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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
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Wednesday 30 July 2014

Innocent and woundable

Sometimes - let's say, very rarely - I admire my younger self. Here I am with my bike, aged 16. I'm accompanied by a pal and I've stopped briefly in the middle of England. I'm en route from Bradford to London a distance of 200 miles and I will arrive on the morning of the third day. I will be staying in a squalid hostel in  Hoxton, sleeping in a dormitory and cooking my own evening meal.

Call that a holiday? These days I'd prefer to open my veins. But that's comparing then with now. The road in the background is the A1, then the main arterial from London to "The North". Note the grass verges; much safer for bikers. These days I'd be squeezed against a kerb before I reached Wakefield.

I didn't cycle for fun, only to get there, to wander round London streets spending nothing. After two nights in Hoxton I'd leave for the Isle of Wight, taking the ferry from Southampton. I can remember absolutely nothing about the IoW.

In retrospect it seems mildly adventurous but not then. In 1952 it seemed logical and - above all - cheap. I'm astonished by my teenage fitness; there were days when I covered 80 miles. The high spot occurred at a railway station near where this photo was taken. I was leaning on a gate watching school-kids - in blazers - getting on to a train. Especially one girl, perhaps a year younger than me, inspecting me through a lowered carriage window, finally smiling. Then the smile seemed conspiratorial; now I suspect she thought my beret was stupid. How wounded I'd have been had I known.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Only 300 days (approx.) to go

CAST (in order of appearance)
Daniel (Ysabelle's partner)
Occasional Speeder (RR's younger daughter)
Ysabelle/Bella (RR's granddaughter)

Daniel (Famed for fearing "different" food): Remember when I had mussels? Good times.

Occasional Speeder: Yeah – I remember – the “Allo Allo” thing came on – and Bella was like that Peter Kay sketch about the wedding disco DJ: “What’s he saying – eh? Oh he said “mussels” I heard that.”

So off we went to the centre with BG (Big Grandad - ie, RR) and got mussels off a man with no teeth. Then LG (Little Grannie - ie, VR) got involved cleaning them– then I did the stuffing and Bella and LG were sorting stuff – then LG  cooked them but best of all – you tried them. And you ate quite a few. But I think you knocked wine on mine – but it was ok because there were many.

L’Equipe lay on the table, a lilo bobbed on the pool, and wine and cider were distributed. It was warm and lovely and we never wanted to come home.

Don’t miss it at all…

Daniel: Haha, I miss it. lots.

Ysabelle: Me too.

Occasional Speeder (in e-mail to RR): Today we are sad.

Another short extract from Swann’s Way:

The hour when an invalid who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under the bedroom door. Oh joy of joys! It is morning…. (But) the ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight, someone has turned out the gas, the last servant has gone to bed…

Friday 25 July 2014

Who and where I am

Much as I'd like to be gritty working-class, given to brawling in pubs, I know I’m middle-class, defined by what I do and what I avoid doing.

I avoid package holidays, Bargain Booze shops, displays of sentimentality, pizza, Sloanes, the whole of the Iberian peninsula bar Portugal, playing competitive games, seaside resorts, small cars, steak dinners, many forms of youth, front lawns, ash-trays and Huw Edwards.

I bang the drum for Lyse Doucet (BBC’s Canadian correspondent in Gaza), John Lodwick novels, non-patronising explanations of quantum theory, the sign Dégustation gratuite, Richard Strauss orchestral songs, Helmut Schmidt, blanquette de veau, Alastair Sim, BBC4, the role of the short-stop, the Diafani - Vananda - Diafani swim, zinfandel and the Marais area in Paris.

Very occasionally these boundaries are crossed. In the UK fish-and-chips is, or should be, classless yet VR and I knew we weren’t getting the best out of this delicious meal. VR tracked down the reason. We were using namby-pamby, utterly middle-class white wine vinegar on the chips instead of robust, even vulgar malt vinegar, Hence the Sarson’s, our gesture towards a fairer society. In a plastic bottle, naturally.

First verse of two:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears;
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

Reasons why. Are we able to judge this (as poetry) without the second  - obviously resolving – verse? Rhythm impeccable, the imaginative use of “seal”, the enticing emergence of “she”, and of course the conciseness of “earthly years”. I say a resounding yes but I’m merely your mediator.


Wednesday 23 July 2014

Invisible milestones

ONE OF LIFE'S OBLIGATIONS It's 06.20, nearly time to get up. My Longines sitting on my bedside chest-of-drawers says so and my Longines is never wrong. My Longines cost a fortune, a gift from VR thirty or forty years ago; its clear face and needle-sharp hands tell Swiss truth.

I reach over to put it on and I know - sinkingly - something's wrong. A familiar wrongness which has happened perhaps a dozen times. Sweat from my wrist has rotted the stitching of the strap and the buckle is now detached. The penalty of wearing a leather strap. But, alas, there is no alternative.

Once I substituted a plastic strap which lasted longer. But brother Nick, now in a rest home, his mind adrift with Alzheimer's, told me the watch was too good for plastic and I immediately agreed.

A metal strap? Sixty years ago a sub-editor on the newspaper that employed me as a tea-boy said metal straps were "a mark of the beast". I immediately agreed with him, too.

Leather straps cost £20 a pop. I can afford that and must. VR and Nick deserve it; I'm reminded of them both when I tell the time. Which is now 07.06.

FRENCH BIGGIE Another short extract from Proust's A la Recherche. The key is to read it slowly because it, like the Longines, is concerned with time. Time cannot be hurried.

I would ask myself what o'clock it could be, I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station, the path that he followed being fixed for ever...

Monday 21 July 2014

Zach again, I fear

Doting grandparents can quickly sicken blog readers. Twice this month I've done Zach and here he is again.

Cultural Base Widened (July 12) saw Zach in a purple dress and ravishing auburn wig. It arrived via an e-mail his mum labelled "Disturbing". So disturbing I had to compensate for gender ambiguities by listing his other leisure-time pursuits, notably soccer.

Bewigged, Zach played Lady Jane Seymour in a school play about the Tudors. But this was his second role. His first was as the Scot, James The Something, husband of the daughter of Edward The Thingummy (history was never my strong point). Zach, wearing only a kilt and a sort of plaid shawl, is shown above speaking to the much taller Anne Boleyn. Commendable if dull.

But what startled the audience (including his mum) was on his own initiative, eight-year-old Zach adopted a Scottish accent. Possibly copied from recently retired Sir Alec Ferguson, mega-succesful manager of Man United, but never mind. Fond grandparent indeed.

Oh yes, and when the cast was short a female actor for Jane Seymour, Zach volunteered. Next stop, surely, a career in banking.

Here’s an ambiguous one:

And now if e’er by chance I put,
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe,
A very heavy weight
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know –

Reasons why. Doggerel? I think not. It’s too professionally rhythmic for a start. The sequence of disasters is progressive and maintains one’s interest. And surely you find yourself needing to know how the comparison is resolved. None of which, on its own, spells poetry. But all together?

Lewis Carroll

Friday 18 July 2014

Embarrassment - a second try

My late mate Joe (née Plutarch) handled social embarrassment better than I did and yesterday's post, A Little Tit-For-Tat, tried to explore this. It failed and I deleted it. This should be an improvement.

Forty-plus years ago I attended an odd press conference. Joe, sponsored by a forklift company, had written a booklet about forklifts and was conducting the launch. Since Joe was my editor boss I was merely a passive spectator. Another journalist asked the obvious question touching on Joe's impartiality as author. I winced sympathetically and was relieved when Joe responded well.

Thirty years later, as an editor myself, I spoke at a press conference to launch my magazine's logistics exhibition. In the audience were journalists from magazines competing with mine. The issue was: did industry need this new exhibition? I'd prepared myself  and came out on top.

Both occasions had the potential for a special type of embarrassment. I suspect Joe avoided his problem as I avoided mine: through preparation.

But Joe could also avoid wider embarrassment, typically when approached by a street loonie. He embraced the event. Asking questions he defused the awkwardness. Whereas I tended to walk away furtively. Real mates usually have skills one lacks; this was one of Joe's.

FRENCH BIGGIE As hinted I've started re-reading A La Recherche... It fits me like an old shoe. Recommending Proust is far too dangerous but how about an extract now and then?

… awake again for short snatches only, just long enough to hear the regular creaking of the wainscot, or to open my eyes to settle the shifting kaleidoscope of the darkness, to savour, in an instantaneous flash of perception, the sleep which lay heavy upon the furniture, the room, the whole surroundings of which I formed an insignificant part…

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Who's for new? Not I

Getting older means fewer opportunities to do something new - you've tried most things that tempt you. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I recently replaced the seat on the downstairs loo. I've done this before so it wasn't new. But a day later one of the plastic buffers between seat and porcelain detached itself and disappeared. Flushed into oblivion no doubt.

VR complained, Said she felt unsafe, sitting there, rocking.

I improvised with four door-stops. I re-shaped them then needed four washers. Found them - just four! The work took less than an hour. Lav-seat buffers are new to me and, briefly, I was able to give old age the finger.

But you see what I'm reduced to. Lav-seat buffers aren't viable cocktail party chat. Many cocktail drinkers wouldn't admit to sitting on a lav-seat even in their own home.

OK. Old age may deny us the new, but it may also encourage us - beneficially - to distrust it.

Here at Chez Robinson books flow, helping VR to meet her annual target of 230 titles. I read hardly any of them. Yet I still read.

Waiting on my Kindle is a new translation of Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu and an illustrated (!) version of Joyce's Ulysses. Aha, you say, many people have unread Proust and Joyce on their Kindle. But I've done the former three times and the latter (I think) four times. I look forward to doing both again.

So, you snarl, I’m just boasting. Maybe. My problem is I'm unconvinced anything new will stack up. I lack the energy to waste time on disappointment. Both these books are good - if difficult - reads with more to reveal. Watch as I adopt the foetal position.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Cultural base widened

Here’s my eight-year-old grandson Zach. The photo demands explanation, but first a little of Zach's CV.

Indoors his nose is close to some electronic device or other. Telly watching is divided between soccer and teenager programmes.

On holiday he was willingly hurled into the swimming pool by Daniel, he played ping-pong and soccer shoot-outs with his dad, and during the scorching afternoons he could be heard kicking a ball against the villa wall. He volunteered to go kart-racing.

On Saturdays at home he plays soccer with youths who are mainly much taller. Despite his shortness he is the team's best goalie although he also plays conventional attack/defence in the field. He is routinely voted The Game's Most Valuable Player.

A typical lad de nos jours.

Here he’s in costume as Jane Seymour in a school play about Henry VIII. VR admits herself baffled in that the play is somehow "satirical" and might be "grown up". There you have it.

SO DULL After my early-morning stint at the computer, I return to bed where VR and I discuss matters of little moment. Like: why is corned beef so called? The answer is incredibly uninteresting. Corned beef is processed with salt, originally in largish crystals about the size of corn grains.

Corned beef cans are rectangular in cross-section, gently tapered and come with an opening key. Why? The key is mated with a tag and then rotated; removing a strip of metal round the can, avoiding jagged edges typical of can-opener usage. The tapering allows the meat to be pushed out without damage, leaving it ready to be sliced.

A small prize for anyone who can reveal previously unknown facts about a domestic item which exceed the above in dullness. Lying allowed.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Re-introducing Blessed Jane

Recently I’ve been off Jane Austen. Not her fault. She simply became inescapable on telly which is how most newer fans identify her. Far too many versions of P&P although the P&P sequel, Death Comes To Pemberley, was a moderately entertaining TV Christmas special.

An interactive Austen session at Hay put me back on track and I'm presently re-reading Mansfield Park. For those who only know P&P, MP will come as quite a shock; for one thing the heroines are polar opposites. Feistily forward Elizabeth Bennett has little in common with MP's timid, self-effacing Fannie Price.

Only a year separates the novels yet MP includes much more real-time narrative. Given a good idea (the multi-motivated visit to Sotherton, the unsanctioned amateur dramatics) Jane lets the dialogue - and the action - run, page after page. Thus there's less need for those visible contrivances whereby A is transported to B, or C "accidentally" meets D.

And then there's Mrs Norris, a Gorgon who is almost too realistic. Am I glad I was born into the twentieth century!

No more shilly-shallying with dubious doggerel. For me this is good:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages.

Now over these small hills they have built the concrete
That trails black wire;
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret

Reasons why. I love the compression and the palindromic echo of the first two lines. The choice of “turned on” in line four. The simile in line eight and the way “secret” is picked up again and somehow reversed. OK, it’s just descriptive, there’s no philosophy. But that’ll do, Pig.

Stephen Spender

Sunday 6 July 2014


Next month I'll be seventy-nine. After that, who knows? If being seventy-plus is to be enfeebled, being eighty-plus inevitably directs my mind towards higher things: should I or should I not add one of Strauss's Four Last Songs to the valedictory programme?

I haven’t blogged recently about the novel, the present one, Second Hand.  Instead I've written thousands of words of comment for others' blogs, revelling in that privileged community. I launched Joe's Nudge, frequently discovering I'd bitten off more than I could chew. The novel lurked.

The draft stood at 58,000 words. I checked what I had and the subsequent editing came perilously close to a rewrite, with 5000 words blowing away like chaff. Three weeks ago I resumed the story. Francine, tough-minded, tortured, transmogrified,  returned. As always it's the hair that counts; hers is loose floppy blonde, flat to her head, can't be styled. (Blonder and flatter than the pic; with a less knowing face).

Re-starting brought that terrifying moment; imagination is an infrequent visitor and may not call at all. No guarantees. A week in I wrote:

He laughed, poured her some more Burgundy. Both had ordered fish but had merely haggled what was on their plates. The restaurant was expensive and modern, in the heartless straight-line style. The waiters were expert, sympathetic and young, with open-necked shirts and rolled-up sleeves, and they were smiling at a minor dilemma – at what point would the ruined fish cease to be part of the meal and demand removal?

It's not Molly Bloom's soliloquy. Or Robert Jordan in his chancre of a hill. Or the funeral of old Mr Crouchback. What pleases me is when I started that para, I couldn’t see the end. A muffler and slippers against being eighty.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Sartorial notes: part XXIV

At Dennis's funeral (qv) I felt elevated. To go with my only formal suit I wore my black shoes and they have heels. I teetered like a lady of the night.

My black shoes are at least twenty-five years old and cost a horrifying £45. I swore I would get full value at that price and so it is proving. The question is should I be cremated in them; since I hate my formal suit this seems unlikely. The shoes have been re-soled.

Since I retired I've worn heelless trainers. But fatness dictated a change of plan since I struggled tying the laces. Velcro seemed the answer and readers of Works Well (which preceded Tone Deaf) were full of reassurances. However they failed to mention a serious snag. As I slip my feet into the shoes, the Velcro is free to flap and attaches itself to other parts of the shoe's suede upper. More trouble for the fat man.

After a year on the five/two diet I have lost two stones (= 28 lb). En route from Tesco, my morning shadow seemed elegantly lithe. I am encouraged. As a flaneur (look it up) shabby shoes become me and laces are no longer a problem. My disintegrating trainers will do.


Can this be poetry? It's included in The Poet's Tongue and therefore has Auden's and Garrett's approval.

One cannot help think
how much better it would have been
if Vronsky and Anna Karenin
had stood up for themselves, and seen
Russia across her crisis,
instead of leaving it to Lenin.

Aimed at literary snobs. But we all know who Vronsky was, don't we? Even without the give-away. "Across" adds a necessary syllable; should be "through". Clumsy.

D. H. Lawrence

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Two Cockney sparr'ers

When Ivy died a couple of years ago I knew Dennis wouldn’t live long. They were our neighbours held together by hyphens, Dennis-and-Ivy, a human unit, sharing the same oral history, capable of making me laugh and laugh. Dennis died while we were on holiday and the funeral was on Monday.

John their son talked about the music, starting with Willie Nelson's elegiac Georgia On My Mind. "I didn't think much of country western," John admitted, but Dennis had persuaded him otherwise. With Peggy Lee's Things Are Swingin', also quiet, John had difficulty talking. He still held his handkerchief when I shook his hand. "Dennis’s Cockney mind was too quick for Herefordians," I said. John, who'd never met me, looked up through his tears. "It's funny, he always said they lacked a sense of humour." Maybe. My bet was Dennis's natural wit left them bobbing in his wake.

John's partner, Helen, read out a list: fine dad, played cricket, stubborn, a good union man. That last one made my gut stir. Dennis belonged to an era when unions meant something. I’d forgotten.

I recalled them coming over for Christmas drinks. Dennis was in minesweepers during the war; didn’t exaggerate or undersell what happened; didn’t need to. Funny nevertheless.

Ivy bowled (outdoors, on grass) with great skill, something Dennis took up when cricket and golf were beyond him. "Is he any good," I asked Ivy. She raised her hand and quacked her fingers like a duck's beak. He talked too much.

Never too much, Ivy. I've tried to recall Dennis’s stories but they were born out of character, place and a special form of language, enriched by a groany-wheezy East End accent. I’d risk betraying him. Never mind. He’s joined Ivy now but two bright lights have been  extinguished.