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Thursday 31 May 2018

Villanelles vanquished

A man's a man for a'that. Don Patterson, poet and wit
I came very late to poetry, within the duration of this blog. Others – Joe Hyam, Lucy – encouraged me and now I seek out poetry, but in a timid way, conscious I carry L-plates and always will.

Don Paterson is a well-regarded British poet (Queen’s Medal) though I was unaware of this. At Hay Festival he offered: What is a Poem? I had just endured a dull hour on education, never a good idea for someone whose education “never took”. I needed reviving.

Paterson stepped up to the lectern and peered into the dark auditorium. In a thick Scottish accent he said, “Ye might all as well be a set of Great Auks.” Astounded, I laughed out aloud. Others were more tentative. But within a few minutes laughter was our common coin and I curse myself for not taking notes.

Especially when he damned the villanelle, a tortuously complex verse form (And yes, Paterson and I know all about “Do not go gentle...”). Under guidance I wrote a VILLANELLE some years ago and determined never to write another. Patterson was my man.

As well as jokes he also uttered this: “Prose evokes: the well-chosen word describes the thing as if it were present. But poetry persists in its attempt to invoke, to call down its subject from above, as if there were no ‘as if’ at all.” And much more.

I picked up Paterson’s new 732-page book, The Poem. Lyric, Sign, Metre, handsomely priced at £25, and joined the signing queue. I mentioned to him I was done with villanelles and he had justified my decision. He wrote: “To Roderick. Glad to sanctify your purging. Don Paterson.”

Leaving I said, “And thanks for proving poets can be serious without being solemn.” He roared Scottishly and was, I think, pleased.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Grannie S

Tone Deaf rarely gets commissions but Colette challenges me to write about my Grannie Stringer, seen here at my wedding - from left: Nick my late brother, Mum, Brother Sir Hugh, Me (The blotted-out face is another story), VR, Grannie S, VR's late sister Diane, Dad. The ghostly face near VR is her Dad, Vic.

Grannie lived to be 96. Here's VERSE I posted in January 2011 to emphasise her great age. And here's another telling detail (June 2011):

Pungent and earthy Vim was a grey powder which came in a cardboard tube. Add water and you could grind lacquered stains off aluminium pans. Perfect for my Gran who loved elbow-grease jobs.

Eventually Grannie came to live with Mum and was present when the first non-BBC, commercial TV channel was opened in Britain. She never lost her marbles but looked confused when we switched off. She'd been trying to work the commercials into the drama we'd been watching.

Grannie was middle-class and never worked for a living. She compensated by devoting herself to domestic drudgery, eschewing labour-saving devices. A giant hand-powered mangle occupied a quarter of her kitchen.

I teased her continuously about her language and her repetitive anecdotes. Strangely she liked this. She died as she had lived. Insisted on cleaning the outdoor cellar steps in January, caught a cold and succumbed, her only concern being that she would meet her pre-deceased husband in heaven, a terrifying authority figure who once caned me for clumsiness. Me, I vowed to steer clear of that sort of heaven

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Wa-hey Hay!

Our fifteenth Hay Festival covering some 180 one-hour sessions over the years: novels, poetry, movies, chamber music, physics, biology, technology, language, fashionable ideas, politics (including visits by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), sociology, the law, history and general fame - anything that might suggest I'm a workaday polymath on the lookout for a molehill to dominate. A guttering candle amidst encircling gloom.

One new feature this year - policemen with machine guns, for anyone's a target these days. Even I may be seen as a threat by a narrow-minded cult, blown to bits as an example to all wouldbe-intellectuals bestriding the border between Wales and England.

I ponder my funeral, supervised by members of another cult with all the wrong ideas. It's the clichés I'd resent. "He died while doing something he loved." Bollocks! My guess is dying occupies the whole of your mind; the surroundings are irrelevant.

What impact has Hay had on me? Flicking through my Hay coverage in Tone Deaf and its predecessor, Works Well, I am horrified by what I have forgotten - great, great encounters crowded out by memory banks succumbing to the passage of time. Best concentrate of what I can remember. A presentation on chromosomes which I managed to hold on to for all of ten minutes. John Updike being lordly and Seamus Heaney being charming. An elegant Frenchwoman who translated for Sarkozy, former French president. Germaine Greer's wilful interpretation of Marvell's "To his coy mistress". Despair and incomprehension at Brexit. Resurrection of the past and a shedload of fearful guesses about the future.

A worldwide cultural phenomenon in a small border town with 30 bookshops. A glacé cherry to decorate retirement.

Saturday 26 May 2018

Ending up

We've got a couple coming, a regular visit. One year the male half went for a walk and reported our area as "kempt" - an adjective better known in the negative. We've felt the need to live up to it ever since.

Heavy rain has left everywhere looking lush, nay, almost putrefactional. As if there were a bayou adjacent. Not that I'd recognise a bayou but Colette's evocative comments have left my mind heavy with Tennessee Williams. Trying to recall why The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More. I'm inclining to the belief that it never did. Stop, that is.

Part of the sodden patio is visible to the left. There's champagne and a particularly pungent Spanish white wine a'waiting but the odds are we'll drink them lolling on couches indoors, consumed in vigorous discourse. Why such energy? Perhaps because we're urbanites and the countryside reminds us of all those apostrophes in George Eliot's Adam Bede. The curse of literature.

Because we've known each other for years there'll be no need for that tedious introductory phase of conversation. Arguments that have lain dormant for half a year may re-ignite in seconds. However, old age will ensure the flames are of short duration and we'll return to that state of mind Thurber captured so well in the cartoon: "Now we're all disenchanted."

Chances are I'll reflect on the squalor of our crumbling apartment in north London in the sixties, and compare it with the four-bedroom detached residence (with garage) of today. Do I deserve this transformation? Was I better behaved than I imagined? I've always aspired to being middle-class but never thought I’d make it. The undeserving poor (Quote!) was more my mark.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Stony road

During my national service with the RAF, another draftee, a farmer in civilian life, told me I should be ashamed of being a journalist. That journalists didn't benefit society.

I explained I was out to enjoy myself and that was that. Twenty years later I met him again briefly, discovered he'd received his comeuppance and had turned to God. Urged me to do likewise. I didn’t crow.

I became a journalist because I wasn't qualified - academically or temperamentally - to do anything else. A flibbertigibbet life for a flibbertigibbet mind.

But it's a strange occupation. Asking questions day in day out. Asking questions on subjects that, until that moment, meant nothing to me: forklift trucks, herbaceous borders, building development, nutrition in jails, time-shared computers, a competition for tape-recording buffs.

Most of all delving into people's professional lives, how they've progressed. Occasionally asking questions people didn't want to answer. In some respects being un-English because even in retirement I continue to be astonished by the lack of curiosity most have about their neighbour's employment. For goodness sake, it may be their only expertise.

Journalism does have side-effects. When young I feared personal contact; nowadays the problem is one of restraint. Because I've dipped into this and that I give the spurious impression that I'm better educated than I am. Perhaps best of all I'm rarely bored although VR maintains that curiosity alone is no substitute for the social graces. I use words like "gerund" and "participle" because I've needed to know their application. Out of self-protection I avoid clichés. Under certain circumstances – although this is a dangerous claim – I can imitate the common touch.

A wasted life? Having fun’s no defence I suppose?

Monday 21 May 2018

I did it my way

Tell the truth: I thought these guys were
better dressed then those in front
On Saturday I had a choice: wall-to-wall TV coverage of the Windsor Castle nuptials or the UK (soccer) equivalent of the Super Bowl. In fact that's not true, the choices were as wide and as varied as my imagination: I could have learned to bake a Linzertorte, rehearsed my warm-up scales BUT WITH ATTACK, watered my newly planted plants, cut my toe-nails (Always a light engineering project getting to that twisted-round small toe on the right), dozed following my toast-with-egg-mayonnaise lunch, resumed my fifth novel Rictangular Lenses; the world you might have said was my oyster.

Instead I faced the void by preparing Lasting Powers of Attorney for (a) financial matters, and (b) health/care. In short allowing VR and/or my daughters to take over the materialistic aspects of my existence when I snuff it or lapse into ga-gaism. VR did the same assuming she is overtaken first. It's like a will but with wider, more pragmatic aims.

The UK government does its best to ensure all is kosher. Under Preferences and Instructions I have the option to tell my attorneys (Not real ones who would fleece me into poverty; ones I've ordained) about what I wish for and what I insist on. There's even a style guide: Use words like "prefer" and "would like" or "must" and "have to".

Best of all: "Most people leave this page blank." Chat being preferable.

The questions are easy, the signing process (For another day, thank Mammon.) tortuous. My impression is this: my death and/or descent into living oblivion are serious matters. But only for OTHER PEOPLE. I will inherit permanent darkness or physical incompetence, true, but also a complete absence of forms to fill in. That’s a plus.

But will I be such stuff as dreams are made on? Got an opinion?

Saturday 19 May 2018

Kneel here

I'm trying hard to describe the contours of my backside. Legs becoming wider - calves to thighs - like a pair of adjacent ice-cream cones. Ending in two hemispheres of gluteus maximus like blobs of vanilla. Just the shapes, forget the flavours.

Now focus on that abrupt change of gradient where the straight line of the thigh becomes the outward bulge of the backside, a horizontal groove if you like. Not to be confused with the vertical groove which is for another day.

Are you clear? Have you located that horizontal groove? Please say yes. It was an important part of my anatomy up to age 15.

Boys were punished at my school by being caned on the backside. The aim was to inflict pain. With some skill the degree of pain could be increased. Lay the first slash of the cane along that horizontal groove. Lay the second slash on top of the first and the pain becomes cumulative. All the way up to six slashes. It took a careful eye and a steady hand to keep on hitting that 5 mm wide groove; most teachers were poor at teaching but all were great caners.

Did they practice? Did older teachers pass on their skills? Was caning a teacher's perquisite?

"Caning" suggests a stinging pain but that undersells the experience. The slash includes a heavier component as if the intention was also to bruise and eventually to wound. I have always been a physical coward and I'm astonished I didn't cry out while being caned. Perhaps for fear of additional strokes.

Was caning character-forming? My character is far from perfect so I’d say no. Nick, my late brother, attended a harder school and was caned until he bled.

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Muted foghorn

Van Gogh made do with an ear (albeit bandaged) while Rembrandt, in the self-portraits, plotted the evolution of his knobbly nose. Bloggers who wait for arty subjects to come along are doomed to non-expression leading to permanent silence. Art is the transformation of reality and reality is all around us. The only thing that restricts me posting about my belly-button is the thought of a photograph.

Ears I’ve done, held tight against my head with Elastoplast in my babyhood. My hair’s wildness has been explored. As has my right hand, crucified by Dupuytren’s contracture. My Roman nose. How about my mouth?

How shy I’ve become. Mouths are intimate. Mine has kissed and whispered sweet nothings in its time. For the moment there is nothing bad to say and badness is a rich source of humour. There’s nothing funny about:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss

Might it even be pretty? Not weighed down with sandbags like my eyes. Ahh, here’s a mort of laughter: might I have been endowed with a woman’s mouth? Would it look better lipsticked? Those novels I’ve written where disadvantaged women rise triumphant - suppressed impulses?

Away with adolescent fancies. Through that same mouth has passed sarcasm, social solecisms and sesquipedalian slander. On the positive side it’s an orifice shaped for: “Now. Now that the sun has veiled his light...”  Dryden, set to music by Purcell. It’s not all androgyny.

Is the mouth the most significant single identifier? At 10 metres does it proclaim RR? Does it smile a lot? Only others can tell. I’d like to think it’s regularly turned down in a moue of disapproval because that seems more dignified.

Mind you I wouldn’t be without it. Where would the wine go?

Friday 11 May 2018

Grown-up talk

When do you finally become an adult? For me it happened yesterday, early evening, as we sipped a glass or two on the patio.

VR said, "Got a call from the GP (General practitioner, otherwise family doctor). Says she couldn't ever do what I asked, couldn't ever bring herself to pull the plug."

Not surprising really.The Hippocratic Oath would forbid it. One daughter refused outright, didn't even want to talk about it. That left me, and the talk lapsed half-heartedly into the definition of certain words.

We're both in our eighties. Death is an out-of-forcus view of the horizon; each waking morning someone tweaks the binoculars and things get a bit clearer. We're organising "a lasting power of attorney", more particularly, who does what when either or both is unable to speak for ourselves - as to whether the plug should be pulled.

VR has a horror of resuscitation when everything points in the other direction. She's had personal experience, made even more poignant in that she wasn't there in person when the decision had to be taken. On the patio I bugger up the discussion making provisos, but it's not an occasion for exactitude, more for understanding and sympathy. I'll try and do better next time.

In Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Death arrives for the Knight who delays the inevitable by offering to play Death at chess. The Knight discusses a clever move with a friend only to find he's been talking to Death. It comes down to this: an ounce of intelligent foresight may outweigh a tsunami of blubbering.

Being adult, in fact. Music may help but I may be wrong.

Monday 7 May 2018

My life and welcome to it*

Wine's becoming a problem these days.

Tone Deaf readers who date back will know my wine education was backwards way round. As a youth I occasionally drank the best wines in the world, courtesy of my father, a claret enthusiast. Wines that would today cost a fortune (eg, Ch. Margaux 2008, £4783 a case). Since then I've had to aim lower, gradually raising my sights as I became wealthier.

I became "comfortably off" but never wealthy. Alas I could still taste my father's clarets. For decades I tolerated this gap, now at 82 I am growing more impatient. Not that I'm contemplating a remortgage to pay for Ch. Margaux, but I'm spending far too much time in the Land of Remembrance of Things Past. Last night, acknowledging the year is 2018, I went under the stairs.

The wine above is a Cahors. Cahors, in central France, is a mere 150 miles from Bordeaux where Ch. Margaux is created; oenologically speaking the distance is more like that to Mars.

Early Cahors is bitter - undrinkable in my view. The serious young man in glasses at the Cahors cave des vignerons warned me but I knew already. Back home the bottle went under the stairs to be forgotten.

Note the date - 2000. Back then I was still ski-ing. I pulled the cork and sniffed: rich, pungent, multi-layered. But bouquets can be treacherous. I didn't decant it, expecting sludge. After 90 minutes I tasted it and it was pretty good, if light-years away from Ch. Margaux.  A magnum of that vintage would cost £26 today, a bargain. Back in Cahors it probably cost £5.

There are seven “forgotten” bottles – all different – under the stairs. Two are whites and probably past it. I live in straitened times.

* Cribbed from SJ Perelman.

Thursday 3 May 2018

An hour's an hour for a' that

The tide of spam swells and Starbucks invites me to a "happy hour".

Surely a misconception. A happy hour involves booze. Half-price cocktails for a limited period during the early evening have only one aim. To get you pie-eyed and incapable of movement, so you'll stay on, spend a fortune and be thrown out at closing time.

A happy hour based on coffee would have the opposite effect. Three cheap Americanos and you'd fidget like an ant in a frying pan. Address the staff in Spanish, urge revolution, speak lewdly to the opposite sex (later the same sex) and be shown the door at seven.

I have never knowingly taken part in a happy hour, perhaps because it seems so blatant. In my youth, and especially in London, I needed no such encouragement. Later I became cautious. To wake up near midnight on a tube train three stations short of Ongar was salutary.

My happy hour would be in a pub where everyone read books – hardbacks, since they show greater commitment. Or sipped quietly, listening to a lecture on hermeneutics. BBC Radio 3 on low volume, the Composer of the Week always Gesualdo. And men speaking to women in the clipped etiquette of 1950s TV commercials ("I'm going home to an evening meal of fish fingers and Pom." "O, I say, may I join you?"). Mayhem would be permitted but in a car park half a mile away.

But imagine a pub full of happy people. It would be un-English.  Most are either miserable or anticipating misery. Getting drunk and shouting isn’t happiness either; it’s a way of shutting out quotidian boredom.

How about an unhappy hour with lager brewed in the UK at twice the price? “Share your meaninglessness with us,” would have some takers I’m sure.