don’t replace it; rely on what you can remember.”

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Sunday 23 December 2012

Older is not necessarily better

Chez Robinson, exchanging presents at this time of year has again been ditched in favour of an eye-watering sum shared and spent on DVD operas. But it's clear this practice will not stretch much further. The "wanteds" were acquired long ago, now we're into slightly more speculative choices and one fell rather heavily at the first fence last night.

The 2012 starters were: Orfeo (Monteverdi), Peter Grimes (Britten), Lulu (Berg), The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky), The Flying Dutchmen (Wagner), The Dream of Gerontius (Not an opera, of course; Elgar). Plus, left over from 2011: Salomé (Strauss, R).

We'd have saved money buying online but we like to support Outback our local CD/DVD store and this led to a little foolishness on my part. In phoning in my list I provided the names of the works only. "I'm not going to patronise you by adding the names of the composers," I said. Which is why we ended up with Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) rather than the more famous Gluck's (1762).

Wow, what a difference 155 years makes. Monteverdi's Orfeo dates back almost to the dawn of operatic time, has hardly no action, is based on limited-dynamics accompaniment, and demands lengthy prodigies from the tenor who sings Orfeo. Old Claudio does his best to make memorable arias but the melodic limitations inevitably result in some samey-ness.

Which is a shame, as VR pointed out. Because in a later opera, The Coronation Of Poppea, Monteverdi ends it with one of the simplest and most memorable love duets of all time. Which I'm ashamed to say I did not know. It's called Pur ti miro and I've just played it a thousand times. If you don't know it please click, I beg of you

Friday 21 December 2012

Short trip to nowhere

In House, the TV hospital series, scanners are used quite casually - to measure an Adam's apple or check whether a pyjama cord is tied. Typically doctors argue about their sex lives while unfortunates passing through the big white tunnel have nervous breakdowns, burst their aortas or turn into industrial accidents when forgottten metalware within their chest cavity becomes incandescent.

VR worries about claustrophobia but I am now able to reassure her. Someone dropped off the Hereford scanner schedule (having become incandescent through waiting) and I took take their place at 7.20 pm last night. Why so late? Cherchez l'argent. Scanners cost big bucks and a constant flow of soft tissue makes economic sense.

As usual there's humiliation. Having removed all clothing above the waist I had to put on something both my grannies would have called a "pinny", a ludicrous scrap of cotton, worn back to front, too small to enshroud a hamster. I lay on an upholstered bench that looked unnervingly like those final resting places employed in lethal injection executions. When the institutionalised voice of an American woman told me to hold my breath the illusion was complete.

I became disoriented (lethal injection has that effect) as I was moved upwards and inwards although I remembered being grateful I'd removed my Longines wristwatch. In one House episode a small electrical device (perhaps a pacemaker) exploded inside the tube and I doubt it was covered by insurance.

Space wasn't a problem. Depending on your plans there was room for two. A print would be an interesting addition to an album of wedding photographs.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Gorgon Times - extracts

HATCH: TRANS-MANCHE CONTRAST On the wall was a mirror on which art nouveau script advertised a drink called Suze. The words fragmented their reflection: he, the Anglo, with close-cropped brown hair, rolled-up sleeves, golden fuzz on his forearms, facing Lemazaire’s delicate Mediterranean bones, artfully styled black hair and generously cut shirt. “You were supposed to wait. We were to go to Sofimam together.”

HATCH: BARE BONES Weldworth was linked to metal fabrication, an obscure activity to many, a meritocracy based on weld integrity, a service providing the unfamiliar, often hidden skeletons of structures. One wouldn’t expect atriums or courtyard fountains. Wit, such as it existed, lay, perhaps, in a mild-steel lattice where several braces had been ingeniously designed out, maintaining strength yet cutting assembly costs.

CLARE: A COMEDOWN? “Mother, do you disapprove of my career?”

“Disapprove? Goodness you are at odds with yourself. No, I’m impressed beyond measure. You’ve astonished me.”

“Like a dog’s walking on its hind legs?”

Mrs Morgan giggled. “You always get the quotations right. Most people think it’s hinder. That impresses me too. But disapprove? No.”

“In your heart of hearts, though, wasn’t physics a bit of a comedown? Perilously close to dirty finger-nails?”

CLARE: ACADEMIC GLITTER If the reasons were obvious the event was splendid. So splendid that she had no hesitation in doffing her tailored chalk-stripe for something far more extrovert: an ostentatious silk gown with deeply scalloped neckline, specified and bought for that evening alone, her response to Wadham honouring its brightest and best. Six months previously she’d been appointed UK technical vice-president of one of the world’s great software giants, the youngest to hold the job and the first woman. Tonight the college’s crystal contained Latour.

“Guy I knew joined the Middlesex Press Group. Oxford, modern languages. Prepared to do the grind, the long hours, the lousy pay. Got sent out on a house fire and came back worried. ‘What do I do? I couldn’t think of anything more to ask. With more time I could have made a list. But I didn’t have the time.’ I thought it wasn’t time you lacked, mate, it was instinct. I gave him three months but he was out in as many weeks. Works in PR at three times the salary. He has the hair for it; long, light brown, keeps falling over his eyes."

CLARE: THE IT SWITCH “A tide in the affairs of man. During that time most of us found development work had more to do with using computers than, shall we say, visible engineering. And computer skills transfer to other branches of industry. I made a rather ironical move – from medicine to armaments. A very large step, in fact: a tank gun-sight with three sub-systems under one stratagem. I headed a sub-system team and had one of those lamp-bulb moments journalists like writing about."

HATCH: NON-MANAGEMENTAL It was his job to unlock the store for the seven o’clock opening. Within the racks Hatch smelt the bitter yet oily atmosphere cooked up by early morning sun on the corrugated-iron roof. At the reception counter he swung up the wire netting shutter then unbolted the customer’s door. Two sleep-deadened youths in garage overalls shuffled through, making their needs known in the oral shorthand Hatch had had difficulty understanding a few weeks ago. 

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Tuesday 18 December 2012

Lady Percy on abiding love

Lady Percy is Hotspur's widow. Here she dissuades her father-in-law, Northumberland, from going to war. But, in effect she is remembering her own beloved husband

O, yet, for God's sake, go not to these wars!
The time was, father, that you broke your word,
When you were more endear'd to it than now;
When your own Percy, when my heart's dear Harry,
Threw many a northward look to see his father
Bring up his powers; but he did long in vain.
Who then persuaded you to stay at home?

There were two honours lost, yours and your son's.
For yours, the God of heaven brighten it!
For his, it stuck upon him as the sun
In the grey vault of heaven; and by his light
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts.

He was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.
He had no legs that practis'd not his gait;
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those who could speak low and tardily
Would turn their own perfection to abuse
To seem like him: so that in speech, in gait,
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humours of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book,
That fashion'd others
And him—O wondrous him!
O miracle of men!—him did you leave—
Second to none, unseconded by you—
To look upon the hideous god of war
In disadvantage, to abide a field
Where nothing but the sound of Hotspur's name
Did seem defensible. So you left him.
Never, O never, do his ghost the wrong
To hold your honour more precise and nice
With others than with him!
Let them alone.

The Marshal and the Archbishop are strong.
Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers,
To-day might I, hanging on Hotspur's neck,
Have talk'd of Monmouth's grave.

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Friday 14 December 2012

Descent into squalor

(Above) I bought the light bulbs. Post-it has recipe for sausage casserole

Alone in the house (with VR in Lille, Aachen or even Aix le Ghent) I behave squalidly.

FOOD VR worries about this. She offered to make me a sausage casserole but I said this penalised her holiday. She told me how to make one myself and covered the kitchen chalk-board with accessible and easily prepared freezer items. Alas I forget to take them out in advance; also I suffered trauma thawing something in the microwave two decades ago. Instead I fried three sausages, split them longitudinally with a knife I had just sharpened (very proud of that). This enhanced their physical stability and I laid them on two slices of toast. The following day the same again adding another slice of toast which bore a fried egg, yoke deliberately punctured. Were VR away for a month scurvy would be a distinct possibility.

TIMETABLE I eat when hungry and go to bed two-ish. Last night I watched a Randolph Scott movie, High Lonesome, directed by Bud Boetticher, well regarded by French cinéastes. Did this after News at Ten!

HYGIENE Easily forgotten, I find.

BEHAVIOUR I sing aloud in unseemly places, eg, on the pot. Pick out carols on the keyboard at 7 am (The house is detached, I should add.) I open Christmas cards sent to the pair of us, albeit with a sense of guilt. Incautiously I drank a whole bottle of Cremant last night; fizzy wine metabolises far more quickly than still wine and my headache interfered with an erotic dream I was vouchsafed this morning.

QUESTION Why is the Agincourt Carol a carol? What's seasonal  about:

Our king went forth to Normandy,
In grace and might of chivalry.
Where God for him wrought marvellously.
He hath both the field and the victory.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

A fraternal chat

Nick called yesterday. He's my younger brother and not well. But he lives in Harrogate (the Goring of the North), a 300-mile round trip.

My Christmas card to him is sitting on the newell post awaiting a stamp. He chortles mildly, having already posted his card to me.

He hates to impose and I know he'll ring off unless I can extend the conversation in a natural way. As we talk I tick off subjects I know will interest him.

The typeface of Gorgon Times, he says, is too small to read easily. I tell him not to apologise. He reveals - to my surprise - he keeps a copy of our mother's book of poems on his coffee table. We agree she wrote pretty well (one poem came second in a nationwide competition) excepting the one about Douglas Bader, the WW2 fighter pilot. "It's as if... " he ponders a comparison. "It was written for the Beano," I say and he laughs despite himself. I tell myself Nick is alive and my mother is dead. Besides, she admitted the poem was unsatisfactory.

As a yachtsman he gives genererously to the lifeboat charity but has latterly become disenchanted. Once, sailing alone in the Channel he found a floating headless body. On the coastguard's instructions he circled the body for hours listening to the lifeboat coxswain tell the coastguard over the VHF he didn't want "that" on his boat. Nick forgets a lot, but not that.

We wander over well-worn reminiscences and I try to provide joky punchlines. He laughs at quite a few and these are greater triumphs than anything I've ever written. When he finally does ring off I pretend to myself he does so reluctantly. One never knows. 

Tuesday 11 December 2012

A Christmassy salade

I'VE BEEN misinforming people but, then, what's new? VR and younger daughter, OS, will not take the TGV (train de grande vitesse) to visit Christmarket markets on the Continent tomorrow, they are going by car. Thus they will pack in two favourites: Lille and Aachen. Normally restricted to plane cabin luggage VR asks me what bulkier thing would I like as a prezzie. Not wine, of course, I can do better through The Wine Society, a marvellous British institution. A hundredweight of sausage, perhaps?

STILL ON BOOZE. Were I limitlessly wealthy I would breakfast on vintage champagne each morning. Alas... In my time I have tried and discarded the cheaper fizzy alternatives (prosecco, sekt (Uggh!), Freixenet, cava) but have recently found a genuine contender, France's Cremant de Jura, £7 from despisedly down-market Aldi. One disadvantage: the flask-shaped bottle is ridiculously wide and will not fit my wine racks. I can live with that.

TIME FOR a funny from Hymns Ancient and Modern:
How Judah's lion burst its chains.
And crushed the serpent's head,
And brought with him, from death's domains,
The long imprisoned dead.
Would someone better educated than me (ie, virtually everyone out there reading this), or more marinaded in CofE ethos, tell me what's going on here? On the other hand, perhaps not. Bound to be an anti-climax.

FOR CHRISTMAS I ordered D, granddaughter Bella's boyfriend, a witty, intellectually stimulating... Oh cripes. Can't tell you. Despite the huge generation gap, he still reads TD. Sent me a comment the day before yesterday. Post-Christmas then.

Friday 7 December 2012

The fairies just flew in

One of the mainly unnoticed miracles that happens in the Robinson kitchen a couple of times a week: here the creation of fairy cakes. But on this occasion it was the speed that was remarkable.

VR arrived home at about 12.45 from having her hair done. Realised she hadn't bought cakes to go with the lunchtime coffee. At 12.54 she'd assembled the constituents (It wasn't a kit) and by 13.13 was eating the first one.

Actually I'm a bit slick myself. I did this post, including writing the stuff, cropping the pix and doing a six-part Photoshop Photomerge in 25 minutes. We may be old but we can move when it's in our interest to do so.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Been to The Great Wen and back

Often I need confirmation I haven't died undramatically (Entering a department store lav, Buying printer consumables, Queueing for diesel, Waiting for a Rossini overture to end) and reappeared in a Hell resembling my event-free life. Puckish Jahweh telling me - but gradually -  he does actually exist. Not just puckish but Scottish: Ah weel, ye ken the noo.

The best confirmation occurs when I do something new, preferably technoid. Yesterday it happened. Destined for London and for you-know-where I found myself on the Newport-Paddington express, unshipping my HP tablet-ish computer, plugging it into the power socket, and  rewriting a short story that had set out to be enigmatic and had over-achieved. The two-hour journey, never a burden, slid by in an eyeblink and I have finally discovered the way to overcome the exigencies of mass transportation. Too late, alas, for those hideous 11-hour flights to NZ.

Joe né Plutarch stood up well to cross-examination on the nature of the short story (Sample: Might it be defined by its "completeness".) and then we were on to stuff that really mattered: Why are there so few synonyms for women's trousers? Are women able to rate their attractiveness to men other than empirically (ie, via the score-sheet). JnP was particularly good on this with a theory that depended on a special form of social and, I suppose, sexual unawareness. I should add these exchanges were entirely sympathetic, not in any sense laddish, and were aimed at helping me write more intelligently when I embark on Blest Redeemer's successor.
Assuming I bypass J's puckishness.

Carriage interior is Chinese or Canadian but you get the idea.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Power of life and death

I am into the final furlong of Blest Redeemer (146,792 words done) where smaller and smaller passages are gathered together, seamlessly, to end in an arrowhead climax representing a single brief event. Another 2500 words will do it, about the length of a complaint letter to HMRC. I asked VR if there was an embroidering equivalent to what I was doing but she said it sounded like finishing off a knitted item. I’ll take her word for it.

There are literary attractions in killing off a fairly prominent character who’s there in the story to be nice. Her death would offer a sweet-smelling bouquet of possibilities. As I weighed the pros and cons I became aware of voices, getting louder, on behalf of humanity in general. Assassin, they said. To kill so casually, they added.

I note from my back-up hard drive that serious work on BR started thirteen months ago. Imagine sharing a 1930s semi for that length of time with a dozen and half people, unable to leave and breathe fresh air. And now I’m about to garrotte, strangle, behead, gas or electrocute a saintly member of their company for my own convenience.  That woman is more real than most of my flesh-and-blood neighbours.

There’s a moral issue here. Not least because I’m relishing the drama and its potential. Should she suffer? Would that help?

Perhaps you believe I’m too sensitive for my own good. And that I’ve painted myself into this corner and I can jolly well de-corner myself all on my own. True on both counts. But it’s still bloody painful. Poor X, she was so sympathetic to Judith.

You’ve got to be tough as old boots to write novels. I’m inclined to let her live. I will! Ah! She’s so glad, and so strangely am I.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Stuff your ears, I'm ranting

You have the perfect draining rack? Fibber!

Unless you had it made specially and even then I doubt you.

No kitchen device faces so many conflicting demands, even when you reduce the crockery range to an artificially minimal three: cups (or mugs), side plates, dinner plates.

Take those slots. Plates are thinnish, right? Surely 7 mm is enough? Wrong! Dinner plates have ridges underneath and you need about 12 mm. So, fewer dinner plates can be stored and – worse – the side plates drop through. Then there are plate diameters. The stainless steel rack (above) was bought believing that simpler would be better. But the splayed angle is insufficient to support dinner plates.

Cups/mugs. Four will eat up all your rack space. So add another level (see the white rack). Alas! I notice VR removes her bone-china mug when she sees it on the upper level and surreptitiously dries it with a tea towel. I could go on. But it gets much worse when we consider bowls.

Talk not about dish-washers. Their owners are zealots, ideologues and pedants, quite capable of running blogs entirely devoted to this subject.

BOOKMARKS Both of us use ABE books and VR reads about four library books a week. Thus we are in receipt of lots of un-chosen bookmarks. Some of dubious taste although I hasten to say this doesn’t include Joe né Plutarch’s patented and self-decorated markers, much appreciated.
Dubious taste? Surely I’m a grievous offender myself and am disqualified from pontificating on such a matter. But how about the inset? Perhaps you are too young or too forgetful to link the line drawing with one of the words. Does the date November 22, 1963 jog your memory? Wouldn’t buy from this lot. A joke? What’s funny?