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Tuesday 30 January 2018

Nick: Finale

No fault of Nick's, the two awful middle names were rarely used

Emotion has no place when writing about emotion.

It was the same old grind with my piece for Nick's funeral. One word then another, acknowledging that any, or all, might be deleted or replaced. Nouns and verbs preferred to adjectives and adverbs. Jargon words peculiar to these occasions (eg, "condolences") avoided. The aim being to re-establish the ideas behind the jargon and cause them to live again. Clarity beats vagueness but it's harder to write.

Revision was never-ending, practising the stuff aloud within the five-minute limit. Describing myself I replaced "journalist" with "hack" for reasons I don't understand.

I could have used boffo anecdotes. I included two very mild jokes and sensed a response. But parts of Nick's life were troubled and even tragic and had left scars. This was no time to resurrect these matters or make fun. I mentioned a poignant moment and referred to Nick as complex. Hoping the evident goodwill would arrive with an ounce of sympathy. It did.

Emotion overcame me during the final sentence and I started to strangle. Ironically the words weren't mine but by Nick's best friend, living in Australia, paying tribute to the awful burden of support borne by Nick's elder daughter, Kate.

I gargled, was surprised, then appalled. Then thought: why not?

THE HYMN. The organist was a pro and played at a fast clip; no rests between the lines. I was dry from speaking but sang loudly and confidently if not resonantly. The man in the pew in front of me was huge and immobile; a wall of Jericho, perhaps?

Thursday 25 January 2018

Saying goodbye

Funerals take ages in the UK. Nick died on January 9, the formalities are on January 29. I've re-written my piece a dozen times. Reducing it from 8 minutes to 5 minutes initially, latterly turning written prose into speech.

Some call this a eulogy but not I. That word has an earlier specific meaning and is best kept for a recently dead tyrant whose remaining victims still can't quite believe the bastard is actually dead. Nick was a good guy but complex. He deserves my best winnowing.

Once mourners wore black. For various reasons, some legitimate, some specious, this now tends to be the exception. However I'll be speaking in the north which I left for ever in 1959.Things might be different. I have bought black slacks and a black polo-neck to go with black shoes and black socks. Over which a very dark coloured tweed jacket. As a concession to modernity I have not had my hair cut. In another age I might have been typed as bohemian.

There'll be only one communal piece of music, the hymn For Those in Peril on the Sea. Britain is not a churchgoing nation and Brits en masse sing badly: muttering, modulating when forced a couple of tones higher, starting slow and getting slower. I discussed this with V and we did a couple of run-throughs, V singing harmonies against my straight line. V laughed, "You know the hymn well enough to stay in tune."

Should I sing properly or mutter with the rest? "It's your brother," said V meaningfully.

The four-hour drive will skirt Birmingham, England's second biggest city. Occasional Speeder will be my back-up driver. Will those tired, possibly over-rehearsed, words match my aims? Nick, I’m sure, would prefer to be out on the Bay.

Monday 22 January 2018

Sand-strewn caverns

Winter is dark, literally and metaphorically. One looks for counterbalancing happiness and it's hard to find. Memories of the first legal pint of beer, the first date, leaving the West Riding, dining with the beloved in Soho, arriving for work in the New World - they've all been tapped dry.

But does happiness need to be based on truth? Might I pretend? Might imagination compensate for black skies where the Malverns ought to be, a frosty nip round my kidneys as I reach up to open the garage door.

It's not as easy as I thought. Being cheered at Covent Garden for my Leporello doesn't match up to the tiny increments of progress I may reasonably expect at singing lesson, only 2½ hours away at this very moment. Receiving an enormous cheque at Stockholm, strapped into a starched shirt-front, is not as much fun as re-shaping this present sentence - which itself is not exactly happiness, more a mild pleasure in seeing my fingers working at the keyboard.

Let’s widen the scope, somewhat.

I'm sharpening scissors with which Meryl Streep will later humiliate Donald Trump. (Hey, just his trousers, for goodness sake! Let's not go to extremes!) That's better.

I'm in a broom closet in 10 Downing Street, swinging a pendant in front of Theresa May's transfixed eyes, saying over and over, "It won't work." After half an hour she stumbles out on her stilettos, saying: "You know, I don't think it will." Way to go.

It's 1969 and I'm magically - and temporarily - encased in the body of Eddie Merckx, the year he won the general classification, the points classification and the mountain classification in the TdF. Merckx is Belgian, by the way. An unfavoured race.

My singing voice feels stronger and the Malverns are now visible.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Vanity and necessity

A CHRISTMAS present from son-in-law Darren consisted of a tea-towel with the image of my first novel, Gorgon Times. I have subsequently discovered that even techno-idiots can perform this act online and have two more towels devoted to Out of Arizona and Opening Bars.

To have displayed these artefacts on the ground floor would have seemed crass. But how about doors on the upper landing? Here are two (the pic in between is a print of a Robert Motherwell's painting, Je t'Aime.). Surely a fairly modest act of vanity?

ATTACHING toilet seats - a job that's irritated the Hell out of me ever since I became a home owner.

The hinge system has a basic flaw: a headless screw which screws into what is, in effect, a blind "nut" mounted on a brass plate.

Because the "nut" is blind one may only rotate the screw two or three full turns and that's it. It's inherently insecure. This becomes apparent when one screws a nut to the other end of the headless screw to secure the hinge to the toilet pan. It's fatally easy to unscrew the end attached to the blind "nut".

Yes, I understand the principle of adding another nut to give a locking action. But this depends on tightening the second nut without engaging the first nut. I have presently achieved temporary security by adding a third nut.

Question 1. How about a squirt of super-glue into the blind "nut" before tighting up the headless screw?

Question 2. I believe there are alternative attachment systems although they are not typically fitted to new toilet seats. Are these any good?

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Gems from humdrum dross

Tuesday morning breakfast at Tesco's café is a way of passing time while Julie, our cleaning lady, has the house to herself. Elements of ritual are creeping in.

I try to make the order (Two small Americanos no milk, bacon bap with butter, plate carrying rasher of bacon, half-slice of fried bread, fried egg) without the check-out person having to ask a question. Yes, this is junk food. That's the point.

We push our empty plates way and discuss ominous topics. Trump has sustained us for a whole year.

Also we face the car park for advanced sociological research. I once owned a BMW and became as arrogant as all BMW owners, now under threat in the Arrogance Stakes from the Audi Bunch. Parking carelessly on tarmac striped in yellow to indicate No Parking. This inalienable right comes with the make of car, you see.

SUV-borne mothers bring their children. The sub-five girls walk past our window solemnly, conscious of their expensive clothes. The boys, packed with excess energy, attempt to walk along a low narrow wall that guards the window. They flap their arms, grinning at being out of balance.

People use the ATM differently. With motorbike riders there's all that palaver of getting through layers of leather to reach their wallet. Laddish youths with shaven heads stand away from the machine, uncaring about their PINs, daring others to rob them. Those in wheelchairs must plan their movements and work sideways on. Some users count the notes, others stuff them away.

When it's raining old people (ie, those our age) approach the building with pinched faces. Those who've shopped leave briskly, glad to be off. Security men with badges loiter, trying to be inconspicuous.

Wednesday 10 January 2018


Nick, my youngest brother, died yesterday, released from the cruelties of Alzheimers.

In the photo he's telling me to Blank Off, but jokily. I prefer to imagine he's addressing the malady that ruined him these last few years, telling it to go to Hell.

Two memories from many stand out. I was staying with him at his house in Harrogate thirty years ago and he played me the Schwarzkopf version of Strauss's Four Last Songs. "I find that beautiful," he said in a hushed voice. Oddly, I'd been given that LP some years before. I'd played it a few times but it had left little impression. Thereafter it has remained for ever in my frontal lobes: "a swansong of sublime beauty" as one critic said. Even more relevant as I near Strauss's age when he composed the music.

Scroll forward past the millennium. Nick, Sir Hugh and I are sailing in Nick's yacht Takista in the Bay of Biscay; for the first time in my life I am tremulously at one with the sea, realising nevertheless that this revelation has come too late for me to pursue. Reluctantly I'm persuaded to take the helm and I stare up at the mast-top, keeping the burgee as close to the wind as I can. Nick, who has sailed for decades, says something like, "You understand." Age adds poignancy to this observation and this lost opportunity.

Nick was rich and good luck to him. But he also suffered. The break-up of our parents' marriage when he was about four left him adrift. He commented wryly, "I had no home." Last September he stared for seconds trying to fix me in his memory. I shudder to think where he was as he did so.

One may only wish for untroubled sleep.

Monday 8 January 2018

... amid th'encircling gloom

Dark outside and it will remain so for another hour. Low temperatures were forecast last night so will there be ice outside? I'm due a singing lesson, the first in almost three weeks, and the roads to V's house are precipitate. On top of that I'm still wheezing from the cough. Will I even get through the warm-up?

Change and decay in all around I see.
Oh art which changeth not,
Abide with me.

But what's this? An email from brother Sir Hugh, off to his bed where he doesn't expect to sleep. Like me he recently had surgery, though more major than mine. Just a line to say he's bought and read Opening Bars. And reviewed it in Amazon!

Straight off in the review he admits to being my brother. Which seems to validate that which follows. I couldn't ask for better. I guess I'll get through the warm-up, perhaps even try the Purcell.

Thanks bro.

Sunday 7 January 2018

...muddlers in England, now abed
will hold themselves accursed...

Colette, a bright new star within Tone Deaf's commenting firmament, blogs as Aging Female Baby Boomer. Chivalry demands I ignore the first adjective other than speculating that if it is happening the byproducts include clarity of style, vigorous expression and enviable store of subject matter. The second adjective is self-evident, leaving just "baby boomer".

Until now I've depended on oral explanations which I've immediately forgotten. Today, from the dictionary, I see it refers to those born post-WW2 during a period when procreation was wildly fashionable. Which seems to say more about the BBs' parents than anything else. I had wondered - idly, very idly - whether I qualified as a boomer. I don't. Dating back to 1935 I was lucky to be born at all.

Have I capitalised on my own good luck? The jury is still out, presently being haranged by centenarian Henry Fonda in a triple-locked jury room.

Members of the British government, at each other’s throats over Brexit, are constantly looking for someone to blame for their own collective inanition. Months ago they blamed boomers - for living longer than they should, owning their own homes, spending their pensions (to which they had contributed), and generally committing the crime of quiet contentment. Conveniently forgetting that these same boomers had lived through bread rationing (1946 - 48), the Korean War, the Suez invasion, 13% unemployment (1981), 20% inflation (thanks Mrs T.), "the Troubles", recession (2009) and the popularity of "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?"

Colette says she was "roughly, not gently, bred" in the industrial upper Midwest. Obviously she is entitled to be a boomer, even an exploder. But "boomers" doesn't sound British - too dynamic, I suppose. Muddlers we have been and must be. Defy me!

Saturday 6 January 2018

Mount Imagination

Still coughing, I turn to other diversions.

There's a ski-run in Val Thorens called Cima Caron. When you emerge from the cable-car it's as if you're on the viewing terrace of the Empire State Building. Except there are no protective walls or barriers and you're wearing skis. You feel exposed.

Twenty-five steep metres take you to a narrow ledge, always over-populated. You feel inclined to stay, especially if you know what follows. You don't stay because there are too many jostling elbows.

The next 150 metres seem to follow a spiral route round the top (ie, narrow) end of a giant cone. It's steep and oh-so-high and the last 10 metres are a killer. Others who've preceded you, frightened by the gradient, have followed the same traversing path and all have come to a halt at the same spot. Causing a deepening trough to form.

You know that if you end up stationary in that trough it will be Hell's own job to get out. You know you must skirt the outer edge of the trough - hanging over eternity - and then make a quick awkward 180 deg turn left from a horizontal line. Such turns even when successful are laborious and ugly; also there is a brief moment when you directly face the beckoning depths.

I've done that run twice, both times on my own. Many years ago. Since I no longer ski my amour propre is not at risk. I imagine myself gliding past the trough on the last two inches of viable snow, turning smoothly towards the fearful slope and then on, through that angle, to a reassuring traverse. And keeping going with another smooth turn. Leaving others further up the face, scared, still to resolve the problem.

Good luck, guys.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

A book and a bit of Wagner

Opening Bars, previously sub-titled A Late-life Musical Adventure, is now available through Amazon - see the right-hand side of my home page. If you can run to £6.95  I'd appreciate a line or two in Amazon's review facility as proof that someone other than I and my publisher have read it

As most of you will know it's about music, specifically singing. But it's also about changing course in old age. At the time lessons seemed like pure whimsy, now singing has taken over my life and V thinks I've made good progress. Certainly I can now enjoy the sound of my own voice, although presently I'm grounded by a surly cough.

It doesn't have to be singing. To be seized as I have been is to say a fig for growing old and incompetent. It's just that singing is a physical, aesthetic and intellectual pursuit, thus body and mind get a work-out. I'm quietly proud I had the moxie.

BUT I DO have other interests, as my Christmas prezzies show. Wine continues to fascinate and I wouldn't be the man I am if my trousers didn't stay up. These braces are swanky and may encourage me to wear them outside my shirt.

Christmas was raucous in the extreme with a full house for two nights. To ensure Professional Bleeder slept in comfort we bought an inflatable mattress with its own built-in pump. Deflation - an often forgotten chore - is done in just over a minute.

PB heard her first opera (Britten's Turn of the Screw) with us a couple of years ago. Now she has 23 of them under her belt. Last night we watched Das Rheingold, three more to complete Wagner's Ring cycle.