Shopping is several things, here are three: replacing day-to-day consumables, satisfying an identified, usually one-off, need, and exposing oneself to virtual and/or real-life temptation.
That latter has a bad reputation, the province of those with too much money and time. Unfair! When I read book reviews or The Gramophone I rarely need a book or CD, I'm asking to be tempted. Samphire may be a distant concept when I walk through a French street market but then I see it and buy it.
But how about this? In my ski-ing days I often wandered into ski shops with a blank mind. I already owned skis, boots, anorak and salopettes; replacing any cost real money. Was I comforted by "being with" these products? Was I pretending to look for improvements in a leisure industry notorious for selling fashion rather than benefits? I have no idea but I worry even now.
No one enters Tesco with a blank mind, only imperatives: sliced bread (Shock! Horror!), drain cleaner. But recently I saw a world within a world. A mother with a bunch of bananas in her trolley broke one off, peeled it and gave it to her child. An empty skin at check-out. An imperative had become a temptation and had been satisfied all within a minute: I liked the circularity, far from marketing ploys and advertising strategy.
A fantasy arose. I re-entered the ski-shop, bought skis, boots, etc, donned them, and ski-ed down a car-park now sloping and magically covered with snow. Then I knew...
Friday, 27 February 2015
Thursday, 26 February 2015
I don't watch much new telly these days but I except Wolf Hall, the BBC's plausible six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel's meaty novels about Tudor schemer/fixer Thomas Cromwell - not to be confused with Oliver of that ilk who later urged England to take stumbling steps towards parliamentary democracy, a process still woefully incomplete.
I worry that these reconstructions feed a taste for legitimised S-M porn with their detailed scenes of public executions, especially of women. No spoiler alert necessary for WH's final episode yesterday, given that it concerned Anne Boleyn's fall from grace, and for which something new in the beheading line was contrived.
Don't be put off by this but be warned: WH is a serious account of politics and the drama lies in networks of relationships which demand attention and a good memory. Meanwhile marvel at Mark Rylance's minimalist Cromwell (above), and the huge implications contingent upon the tightening of his lips. A role for which telly was invented.
A MORE modern form of porn lies in the never-ending trawl of kit to sustain enthusiasts in their leisure pursuits. Blonde Two and Sir Hugh, both extreme walkers, have a taste for this. (Too cruel, too condensed; see: Where-er you ski)
I used to walk (the synonym, hike, causes me to throw up) and my first and only rucksack was bought as ex-WW2 stock, said to be used by Army toughies called Commandos. Painful to the hips, very character-forming.
To get to "walking" places I rode a motor bike and needed gloves. The first pair, quickly discarded, were also ex-WW2 and made of crackly slick canvas for troops under gas attack. No porn in either of these items, I fear.
Wednesday, 25 February 2015
Off and on since 1972 I've "done French". Why?
● We spend most holidays in France. ● Speaking French (purposefully) gives me a buzz. ● I profit from the self-imposed discipline. ● I'm reminded how language works. ● Elitism; snobbery.
After 15 years here in Hereford the pattern is fixed. During the week I prepare about ten pages of a worthwhile novel (presently Delphine de la Vigan's Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit; note the preparatory scribble in the pic). In front of Pat, a retired languages teacher with huge reserves of patience, Beryl and I read alternate passages aloud to improve our pronunciation and then translate them as exactly as we can. We're all of an age.
After all that time you might expect I'd be word-perfect. Rather the reverse. My deteriorating memory will quite soon drive French into that black hole down which ski-ing and swimming disappeared.
But there's another problem. The complete French vocabulary is smaller than that for English (viz. 1039 vs. 1149 pages in the Collins-Robert shown). The French often modify existing words rather than create new ones, not always logically. Attendre means to wait, s'attendre (the reflexive) means to expect. Even worse, there's vouloir (to want to) and en vouloir (to have a grudge).
Such small differences tend not to stick with me.
Not that I'm complaining. If French were easier I'd be denied my snobbism. Remember the Pharisee: I thank thee, O Lord that Thou hath not made me as other men.
Which raises an interesting religio-philosophic point...
Saturday, 21 February 2015
FOOD Reduced tendency to stuff myself. Sweet things, deliberately designed to tempt (especially via chocolate), are a turn-off.
DRINK Satisfactory inexpensive red wine doesn't exist; spend more, buy indulgence
SEX APPEAL In middle age you worry enough to get your eyebrows trimmed; at 70-plus you know there's no point.
MORTALITY Aged (approx.) seven, about to fall asleep at my Grannie's, I had a terrible vision: crowds walking past my grave not caring I was dead or had even existed. Now I tell myself: "Stand not upon the order of your going." (Macbeth).
FRIENDSHIP For good, pragmatic reasons I drop acquaintances. For equally understandable reasons others (including bloggers) drop me. Painful but it eliminates ambiguity.
EMOTIONS Now more intense, more physical. Triggered by music, acts of heroism and affection from which sentimentality has been extirpated, and faces of people who are getting on with things doggedly.
HUW EDWARDS TV news reader. As I get older, so does he. The BBC may be phasing him out from News At Ten.
TV The desire to check if well-known programmes (Downton, Dr Who, Midwives, Mrs Brown) have merit - never strong - becomes ever weaker.
CURIOSITY Increasing re. cooking, technology, moral dilemmas, the plastic arts, obscure sport and religious procedures.
SNOBBISM Used judiciously can bring rewards.
Ring out ye Crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
(If ye have power to touch our senses so)
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time
I see Christmas-tree ornaments from Harrods, costing a fortune. And hear, otherwise inaudible, accompaniment by church bells. Simple, but simplicity’s usually difficult.
Wednesday, 18 February 2015
Where is the life that late I led?
Where is it now? Totally dead!
Where is the fun I used to find?
Where has it gone? Gone with the wind!
Twas my last ski-pass, bought in 2007 for the high slopes of Zermatt in Switzerland. It cost a fortune and delivered a cruel message. "You are," it said, "too old to ski." Thus the transition from "elderly" to "old - definitely old". A life of ratiocination remained.
People who haven't skied think skiers are twerps. It's dangerous, isn't it? Memories of concussion, a dislocated shoulder, a cracked scapula and a torn intercostal muscle rise to remind me. But heck, those were stretched out in time between 1978 and 2007. A small price. Applying myself differently I might have gone mad reading the novels of Margaret Drabble.
Why ski? To be transformed. To escape the lumbering body I was born with, to embrace gravity like a lover, to perform tiny physical adjustments and to emerge as a proposition in aesthetics. To glide, laughing at weight and friction among scenery that shouts out - I live! What's pain? I've caused other dinner guests to go green with nausea at my account of how Swiss doctors reduced my dislocation without anaesthetic. The power of vivid discourse.
Nothing comes for nothing. Passive pleasure is, in the end, circumscribed. There's nothing quite like letting go and depending on your instincts and what you've learned.
Saturday, 14 February 2015
Hardly out of the egg I wrote a four-liner.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
This saying applies to mine,
All other cares from my heart you will wrest,
If you'll be my Valentine.
Very anatomical. When did you last use "wrest"? (means forcibly pull). Probably never. Chances are you aren't old enough. I didn't send it to anyone, hadn't got a stamp. Let's move on.
Aged 15 I sent Pam Bayley one and she thanked me for it, while we were both waiting at the bus-stop. Formally, as if I'd lent her a garden implement. Shiny dark hair and a cheerful, assured manner, that was Pam. Hope she's not dead.
Aged 28, married to VR, I sent her just one Valentine. "Hi," I said, "just passed my driving test." You think that's a bit too English, too remote? A day later I had to tell her I'd just been made redundant from the magazine I worked on.
Since then, zilch.
That Which Is Written
Short story: 2254 words
The letter flap squeaked and the morning’s mail fluttered; once the promise of something worth reading, now mainly coercion. He remained inert on the couch easily resisting the temptation to get up. Someone else, better fitted, would collect it.
He might, however, switch off Radio 4. The Duchess of Malfi had reached the strangling scene but he wasn’t convinced. The horror was missing. The actors, both genders, spoke with elocutionary zeal as if addressing an audience hard of understanding. Whereas he…
His finger hovered over the radio but now the mail lying in the hall took on a different role. Reminding him of genuine letters up in the loft, beyond his reach. Soon to be re-explored. Wendy being due this afternoon.
Wendy and George were neighbours, people he’d nodded to. Going to bed two years ago, he’d heard voices and saw an ambulance’s blue flasher overlay Christmas tree lights outside. Saw George stretchered away to hospital. Heard he’d died on Christmas Eve. Unable to fashion anything useful when he next met Wendy he’d simply nodded again. She, apparently expecting nothing, nodded back.
But since then Wendy at least had learned how to handle bad news. When he finally returned home after his tragedy, she’d knocked urgently on his door and waited a full two minutes as he felt his way from the kitchen and fumbled with the lock. Asked urgently if there was anything she could do to help. Ashamed, he recognised her concern. Anything? Out of nowhere he recalled the letters, tightly packed in a cardboard box, written fifty years ago.
“But you’d have to use the loft ladder.” he’d said.
“I can do that. I’m still spry you know.”
She was younger than him. A petite, querying face he recalled. She had promised to “wear flatties” when she came round.
There’d be problems, no doubt. Many letters were written in ball-point on aerograms. His writing was atrocious and the ink might well have permeated the lightweight paper. In any case his memories of that period were still sharp; Singapore had been exotic and the work he’d trained for had proved absorbing.
But before that, during the training course at an RAF camp in the UK, things had been different. His life had shifted, light had been shed on a hard science he’d never expected to understand. Had he noticed these changes at the time? Had he commented in what he’d written? Or were his letters no more than a string of complaints about bad food, unwonted discipline and living with others en masse? There’d be one bonus: legibility wouldn’t be a problem since he’d been able to use his old portable.
Surely there’d be hints. He’d written regularly to his mother, at least once a week. It couldn’t all have been repetition. He hoped too he’d included names of those he’d trained with because most were now lost to him. Daydreaming, he needed names.
The Duchess of Malfi had given way to a forum about gardening and he switched over to Radio 3. Chabrier, composer of the week. He listened dully, never having got on with French music. On the coffee table was a sandwich lunch in Tupperware containers left by the carer. Too early for that yet. How about another attempt to operate the electric razor up there in the bathroom. Stupid keeping it there. It could be left anywhere.
He must have dozed because the next thing he heard was a key in the lock. He jerked upright hearing her call out from the threshold. “Wendy here. Got my climbing boots on. May I come in? I’ll bring in your mail.”
Now she was in the room, standing, he sitting. She said, “Oh look, that’s your lunch. You haven’t touched it. Shall I make you some tea?”
But he didn’t want sandwiches and especially not tea. A cognac more like. And the letters. He mentioned the hook for opening the trapdoor to the loft, for pulling down the ladder. Listened to her feet on the stairs, expecting complications. But she was back down with him in a few minutes.
“I found the box, exactly where you said it would be. But before we start here’s today’s mail. Mostly rubbish but there’s this, it looks official.”
“The hell with that,” he said, then, “Sorry, I snapped. Official can wait.”
“I didn’t mind. The snapping I mean. And you’re right – envelopes like this, this colour, can always wait.”
She sat down and he explained about the aerograms from Singapore and the conventional letters he’d written from the training camp in Wiltshire. “They’re the ones I’m more interested in. They’re typed.” He grinned. “Couldn’t take my portable to the Far East. My mother saved the envelopes so the date stamps will give you the sequence.”
She said, “Just one thing. These are letters to your mother. I don’t expect there’ll be anything too personal. But you were a young man at the time. I wouldn’t want you embarrassed.”
His throat constricted. Her sensitivity tore at him; a consideration he would never have come up with in a thousand years. “If you can bear it I can,” he mumbled. “I doubt there’ll be rude words. My mother didn’t approve of swearing.” He paused. “I got on well with my mother.”
“I can tell that. Just give me a few minutes while I put them in order.”
To occupy himself he ate one of the sandwiches, not with any great enthusiasm. It seemed like meat paste, predominantly salty.
He’d been moved by the way she’d protected his feelings. Calling him “a young man” was more than just a phrase. As she began to read the letters aloud, the sense of being cherished grew. Her accent was south-east England with even a hint of Cockney but that was unimportant. She read slowly, clearly, for him alone, not trying to show off. The information from those early days was unexceptional, factual, mainly descriptive but that didn’t matter either. What warmed him was her voice acting in the service of words he had written. A service he could no longer provide for himself.
The writing style began to change as he, the writer, became more introspective. Now mentioning the others he trained with. Beyond that a name: John Carpenter. One of several he’d forgotten but the angular face was now clear in his mind.
“John Carpenter,” he said. More loudly than he intended.
Wendy stopped. “Was he important?”
“Not particularly at the time. More now.”
“Do you want to talk about him?”
“It’s nothing sensational, pretty dull really. But I see him in a slightly different light now.”
“Isn’t this why I’m reading these letters? So you can respond? Tell me about John Carpenter.”
He cast his mind back. The intake for the course had been a mixed bag: two solicitors, a police cadet, a farmer. Electronics was new to all of them and some found it difficult. John was one of the solicitors and his disciplined mind grasped things quicker than most. Two things set him aside: he was a lay preacher with a Nonconformist church; religious belief of any kind was rare in the RAF. Also, he was engaged to be married and this made him more adult among what were mainly adolescents. In fact the marriage was planned to happen during the eight-month course and with uncharacteristic humanity the RAF had arranged for him to stay on as an instructor at the camp for the rest of his service. Allowing him to commute home weekly from Wiltshire to London.
“All very comfortable for John,” he told Wendy. “But there was one snag. Potential instructors needed good scores in the tests. No problem with the theoretical stuff, of course, John had taken to that like a duck to water. He could also do circuit fault-finding. What he was hopeless at was using his hands. We had practical tests – basic metalworking, wiring up a terminal board, tidying cable ends. John never managed to finish any of it on time and his standards were terrible.”
“All brain, no application,” said Wendy.
“Exactly. But rules were rules.”
“Except when they get bent.”
He nodded. “So they bent them. I’m told when he re-took the practicals he had three instructors round him, whispering in his ear, nudging his elbow, applying the solder. He passed.”
He sighed, shifted on the couch. “This is going to sound unimportant. I liked John. He was a good person but not goodie-goodie. He joined in. Given his seriousness I wondered if he regretted that test. I mean it wasn’t an abstract exercise. He profited from being an instructor; for him National Service was as soft as it could be. How did that sit with his lay preaching?”
“You never asked him?”
He sighed again. “As I said, it’s the difference between then and now. At the time I thought it was sort of funny.” He paused for almost a minute, finally speaking in a low voice. “It’s a moral problem I suppose. These days I spend a lot of time thinking about that kind of thing. What else should I do?”
Wendy reached forward to the coffee table. “That official letter you got this morning is from West Mercia Police. I think I’d better open it, don’t you agree?”
The sound of the envelope being torn was painfully harsh. Wendy said, “It’s quite short. They aren’t going to prosecute. They believe the other driver was at fault; despite the position of your car on the road, despite all the questions they were forced to ask; they regard you as innocent. You did your best under impossible circumstances. The detective-superintendent offers his condolences about your wife and your injuries.”
Finally he said, “It’s odd. I knew I was innocent of breaking the law. But never innocent of killing my wife.”
She was immediately indignant. “But guilt depends on intent. You’ve been thinking about morality. Well that’s the key. There’s no immorality involved.”
“I was the instrument that killed her.”
For the first time Wendy’s voice rose. “Fate killed her.”
He shook his head. “Logic doesn’t answer every question. Being guilty for the wrong reasons still feels like guilt.” Making an effort he straightened up, turned his damaged face towards her. “But look, I never wanted this. I’ve disturbed you and I’m sorry. You read out John Carpenter’s name and that set me thinking. Let’s forget John’s tiny problem.”
“Not so tiny,” she said nervously.
“I suppose not. A good person but perhaps he was able to thrust his memories to one side. Perhaps he forgot them. Being good doesn’t mean being perfect. We’re all allowed our failings. I hope I haven’t broken the spell. Could you please read me a few more letters.”
She did so and was drawn into his daily life all those years ago. Hitch-hiking to Weston-super-Mare one Saturday, wearing his uniform to trade on drivers’ generosity. Problems with units of measurement in calculus. Who stole the plugs from the washbowls? When she looked up he appeared to be listening intently but his expression now seemed artificial. It was he who brought the reading to an end.
“I’m very grateful,” he said, with rather too much emotion.
She put down the letter, ensuring he heard the paper rustle. Said, “On the night George was very ill I delayed calling the ambulance. Dialling 999 seemed such a disruptive thing to do; I felt timid, shied away from the phone. Then he got worse and that terrified me, I had to call. Could that hour’s delay have been crucial? A delay for no good reason?”
She stood up, her confessional tone gone. “Shall I come round tomorrow? I’ve glanced at some of the aerograms and I’m fairly sure I can decipher them.”
He said nothing.
“There’s lot to go at.”
“You were a great letter-writer.”
If there was any expression it was fixed in the past. Remote and mulish.
She knew his first name but was incapable of using it. She feared this growing distance between them, worried about what might happen, assumed the worst.
She said, “My GP wanted to prescribe tranquillisers but I wouldn’t take them. He insisted the delay hadn’t mattered, that George was dying. Just words. For six months I didn’t sleep.”
Tinily he cleared his throat.
“I’m over it now,” said Wendy.
Silence. But had his face softened a mite?
“I have to say,” she whispered, “the reading’s for me as much as for you. I really want to read some more.” Greatly daring, she touched his face to the left of his shattered eye socket. “May I? Please.”
Perhaps he nodded.
Outside on the driveway she waited, her teeth chattering. She hadn’t worn a coat because he lived so near. Cars went by, into and out of the estate. Ten minutes passed. People must think I’m a fool, that it’s romantic. Oh George, George.
As the sky darkened she heard sounds inside. Scratchy music reduced almost to nothing by the walls. Strings. Difficult stuff. Since George’s death she’d taken to listening to the radio and she had an inkling it was a quartet. Good, but music alone was what mattered. Now she could leave him, go home, make tea.
After that clear out the fridge. A hateful job which George – recognising her feelings in the last year or so – had occasionally done for her. Now cleaning the fridge brought with it a faint expectation. Foolish of course.
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
VR recently asked me to taste a beef skirt casserole. It not only tasted fine but it met another of my criteria: it had that gluey consistency (often more apparent from a re-heat) that gains my final approval.
Grapes have tactility potential. Bite them slowly; dwell on the moment your teeth pop through the outer skin - the essence of a tactile experience.
Bread's freshness is identified by its smell and its unique resistance (or lack of it) to your incisors. But a slice of tomato turns the bread soggy ruining its initial appeal; for me salad must be confined to a sideplate.
Expanding my thesis: tactility is also sensed with the ears as well as the finger-tips. Edna, my mother-in-law, loved one-arm bandits. But she admitted that if the machine's crunching sensation - a sound and a vibration - were removed, she would give up the vice.
When wood-sawing is going well there's confirmation in the rasping sound and the consistent mini-shudder communicated from blade to handle.
Tactility can be proof of unpleasantness - eg, efficient tooth-drilling vs. the actions of a butcher dentist.
Then there is the ultimate tactile sensation which nature has embedded in us to ensure we keep on breeding. Stopping short of that consider the kiss: the feel of the lips, of course, combined with tiny movements of the jaw, the sounds and zephyrs of someone else breathing, and that (frequently divine) smell.
PS: Yes, I know, sound is a vibration. But the above is physiology not physics.
Saturday, 7 February 2015
Here Friday is the best night of the week: the weekend still a leisured theory. Good wine and good convenience food. Last Friday (yesterday) Peking duck in pancakes, nothing demanding at the stove for VR.
A starter came: two perfectly eviscerated and beheaded sardines on slices of baguette, their cooking finished off in the Neff. I ate mine quickly then decorked the Cremant, thinking about the sardines.
VR asked: How did I enjoy the starter? In a neutral voice I said: not at all. She said oh.
I sat down hating myself for not liking the fish. When VR came in I asked, again in a neutral voice, how she liked the sardines. She made that balancing gesture with the flat of her hand. I said quite, quite truthfully I was glad she took the risk. She smiled and said she had to try different things from time to time.
Against the odds the England rugby team, much diminished by injury, beat Wales at Cardiff. VR watched too, asked questions. The clock struck thirteen.
Parenthetic note: Joe was romantically attached to sardines.
“Come little cottage girl, you seem
To want my cup of tea;
And will you take a little cream?
Now tell the truth to me.”
Part of a series The Poets At Tea, this one headlined: Wordsworth, Who Gave it Away.
An explanation? You’re joking! Parody can be poetry and should be fun. I suspect this is what the English are best at, to the point of baffling other nationalities. Sorry about that. But we never set out to be all things to all men. Ask the Welsh.
Barry Pain (1867 – 1928).
Wednesday, 4 February 2015
|Vic, Edna and Grannie at the Constitutional club, |
an organisation that ruined many constitutions
He wrote me a jolly reply saying he didn't mind. Which was sporting given that, then and thereafter, he was never entirely sure about my means of support. Didn't think journalism was "a real job". Since Vic was a chef and wore a toque in the kitchen, his employment was never in doubt.
Obviously I was not the sort of son-in-law Vic and his wife Ed expected, especially since an earlier contender was entitled to wear a sword on certain occasions. But I was tolerated and, as the years rolled by, my in-laws’ generosity was unstinting.
VR's Grannie, however, genuinely approved of me because of my regional accent. Born in the Midlands, she had one too.
Just recently I heard a new Grannie anecdote. She came to London to meet VR, then a State Registered Nurse, and asked to walk round London's naughty bit, Soho, to see if the Ladies of the Night existed. Pure curiosity. Not only was it true but several LotNs addressed VR as "Nurse" since her work at Charing Cross Hospital, near Soho, involved patching up said ladies.
In the late fifties, the UK was famed for hypocrisy, with Profumo only a year or two away. I liked Grannie, knew something of her hard life, and feel sure her interest was neither prurient nor hypocritical. But I wish VR had told me earlier so I could have teased Grannie. She was up for being teased and teasing back.
Sunday, 1 February 2015
Fatal in that we risked our lives. Theoretically it wasn't all that cold (6 deg C) but the wind stripped us of all body heat and then seemed set to separate the flesh from our bones. I watched Zach anxiously as the colouring departed from his face, leaving only his nose and the area round his lips a healthy pink.
At half-time I photographed him in case one or all of us didn't make it to full-time. I haven't captured the colours terribly well but there's compensation in Zach's monomaniacal stare as he waits for the second half to start. If his teammate, Euan, (on the right) looks less uncomfortable it's because he's only just been brought on, having spent the first half suitably anoraked.
The events of the game matched the meteorological heroics. The pitch sloped alarmingly and Zach's team initially played uphill. At half-time they were 3 - 1 down. Downhill they showed their class and won 7 - 3. Zach was easily the smallest player yet he was playing defence ("Because he tackles," said his Mum, Occasional Speeder). He showed no interest in wind chill.
We returned home where the central heating was roaring and there was soup (shredded ham with peas), bacon sandwiches, and, for those of an age, the remainder of the cooking brandy.