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Saturday 28 March 2015

Chance'd be a fine thing

Indulge me with this.

I'm into the home straight with my novel, Second Hand. This morning I had someone address Francine in words which took on added meaning and immediately I recognised I had a strand of the final chapter in place. I went to lunch damned pleased.

I decided to play some music. From  a wide selection of Haydn string quartets I picked one at random; it turned out to be possibly the loveliest - the second movement being the melody for the German national anthem, played slowly and yearningly. I sang along.

As I did so I recalled my best friend, Richard, dead these last 17 years from motor neurone disease. He shaped most of my musical tastes and was a Haydn enthusiast. Said H was frequently superior to Mozart. I reflected on the link between Richard and the music then playing; even more so on the fact that I - guided years ago by Richard - had been the instrument that had today reached for the Haydn. An accidental tribute to someone I owed a lot to.

I thought about another best friend, Joe. Remembered how, on the top deck of a London bus, I had recommended the LvB Grosse Fuge quartet and how Joe had subsequently played it almost until the day he died. How he, on the other hand, had introduced me to the novelist George Eliot, how I'd read through everything (Felix Holt the Radical, re-read last year) ending with her masterpiece, Middlemarch.

A week or so ago I had a feeble go at defining happiness then gave up. But the above cat's cradle seems full of that elusive quality.

Friday 27 March 2015

Out of my depth

Sorry, I misled you all. Roger belonged to a non-photographic era; this is a not-very-close approximation. Far too active for one thing
I'm writing about Roger simply because it's so difficult. He was my parents' dog and may have arrived about the same year I did: 1935. If so he and I co-existed without mutual recognition for at least five years. I have no connected memories of this period. For all I know we may have harboured a rhinoceros as a pet.

I started becoming aware of things in 1940 which, you will observe, is not entirely surprising. I first knowingly met Roger beneath the dining room table; I'd gone there when I heard my father tell my mother the country was at war. I have the impression Roger was a hound rather than a mere dog. He had a rough orange coat and his head tapered into a disappointing, grizzled snout.

At some point I started to tease Roger, a general tendency I still haven't completely suppressed. I remember the wounded look on his face. Then he snarled. My mother uttered a corrective noise and, pigheaded though I was, I saw Roger's next reaction would be to snap. I didn't tease him again for several hours, never pushing him beyond snarling. A dull family anecdote ensued, my mother announcing from time to time that Roger hadn't bitten me. True but uninteresting. There were lots of things Roger never did.

My mother told me that when I was younger, passing through my non-remembering period, Roger stood up abruptly late one evening, the hair bristling down his spine, and growled. From this my mother advanced a theory about the existence of ghosts. In her thirties she took to writing novels and poetry.

Roger was eventually "put down", my first experience of this phrase. Even then I recognised it didn't work as a euphemism - the heartlessness was in no way disguised.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Fool's paradise

The Guardian colour supplement (a dubious Saturday blessing) always carries a Q&A-format piece about some celebrity or other. Based on the same set of questions, such as: When were you happiest?

This is shrewder than it looks. Since The Guardian is aimed at smarty-boot readers (RR included) this requires a smarty-boot answer, neither glutinous nor obvious. Thus incipient bores who reply "Now, as of this moment." are marked down as missing the point, even if it happens to be true. Lying is allowed as is heartlessness.

The question also tests the nature of happiness and its duration. I might say I was happiest when calm-faced M, resident in Bingley, the Aire Valley, Yorkshire, agreed to come out with me on what in those days was called "a date" - my first ever. That the outing was a waste of time for all concerned just shows that happiness is - and must be - evanescent. As a mendacious, smarty-boots Guardian reader I draw back from pretending I was happiest on this 1955 occasion.

Guardian readers love to promote their own intellect. So I might well say I'm never happier than when responding to the challenge of writing plausible sentences. An utter nonsense, of course, since no one but a fool writes for pleasure.

Drinking one of my father's bottles of Big Five claret? Nah, there was always the predictable aftermath.

Listening to a late LvB quartet? I can never avoid a poncy feeling of self-consciousness.

Emerging from the southern end of the Chunnel in early June? Not on your life; France is not a happy country.

Finishing Proust? Who’m I going to tell? Another Guardianista?

Happy to discover I have never been happy? Now that's more The Guardian style. More please.

Friday 20 March 2015

Boxing clever

Astronomy's not really my bag.The distances are unimaginable, the universe resembles a bomb-site, theories tend to be over-speculative, and myth-lovers got in first on the names. But I couldn't, in all conscience, ignore today's solar eclipse.

For one one thing it was so damn convenient: five minutes before I was due to leave for French. Also VR loves the heavens.

So I made us a pinhole viewing camera (above) and we pointed it at the sun from our front driveway. Our neighbours across the street were using sunglasses and smart-phones.

Gradually the bite-shaped slice moved in and VR's delight was my just reward. Yet, there was more. One of the girls opposite, dissatisfied with modern technology, ran across for a look via our viewer, saw the slice and said (Bless her!): "That's cool."

I asked for no other encomium.

ACHES in my back demanded the services of a masseur. The nearest guy turned out to be blind, had fingers classed as weapons, and was built, to quote our friends, "like a brick shithouse." As a novice his chest measurement was in the forties, now the fifties. "For every action," says Sir Isaac, "there must be a reaction."

He shifted my back muscles around as if they were topsoil; the pain was extreme but cleansing. Then he moved down a little and from being merely extreme the pain became grunt-worthy. Astonishingly it also made itself felt on my front, at the bottom of my ribcage - the attachment point for the inter-costals, I believe.

"Now I know what tarmac feels like," I said. He laughed. "Did you expect a pretty girl with a feather?" he asked. No-groan-oh. I didn't.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Take care, you're leaking

To waste time is to admit that that part of our life is meaningless. Shocking! - for time is a non-renewable resource and we cannot know how much we've been allocated.

You know what? Such truisms  are a waste in themselves. Time is lost as a matter of course.

Has your electric kettle got an external tube indicating the level of water within? Good. You choose to boil water for a cup of Bovril. Afterwards is there water left in the tube? If so, you wasted time and electricity.

Your mind is rotting and you opt for Huw Edwards disgorging the News At Ten. You turn on the telly and watch the last ninety seconds of Mrs Brown's Boys. A programme you truly loathe; you could have reflected on Augustine of Hippo's prayer: "Grant me chastity, but not yet." A minute and a half passes irretrievably.

Your computer is slow to boot up. Rather than use Defrag and/or CleanDisk you contemplate your hankie, trying to decide if it should go into the wash. Eventually returning it to your pocket.  What's more you always knew it was dirty.

Ever read an Agatha Christie? And you, a self-confessed intellectual!

Purgatory awaits – only sipping whisky to drink and a video loop of George W. Bush Jr's campaign speeches.


Saint Peter sat by the celestial gate;
His keys were rusty, and the lock was dull,
So little trouble had been given of late;
Not that the place by any means was full.

Third line’s rather terrible - as broken-backed as any mountain. But it's meant to be fun, the clue being "by any means". Perhaps English fun.

Byron (Gosh! It looks like I was wrong).

Monday 16 March 2015

Two separate score cards

It's been a hard two years for our daughter, Occasional Speeder.
But which is 47-year-old OS, which her 24-year-old daughter, Bella?

My personal ratings for Borderlines Film Festival, just finished.

Winter Sleep (Turkey). Masterfully deconstructed ego in wild Anatolia
Birdman (USA) Frenzy behind scenes on Broadway. Ambitious, witty
Ida (Poland). Jewish nun explores her Holocaust history. Austere, eloquent.
Phoenix (Germany). Established actress/director partnership; concentration-camp survivor competes with pre-war self.


Wild Tales (Argentina). Dark vengeance played out in six hilarious mini-films.
Mr Turner (UK). Three-dimensional, vivid later-years biog of Britain’s greatest painter.
Still Life (UK). Bureaucracy saves souls in SE London. Touching but very English.

La Maison de la Radio (France). Day in life of French radio channel
Whiplash (USA). Frankenstein gets to teach jazz drumming. Often a bit too OTT.
Foxcatcher (USA), Wealthy madman manipulates wrestling world. True but unreal.
Cycling with Molière (France). Actors become their parts in classic play, Le Misanthrope.
Lourdes (France). Is it or isn’t it a medical miracle?  Fascinating authentic background.
Black Coal, Thin Ice (China). Cops and murderers in hideously ugly but persuasive modern China
Effie Gray (UK). Why art-critic John Ruskin preferred writing.
Inherent Vice (USA). Early druggy/PI Pynchon novel becomes astonishingly coherent movie. Funny.

Amour Fou (Austria/Germany). Could Jane Austen accommodate a suicide pact? Perhaps not.
The Duke of Burgundy (UK). Excessive lesbian sado-humiliation among lepidopterists. But beautiful.
A Most Wanted Man
(UK/USA). Disappointingly flat end to  Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s career in treacherous spy fest.
Before I Go to Sleep (UK). Promising start explores amnesia; distintegrates into blood-boltered whodunnit.

Enemy (Canada). Much praised, characterless alter-ego tale. Good camera.
Boyhood (USA). Texan rite of passage: sentimental, setbacks mysteriously overcome.
The Clouds of Cils Maria (France/Switzerland). Out-of-control, shapeless, inferior version of Hollywood classic, All About Eve.
Ex Machina (USA). Inarticulate nerd tests robots for signs of AI. The irony is unacknowledged.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Growing up - haphazardly

 During WW2 my parents moved to the Bradford suburb of Idle. I was ashamed to admit I lived in Idle, fearing I'd be teased, and pretended our house was in nearby Thackley. These days I regret being born so sensitive.

We had a telephone and that was rare - the number Idle 540. Neighbours who lacked phones entered our living room to receive calls, standing around looking uncertain. I don't think we left the room while they used the phone; we were doing them a favour and this was the West Riding, one took the rough with the smooth.

Aged between seven and ten I answered the phone a lot and this proved useful when I took up journalism. Many incoming calls concerned the Airedale Beagles, of which my father was Hon. Sec. I have since wondered whether any came from the woman my father was having an affair with since she was a whipper-in with the Beagles. This lurid detail became an inevitable source of wordplay later on in my life.

When my mother left my father we briefly stayed on with him under chaotic conditions. It was his job to drive us to school on the far side of Bradford but he lingered, sitting on the toilet reading The Daily Mail. We had no clock and to urge him off the toilet I used to pick up the dial-less phone and ask the operator the time. The operator read it out to me from the clock on his office wall. We were often late for school.

Because my father was absent a good deal I used the phone routinely, as if I were a kid in a US movie. Received wisdom said this was an expensive practice while trunk calls (ie, long-distance) could hardly to be contemplated. As far as I can remember this was one of the few failings my father didn't punish me for.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Memento Mori

Gothic's not just architecture
Short story: 1193 words
Note: Initial "dialogue" rewritten for greater coherence

“A great fella, a great salesman. Snowballs to Eskimos - he could have sold anything. Anything…”

Without stilettos I feel naked in front of everyone. Though the front row definitely does help. No one's turning round – facing me.

“… even condoms to Catholics.”

Listen to them snigger. But condoms were his kind of joke!

“Good company too. Showed me the ropes up in Newcastle. Now there was a hard city for our products, but he made it fun.”

How much longer is he going to speak? Christ, I’d kill for a cigarette.

“Anyone who makes Newcastle fun is…”

I never asked: why Newcastle? He was often up there. Was there a bit of fluff?  If so she'd never have been a Geordie. He hated northern accents.

“As you know, our leading rep, three years running…”

And didn't he go on about that!

“Promoted to regional manager. Everyone’s choice.”

See, that’s what I don’t understand. His popularity. No one saw through him. No one recognised the lout. But then they’re all the same, I suppose. It takes a lout to know...

“Our condolences to his gorgeous wife, Megan.”

You should know how gorgeous, laddo. The way you stroked my bum as I came in.

MEGAN had hoped to edge away, her palate yearning for a Marlboro. But the funeral director guided her to the chapel exit where a queue had formed. Mainly men, looking ahead, grinning like wolves.

At least the sixtyish man at the front was no threat.  Tailored three-piece, Barbarians tie and white hair carefully combed, he had to be the MD but the name he gave meant nothing to her. A light kiss on the cheek was more in keeping but then he hung on to her hands: squeeze, slacken, squeeze, slacken.

“I blame myself,” the man whispered. “He worked hard. A third year topping the list deserved something extra. The vote was unanimous but perhaps the car… proved too powerful.”

Powerful or not it had been a high spot in his life. He’d insisted they had dinner at that pricey French place in Oxfordshire and they’d touched a-hundred-and-thirty on the M40. She’d been terrified, then resolutely calm. At that speed dying would be like being switched off. No pain.

Next was Emily. They knew each other over the phone and had spoken many times. “I’ll get him to ring you,” Emily had always said, and she did. Emily, well padded and perfumed with Bourjois, hugged her. “When you’re free here, Megan, we’ll sit in my car and talk about him.”

Megan hesitated.

Emily said, “I liked him, too much for my own good. I did what he asked, I was always loyal. But he was unreliable and I knew you were suffering.  If anything still disturbs you, just ask.”

“I’ll need time.”

Should she rake over her old suspicions? - something to think about tomorrow. But now there were all these men. A sorrowing widow could not, of course, fend them off. She would be in their hands – literally – taking their antics at face value.

Yet it was even worse. The dark suits used their dubious grief to embrace her floridly and kiss her lengthily. With three of them processed a muscular tongue from the fourth levered itself between her lips. She had no defence. Marriage had linked her indirectly to salesmanship and tradition forced her to accept this associate role.

Latecomers tried even harder.  Bodies pressed against her, saliva dissolved her lipstick, and her satin blouse pulled away from her black skirt. Thank God for the funeral director, close by, who cleared his throat to discourage the more ambitious excesses.

And who, when the queueing was at an end, propelled her gently back into the chapel to see to her make-up. A thankful repair as she moved out to the Range Rover containing her father, mother and sister, all po-faced.

Her mother lowered the window. “We came, as promised.”

“So I see,” said Megan.

“Any problems? Money?”

“The mortgage was covered by life insurance.”

“How lucky,” said her mother.

“Unlike my choice of partner,” said Megan. “As you’ve often reminded me.”

“I described what I saw. Unhappily it turned out to be the truth.”


Her mother raised the window and her father drove the tall vehicle away at speed.

Although the funeral director was pear-shaped and his trousers formally striped, he had immense dignity. “My dear, it’s all over now. So much bad behaviour but I thought you coped bravely. I’ll drive you back.”

“Mr Crumple, I know it’s sluttish in a new widow but I desperately need a cigarette.”

“Sluttish? Never in this world, my dear. If you don’t mind I’ll join you.”

Megan leant back against the ridiculously elongated car and inhaled for seconds. A month ago she’d tried to give up. Thank God she’d failed. Mr Crumple moved two discreet steps away leaving her to her thoughts. Except she had no thoughts, only an angry vacancy.  And a mild curiosity about Newcastle. Such a long way to go for a night or two of infidelity.

The car park was empty since hers had been the last funeral of the day. Even Mr Crumple had briefly disappeared into the chapel, called there by a functionary. She dropped the cigarette stub on to the tarmac, treading on it with a hardly elevated court shoe which did nothing for her ankles. They’d been the first thing he’d noticed about her at the charity ball four years ago. Conceivably the last thing he remembered as he succumbed to the car’s multi-function steering wheel. Multi-function: his words.

With perfect timing Mr Crumple walked towards her, his face professionally impassive. “My dear, a small matter. I have made no commitment. You may turn the request down without any guilty feelings. You are entitled to your privacy.”

But Megan agreed the request straight away, perhaps to show solidarity with her own gender, perhaps in reaction to that heartless and humiliating queue. As a result the woman slid unshowily into the limousine to share the back seat with Megan. A woman nearing forty, her brown hair arranged in a timeless – no, old-fashioned – style, wearing a suit that wasn’t even sombre, but then not everyone wore dark fabrics at funerals. A woman who said, “I’m gan the railway station. No distance at all. I’ll not speak. You need your quiet.”

Megan nodded, almost to herself. Trust him; he’d not chosen to make the same mistake twice. An older woman, though. That was surprising.

Now Megan felt the need for another Marlboro, this time to be smoked reflectively. Time to dwell on the failure of her marriage. How she’d mistaken his alertness for intelligence and how he, it seemed, had discovered her prettiness and well-shaped figure weren’t enough. A man who had gone for a trophy rather than a wife and who might well be paying a tortuous price for this as the flames presently reduced his earthly remains to ashes.

But, hey, there was a bright side. There’d be none of Mother’s parchment-flesh turkey this Christmas. Or that revolting  “traditional” bread sauce. She could if she wanted make do with a slice of quiche.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Three minutes of fame

France Inter, a 24-hour news/discussion/feature radio channel, comforted me at the end of my working life. The magazine I edited was bought out and my 18-mile round-trip commute  became 90 miles. As entertainment and to improve my French my car radio was perpetually tuned to FI. Thus I heard (and understood) Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie le Pen in interviewee mode.

One movie at the Borderline Film Festival (still running) was La Maison de la Radio, a brilliantly edited, touching yet funny montage of a day in the life of France Inter. It is VR's favourite movie so far.

It reminded me of Joe and Lucy, both great radio listeners. It further proved how intellectually superior radio can be compared with telly. How radio can make assumptions about a listener's intelligence that telly would never dare to make. It also recalled a day when I occupied the other side of the fence.

The magazine I then edited had predicted the death of the English pudding in staff canteens. The BBC gave me a slot on the forebodingly-named John Dunne Show. What impressed me was JD's technique.  After rehearsing he said he would repeat the questions in a livelier, more vivid way and invite me to "step up". This he did, grinning, gurning, urging me facially, turning the exchanges into a sort of knowing conspiracy about the subject. To which I responded, growing in exhilaration.

La Maison de la Radio showed many examples of this. And I slipped back into two distinct pockets of time. Telly, alas, is never Proustian.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Wheels squeak into motion

Suddenly the blocked drain that is Second Hand freed itself and in six weeks I wrote 10,000 words. Any good? You be the judge:

Unemployed in London, Alan Pratt, Francine's erstwhile squeeze, becomes news editor of a weekly  in Plymouth (the original Plymouth! - see above). Francine visits him.

He spread the newspaper out on the table. “They’re mostly kids, you know. Often nothing more than media studies, but they’re here for the right reasons. That front-page lead – Planning dept. admits ‘stupidity’ – was put together by a nineteen-year-old from Woking. I thought her plummy accent would hold her back but on the phone she sounds like a middle-aged barrister. People quiver and give her the goods.”

“How hard did you sub her?” she asked. “I see a couple of Prattisms in the second para.”

“What Prattisms?”

“Insinuated instead of alleged, for one.”

He stared. “Is that one of mine?”

“Don’t look at me like that. As you used to say: I’m only telling you because I love you. An outright lie but you seemed to think it softened harsh editing.”

“Did it?”

“Actually, it did.”

“Now who’s fibbing?”

But she wasn’t. Those were the early days when it pained her to see 350 words she’d slaved over reduced to a brief. He’d said it unselfconsciously, dismissively even, and somehow it had worked. Kept the sentiment going during the shared BFI visits but brought it to a close, for good and all, the first time they kissed each other good night. How mechanical of him. But then men, in return, often insisted women were flibbertigibbets so she supposed it was tit for tat.

Men! They could be desired, manipulated or detested but often they seemed too crude, too obvious to be worth understanding.