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Monday 29 December 2014

Speak not of problems,
only of successes

VR's GREATEST culinary skill is improvisation. As on Boxing Day when we dined à deux.

This Christmas British supermarkets competed suicidally over cut-price luxury consumables. I've mentioned champagne at a tenner (the dozen I bought is now down to three). But how about lobsters at £6? Not big, of course. A pair boiled and eviscerated made a disappointingly small pile of meat. VR contemplated the pile for - oh, fully four seconds - then out came the ramekins.

To the lobster were added breadcrumbs, butter, garlic, parsley, a squeeze of lemon and a "tiny" pinch of chilli. Into the ramekins, the grill and then our gastro-intestinal tracts went yet another unnamed fishy calypso.

About the ramekins (pictured). Possibly that isn't their technical name but it'll do, for goodness sake. They were bought in the Brittany town of Perros Guirec where we holidayed with Joe and family in the mid-seventies. They have a sweet elegance and have been used endlessly.

THIS MORNING the woman working one of the Tesco checkouts asked me if it was cold outside. I said it was but given I was her only customer I felt emboldened to go further. The previous midnight I'd put out the garbage and no doubt it was damn frosty. But there was compensation in the pin-point clarity of stars in the night sky. "I've just had a cataract op and things like that are a treat," I said.

She nodded. "I had mine done a year or so ago and it was wonderful. I was fearful but there's less in it than going to the dentist." We smiled at each in the esoteric complicity that has enveloped me since November 19.

Friday 26 December 2014

He didn't take long, thank goodness

To the opening of more bottles of champagne than I can recall we played Masks on Christmas Day. For once I was properly prepared for a form of competition, since Masks turned out be a condensed version of my professional life - the posing of logical sets of questions.

The victim holds up a card, unable to identify what's on the other side. The aim is to identify who or what the image is with the minimum number of questions. Only yes/no answers are given.

In my case the smirking Welsh windbag, Huw Edwards, who reads the BBC's News At Ten on telly. Quite soon the atmosphere of conspiracy became apparent from those supplying the answers and I got Fat Huw in fairly quick time.

But I can't say I'm proud.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Posted in Hereford

Hubris stands for extreme pride or self-confidence. Today I stood myself down and employed real writers. Robinson


A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. Shakespeare

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest. Twain

Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness. (And, of course, ladies). WS

All emotion is involuntary when genuine. MT

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. WS

Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. MT


Post scriptum. Not a good year, 2014. But eased by cheerful, encouraging and articulate voices. Thanks to you all, it's a privilege to share the world with you.

Pic: Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl

Monday 22 December 2014

A few lines of admin

OUT OF AMERICA Now also available as a Kindle download at a quarter the price. I flick through my paperback, re-living the love affairs I had,  especially with dear, determined Jana. The fun of creation. And now there's the hawking and a deep depression enters my scruffy atelier.

NEW HOME PAGE PIC The outdoors pic was never me, certainly not these days. I needed an image that caught the sordid, unsociable privacy of what I do, day in day out.

Ironically, I'm not untidy, obsessionally the reverse - tidying away sections of the weekend newspapers as I read them. But I'm different here. I'm comforted by the rag-tag-and-bobbletail of half-formed ideas and half-forgotten memories.

Vanity too must be served. Black chinos, black fleece and a triangle of chemise de matelot beneath my scrawny neck emphasise the newly svelte figure. Plus the gaunt cheeks. The smiling pic at Stuttgart Christmas market wasn't me either.

Zach with friend - yesterday

Saturday 20 December 2014

Talk or baulk

Yesterday was the art group's Christmas lunch.

I chauffeured VR to the Bridge Inn, Kentchurch, beautifully located amid whaleback hills so typical of the Welsh Marches. Despite my reputation for unsociability I stayed for lunch as in past years. These are VR's friends and I've got to know them a little.

I sat opposite J, one of the members, and D, like me, husband of another. I knew J had lived in South America but she'd also done aqua-lung diving round the world. D had competed in Britain's premier rifle-shooting competition at Bisley. Subjects which provided me with a conversational foothold during the potentially awkward first few minutes.

The chat went well, lasting out the meal. Leaving me to reflect on the occasions when chat stumbles. How conversation gets going; how it is maintained. Facial expressions are important. I rely on asking questions, a journalistic habit. A mulish, dead look says this isn’t going to work. Short, dismissive answers are another bad sign. Worst of all, when the person opposite looks away.

VR says the old standby is: What do you do? I’m not so sure. Some women marry early and are coy about admitting to mother or housewife. A surprisingly large proportion of  people have jobs they regard as dull and are unable to call on self-mockery or whimsy to get over this barrier. As an ex-journalist I’m lucky; professing this can trigger a stunned look, as if I’d been public hangman. Shyness is often hard to distinguish from surliness.

A good tactic for keeping momentum going is via quotation: “You said you are a teacher. What’s your opinion about Ofsted?” Not that teachers need much encouragement. Journalists neither.

Flattery, even when gross, works well. “I’ve always admired teachers. So much commitment.”

Après moi, le déluge.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Body-and-soul glue

I eat no breakfast and my brunch has evolved over decades. I am not (repeat not) attempting to proselytise. This meal is too eclectic to please all. I do not talk during brunch for this is Guardian time; if VR has the main section of the newspaper I sing Harvest Festival hymns quietly, to myself.

Starter. Quaker Oats Oh-so-Simple original porridge oats in sachets. Preparation/Variation: Paper sachet acts as measure for added fluid; water for me, warm milk makes me vomit. Ribena sweetens/adds taste. Rationale: Possibly healthy.

Main: Two slices of medium white farmhouse loaf cut on my own slicer; Lurpak Spreadable, slightly salted (ie, semi-fake butter); Patum Peperium The Gentleman’s Relish anchovy paste; Haywards piccalilli (“deliciously chunky vegetables”). Preparation/Variation: Anchovy paste, standing in for humous, has been in fridge for ages and needs using up; unbearably piquant – only slightest smear needed. Rationale: Slightly pretentious, proves I’m capable of culinary improvisation.

Dessert 1: Braeburn apple, satsuma. Preparation/variation: Braeburn is both firm (v. important) and flavoury. Both segmented to allow me to read newspaper unhindered. Rationale: (1) I like fruit. (2) Compensates in an alimentary way for sedentary life. (3) Satsuma has fewest pips.

Dessert 2: Two Tesco custard cream sandwich biscuits, three rich tea finger biscuits. Preparation/variation: Put on plate. Immediately replaced when slice of VR’s cake is available. Rationale: Man cannot live without junk food. Accompanies coffee.

Beverage: Two mugs of black coffee (Colombian Freetrade) based on four heaped teaspoons. Preparation/Variation: Aluminium vacuum jug (goes with Krup percolator) retains heat, can be carried anywhere. Rationale: Unlike tea percolated coffee (esp. black) is an assertion of adulthood.     

Tuesday 16 December 2014

A communal time

 Just ruined the spirit of Christmas on another blog which I trampled on with hob-nailed boots. Causing me to reflect on just what constitutes the spirit of Christmas.

It can be a broad spectrum.

Christmas One, 1959. Earlier in the year I'd met VR (then VT), a State Registered Nurse in a London hospital (see pic) and she was working through Christmas. I chose not to travel north to my family and instead had afternoon tea on the ward with VT and the Ward Sister. There were no patients as such in the beds; just saddos from the streets. brought in, cleaned up, given somewhere warm. I should add I'm a very infrequent candidate for afternoon tea.

Christmas Two, 1971. Mount Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb. Two days before Christmas brother Nick called from the UK to say our mother was in intensive care. He tried, but failed, to be upbeat. Said he'd ring with any more news. Heavy transatlantic phone traffic delayed the call which told me I was, to all intents and purposes, an orphan.

Two hospitals, one presaging a wedding, the other a funeral. I'm an atheist which means, I hope, I'm also a realist. No doubt about it Christmas is a time of intense communion. Where self-dependence sometimes isn't enough.

Christmas also seems linked to disasters. On one occasion preceded by a car crash, on another I was delirious with (I think) pleurisy, on yet another a marriage broke up.

Once I spent Christmas away from home, ostensibly rock-climbing, more often drinking beer. Slept in a barn and ate a large steak which should have been my Christmas dinner cooked by my mother. An event that was unsatisfactory in all senses.

This year will be a family thing. Part family, anyway, but a wider communion. The dead will I hope be accommodated and honoured.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Giggle and stay warm

Yesterday the central heating made an ominous noise. We switched it off, phoned emergency numbers, drew the curtains, closed the doors, and resorted to chat (assisted by a Wither Hills sauv. blanc and a pinot noir from South Africa).

What, I asked VR, were the funniest movies? Funny-talkies not funny-slapsticks. Forget Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy; the former sentimental, the latter repetitive.

Some Like It Hot, said VR. Of course. Equally, Kind Hearts And Coronets. But how about slightly less famous treasures? Me thinking of A New Leaf (above), where penniless Walter Matthau marries Elaine May and tries to kill her for her money. Where Walter diagnoses his Ferrari's engine problem: "Carbon on the valves."

VR was strong for Alastair Sim, even in movies which weren't meant to be comic. Green For Danger, a hospital whodunnit, sags badly when whimsical police detective Sim is off the screen.

I favour laconic James Garner. When I cited Support Your Local Sheriff, VR (who normally hates Westerns) immediately recalled Garner sticking his finger up the barrel of Walter Brennan's menacing Colt 45. And Brennan's sense of outrage.

The French laugh too. In Just Visiting (Les Visiteurs) a medieval knight is transported to the twentieth century. Coming upon a postman's tiny van with its radio playing, the knight slays it with his sword. You're made to realise this is a genuinely fearless act.

Left-wingers aren't supposed to like I'm All Right Jack where Peter Sellers mercilessly lampoons a trade union shop steward. But for me politics went out of the window when Terry Thomas, a personnel manager, is told to call on Sellers at home. "Him! Why the feller probably sleeps in his vest."

By then the Wither Hills was dead and we were halfway through the pinot.

Friday 12 December 2014

The Passchendaele of gift buying

In some stories the situation is king, the characters dried seeds in a dried senna pod.

VR (my wife) feels indebted to X and must buy her a present. Knowing X prefers presents that are unmistakably “gifts”, decoratively wrapped, hinting at wealth. In a word: toiletries. On a raw day the trail leads through a specialist perfume shop, a chain department store to a chain pharmacy.

RR is merely the chauffeur but is increasingly aware of VR’s impatience. Initially RR looks for items more modestly priced but is drawn into this meretricious, finally fraudulent sub-world. Fifty quid buys two plastic tubes and an ingeniously faceted bottle, all three vaguely labelled with terms like Body Wash. The outer box has a volume four times that of the contents. The brand names are dimly familiar from adverts in “lifestyle” magazines.

Soon VR is close to snarling with frustration. RR, new to the game, is wrestling with abstractions like cynicism, manipulation and brand hypnosis. VR has had enough. Says “Let’s go to Boots.” Boots is a chain pharmacy, the downmarket end to the shopping trail.

Outside the wind is bitter. Defeated, VR says, “I’m coming down (to the city) on Wednesday. I’ll go to Boots then.”

Although they are unaware of it at the nuptials it is for such moments that people get married. “Let’s do it now,” says RR. The couple slog back up the main street to Boots where a branded box (more tubes, more bottles) is available half price. Later, at home, VR thanks RR for that final push. RR reckons his gesture was born out of self-interest, but is warmed anyway. No celebrations because Thursday’s a diet day. But a bottle of champagne goes into the fridge for today, Friday, the best evening of the week.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Keeping my hand in

I'm associated with projects other than writing fiction. Here's part of my busy world.

"GO OUT and prune the alder and the fancy willow," said VR. "Winter's the best time."

I took advice from Hermann Goering’s monumental Scorched Earth Gardening and you see the result.

VR inspected my work (top of page) and said, "You can never over-prune a tree. But in any case what does a new sapling cost?” 

LOOKS like a remote control, doesn't it?  What makes it different is it handles Region 1 DVDs  (ie, America only). I haven't tried it yet, I'm still waiting for my first Region 1 disc.

This Christmas we thought we'd investigate Stephen Sondheim musicals, typically Follies, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods. They're said to have to have egghead appeal. Trouble is most aren't sold in Europe (Region 2) and our expensive DVD player won't play Region 1 discs. I'm dubious but the remote only cost a tenner. Let you know.

CRAFT has a special meaning applied to decorative items made in wood: imperfect. To elaborate: inappropriate raw materials, crude design, inexpert execution, garish finish.

VR bought our house number in ceramic tiles a year or two ago while in Leiden, Holland. The tiles languished since we had brass numbers on the front door. But the door disappeared when the double-glazing was upgraded. We needed identity.

The tiles are mounted on a wooden plaque which should be rectangular but isn't. It is badly finished, the tiles aren't centred (in fact can't be), paint was applied via the car-crash method. Typical RR DIY. How Sir Hugh will moan.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Stuttgart - The reason why

German Christmas markets are fun - see, even I'm smiling. What wasn't fun was the apartment we hired, eighty-plus steps up, the same going down - unless you fell, of course.

Although not as large as the market at Cologne (Köln, to be nigglingly precise) Stuttgart's was huge, taking in two of the city squares plus the interconnecting streets. On the advice of a Stuttgart resident we sought a change of pace by taking the train out to Esslingen where the Weihnachtsmarkt was cosier, jostling among buildings which seemed original, seemed to have survived WW2. Note the church with its twin towers linked by a strangely rackety bridge. Note too the characteristic town structures as we got nearer.

OS (Occasional Speeder) was masterly. Found a restaurant with comforting worn woodwork, the door opening on a shabby interior which was just what we wanted. Alas it was full of Germans aware that Mittagessen starts earlier than we had expected. Quickly we found another but our hearts still dwelt among the shabbiness.

Never mind, there was adjacent entertainment. Two German businessmen, hosting two youngish Japanese functionaries, had cruelly ordered them gigantic pork knuckles. How gamely the young men chewed on food that couldn't have been further from sushi.

Outside men in medieval costumes re-enacted history, a juggler tossed flaming torches, a blacksmith hammered red-hot iron. We wandered among stalls offering sausages, wheat beer, eternal Glühwein, strangely dull lollipops with a bread roll replacing the sweetie bit, carved wood, and a piano-accordion player rendering an impossibly rapid version of the William Tell overture (or was that in Stuttgart?)

The best time is when the offices disgorge men in suits, carrying brief cases, to mingle among us commoners. Worth the trip, even a flight from Quebec.  

Stuttgart - Men only, alas

Designed to win at Le Mans; born in a butcher's shop
 Porsches – echt Porsches – are high-speed two-seat cars which sell in tens of thousands, cost a lot and are stuffed with high-tech. Most are bought by middle-aged, self-indulgent, wealthy men who are peer-driven, wear foulards on Saturdays, are socially most comfortable with other males who haven’t read Mansfield Park.

Such men are also romantics. Why else would they yearn for a potentially unbalanced car design where the engine hangs out behind the back axle? Why else would Porsche continue to sell it? In uncertain and uncaring hands – especially in the wet – these cars can pendulum you straight into the brambles. Porsche have tried other designs but only the 911 and its many iterations has le pur sang circulating through its heart.

And why should I – not given to foulards – visit Porsche’s over-egged museum at Zuffenhausen, west of Stuttgart? For one thing I like Germans, for another I dislike national stereotypes. Germans are said to be steady and reliable; if so why didn’t Porsche long ago stop trying to design out the handling characteristics of a rear engine chassis and force something conventional on their customers? Guess they’re stubborn. Guess that’s why they make and sell an automotive legend. Or is it a myth?

Zuffenhausen also tackles another canard about Germans. There’s a model 917 that won at Le Mans. Generous dimensions led to a nickname, The Pig. Racing colour was pink, hence Pink Pig (above). But look closely at the words within the dotted lines: Haxen, Rippe, Schulter, Kotlett. Translating into: knuckle, ribs, shoulder, cutlet.

The door on another Le Mans winner fits so snugly, the gap between door and body is almost imperceptible. How can I be stirred by something that almost doesn’t exist?
OS and VR came to Stuttgart for Christmas markets (see next post) but indulged me with visit to Porsche museum

Thursday 4 December 2014

Stuttgart - Die Leute (people)

Strength not vivacity was this waitress's forte.
Daughter OS's pink scarf knitted by VR
In foreign parts people outperform scenery, architecture and things.

We entered a department store cafe, looking for a loo, chatting about this among ourselves. An elderly man, seated in the cafe, got up, took two steps and pointed: "The toilet is there," he said, inevitably in English.

... which led VR to reminisce about another visit to Stuttgart. "Where is the XX hotel," she asked. The questionee said, "I cannot say but I can walk you there." Which he did.

Airport security involves intimate inspection these days - with finger-tips and with an electronic gizmo. When VR's inspection at Stuttgart was complete the official said, smiling, "Well done."

I decided to be puckish with the receptionist at the Porsche Museum (of which more later).  I said,"Coming in here and looking at your cars is like looking at your advertisements. You should be paying us." She laughed pleasantly, said, "Indeed." then asked more questions which led to our not-so-expensive €6 ticket being reduced.

Hot Glühwein (mulled wine) is the drink of preference at German Christmas markets. But those in the know ask for Glühwein mit Rhum. The rum is poured unmeasured, with a glad hand from the bottle. A fragment of German surfaced in my mind; I said, "Nicht genug." (Not enough.) The cheerful, well-anoraked pourer doubled the dose.

More airport security. At Heathrow (London) I was asked to identify a strange object x-rayed in my shoulder-bag. It was my spring-loaded coin dispenser. At Stuttgart the same thing. I explained, adding "It impresses the French." The German security official said, "It is very practical."

Friday 28 November 2014


 The world through a replacement eye

Notices identify the aisle contents in the supermarket: Pasta/Cooking Sauces, Eggs/Canned fruit. Just beyond the focus of my glasses. Now I can read them bare-eyed and have fallen in love with the typeface used. Curvaceous and clear, reminiscent of the moment in 1959 when I said: I'm going to marry her. And did.

Stark naked on the weighing scale I was unable to read the digits, unaware of my diet's progress, now in its fifteenth month. Glasses? Nah, they'd have added weight. Had to call in VR. Yesterday, for the first time I saw the total unaided. I'd lost three more pounds.

Women 10 m away no longer merge into the background: their contours may be measured, their faces scanned for beauty. All are beautiful.

No advertising poster is wholly dull, no municipal announcement menacing, no planning notice obscure - they are there to be read. My bowels turn to water as I revel in info seizure.

Now I can scrutinise his every discouraging detail (especially the snarl that forms on the left-hand side of his mouth), BBC news presenter Huw Edwards is frequently absent from the 10 pm bulletin. His defences are down.

Helen, a member of VR's painting class recently had the cataract op. I compliment her on her vestigial glasses. She hands them to me to try. They're as light as a butterfly on my nose. Less likely to slip. Expensive, but what the hell?

French class resumes since I am now driving again. My eyesight slides over the words of Rien ne s'oppose à la Nuit (a novel) and I'm able to scan ahead. And thus elide words. Elision is vital in spoken French.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Thy greater creation

 Creativity at Robinson Towers is not limited to novels based on woman worship. There are others strands, more inventive, more titillating, more useful. VR is less demonstrative but she gets things done.

Last night she produced a casserole, black with plenitude No name, of course, for she rejects the persiflage of gustation. I forked it in, my chin close to the plate; to waste a scrap would have been a Robinsonian form of blasphemy.

On other occasions, cakes. Especially seed cake, that most adult of flavours, light years away from chocolate-smeared bravado that duller palates rave about.

VR reads hugely (220 titles a year) and summarises each experience in a long long alphabetical list. The first three entries:

Author: Achebe, C. Title: Things fall apart. Date finished: Jun 27 2007. Rating (out of 10): 7.00    Plot: Europeans come to tribal Nigeria. Life of one man and family in lake.
Author: Ackroyd, P. Title: Clerkenwell talkes. Date finished: Mar 10 2005. Plot:  Mystery during deposement of Richard II. Cant. Tales char's. Not sure what was done, by who. Light
Author: Adams, J. Title: Angel eyes. Date finished: Jan 17 2005. Plot: Mystery drugs, disfigured ex-cop. Ghosts. Computers.

Like the other sage, living in Brittany, VR knits. Grandson Zach attends a CofE school and the above will be his Christmas gift to his educators.

".... success tended to be the norm. Marking it wasn’t necessary. But I must mark it now. I’m proud of you. And I…” The sentence tailed off.

Her mother’s eyes shone. Clare could never recall such emotion. Conceivably that final sentence held a confession of love which Mrs Morgan was unable to admit. But it didn’t matter, the admission was tangible. They embraced awkwardly. Through lack of practice, Clare imagined.

Monday 24 November 2014

Self-exposer (f.) needed

It takes a big ego to say aloud: I'm good-looking. Only in our privacy dare we hold such a view. Especially if it isn't true.

Post-diet, on optimistic days I used to toy with "bare" and "lined", imagining myself as Lee Marvin (see pic) but with a thinner nose.

Better eyesight has eliminated this. Blotched complexion, melted candle-wax eye-bags and wearied cheeks drive out secret comforts. Not that it matters. I write, therefore I may lie.

Actually it does matter. My central characters are women, their private thoughts are my happy hunting ground. All are endlessly attractive to me but only one is beautiful; beauty is part of Judith's story in Blest Redeemer. Clare (Gorgon Times) has a drawn face and is buck-toothed. Jana (Out Of Arizona) is blemished. Francine's face (Second Hand) is bony, her blonde hair as lifeless as silk.

Those are the easy bits. But what about their inner opinions of their own looks? Do they make secretly exaggerated claims or are they terrified? Do they care? As a male author, wanting to do my best (ie, tell the truth) on their behalf I face an insurmountable barrier. No woman is going to volunteer, even hint. I must invent. And I may not be plausible.

Unless some supremely confident being can throw me an idea. Too late for Clare, Jana and Judith. But Francine (life rent by hideous trauma) needs help.

Second Hand (behind the scenes)
Guess whose physical persona I had in mind here:

As old as the hills, Torvald had said. Pratt had a gaunt face, his mouth bracketed between vertical grooves. His clothes hung like those of a fat man who’d abruptly lost weight. A shock of white hair looked stagy, flagging a spurious form of wisdom.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Wow! (Tenth revision)

The post-op Festival of Light
The eye is clear, its former glum opacity
Has gone – good riddance halo-ed mysteries.
The eye now views a fine geometry
With knife-cut edges at its boundaries.

The lens digests these spectral coloured bands,
It takes advantage of their separate states,
It meets the needs of newer light’s demands,
Responding to the changing brain’s dictates.

And now the book spines say: Just look, read me!
While CD cases shout orchestral chords.
Under the influence of clarity
The patient thrills to unforeseen rewards

I saw but barely, swayed by ignorance.
Cleverer now, I dance the photons' dance.

Thanks to Mr J. Deutsch, Anna and the team
Hereford, November 19, 2014

Roderick Robinson

Note: Written in the AM; savagely rewritten and turned into a sonnet in the PM. The following day it underwent total evisceration. Now it says something

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Living above my expectations

The Paris Hilton was the most self-evidently luxurious hotel I've ever stayed at. I felt I could have dialled a number for any louche delight. But then for free I had the view. Someone else was paying.

Tall Trees Country House in the village of Landyrnog, five miles from Ruthin, not far from Wrexham - in North Wales dog-blast-it - is hard to find and also luxurious. The knob on the puller-switch in our bathroom was an elegant slender cylinder of stainless steel. It may have cost £10 - £15. Factor up and you get the idea.

The mirror cupboard in the bathroom included tooth-brushes, tooth paste, shaving soap, etc. No need to load down the family Rolls with all that travelling clobber.

I never saw the outdoor (heated!) pool or the antique billiard table but didn't feel deprived. Only so much luxury may be conveyed via artefacts, the rest depends on service.

Susan, the welcoming lady of the house, shook my hand and asked if I wanted tea or coffee. I refused gracefully. "How about a gin-and-tonic, then?" That was different - I didn't care if it was added to the bill (it wasn't); there is a tide in the affairs of man when a G&T is all we'll ever want. VR and I drank ours in what seemed like our personal lounge; other lounges were available.

The breakfast eggs were poached, the sausages were up to Hereford level (ie, stratospheric). I won't go on; my aim here is to spread sweetness and light, not envy and dissension.

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.

Monday 17 November 2014

At least it's not whingeing

 The old discuss age - or their maladies. This must cease.

How about double-glazing? The phrase is as unevocative as double-digging (gardening), double-entry (book-keeping), double-fault (tennis) and double-talk (conversation). A dull domestic necessity, frequently misunderstood. Many Trollope-readers imagine such windows mysteriously generate heat. They think the same about thermostats. It isn't true.

We have just been re-double-glazed. One unexpected side-effect is the house is quieter. Passing cars make less noise (Not true; less noise gets through.) Not surprising - the gap between the two sheets of glass is twice as wide as that in the old windows. And air is a poor conductor of both sound and heat. But no, I'll not be technoid.

Double-glazing encourages fantasy. The windows and the door fit tightly. Were the house to be carried away in flooding I am pleasingly reassured it would float. Yes, that's untrue too but we may dream, may we not?

The handles are more substantial, more akin to those on safes. They clunk shut. I feel less vulnerable (no, not that; it relates to age), Aroused - sexually, if you like - by something that works well. I go to sleep expecting erotic dreams. There's a bonus.

In memory of JH who encouraged poetry in me

My Lord, Poor wretched States, prest by extremities,
Are fain to seek for succours and supplies
Of Prince’s aids, or good men’s charities.

Disease the Enemy, and his engineers,

Reasons why. Initially the outmoded language charms. Re-read, especially the first two lines, it’s poetry: succinct and rhythmic. And emotional. That beautifully expressed (yet horrific) sentiment – want as an engineer of disease. Who can this be?

Ben Jonson

Thursday 13 November 2014

Among Tories and it's my fault

Does car deprivation help us blog? Joe Hyam preferred buses/trains to cars. On one bus he overheard school-kids discussing drug dealers and used the material in a piece published in Spectator (Right-wing weekly but well written). Kudos! But Joe lived in Tunbridge Wells, effectively a London outer suburb (albeit 45 miles out) and well served by public transport.

Yesterday I took a political journey. The local bus didn't arrive and I walked most of the route (pic gives flavour) to the private hospital. No big deal, about 3 miles, and I'd added a walking contingency. Walking towards the land of Mixed Feelings.

Medically it was good news. Cataract op in one week. Check-up a week later. It's "very likely" my eyesight will be good enough to drive.

I know about cataract; VR went through it and she, like others, found the op tolerable. But she went NHS (ie, free). For selfish reasons I cannot spare the time. I am paying.

Oh, the pastel colours. Comfy chairs. Deference. An elegant receptionist dressed to kill (let's hope not!). Diplomatic talk of credit cards. Precious chat of other patients, clearly Tories. I will pay in more than cash. Pray for my soul.

A WEEK later and a vehicle honked outside - Ibrahim, of course…

Much as she enjoyed Ibrahim’s company, she regarded his horn as peremptory. A reminder of Catford where occidental teenagers had tooted from their cars rather than ring the Torridon Road doorbell. But then Ibrahim wasn’t exactly devout, more given to natural exuberance. Perhaps he saw a car horn as a Pakistani musical instrument. And here he was in his people carrier, brilliant white teeth beneath a bristly moustache, reaching across to the passenger door, eager for her to join him.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

... to have wings on your heels

Tuesday. First day of real deprivation, without car: regular weekly appointment in Monmouth, 20 miles away.

Normally (by car): Leave home 50 min before scheduled time, drive scenic route, arrive Monmouth car park with 10 min to go, walk to appointment.

Now (by bus, by foot, by tested patience): Leave home 2 hr 40 min before scheduled time; wait 10 min for local bus; bus from home to Hereford Shire Hall 15 min; kill 55 min over 15 min walk from Shire Hall to railway station; regional bus Hereford to Monmouth 60 min; kill 20 min over 10 min walk to appointment.

Walking across Hereford. What better way to pass time (decision rapidly becomes a necessity) than go to toilet? But which one? The bus station - Urghh? That would be Nome, Alaska. Choose Morrisons, the supermarket. Hook on back of door to hang jacket and shoulder bag - luxury.

Waiting for regional bus at Hereford railway station (see pic). Bus arrives 20 min before departure. Spherically fat driver gets out, locks bus, goes to railway station to get coffee. Returns, unlocks bus, gets, in, locks bus. Drinks coffee. A desolate wait: Hereford feels like Nome, Alaska. Passengers allowed in 3 min before departure. Spherically fat bus driver turns out to be a woman.

Pensioner bus pass covers cost of journey £3.60. Hurray!

En route. Absorbed by conversation behind me: sixteen-year-old boy and girl, prob. from Hereford's swanky Cathedral school, talk animatedly and naturally about this and that. (eg. Boy: I can't wait for Christmas. Girl: I love Christmas.) I am overwhelmed and saddened; why wasn't school like this for me? On arrival I let boy get off first: he says thank you. Ah!

Buy four partridges from Waitrose, killing time for return journey (in total darkness).

Saturday 8 November 2014

It's that time of life

NOVEMBER 7 2014. Things happen.

Up early for 09.20 hospital appointment. As I shave phone rings. Stops before VR reaches it.

Check emails. Brother Sir Hugh rings with horrific news about Brother Nick, smothered in Alzheimers, 200 miles to north.

Bus can only take me halfway to hospital and I walk the two miles plus. Takes 50 min; I'm 30 min early. Consultant sees me ahead of appointment time.

To ensure my head stays still I must press forehead and chin against locations on eye-test machine. Afterwards I suggest locations are wiped because I've sweated. Consultant says sweating was good sign, shows I was concentrating, following instructions.

Consultant studies folder, says I must not drive any longer. Cataract op "within three months"; I agree to take any cancellation.

Just miss bus back. Kill time buying trivial magazine and slice of cooked pork belly.

Am unable to drive VR to life drawing class eight miles away; VR rings friend. We talk: I'll have problems with weekly appointment in Monmouth, 18 miles distant; must cancel family event in remote North Wales; there's weekly  French in a small village. Should I go private for cataract op? Cost: £2480.

Book private op. Consultation in five days op another seven days.

Advance copy of Out Of Arizona arrives.

Sir Hugh rings with slightly better news about Nick. I say I can’t get to N. Wales. Sir Hugh, who is going, offers to pick us up, a horrendous dog's leg. He will stay with us night before and night after.

VR, back from life drawing, delighted about N. Wales. Doesn't see enough of Sir Hugh.

Dinner: pork with black-pudding stuffing. Drink bottle of Roederer champagne; miniscule bubbles a good sign. Individualistic taste.

Reminder: new (younger) gardening couple will review our garden tomorrow (ie, today).

Thursday 6 November 2014

Discover them or re-live them

Straight away I liked the honest strapline on Jonathan Sa'adah's How Many Roads? - Photographs of the Sixties and Early Seventies. Historians toy with broad divisions of time; the rest of us, conceivably passing through the oughties equivalent of the Renaissance (Middle Ages anyone?), must follow the calendar. Time - the sort we live through – can be a messy construct.

As it happens that strapline exactly covers the most mobile period of my own life. Escape in 1959 from a gloomy north-of-England adolescence, six years in London, six years in Pennsylvania, back to the Great Wen in 1972.

Which means I saw the sixties - or the part popularly identified as such - from a foreign country. From the lap of luxury too since I was, for the first time, centrally heated and more than a little innocent. The USA proved to be more exotic than Saturn so how was I to know that Watergate, Kent State, the public rendering of We Shall Overcome, and - above all - the furtive jowls of a certain Milhous weren't typical everyday phenomena. Some of it only fell into place when I got home.

And now, thanks to Mr S, that frequently revolutionary period is re-created  in vivid b&w. Milhous is there, trapped on a telly screen like a catfish, jowls expanding. Youth in large numbers, doubting that dying in south-east Asia might justify over-optimistic Washington rhetoric. Rural America at home round the Fosters and Maple pot-belly stove; restless America moving to the next vista, often in a German camper-van. A veritable slice of American pie.

If the past is where they do things differently, the sixties is the past in spades. Buy How Many Roads? from Beth's blog, the cassandra pages.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

An end to self-deprecation

Minutes ago I was asked to deliver a 20-minute speech without notes and/or preparation. Yes  I was dreaming but many say this is among their worst nightmares. Not for me. I can speak endlessly (and do) about my favourite subject and people can find it entrancing. Oh, the chutzpah, they say.

If it wasn't a cliché, you see in me a dinosaur. Someone whose career (in my case the word deserves quotes - another cliché) was based on knowing virtually nothing about bugger-all. A journalist of the old school.

I entered journalism at 15 with a blank slate for a mind; a mind untouched by formal education. From 1951 until 1959 I listened to people speak, transcribed what I heard into shorthand, turned the squiggles into articles at the rate of 1000 words/hour. Dull, unenlightening work. So I left for London to work on magazines. Here are the magazines (by subject) I passed through:



Civil engineering


Logistics (For the first time)

USA: Instrumentation and control systems.

USA: Data processing.

USA: General technology

Logistics (Second time).

Institutional catering.

Metal fabrication; steel manufacture.

Logistics (Third time).

During which I travelled widely (Japan, Venezuela, USA, Scandinavia, etc), was wined and dined to excess, was paid well above the national average, helped others to progress through this non-profession, received a huge redundancy payment (Here's the irony; I wasn't redundant), gained a well-deserved reputation for unpredictability and stylistic finesse, and retired on a comfortable pension.

Reading this list, certain pillars of society (Oh, let's call a spade a spade - teachers) are outraged. How on earth...?

The answer is: never again! Such a record would these days be impossible. A golden age? There've already been too many clichés. Let's say a Sheffield-plate age.

Thursday 30 October 2014

Chance meeting

Sonnet: On coming across WW's The Prelude

For I was schooled beyond his silent bay,
That refuge from a painful ignorance,
I lacked the grace of learning's unity,
I was the sum of all my malcontents.

An empty gourd, oh time's futility,
Unteachable yet wanting to be taught,
I'd turned my mind from light's felicity.
And stumbled on, a thing as yet unwrought.

I'd flicked through pages, passing most unseen,
A dabbler blind to any exemplar,
Blind to so much, but caught by this sharp sheen:
"To cut across the reflex of a star"

Within the lines I sensed a northern hue,
A name that could be worth a word or two.

Revised version, November 1

Tuesday 28 October 2014

The sirens now are silent

Years after, they said Britain's national diet during WW2 was utterly healthy. That we ate only what was good for us, held obesity at bay and kept fit by walking. Perhaps. But we didn't enjoy it. I didn't anyway.

The emphasis was on vegetables. since they weren't rationed. No one could persuade me to eat those woody orange discs called carrots. Turnip had a rank taste plus hard bits. Onion I found slimy. And cabbage...

Desperate to keep me alive my mother drained off the cabbage liquor, added an Oxo cube and gave me the resultant drink in a cup. I can bring back the taste now - compost! You've never drunk compost? Damnit, you've got imagination haven't you?

Scroll forward sixty years. Even Tesco - poor humbled retail giant - offers a choice of cabbage. And especially Sweetheart. I ask myself is that really cabbage? How then did it leave its ancestors so far behind?

Cabbage's rehabilitation pre-dated my discovery of Sweetheart. VR served up Savoy, or whatever, as a sort of stir-fry - including lardons and fragments of onion (its sliminess forgotten). But that's comparatively elaborate.

With Sweetheart remove even finest stalks, chop small, add caraway seeds, sauté 1 min in knob of butter, cover, simmer on very low heat, S&P. Kinda luxurious. Goes with pork - Hell, it goes with anything. Reminds you WW2 is over.

Four lines in:

Straight I loosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth,
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;

Reasons why. Forget technique. "It was an act of stealth, And troubled pleasure" grabs you on its own.


Saturday 25 October 2014

I stand corrected

“Never perfect a self-tied bow-tie. It might look like a made-up.” RR to JH

When we miss someone are we being selfish? Or is it just me?

VR and I recently attended a drinks reception to honour Joe Hyam's editorship of the influential magazine, Caterer. The usual worthies were present, including telly celeb chefs Anton Mossiman and Anthony Worrall-Thompson. People spoke warmly for Joe was well regarded. Afterwards, on a more personal level, VR and I enjoyed a meal with Joe's nearest and dearest.

Back home I'm doing what I usually do. Rewriting one of my novels, Blest Redeemer. Thinking of Joe in a different context.

When Blest Redeemer starts Judith is 51 and has suffered. Time then steps back and a lengthy central section covers her mid-teens to her late thirties.

I concentrated on middle-aged Judith, thinking younger Judith would slide in naturally. How wrong I was. In effect I needed a new central character. Like asking the plastic surgeon for a replacement face.

I’ve never worked so hard on so much unusable crap. Joe, my editor, stayed calm, urged and suggested. Frustrating months passed. Finally Joe was able to say: "Time to have a bit of fun with Imogen.” Imogen is a secondary character and I could leave Death Row.

In comparison the current work is superficial, polishing not re-creating. Goodish bits are showing up. Joe deserves to see those bits; they are his as much as mine. Mind you, he might disagree. I miss him. Selfishly.

Blest Redeemer. Imogen had a theory about Middle European carnality and after three weeks it was made flesh. Momentousness occurred.  Since it wasn’t news Imogen felt could wait she told the tale still wearing an immaculate bandeau and sitting on Judith’s bed at two in the morning.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Antipathy sliced and skewered

Many have their dislikes; far fewer are prepared to explain them. Yet it's a great discipline and helps hone articulacy.

HUW EDWARDS (BBC news presenter). Operates to a formula; not a spark of life in that dead face. Two tones of voice: neutral and solemn. For great tragedies (eg, the tsunami) he slows down slightly.

CUCUMBER Remarkably aggressive taste. Behaves like a Nazi propagandist for freshness, insisting that slower, earthier tastes are somehow immoral. A Mississipi fundamentalist in vegetable form.

IAN McEWAN Much lauded British novelist, inhabiting small, contained, uninteresting yet frequently unikely worlds. Precious according to the third meaning (excessively refined, affected) and fourth meaning (used as an intensifier: highly valued but worthless). On top of all that: dull.

CONSERVATIVE/TORY PARTY Forget their so-called agonies about EU membership. They're in their element. Huge national deficit (created by bailing out the banks) is allowing them to follow their ideology and dismantle the welfare state. The nasty party gets nastier.

LADDISHNESS A negation of all that is glorious in having two genders. A delusion that laughter may redeem bad behaviour. The jettisoning of responsibility and a disdain for all that is not "immediate".

SOCCER Mildly entertaining team game where low scores mean it is obligatory to travel hopefully than to arrive. Tainted by class-wide oafishness of its supporters, the extremity of its mediators and a general sense of disintegrating values.

POPULAR TV (Dr Who, The Apprentice, cooking competitions, infantile quizzes, etc) A dislike which might be characterised as prejudice since I don't watch them. I don't have to. Programmes are trailered to the point of insanity, their banality heavily emphasised.

Please be advised; it is the reasons not the dislikes themselves that make for engaging conversation.

Monday 20 October 2014

They say it's bliss

Cogito ergo sum.

Nothing like a Latin tag for alienating readers (unless it's a Greek tag, written in triangles). Mind you, in some cases, foreignness flatters readers.

Cogs, they say, it's about gear-wheels. Written by Spannerus, the first Latin car mechanic. Whereas those who know, pass by. How banal the old fool has become, they say.  He was better (but only just) when he knew his place and blogged as a ship's bosun.

I know you all know. But with Descartes' "I think therefore I am" it's the tone that puzzles. Was he implying that anyone who thinks exists, or just him, the French smarty-boots.

Because he was smart, you know. Newton, the English smarty-boots, gave him credit.

Presently I'm thinking about lunch. It's a diet day, thus CuppaSoup minestrone, apple, satsuma. Does that thought prove I exist? How about Beef Wellington? Not that Descartes would have eaten Beef Wellington. Or perhaps he would - vengefully. But the dates are wrong.

To qualify, the thought has to be an abstraction (ie, longish. No, that's not right, love's an abstraction. Memo to self: Get out of this, fast.) Ignorance is an abstraction.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

You know that, too. QED – which has just been demonstrated (in effect). Alienation next up.

Blest Redeemer (140,873 words. It’s shrinking folks).
When Judith got a chance to check the newly stored groceries she was relieved to find raw materials rather than made-up cottage pies and lasagne. Although why on earth did this matter? Were unpeeled carrots a proof of character? Did the chicken stir-fry Imogen subsequently made and shared help rebut her parents’ worst fears?

Tuesday 14 October 2014

The (less than) great debate

Sixth-form Swank
Short story. 1954 words

THE thick lenses in Arthur Gager’s spectacles radiated circles within circles,  spinning round eyes that yearned for light. No rugby or cricket for him, not that he minded. As a sixth former he had been reduced to umpiring and found he enjoyed the authority, liked being acknowledged for his pedantry and love of arcane rules.

His outside world had gradually contracted. Rather than squinch at it he preferred to read about it. As during this brief wait for the bus. Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower was elegantly written, but even so his sensitive ears picked up the voices, animated and high-pitched. Two girls at the other bus-stop wearing their navy blue blazers. Off to their grammar school in the other direction.

Something about the girls’ images needed decoding but they were too blurry. In his brief-case were umpiring glasses which gave him more distance. But his bus was arriving with a roar and he needed to step from the kerb on to the platform without making a fool of himself.

Sitting inside the bus he removed his glasses to blot out distractions. He’d not noticed the girls before which was odd since they, like him, were using the most obvious service for getting to school. But perhaps The Proud Tower had been more gripping. Perhaps too they were not always as vocal. Tomorrow, wearing his distance glasses, he’d get another chance.

RE-ENTERING school he forget about them as the sense of sixth-form privilege descended A group of four, all equally clever, all seriously committed to history, all manipulated skilfully by Arthur’s favourite master Ted Plaice.

“Beckinsale,” said Plaice, “give me your thoughts on Charles Grey.”

An incomplete question and therefore a trap, lacking the qualification “relative to the 1832 Reform Act”. Beckinsale was however unfazed.

“The prime minister was cautious, and for good reason. He had the ear of the King.”

“Why was that important?”

“The King supported the Act reluctantly,” said Beckinsale.

“Do kings usually favour greater electoral powers for the people?”

“Not as a rule. But their regal glitter can be dulled by so many rotten boroughs. Grey truckled to the King by selling the Act as essentially a conservative measure.”

Gentle approval. And so it went on.

At the break Plaice asked Arthur to stay behind. “Do you fancy a cigarette? Outdoors.”

“I don’t smoke, sir. But I’m flattered.”

They stood together in the courtyard. “Look Young Arthur, I could fix you up with a history class but you’d do that standing on your head. I want to test your adaptability.”

“Not maths, I hope sir.” Gager touched his pebble glasses. “The blind leading the blind.”

“How about geography?”

“Good grief!”

“It’s a bum subject. But if you fail – which I’m not expecting – no innocent young mind will be scarred.”

Gager nodded. “Peninsulas and coal mining in Lodz. I’ll be pleased to give it a whirl, sir.”

“Good man.”

TRANSITUS C consisted of fourteen-year-olds who were academically going nowhere. Their parents paid fees which ultimately ensured that more brilliant minds like Arthur got a shot at Oxbridge. Surveying the classroom as they filed in he spotted a wall map.

“My name’s Gager. Cordingley, who’s Cordingley,” he called out firmly, asserting himself.

A hand rose.

“Tell me, Corders, why should that map be ignored?”

“Because I’m not into world domination… sir.”

Perhaps Transitus C weren’t duds. Just lazy.

Gager said, “Let’s assume – however difficult – you are the oughties equivalent of Phillip the Great. You’ve been handed that map for your next campaign. You immediately put out the eyes of your map supplier. Why?”

Briefly he had their attention. Someone, not Cordingley, pointed out the USSR no longer existed. Gager asked them to identify Kazakhstan and Chechnya and they played along for ten minutes. But the mood was sluggish and he saw he was losing them. As a cop-out he asked for fifty words on the difference between physical and political geography.

“You have quarter of an hour,” Gager said. “After, I want them all read out aloud. In break time if necessary.”

It wasn’t teaching but at least Transitus C were under control. He walked the aisles hoping to generate menace. As he passed by, the boy who had known about the USSR pulled out his handkerchief. No doubt he would now blow his nose with a noise resembling a fart.

From the handkerchief something fell to the floor and Gager picked it up. A photograph of a plain-looking girl wearing the girl’s grammar school blazer, reminding Gager of his unfinished business. He handed the photo back and the boy unexpectedly blushed. “Thank you, sir. It’s Hoskins, by the way. And that’s the girl-friend. IT need her photo for the programme.”


“For the debate, sir,” said Hoskins. “The annual debate.”

Dimly Gager remembered. An inter-grammar-school event that tended to cause much faux-sexual chat among the staff and the boys. Gager had never attended; the debate subjects had never seemed serious enough.

“What’s the subject this year?”

Hoskins said, “Feminism – success or failure?”

Typical, thought Gager. “It take it your… er, girl-friend is speaking?”

“Ooh yes, sir. She’s mega-clever.”

Plaice required a report on the geography class and pooh-poohed Gager’s pessimism. “I wasn’t expecting a Damascene moment, Young Arthur. No transfer of knowledge. You kept the barbarians in order. That was what mattered.”

Gager wondered whether Transitus C might have hidden virtues, that their defects might be due to other causes, not their fault. Normally he’d have discussed this but for once his mind was elsewhere. That a more or less unexceptional fourteen-year-old lad had a girl-friend.

UMPIRING glasses made things clear: the two girls – young women, Gager supposed – were carrying brief-cases, proof positive that they too were in their school’s sixth form. The traditional shoulder bag was useless for the heavy tomes of advanced learning. Both girls/women were immensely superior in looks to Hoskins’ mega-clever debater, even though they were chalk and cheese to each other. One tall, willowy, with scattered light-brown hair, the other darkly complexioned, a mildly voluptuous body and a polished-jet bob.

Gager stared at them transfixed, his mind empty of thought, given over to sensations. They noticed and the darker one waved. Gager felt his face warm up alarmingly. The first time he’d knowingly blushed.

On successive mornings he stared, they waved and finally he waved back. Both smiled. On the fifth morning the darker one called out. Gager stepped halfway across the road.

“See you at the debate tonight,” she repeated.

And Gager nodded vigorously.

Lord Melbourne’s compromises were pushed to one side as Gager, cloistered in the library, brought himself up to date on women’s politics. By his standards the sources were poor tack and he scythed expertly through book after book, unworried by the burden of dates, the validity of cross-references or of axes to grind. The authors’ names, seen previously only in newspaper headlines, ebbed and flowed in his consciousness and the range of subjects appeared to contract rather than widen. Repetition set in and he found himself drawn into the byways. Shaw engaged him with wit – a quality in short supply elsewhere – and he had time to tackle Simone de Beauvoir’s more technical journalism, untranslated from the French.

The sheets in the ring binder thickened until it was time to dash home for tea, put on a shirt and tie and walk out to the bus-stop. He had wondered whether he might share the bus with either or both of them but things turned out better still. A protective father was driving them and they stopped to pick him up. He found himself on the back seat with willowy Liz, a PPE in all but name and a degree. Pam sitting in front frightened him slightly when she confessed to organic chemistry. Gager had unaccountably suspected poor eyesight would be a hindrance with the hard sciences.

“Will you be speaking?” asked Pam, dark eyes merry and welcoming.

Gager held up the ring binder and Pam’s expression was immediately wiped away.

 “What’s that?”

“Some notes I put together. I needed a bit of background. Until today Bindel and Dworkin were just names.”


“Mostly back-up. I expect you lot will cover the big names while I fill in the cracks. Shaw impressed me all those years ago.” Alarmed by Pam’s blank face, Gager added hurriedly, “But perhaps he doesn’t count these days.”

There was no further conversation and Gager realised something had gone wrong.

THE DEBATE informed him. No one else had made notes; no one else had apparently thought twice about what they were going to say. Within minutes Gager saw that the main speakers’ research was ineffably feeble, gathered from the Internet, magazines, even television.  Of all the names Gager had ploughed through only Germaine Greer’s emerged and that as part of a weak joke based on the title of The Female Eunuch. Hoskins’ girl-friend proved to be almost childish and he realised that his few hours’ work gave him the power to wipe her out. The concept of opposing views appeared lost in a welter of parrotting.

Glancing around Gager noticed the audience included two masters who, way back, had taught him. Studiously they listened, conscientiously they applauded.

Proposers and seconders stumbled on and Gager sank back, metaphorically shrugging his shoulders. He’d misunderstood the level, any contribution he made would be hopelessly out of key, and it only remained for him to restrain himself.  Perhaps even leave now, surreptitiously.

He picked up the ring-binder, shuddering at the thought that he might have strayed unwarned into this amateur gathering, trying to sell a handful of Anne Whitefield quotes from Man and Superman. Crouching he eased himself out of his seat, turning to the end of the row.

To a deafening silence.

He hadn’t noticed.

The final seconder had abruptly closed her mouth and the moderator had gestured to the floor. Making Arthur Gager, half standing, binder in hand, appear as the first volunteer. What then? Should he sign out with an acid word from Cromwell, say, or Lord Salisbury? The authentic voice of the sixth form.

Tasting a stream of instantly available quotations he glanced voraciously round the hall and his eyes lit on the barely familiar face of Hoskins. Hoskins! That meaningless fourteen-year-old, staring vacuously. Hoskins? Oh, not Hoskins. Thrice blest Hoskins.

Specs still in place Gager looked to his right and saw Pam’s face, frowning, even apprehensive. Had she intended to speak? Had she sensed his situation from what he’d said in the car? Pam, oh God! She reminding him why he was here. Not for any rubbishy debate but to help him re-create that delicious sense of unease.

Ineluctably the sixth form ethos took over.

Gager put his binder down. “I’d like to say something to everyone from the Girls’ Grammar School. But I’m male and the chances are I’ll raise suspicions. I have to say it anyway.

“I’d like to be liked but that’s obviously too much. To be thought honest – far too big. To be thought supportive – huh, I’m asking for the moon. I’m male and males have bad records.

“So I’m lowering my sights. Are you able to think of me as polite? Nothing more?”

Silence rang out with tinnitus added.

Gager looked around, avoiding Pam’s face but saw Liz’s. Typed it as quizzical.  He shook his head. “I guess not. Sad really. Now I’ve got a bus to catch.”

THE WEEK-END intervened. On Monday he left home ten minutes early and they were there at his bus-stop, changing their brief cases from hand to hand to ease the weight. Somehow Pam seemed slightly less voluptuous, while Liz had gained authority.

Liz said, “How about alternate dates? Or if you must, a threesome?”

NAME CHANGE. The school mentioned in this story and its associated practices are imaginary. This is inevitable since I have no direct knowledge of what goes on in sixth forms - I left formal education behind at age 15. However I needed a short snappy name for a teacher and I chose one attached to a teacher who for one year did teach me. Not history (no teacher had much success with that) but another subject. In fact his methods were exemplary and there were others reasons why I admired him. Rather than have his innocently chosen name tied in with my story, I have replaced it.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Divided labour

Which spouse/partner works harder? Rephrasing, which domestic chore brings the greatest benefit? Easy. Who cares about dusty carpets, grimy baths or sweated sheets if starvation  threatens?

The Robinsons eat two meals a day and I make my own brunch. Even so, the evening meal – VR’s territory - represents 60% of regular household work, consisting of daily drudgery, planning, invention, skill, awareness of what will/won't poison, etc.

My response? All washing up The car, computers and the electricals Choosing, purchasing and serving booze             • Processing garbage  Some gardening (we have a gardener) Organising external leisure and holidays Going online with the bank Stoking the washing machine Most ad hoc DIY Devising utility strategies  Entering the loft  Taking a neutral view of the weather.

However, much of this is intermittent and rarely absorbs the remaining 40% of necessary work.

Also, VR often bakes cakes, hangs out washing (cannot be shared for ideological reasons), does some gardening and converts my newly bought, diminishing-waistline trousers from belt to braces.

Hoovering, floor mopping, etc, are done by professionals.

VR and I share making the bed, grocery shopping, our diet regime (now into its second year), watering the garden, answering the phone (a growing chore), choosing the acquisition of DVDs and CDs. Unaccounted-for work… disappears. 

A real shorty - in full:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands; and hee that will
Reach her, about must and about it goe;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, winne so.

Reasons why. Access to truth is difficult, admirably conveyed by a poem-long metaphor. The way is indirect (“about must and about it”), antique syntax (“hee that will reach”) powers the simplicity, while “hill’s suddenness” is a phrase for all time.


Tuesday 7 October 2014

Blondes thicker than blood

 There's a poll going for the best Outdoor Blogger of The Year. They say (I never say it, it's a cliché) that blood's thicker than water, so I shoulda voted for my brother, Sir Hugh. I mean what more does he have to do? Twice round the Equator (or its equivalemt), up and down the Munros (a sort of Scottish biscuit), down and through the French gorges (Gorge, in French, is throat so that sounds a bit filthy. Actually it's breast and that's even filthier).

Latterly Sir Hugh's read the Ballad of Chevy Chace, especially this verse:

For Witherington needs must I wayle,
  As one in doleful dumpes;
For when his legs were smitten off,
  He fought upon his stumpes.

With the result that he's going to do everything he did before but while bleeding to death!

What a hero. I shoulda voted for him

Instead I voted for Two Blondes Walking. But there are limits, family ties prevent me from doing a puff for them.  Click on B2 in my links and do your own puff. Then vote early and often.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Lovable or a louse?

 Beth, preparing for winter in Montreal (see above) has a warm heart. Says one of my posts has "a tenderness" adding "maybe because you're being less self-deprecating than sometimes". The quote charms me and I accept her possible reason.

But the problem remains. What tone do you adopt when writing about yourself?

Boastful? A good chance readers will drop away like Montreal flies. And indirect boasting ("People tell me... ") is just as obvious as the direct sort.

Truthful? Harder than it looks. To keep the faith you must give both sides - good and bad - which risks boasting (qv). Also, "balanced" judgments become wearisome.

Fantastical? Replacing oneself with another persona, allowing some extravagance. I did this  via my blogonyms: Barrett Bonden (dependable bosun in the nineteenth-century Royal Navy) and Lorenzo da Ponte (Mozart's main librettist). But it's a strain and can be misunderstood.

Impersonal? No capital i. You become the Ministry of Pensions. What the Hell, blogging is you and me.

So, self-deprecation. Ie, knocking oneself. But wittily (one hopes). Pro tem that's it.

Blest Redeemer (Title change imminent, I think)141,465 words.

Mabel ignored Judith’s mug, filled a bone china cup, placed it on a saucer and put it down on the desk. “You’re clever and you’re better looking than Fiona Bruce. Yet you barricade yourself behind tons of mahogany and wear bookie’s suits. A very high-class bookie, but a man of the turf nevertheless.”

Judith sipped coffee. “I needed to be taken seriously.”

“I realise that, canny. But you’re long past that. Time to be yourself. Look at you, I mean. None o’ that should be disguised.” 

Sunday 28 September 2014

The Oughties. Worth a damn? 10

Medication and Mobiles
Short story. 1815 words
His face was a damn blur; any minute now he’d cut himself, sure as eggs. Nor would specs help, the hot sink would steam them blind. The kitchen sink these days.

Damn razor was as blunt as a book-end but that was his fault, he hung on to disposables too long. A false economy one carer had told him. That had angered him and he’d sat down to do the arithmetic that would prove the young man wrong. But the urge had left him when he couldn’t find the receipt from the supermarket.

The blade bumped round the gaunt contours of his cheeks, scratching at the bristle.  Did bristles get stiffer? Seemed like it. The sound was harsher. Ten years ago it would have…

Bugger it! There it was! A deep one too, with blood oozing quickly into the foam.  Chemists used to sell a styptic pencil but it never worked. The only sure thing was a scrap of wet toilet paper but that meant going round into the lav.

Even so he’d have to wait. Yesterday he’d ironed his shirt and it hung from the picture rail. Putting it on he’d bloody it, sure as eggs. And blood was hard to get off. Ethel must have told him a hundred times: use cold water. But he’d never listened. Never had to. Better to wait until the gash scabbed over. Sitting by the window in his dressing gown.

Outside, people stopped at the traffic light then streamed into the supermarket. All of them from council houses half a mile round the back, thank God. Some of them fat, rolling from hip to hip, looking for a trolley to lean on. Pathetic.  He’d never put on an ounce. One of the fatties, pushing past for cheap potatoes, had called him a scarecrow. Bit of a compliment when you thought about it.

But it wasn’t the fatties he was watching, it was the younger lot, the teenagers. It was coolish but they wore next to nothing, even the girls. Mainly tee-shirts, often with messages. Why? Surely not advertising. Once he’d tried to read a shirt – a vest really - but gave up hurriedly because the lad had scowled. As to reading a girl’s shirt… well, there were breasts.

Older folk, like those living here in The Court, wore lots of clothes. To keep warm, of course, but also out of pride. Proper clothes showed you were still up to it, prepared to keep yourself trim. Being old wasn’t wearing rags. He himself took things a stage further, not just a shirt but a tie. You didn’t see many ties these days. Only managers at the supermarket, the tie knotted loosely as if the chap couldn’t wait to get it off.

He touched his new wound but the finger still came away pink. Perhaps he dozed a little. In any case the carer knocked on the door early. Thank God it was Sunil and not one of the women. With him still in his dressing gown. He explained about the cut and about waiting but Sunil wanted to talk about the pills.

That made him cranky."After breakfast, you said. After food. I haven’t had time. Waiting for the blood to scab over. Then I’ll need to get dressed.”

Caught out by his own advice Sunil looked round the cramped living room for something to care about. All was frustratingly neat.

“The pills, Mr Allchester, they’re important. For a better quality of life.”

Talk like that depressed Allchester. At his age “life” tended to arrive with an unseen, unspoken companion who set him thinking. “Unhealthy thoughts” Ethel had called them in her attempts to gee him up. The expectation being that he’d go first and she’d be there to keep him cheerful or whatever you did for those who were busy croaking. Neither of them knowing then how quickly pancreatic cancer worked. As it did with her.

“I know all about the pills,” he said testily.

“Ah, but do you?  Your doctor may soon be adding another drug to your prescription? Nothing other than the humble aspirin.”

“Aspirin,” said Allchester, astonished. “But that’s just for toothache.”

“Not only that, Mr A. One a day can reduce cardio-vascular disease, even cut cancer risks.”

He wasn’t re-assured. Drugs were expensive, he was told that repeatedly, whereas aspirin cost pennies. This couldn’t be good news. He tried to ask a question but Sunil was opening the sideboard drawer to take out boxes and spread them on the tiny table where Allchester had his meals.

“Just a little reminder, Mr Allchester. You need to know why you’re taking these drugs. Thinking positively helps them help you.”

Sounded nonsense but he’d no time to dispute it. Already he’d forgotten that Atenolol worked with Coracten to lower his blood pressure. Also it was Naproxen, not Simvastin,  that controlled pain in his arthritic fingers. Sunil twitted him mildly for these errors but Allchester took it badly, reckoning he was being treated like an infant. Long after Sunil had left he sat on in the living room, still in his dressing grown, working out why he resented those boxes.

It was the mystique he didn’t like. Manufactured names which were not only ugly but sneered at him. Set him at a low level, typed him as old and falling to pieces, emphasised his dependency. The boxes, or rather the drugs inside, were in effect comments on the life he had led, implying – condescendingly – they would keep propping him up. For his own good.

Allchester thought briefly about old age, then thrust the whole idea away. Youth was in the past but not the innocent stupidity of youth. He felt a sudden desire to behave stupidly, to give the finger to condescension and things that were good for him. He would stop taking the pills. All of them. It would be risky but it would be an act of independence and it seemed to work. Tying his shoe laces was less of a toil.

He  decided on a walk. Put on his most expensive tie, bought years ago at Liberty in London,because he knew it would make Ethel gasp publicly, but approve secretly. He didn’t walk far, only to the children’s playground. It had been a late discovery, watching children at play, and it was not an indulgence he needed to be fearful about. His age and obvious decreptitude stripped him of being thought a lurking menace. Occasionally mothers with push chairs smiled as they passed by.

The children ran randomly between the swings and the climbing frames, their short legs imparting a jerky side-to-side motion. He prayed to a secular deity that they would not, in later years, become fat, condemned to a way of walking that was inescapable. Prayed quite hard.

The shrill cries of the children should theoretically have irritated him since his deaf ears were sensitive to sharp noises. But he pretended to enjoy the shrieks. For the moment he was part of the playground; an unthinking world for them, a stupid world for him. No pills. The act of an idiot but a decisive act. Exhilarating too, helped by a watery sun. He drifted away, dozing but conscious of the noise and the movement around him.

As he came to he noticed a boy sitting at the other end of his bench. Older than the children playing nearby and wearing one of those articulate tee-shirts. The boy’s face was resentful and he stared beyond the playground to an open area where youths of his own age were kicking a football.

“You look glum,” said Allchester, surprised by his own audacity.

“They won’t let me play.”

“Why’s that?”

The boy shrugged. “They all have Iphones.”

Allchester took the thick Saturday edition of The Guardian – it was all he could afford. It had told him over and over what an Iphone was. He said, “But you have a mobile phone too.”

The boy relaxed his fingers and stared intensely at the silvery device in his palm, as if it were a wart he’d temporarily forgotten. When he stared at Allchester, his face contorted with hatred. Now he got up, trying, but failing, to walk away nonchalantly.

Disturbed by the lad’s expression, conscious too that the pale sun had clouded over, Allchester walked slowly back to The Court. Later, switching on the electric kettle for a cup of Nescafé, he noticed a twinge in his right index finger but thought nothing about it.

The policewoman wore one of those facetious uniform hats, like a bowler with an excessively curly brim – as if her job were to tell jokes. Allchester ushered her in and offered her Nescafé. On the brink of saying no she changed her mind and the two of them sat down, unnervingly close, at the table. She was quite pretty in a heavyish way, but her face was grubby. The bowler remained on her head.

“A minor traffic accident,” she said. “A few bumps and grazes, the driver was travelling very slowly. But the lad was with other boys and it could be one of them pushed him. Normally we wouldn’t investigate horseplay but in this neighbourhood…”

“We’re a bit middle-class,” said Allchester, smiling.

“Exactly.” The PCW smiled back. “Seems you’re a bit of a fixture at the playground. That’s to say – they like you there. No hanky-panky.”

It would be very reserved hanky-panky, thought Allchester.

“Two of the mothers saw the lad talk to you. I wondered if you’d anything to add.”

He told her that the lad had been excluded from the kick-about. But admitted he, Allchester, was mystified about the Iphone.

The PCW laughed. “You’ve got to keep up-to-date, Mr Allchester. The lad’s one down in the world. His mobile’s just a mobile. For letting his parents know where he is. The kids with Iphones hardly ever use their phones to talk. They Google, they watch the naughty bits on Facebook, text like mad. But phone home? Where’s the fun in that? It’s a techno-snob thing if you like.”

“I didn’t realise eight-year-olds were snobs.”

“Ooooh, none worse.” The PCW drank the rest of her Nescafé. “I must be off. Just a minute, silly me. I never did any identification. The lad’s Jamie Ockton.”

“I never knew his name. But I can describe him. Jeans, a black tee-shirt with white lettering. I wasn’t close enough to… “

“Oh, it’s about soccer. By that French clever-arse, Camus.” She pronounced it Kay-muss. “More middle-class nonsense.”

“Even the kids are middle-class,” said Allchester, wonderingly.

“That’s why you’re seeing me,” she said. “Don’t want complaints from the Volvo brigade. Thanks for the bit about them shoo-ing young Jamie away. It might help. Good night Mr Allchester.

As he washed up the mugs he realised the pain in his index finger had got a lot worse. Which set him thinking about Simvastin. No, damnit, Naproxen.