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Tuesday, 31 December 2019

A classic case?

Irony can be tricky to understand:

● Use of words to express a meaning other than the literal meaning and, esp., the opposite of it.
● Incongruity between actual circumstances and the normal, appropriate or expected result.

Examples

● A marriage counsellor files for divorce
● It's ironic that computers break down so often since they're meant to save people time.

And then there's me.

A recent combined cough, common cold, feverish state, left me with a disturbed stomach. But today was singing lesson; I was there on the dot. V produced the score of Schubert's, An die Laute (To the Lute), a song I have never heard, never even heard of. After 60 minutes I sang the two verses in tune, on the beat and adding interpretation. Several big firsts. V nodded, then said: "Good on you. But what you did took it out of you. Look after yourself."

At brunch back home there are rillettes, fatty and a firm favourite. They are intended as a treat. Normally I'd gobble them in a minute but I can't face them. Wrote this as therapy. Don't tell me I'm better off 'cos that'll cause me to grind my teeth, good news only for the dentist.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Down bucolic byways

These two posts, combined as one, are out of sequence. Never mind.

Could be DT or BJ.
Dirty work either
way
PROPELLED by the soporific, NightNurse, I dreamily joined Trump and a tiny sub-retinue making an improbable visit to a family in Connecticut. My ecstasy (explained in the lyric below) confused Trump and he left me alone. I asked the family for “poetic” additions to the lyric already forming in my mind. Wisely they pointed out the impossibility of defining “poetic” so I completed it without them.

Whence came the observation that
The English language is my mother-tongue?
Did I say so? Or those in subfusc suits?
My dear, I neither know nor give a damn.


What really matters, more than half a wink,
Is what I say and what I am are both
Of woman born. And that’s a small delight
To one who hates the oafish tendency.



It fits. For mothering is cherishing,
And tending to the growth of living things.
Not being soft about development
Of words that shape a self-renewing world.


And is “the mother-tongue” just girly talk
Likely to get up nostrils masculine?
Well I for one can bear the brunt of that.
You can’t? Then go and read Mickey Spillane


FROM MIDDAY Christmas Eve to late on Christmas Day grandson Zach honked explosively like a sea lion. By then he’d infected me and I was coughing so violently my chest wall hurt. My appetite departed; without food I took on an inner chill which rendered me over-sensitive to air flow. At night I fought minor delirium.

VR left for the small bedroom. I felt guilty next morning, and volunteered to adopt her quarantine. But this post isn’t about illness it’s about thermodynamics, sort of.

VR said the light duvet in the small bedroom (usually occupied by younger guests with better circulation than ours) wouldn’t keep enfeebled me warm enough.

In our own bed we operate a duvet apiece and that’s the law. The RAF kiboshed blankets – those cardboard winding sheets. Cellulars turned out to be all theory and no insulation. People whinge about duvets being unsuitable in summer but the same could be said about cotton sheets. Push the duvet aside, I say.

I added my duvet to the single bed and was warm all night even though I didn’t sleep. Subduing the pain was enough (obviously many OTC drugs had passed through my guzzard). Since duvets are mostly air they’re light and soft; this is what you want from a bed. A layered pair adds more air thus more insulation.

Youth’s resilience and a reduced coughing rate encouraged Zach to act as quizmaster in a home version of University Challenge with its near impossible questions on topological maths and ex-USSR “-stan” states. With help from daughter Professional Phlebotomist I set up my new wifi keyboard/mouse to work with the smart TV. To what end? Hey, I’ve got a hungry blog to feed.



Monday, 23 December 2019

Darkness resisted

It’s odd how often Christmas hosts un-fun.

Christmas Angst - Part one
V’s my singing teacher. Her mother, a dementia sufferer, died two weeks ago. The family organised a service in a farmland wood last Friday. With singing, of course. It rained heavily and access to the wood was flooded. Another entry was found. They sang A Gaelic Blessing and Ombra ma fu.

Christmas Angst – Part Two
Today, Monday morning, my traditional lesson. To find V crippled with back pain. Two-handed piano accompaniment limited to ten minutes. “But I can continue with one hand,” she said spiritedly. Dark circles under her eyes; slow movement at the keyboard. Wouldn’t hear of a cancellation.

Christmas Miracle
Christmas; we might have gone light-hearted. Instead we returned to the nitty-gritty of Schubert’s monumental Abschied, first tackled long ago. I struggled with “..hőrver-schwimmen…” The umlaut o is hard to articulate musically. It’s also just short of my absolute peak F.

Nothing seemed to work. Emphasising the aspirate h (huh), no go. Substituting “hőr” with “har” (which is cheating, anyway), another no go. V kept on. Finally she said: “You’re using that dark tone.” She was right; sometimes I imagine it makes me sound like a pro. V added, “Trouble is it makes you sing flat.” Oh!

“Sing with the front of your mouth.” Easier said than done, I’ve never had success with that weird command. But V was determined. Suddenly it clicked. A clear tone much closer to a tenor voice (I’m baritone). The hőrver problem just disappeared.

Driving home I sang a dozen songs all with problem passages. And lo, like a hot knife through butter. Also recalling the smile – the smile of a good teacher - that replaced the wincing on V’s face.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Secular, I fear

Everybody gets table presents here at Castle Robinson. Wrapping them is VR's special job, signalled by the opening tenor arias of Handel's Messiah (Comfort ye my my people, followed by the more celebratory Ev'ry valley shall be exalted). Drink gets drunk and this prepares us all for the life-reinforcing trumpets and great, great drumming that kicks off Bach's Weinachtsoratorium - a moment when I, an atheist, briefly wonder whether there might be something to be said for a revealed religion. After all, look what it did for Johann Sebastian. But then the choir roars out and I am reminded that all this wonderful noise has, of course, been created by "the people who dwell in the shadow of death". Mortals, in fact.

Music is like travelling free by TGV, drinking champagne and watching an unending riverside panoply consisting of the Rhine, the Seine, the Thames and the point at which the Allegheny meets the Monongahela to form the Ohio.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

The holy estate

Marriage Story is a profoundly witty, Guardian-five-stars movie about a very American couple who get divorced. It has won worldwide applause. I suspect that any couple who saw it, and had been married more than ten years, watched as we did last night, in silence and totally absorbed.

It’s quite long (2hr 16min) and it needs to be since it is intensely detailed yet pacy. The Guardian’s film critic described it as funny but it’s not boffo humour. The laughs come later; yes, you say, that was a wry bit.

Note the title, strange given it’s about divorce. But it makes sense. In splitting up both husband and wife are forced to examine what sort of marriage they had. Relentlessly. What makes this movie terrific is it’s the marriage all of us married folk have. Chances are we may have been lucky to escape divorce, a terrible experience as the movie makes clear. No marriage is end-to-end unalloyed bliss. Or, if it is, then someone is being quiet about the periods of disagreement they endured. For marriage includes delusions.

The plot is too complex to summarise here. But it’s ingeniously contrived to provide both sides with a sequence of dilemmas that cannot be resolved. There is blame and unblame but, make no mistake, you care passionately about this couple. And their eight-year-old Henry.

The wife is played by Scarlet Johansson, whom I’ve always admired. Her facial expressions alone miraculously express the ups and downs of being wife, mother and a talent. Adam Driver, new to me, is yin to Johansson’s yang. Surely, you say, this is what marriage is like behind the scenes. We love each other but are often simultaneously at odds. I know that and so do you. Be honest, as the movie is.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Roots

In 1951, as a 16-year-old tea-boy on the Telegraph and Argus, a Bradford evening newspaper, I worked 5½ days a week, including all Saturday.

My work schedule was:

● Open the mail for the editorial department.
● Take morning orders for tea from either the reporters' or the sub-editors' rooms and distribute it (in the orderers' own mugs) appropriately.
● Visit Bradford's three courts - sometimes twice in a morning - and pick up handwritten copy from reporters.
● From midday onwards, make hourly visits to the print room to pick up copies of the latest edition of the newspaper and distribute them to about a dozen recipients in the building.
● Take afternoon orders for tea as above.

In between times I would...
● ...scour Bradford's tobacconists for "acceptable" brands of cigarettes for the sub-editors...
● ...infrequently take a bus to beg a photograph of some guy killed in a road accident or at work from his recently bereaved widow...
● ...pick up the Wool Prices, of which I wot nothing.

Every three weeks there was a nightmarish addition to this schedule in which - every half-hour during the afternoon - I would take teleprinted lists of jockeys at all the day’s horse race meetings and amend race programmes for the Late News box.

Unimaginative, surprisingly exhausting – sometimes impossible - work, you’d say. And you’d be right.

Irregularly, I ceased to be a tea-boy. After a hurried dinner at home I would bus to a Bradford suburb, watch half an amateur dramatic society play (no time for the rest), return to the late-night office, write a review. Not well; not all were published.

The key word was “write”.

It was what I’d always wanted to do.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Now I've got a shocking hangover

So, the “very worst” has happened in the British general election. The proven liar has a free hand. When I described the prime minister that way someone pointed out “all politicians lie”. I wasn’t comforted.

During the campaign the PM said the NHS was “not for sale.” The NHS is a sacred cow, a huge organisation that ensures free medicine, surgery, etc, for all Brits and especially the poor and the aged. The US would love to sell its expensive drugs and services into the NHS, raising its costs and conceivably breaking its back. If that happens (the PM and the US president “get on”) I’m supposed to shrug my shoulders and say, “Gee, he lied. But then they all do.” And accept my newly limited life expectations.

Another campaign phrase was “the EU gravy train”. But where does this train drop off its gravy? I thought of Wales which has struggled to be viable ever since its coal industry closed down. Wales voted to leave the EU. Yet throughout Wales are huge completed projects financed by EU money. Roadside signs show the EU’s circle of stars. Will the British government step in? It has always tended to ignore Wales’ needs. Turkeys and Christmas you might say.

Herefordshire, where I live, is predominantly agricultural. Judging by the Vote Conservative signs in their fields farmers appear to support Brexit. Yet they were warned their huge EU subsidies (mainly engineered by politically active French farmers) could not be matched. Tory immigration policies will prevent migratory labour from picking the county’s strawberries and apples.

Hey, maybe I’ll die of malnutrition.

Am I crying wolf? Who knows? Trade negotiations now stretch out to the Crack of Doom. I won’t see the end of them. But were VR and I right to have children?

It happened yesterday - free on the NHS
Grandson Zach got banged on the head playing rugby. (Like NFL but without helmets or padding.) Mum (Occasional Speeder) took him to A&E at local hospital.

Mum reports: "It took 2 hr to throughly check head injury. Two leaflets with guidance sent home with him. Kindness, no rushing, despite packed waiting room."

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Augury


Thursday, December 12 2019
UK General Election

I woke at five and found myself selfish, cowardly, full of fear. I had wanted simplicity and had found it. It was no comfort. I am old, that’s inarguable. I am entering the final shortish period of my life when I shall depend more and more on the medical profession. Those stalwarts have served me well. But I can’t see this continuing.

It’s likely a proven liar will become UK’s prime minister. He has said our health services are not for sale. But he has said many things. In the wings stands another influential figure who has said that greater sales access to our health services will be a condition in any future trade negotiations. Bargains seem unlikely.

In the dark bedroom my uncertain feet seek my slippers. Perhaps I won’t need the medical profession, or, only incidentally. Perhaps my needs will be served by those with lesser skills, helping to wipe spilled food from my grubby shirt, zip up my fly, help me with my pills. Except there may not be enough of them to perform these tasks.

My children and my grandchildren may experience difficulties but I probably won’t care about them. I may not have the capacity for sympathy. A more horrible thought: perhaps I’ll have that capacity but won’t be able to express it.

In my selfishness I wanted the world to continue as it is. A late-life enthusiasm for music had me revelling in the sources of such music. But who cares about music when they’re out of work and must visit a food bank? If someone promises jobs and full bellies - even if they fib - who gives a toss about Dowland?

The selfish are rewarded in kind. Hence the fear.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Not exactly a culture-fest



Aachen, Part two

It would be nice to pretend we went to Aachen for quasi-spiritual or even pseudo-intellectual reasons. We did pop into the Dom (cathedral) where I took a lousy photo of the stained glass which I am not posting. We also photographed – but did not visit – the 200-year-old theatre emerging from nighttime into roseate dawn.

Alas, our motives were materialistic, if not downright crass, and are better represented by the bun-shop window display. Those on the left are Plunderkranz, or Rubbish-Garland. Their taste remains a mystery.

Because we had the car our shopping could be profligate. VR, who dislikes chocolate (all chocolate, even the expensive sort), spent the equivalent of Gambia’s GDP on kilograms of the brown stuff which will end up as table presents for the family.

I had fun buying vegetables from Jean-Pierre’s wide range. Did he have salsify? I asked. J-P fingered his translating smartphone and, yes, he did have Schwarzwurzel. Even rarer, to me, were miniature red cabbages. Also Jerusalem artichokes; not quite so rare but these were an easy-to-peel variety and have already been consumed as sublime soup. Occasional Speeder was impressed by the amount of money which changed hands.

J-P could thus afford to share my sorrow about Britain’s parochial departure from the EU. Unfortunately my interest in his wares suggested my German was better than it is. I couldn’t follow a story which summarised German attitudes towards the UK, other than the punchline: “The carrots are small; we call them Brexit carrots.”

I thanked J-P for his entertainment and he revealed he was Dutch. “The folk who speak a thousand languages,” I said, and he laughed. That’s ultimately what I was after.

Note to Sabine: I'm aware the Wagnerian reference lacks umlauts.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

The ties that bind

Despite the risk of being called “gullible” we had to do another German Christmas market before the UK succumbs to a status and leader it apparently wants and, I suppose, it deserves.





This time we chose Aachen (see the view of the Dom from our apartment window).

I wanted us to wear tee-shirts carrying our views scribbled in idiomatic German but had to make do with pin badges (see inset pic).

Dinner at the Aachener Brauhaus had come to an end. My Nurnberger bratwursts were a memory as were my hot cherries with ice cream. The wooden interior of the restaurant hummed with lively “engaged” conversation, our kind of place. As we got up a German man turned towards us from a nearby table and addressed our daughter, Occasional Speeder. Said how pleasant it was to hear English spoken with “a good accent”.

I pointed to my pin-badge and he nodded with approval. I thought about what lay ahead. If I was able to risk being thought gullible perhaps I might also risk acting cornily. I said : “Wir lieben Deutschland.” Some smiled, some waved unshowily.

Outside it was cold – literally and metaphorically.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Two ends of a spectrum

Michael Mosley, a doctor/scientist turned TV presenter, investigated the physiological aspects of pleasure (and its close relation – pain) last night. Highly entertaining, I was left wanting more. Cleverly he bracketed the programme - first contemplating a vast Swiss dam and saying, tremulously, he was hoping to share the pleasure bungee jumpers claim for jumping off it; then, finally, filming the sequel. Terrific stuff.

In previous series Mosley has used his body unsparingly and often painfully to illuminate how surgery and medicine may examine, measure and ameliorate human ailments. Last night he was at it again: entering a chilli-eating competition which some people find enjoyable (See pic; he flunked after three rounds) and having his legs depilated, observing that smooth calves are no compensation for the agonies of having all that hair ripped away.

Men and women were formed into teams to see who could better endure keeping their hands in a bucket of ice water; my lips are sealed as to the result. Vox. pop, interviews in Britain revealed that sex only comes second in a public listing of life’s greatest pleasures. A sense of family was first which, given our reputation for lack of emotion, surprised me.

The dark side was also explored. A young girl incapable of feeling pain was seen to be pitied rather than envied. And a calm yet detailed account by a farmer from one of the US southern states who recounted getting stuck in heavy machinery should have carried a health warning.

Attitudes towards pain vary. It is at its worst when – unsurprisingly - it is administered by someone who means to harm us. Also – a theory I’d arrived at independently – the anticipation of imminent pain is, in itself, a form of pain.

Tough if you didn’t see it and haven’t got Iplayer.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Oh vengeful death

Rhodes, Miller, James. All three deaths were hard to take
but to learn that Miller, a great wit, had Alzheimers for some
time before dying seemed ironic in the nastiest possible way
Clive James, Jonathan Miller and Gary Rhodes, dead in one fell swoop. And I reflect on the nature of words. Fell can have a “literary” meaning - fierce or cruel; very destructive; deadly. For once I’ll allow the cliché.

Clive James had been dying for a decade. Living confirmation that doctors, faced with any patient, should routinely predict the sufferer hadn’t long to live. Confounding an expert medico quite outweighs a harsh prediction.

James was a great TV critic for The Observer who enlisted me by poking fun at the BBC’s all-purpose blabbermouth sports reporter, David Vine; someone who had ruined many a Ski Sunday. James crammed much good writing into ten years after discovering he had leukemia. Poetry, abstruse lit. crit., etc. Latterly a weekly column which borrowed from Mark Twain (“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”).

After appearing with Alan Bennet, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Beyond The Fringe, a university romp that ended up on Broadway, Miller directed operas worldwide. In a TV documentary about La Boheme, he predicted no one could watch the “your tiny hand is frozen” scene without seeping into tears; rehearsed the scene and lo, was among several with a streaming face. Was allowed a TV series to explain just what atheism is; a memorable personal declaration.

Forty years ago I watched TV cooking programmes, a tolerance that has since substantially withered. VR liked Gary Rhodes, a sort of cheeky chappie who affected extreme hairstyles and was good fun. I was mildly astonished when in “adding salt” he disbursed a whole handful. Yes, I know it’s bad for you. So’s breathing if you do it underwater. Rhodes died from banging his head in a fall; aged only 59. Quarter of a life left.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Now in newer clothes

This sonnet first saw the light of day in Tone Deaf on Remembrance Day (US: Veterans' Day) in 2015. The date is irrelevant to the subject matter.

I should never have exposed it to critical comment. Like Richard III it came into this world "scarce half made up". I blushed to re-read the second quatrain which was so determinedly allusive even I, the author, found it impenetrable. Amazing, there were 12 comments which I didn't deserve. All were far too kind.

I was commenting on Marly Youmans' blog, The Palace at 2am, and, on impulse, I chucked in this sonnet, albeit without that deadly second quatrain. Marly too was kind. I vowed to re-write the quatrain and to polish up the remainder. This is the result. If you find it bad I can only say it was once much worse. And that Marly is not to blame.

Sonnet – Ecstasy but not quite
“Keep a light hopeful heart.
But expect the worst.”

Joyce Carol Oates

When was the best time? I am asked,
Given my face's arid lumps and lines
Suggest that confidence has long since past
And dropped this cowpat - dry dull dreck - behind.

What can I say? My best is yet to come?
The sentiment of any greeting card.
A child? That so-called ripe and blessed plum
The middle-classes hold in high regard.

Not yet, the realist says, nor is it due,
There is no best,there's only similar.
It’s where you’re standing in the righteous queue,
Prate prophets reading from apocrypha.

For me it comes and goes as clarity,
A newish line that fits exquisitely.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Dull should be gold

Let’s suppose you’re retired and elderly, perhaps even old. That your interests are not limited to one activity  but are multitudinous. That you blog. That when you face an empty screen filling it isn’t a burden.

Days pass in 24-hour cycles. Of which 8 hr are spent in bed. A further 2½ hr are devoted to meals and associated tasks like washing up (more if you’re the cook). Passive quasi-intellectual tasks (reading the newspaper and instructive books; scanning a PC, TV or smart-phone specifically for news and/or information) absorb 2 hr. Shopping, averaged over the week, 1 hr. Inescapable drudgery (Getting up, dressing, taking pills, ablutions and the loo, house cleaning, tidying the garden, dealing with refuse, laundry matters) 1½ hr. DIY, again averaged over a longer period, 1 hr. Dog walking or amusing the cat, 1 hr.

But let’s not haggle over minutiae. Give or take, most of us are occupied for 17 hr out of 24.

Which leaves an astonishing 7 hr for what is vaguely termed leisure. The stuff we choose to do.

Now here’s an oddity. Many appear to think the best blogposts are based on leisure pursuits. No reason why not, of course, except this policy dismisses the routine parts of our life. But must routine be dull? Is it healthy to accept boredom?

We clean our teeth and are reminded of our bank balance. Why?

Arthritic fingers find conventional taps hard to turn. There are alternatives.

Daringly, we choose a striped carpet. It works. Might stripes work elsewhere?

Can we afford to pay a gardener? Do the arithmetic.

What would happen if we entered by the side door for a day?

Could we eat all our meals with a spoon?

What does music sound like in the dark?

Dull? Only if you insist.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Self-infliction

I haven’t had a real hangover in years. I mean the real thing: upchucking imminent, acid gurgling, head restricted by a childsize battle helmet. And not because I drink less; more, if anything, but divided into smaller amounts.

Thus I read The Guardian’s Best Cures – by Pub Landlords quite smugly. Some prescriptions involved food (buttered crumpets, fried haggis, honey/banana/ten leaves of spinach), some were liquid (sparkling shiraz, Campari and espresso).

When I drank for a living (ie, as a journalist) only one thing worked: as much water as possible before bed. However there are two problems: (a) being mentally competent enough to remember and submit to this “pre-cure”, (b) overcoming the human’s seemingly finite capacity for water; after the third glassful the throat contracts and the water takes on the nature of a solid; it refuses to go down. Keep on swallowing, man.

Inevitably a memory arises. An overnight press visit to Stuttgart, fuelled by a terrible red wine that “didn’t travel well” – that is, from the bottle to the glass. Foolishly I challenged one of the party to an early-morning swim in the hotel pool. Even more foolishly, I flopped into bed without the water treatment.

All the symptoms were there the next morning. As I made sure my legs entered the appropriate orifices of my cozzie I told myself I would profit from the exercise. I didn’t. Poolside my head merely throbbed. Immersed it felt like a depth charge, assuming depth charges have feelings.

My so-called competitor was worse. Too crocked to even imagine swimming. Some people have all the luck.

One further suggestion from The Guardian: homemade chicken stock, miso paste, shitake mushrooms, crispy seaweed, kombu kelp, spring onions, shredded rotisserie chicken, egg noodle, a soft boiled egg. Not forgetting a helping of Dutch courage.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Evolution



Two photos of grandson Zach: Trying on a fireman's helmet at Newent's world-famous onion fair; about to score a try at a rugby game last weekend. Almost a decade has elapsed between the two.

Ten years ago I was Zach's grandpa (Big Grandpa), taking him to the bakery in St-Jean-de-la-Blacquerie and encouraging him to say Bonjour. Now I am wallpaper to his world as computers and playing sport - swimming, soccer, cricket, ski-ing and rugby (where he plays scrum-half) - have absorbed him.

This is as it should be. At Zach's present age I had absolutely no interest in adults other than they were random, inexplicable and a source of fairly mild punishment. I doubt I distinguished between my adult relations and, say, giraffes. Let them be. And to be frank, there is no attraction in my attempting to hang on to the periphery of Zach's newer being. Instead I look forward - possibly! - to the sort of relationship I have with my two other grandchildren, both much older than Zach. Ties based on spirited conversation. That's if I'm spared, as my Grannie (another old person) used to say.

Zach is doing me great service. One of the unpublicised aspects of getting old is a growing risk of becoming a bore. On the whole young people just aren't interested in those who are forever looking backwards. Nor should they be. The life ahead is infinity. Even worse, I might become sentimental, although that possibility is more likely to make me vomit than Zach.

Time passes as quicksilver. One may entrap memory and dwell on it privately. But if you’re tempted to recycle it for others,  it may profit from a modern context. Moaning just doesn’t cut it. There’s a Latin tag… but I’m damned if I’ll use it.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Make a mighty ocean and a bounteous land

Courtesy: Hereford Times
A burst water-main on the Hoarwithy Road had me questioning the way I'd previously run my life.

Suddenly I had to force three different types of pill down my reluctant throat. I shuffled downstairs and returned with a bottle of fizzy water from the fridge. Should I swallow the pills individually, as normal, or en masse? Foolishly I decided on the latter. As I raised the bottle to my lips the pills seemed to be swelling. Fizz added, I sensed the pills now as big as golf balls in my mouth. Got to get them down! They passed under my epiglottis as the combined volume of a medium-sized mammal, say a Canadian beaver. At least there would be no wood down below to gnaw on.

Using the tooth-brush I asked: where to spit? The large bowl of the loo seemed obvious. And yet the water in the loo's cistern would need husbanding. Which meant the spit would... hang around. Uh.

We have three loos and one had already been flushed before we knew its water would not be immediately replaced. This raised delicate questions. Loos are in receipt of two different forms of waste product. This would need planning. I'll go no further.

One thing I wasn't short of was information. Welsh Water is the only mutually owned water company in Britain, thus it concentrates on customers not share-holders. I signed on with WW's website and got breathless emails every hour describing progress on the Hoarwithy Road (“challenging work… a nearby high-voltage cable… team working hard”).

WW predicted the repair would be finished within the day. My supply, at lower pressure, resumed at 13.30 though emails remained cautious. Always better to go for a worst-case prediction and give everyone an unexpected treat.

Loo used with complete abandon this morning.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Words quick as thoughts

Aldous Huxley observed that the only new vice the twentieth century has delivered is an enthusiasm for speed.

My new PC, equipped with Windows 10, boots up in 45 seconds (sometimes in only 10 seconds.)  Boots down in 3 secs. I must admit there's a sensual pleasure to this (not least because the PC's predecessor took several minutes to clear its throat.) Sensual? Indeed, a feeling of release, a sensation akin to... well, perhaps we should leave it at that.

I know no one who isn't irritated when a computer works slowly. Always acknowledging that a computer’s slowness is relative; nothing in common with queueing at the Post Office for a single first-class stamp.

The reasons are obvious. Our world has shrunk to the dimensions of a monitor screen, we are briefly transfixed, we have nowhere to go. And for those of us of a technical bent there's the consideration that behind that screen electrons are moving at the speed of light. Yet Solitaire refuses to appear.

I feed on computer speed and I am clearly not alone. Programmers recognise we get caught up in our PC’s vitesse and are only too ready to stab keys we may later (ie, two microseconds later) regret. “Are you sure you want to delete this file?” the prescient programmer asks. We blush at our impulsiveness.

Word-processing speed is essential to journalists. One must cut words quickly to match available space, correct errors to avoid embarrassment. An error departs so quickly we hardly remember we made it. We become smug, imagining we are better instinctive writers than we thought. An old-fashioned pencil would prove the opposite.

Never mind. My new computer is again my slave and not my tormenter. I no longer wait on it hand and foot. Mind and mouse are in step.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Literary ton


Here are a hundred works of fiction (novels, poems, stage and TV plays) which have satisfied me at one time or another. Many were re-read or re-experienced. 

These items are not necessarily “the greatest” - whatever that means - since that would lead to arguments. Nor perhaps the profoundest (Otherwise I might have included Proust’s A la recherche..). Nor the best-written (How about W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz?) Nor even the most original (Say, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces?).

“When I say “satisfied” I mean works which have entertained me and left me with something to chew on. I took a nightmarish decision to restrict myself to one title per author (other than trilogies, tetralogies, etc).

I’ve tried to avoid obvious titles where possible. Also pretentiousness. The list is roughly chronological and advances even more roughly towards titles which have influenced me most. The final ten continue to influence me to this day.

This list is in no way complete and should prove conclusively, to those who have been formally educated, that I haven’t been. It exceeds my 300-word limit by a country mile.

100. A. A. Milne. Now We are Six (Poems). With me on her knee my mother recited “Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on,” several times. It became mine for life.

99. Kenneth Grahame. Wind in the Willows. Have you ever met such a well-defined quartet of main characters?

98. Arthur Ransome. We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea. Nominally for teenagers, actually for latent adults.

97. H. Rider Haggard. Alan Quartermain. Colonialism red in tooth and claw. OK then, non-PC now.

96. Hugh Lofting. The Dr Doolittle sequence. Then and now it was the innocence.

95. Gladys Mitchell. The Rising of the Moon. Early “subversive” whodunnit: Christina is a brilliantly realised supporting character. I fell in love with her, me still pre-adolescent.

94. Rudyard Kipling. Jungle Book. Good story inextricably tangled up with the fact I was a Wolf Cub (they’re now called Cub Scouts) at the time I read it.

93. E. Nesbit. The Bastable Family. A group of Victorian children who must look after themselves for long periods. As with the Arthur Ransome book (above) its readership occupies the no-man’s-land between childhood and the dim perceptions of growing up.

92. C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters. Pro devil instructs apprentice devil how to corrupt the human race. It’s true, it’s great fun.

91. George Eliot. Scenes from Clerical Life. Preparation for the magnum opus, Middlemarch.

90. John Masefield. Cargoes (Poem). Why poetic rhythm matters, and sticks.

89. Tom Stoppard. Professional Foul (Play). Philosophy scrambled with soccer.

88. R. L. Stevenson. Kidnapped. Fast-clip adventure; super-memorable Alan Breck.

87. John Steinbeck. Cannery Row. Well-controlled folksiness in California.

86. Dorothy Sayers. Murder Must Advertise. Amateur detective, Peter Wimsey, issues a snob’s guide to high culture

85. Gerald Kersh. Prelude to a Certain Midnight. Gangsterism breaks out in London.

84. Henry Williamson. Dandelion Days. Leaden misery of schooldays transmuted to pure gold.

83. Stella Gibbons. Cold Comfort Farm. You’ll never long for the simple country life again.

82. William Blake. The Mental Traveller (Poem). “For the eye altering, alters all.”

81. Christopher Fry. The Lady’s not for Burning (Verse play). Hero wants to be hanged, heroine faces the stake. Yet it entertains.

80. P. G. Wodehouse. Very Good Jeeves. Class system turned upside down.

79. John Dryden. Fairest Isle (Poem/song.). “Sighs that blow the fire of love.”

78. John Lodwick. Stamp Me Mortal. Forgotten English novelist; forgotten plot; warm glow remembered.

77. T. S. Eliot. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (Verse collection). “McCavity! McCavity! He’s broken every human law, He breaks the law of gravity.”

76. Ian Sansom. A Young Wife’s Tale. Another forgotten English novelist/travel writer. Writes with great tenderness.

75. Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Ernest (Play/Movie). Archetypal comedy of manners; never bettered. Two well-brought-up young women at each other’s throats: X: “I call a spade a spade.” Y: “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade.”

74. George Orwell. Coming up for air. Acutely depressing, physically decaying, overweight, lower-middle-class whinger views onset of WW2.

73. John Galsworthy. The Forsyte Saga. Everyone laughed at JG getting the Nobel Prize. Yet this family tale (several volumes, several generations) is sleekly told. A real page turner.

72. Edmond Rostand. Cyrano de Bergerac (Play). The big nose one. “Greater love hath no man...” yet gloriously told. Cyrano was the hero I wanted to be.

71. Sinclair Lewis. Babbit, Parodies the US conviction that life revolves round the act of selling things.

70. Aldous Huxley. Antic Hay. As funny as its title; pointless “lit” types lollygag in post-WW1 London.

69. Dylan Thomas. Under Milk Wood (Radio play). Welsh village exposed for all to see. Sample lines: Polly Garter: “Only babies grow in our garden.” Butcher Bynon: “... running down the street with a finger – not his own – in his mouth.”

68. Stendahl. The Red and the Black. Julian Sorel, something of a weak-need rogue but you gotta love him.

67. Oliver Goldsmith. She Stoops to Conquer (Play). Eighteenth-century heroine pretends to be lower-class to snag hero. I heard it first on radio; still terrific.

66. Ernest Hemingway. A Moveable Feast. Atypically un-hairychested prose; young couple enjoy life in 1920s Paris. Claims to be memoir but style is novelistic.

65. Isaac Asimov. I, Robot. Imagination at full-stretch. Compiles Three Laws of Robotics and explores them in this and other lively novels.

64. Gustave Flaubert. Madame Bovary. French provincial doctor’s wife fights rural boredom by overdosing on infidelity. Boy, does she regret it! Now somewhat out of favour for its anti-feminism.  

63. James Thurber. My Life and Hard Times. The one where JT’s mother believes removing a light bulb causes electricity to leak away.

62. Thomas Mann. Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. An exploration of immorality, but lighter in tone than, say, Joseph and his Brethren. Unfinished, not that you’d know.

61. Mark Twain. Critique on James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defects. Uses simple arithmetic to destroy JFC for ever and a day.

60. Albert Camus. The Plague. A testament to human goodness.

59. Robert Burns. My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose (Poem). “An’ I will love you still, my dear/Til a’ the seas gang dry.” Now I can sing it too.

58. Phillip Roth. Goodbye Columbus. Relentlessly hilarious yet critical account of growing up in a Jewish family. Especially hard on Jewish mommas. Portnoy’s Complaint had yet to arrive.

57. Charles Dickens. Great Expectations. Take just one detail: had there ever been a fictional heroine anything like Estella up to then?

56. Anita Brookner. Hotel du Lac. The heart of a middle-aged single woman comforted only by lonely money.

55. Herman Melville. Moby Dick. Tough for many wouldbe well-reads. Because I gulped it down in a week I often feel unnatural among the intelligentsia. It’s about whales and whaling. The initial sentence is a wing-dinger, thereafter you have to concentrate.

54. Marcel Pagnol. Manon des Sources. Recipe: Take a handful of Provencal peasants and a shortage of water; mix well. Could break your heart.

53. G. B. Shaw. The Devil’s Disciple (Play/movie). Brits vs. Yanks in the War of Independence. As often with Shaw, the villain, General Burgoyne, gets the best lines. Not surprisingly he’s played by Laurence Olivier in the movie.

52. Eric Ambler. The Levanter. Much detail about a ceramics factory, yet it’s all germane to this polished thriller set in Syria.

51. Jane Austen. Persuasion. Family lacks money to maintain their life-style. Heroine, Ann Eliot, is 27 and thus – by our standards - only a few steps away from a care home. I like the realism.

50. Anthony Trollope. The Way We Live Now. AT wrote 47 novels. I read about thirty of them then gave up. This is by far the best. High finance and embezzlement.

49. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five. Worm’s eye view of carpet bombing of Dresden.

48. Henry James. What Maisie Knew. Child’s view of adult behaviour. HJ’s masterpieces can be hard going (The style! The style!) but this is much shorter and goes down like slippery elm food. Didn’t know he had it in him.

47. Olivia Manning. The Balkan Trilogy. Recently married Brit couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, escape the Nazis’ overflow of Europe by travelling south-east. Best thing: Guy’s dominance gradually wanes and it’s Harriet who shoulders the responsibilities.

46. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. Yes, I know. Pervy and all that. And yet this may be the wittiest novel ever written. Alas, uncomfortable for US citizens.

45. Anthony Burgess. The Malayan Trilogy. Three of his earliest, all of a piece, a great sense of place, even poignant. Later novels tended to be show-offs.

44. Walter Raleigh. I Wish I Loved the Human Race (Poem). It spits with weary disenchantment.

43. John Updike. The Poorhouse Fair. That someone so young (26 when he did so) could write so tellingly about being old!

42. Honoré de Balzac. Le Père Goriot. Father sacrifices himself, degrades himself, for the sake of his daughter. In Paris – where else?

41. Beatrix Potter. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. As parents, VR and I read/re-read aloud books to our babes-in-arms, force-feeding them words. We never tired of Peter “bursting his buttons”

40. Noel Coward. Present Laughter (Play). A very junior reporter, I first saw this done by amateurs. I was trying hard to be cynical but laughed my head off. Still do. It’s bomb-proof.

39. Joyce Carey (He’s a man, by the way.) The Horse’s Mouth. No one has written more persuasively about how it feels to slap paint on to canvas. Or about immediately-post-WW2 London.

38. J. B. Priestley. Angel Pavement. Huge compendium novel (they-re out of fashion these days), interweaving a handful of characters locally based in pre-war London. Priestley’s from my home town, Bradford, and I used to think him uppity. Not here, though.

37. Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina. Proving that whatever Hollywood says gender incompatibility outweighs lerve and can prove fatal.

36. Hans Hellmut Kirst. Gunner Asch series. WW2 as seen by a low-ranking German infantryman who is more of a pain to Hitler than to the Allied forces. One of the war’s great survivors. Zestful and funny.

35. John Donne. To his Mistress Going to Bed (Poem). A perfect crutch for male adolescence. Sex without sentiment. What young man could not thrill to: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go”.

34. Malcom Bradbury. The History Man. Send-up of extreme left-wing lecturer in modern (ie, not Oxbridge) British university. Corruption from an unexpected  source. Unbelievable mental cruelty. One laughs uneasily.

33. Muriel Spark. The  Girls of Slender Means. Does more or less “what it says on the can” in sixties London. Beautifully selective English. Memorable line: “Fearful bad luck! Preggers! Wedding’s on Friday.”

32. John Osborne. Look Back in Anger (Play). Said to summarise the fifties – ie, “no causes worth dying for.” I preferred it for the language: Elderly woman referring to central character’s judgment on her: “He said I’d be a good blow-out for the worms.”

31. Ross Thomas. The Fourth Durango. But it could have been Chinaman’s Chance, Out on the Rim, Protocol for a Kidnapping, or a dozen others. Masterly thrillers, great dialogue, worldwide settings.

30. Joseph Heller. Catch 22. With every passing generation this novel helps re-establish the sheer madness of warfare. I saw it as a dark comedy; re-reading it revealed a far tougher – more intellectual – proposition than I remembered.

29. John le Carré. The Honourable Schoolboy. Possibly his longest novel; plenty of elbow-room for scuffling through the files where much of the drama is created.

28. Elmore Leonard. Cuba Libre. The US’s greatest dialoguist.  Turns his back on Detroit/Florida and opts for Cuba at outbreak of Spanish-American war. Smuggling horses, for goodness sake.

27. Salman Rushdie. Midnight’s Children. Published in 1981; said to exemplify magical realism, making it a difficult read. For my money a clear-sighted, well dramatised account of India’s partition and independence.

26. Robert B. Parker. The Judas Goat. Spenser, Boston private-eye, pursues a case in London. Terse, formulaic, somehow appealing. One of my guilty secrets.

25. Mary McCarthy. The Group. US best-seller for two years. Eight Vassar girls have sex in previously unheard-of detail. Moderately serious. Better than it sounds.

24. J. D. Salinger. Catcher in the Rye. It’s all been said.

23. Hilaire Belloc. Tarantella (Poem). Better known for its first line: “Do you remember an inn, Miranda?” leading to “And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees.” Frisky, virtuosic rhyming from one who knows his trade.

22. Annie Proulx. The Shipping News. For me the hero is Newfoundland.

21. Barbara Trapido. Brother of the More Famous Jack. English family eccentricity in an assured debut novel that entertains you straight from the title.

20. Anthony Powell. A Dance to the Music of Time (12 volumes). Ambitiously claimed as British equivalent of Proust’s A la Recherche... but more like a plot outline. Skims over Oxbridge-educated elite during four or five decades. Best bits: three titles covering WW2. Stodgy style initially hard to digest. Included here because of the creation of Widmerpool –  a literary one off.

19. Penelope Lively (Actually a Dame). The Road to Lichfield. Booker Prize finalist. Heavily domesticated, non-working. middle-aged wife goes in for a spot of adultery. Opens up a new form of eroticism for me.

18. Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn. Yes Minister (TV series). Uncomfortably true account of how UK is governed. Side-splittingly funny but should we now be laughing?

17. Elizabeth Jane Howard. The Cazalet Chronicles (Four volumes or, if you like, five). Best seller sequence. Home Counties, numerous, upper-middle-class family up to and including WW2. Characterisation is fine; much better are the details about leisure pursuits and ways of earning a living.

16. V. S. Naipaul. A House for Mr Biswas. I ignored this for ages. Shouldn’t have done. I’m ashamed.

15. Michel Butor. La Modification. Man leaves Paris, travels by train to Rome to his lover. Intends to say he has found a job in Rome, will leave his wife and family, will live with his lover. Gradually doubt, fear and cowardice intervene. All in the mind.

14. Romain Gary. Gros Calin. Man keeps python as pet in his Parisian apartment. Go on! Imagine! Bet what you come up with isn’t as funny as this book.

13. Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet. India during WW2. Uneasy co-existence for the Brits. Read all four in one burst and sweat along with a long list of characters.

12. Alan Bennett. The History Boys (Play). What constitutes a great teacher? Why might society find such a paragon unacceptable?

11. Len Deighton. Trio of Bernard Samson trilogies (Hook, Line, Sinker, etc). Inter alia, a spy-story writer whose compact, seemingly emotionless, tense yet witty style of writing has got better and better over the decades. A joy to read for his plots, his characterisation and his technique.

10. Colm Toibin. The Master. One of two novels (the other’s by David Lodge) centering on real-life Henry James’s humiliation when writing for the stage. Unexpected from Toibin, proof of his width

TOP TEN

9. Ford Madox Ford. Parade’s End tetralogy. Anthony Burgess rated FMF as the greatest British novelist of the twentieth century, so who am I dispute this judgment? These four novels centering on WW1 are about honour, obligation and “being a gentleman” in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I’d like to think that they provide a reference point for present-day Tories but that idea has been betrayed endlessly in the last four or five years.

8. Graham Greene. Our Man in Havana. How can a novel be simultaneously funny and dead serious? How can a Chief of Police in an authoritarian state be morally pure, or sort of? GG shows how.

7. Anne Tyler. The Accidental Tourist. But they’re all good. A simple recipe: take the common folk of Baltimore and their quotidian concerns, mix them up, out comes platinum. I’d like to be able to write like AT, better still, imagine like her.

6. Scott Fitzgerald. Great Gatsby. A short novel, so here’s a short verdict: blissfully elliptical.

5. Patrick O’Brian. The Aubrey/Maturin series (20 titles). Historical novels are written now about then (ie, the past). I’m not normally a fan but I’ve read this series at least three times. The language is then, the social mores are then, the politics is then, the two central characters are precisely of their time. There’s fun, stirring adventure, affection, tragedy, contemporary science.

4. Michael Frayn. Copenhagen (play). Two scientists, German, Danish, familiar with the uncertainty principle, talk glancingly about progress in atomic physics in 1941. It would bore the pants off you, wouldn’t it? Yeah. It ran for over 300 performances in London, same on Broadway.

3. Colette. Le Blé en Herbe. The most delicious male adolescent’s daydream ever written.

2. Evelyn Waugh. The Sword of Honour trilogy. Waugh on war. So he wasn’t just limited to the Catholic church and Britain’s toffs. Irony that could break your legs.

1. William Wordsworth. Composed upon Westminster Bridge (Poem.). A sonnet, of course, the only real poetry for me. A title that’s hardly a title. But the way it starts: “Earth has not anything to show more fair”. Ah! In other hands it would be either fustian or boiler-plate. For decades I ignored poetry until these fourteen lines spoke out to me: “Stop being a twerp.”

Unnumbered. James Joyce. Ulysses. Some twenty percent I don’t understand and probably never will. I can live with that. Two widely differing men inhabit the parts of Dublin they’re familiar with. Finally they meet. A woman who is both fiercely individual and yet all women reflects on her life. Of course it isn’t that simple. But it’s vivid and human, it shows what can be done with language, and the reference to The Odyssey is far from coincidental. Having read it more than once I’m both humbled and pumped up with pride. The story lingers in my mind, never far away. I took a photo of the Martello Tower (yes, that one), not something I usually bother about. I dare say I’ll look at it again some day. But it’s the words that reach out:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Rhymes with clog, smog, bog

What was I doing on December 1, 2011, 999 posts ago?

Wiping egg from my face.

Blogo-named Barrett Bonden, I had just announced I was closing down my 550-post blog, Works Well. The thirty-five comments I received (now, as then, a record) voiced regret, anger but mostly confusion.

In erasing WW I was punishing myself for “lack of judgment”. I’d irritated a commenter (not for the first time nor, I fear, for the last) and was vaguely depressed. When this blog, Tone Deaf, was inexplicably launched two days later the headline read: Possible Cure for Depression.

It looked like a stunt. Perhaps it was. I can’t be sure.

In switching to Tone Deaf I heaved Barrett Bonden overboard and became LdP (Lorenzo da Ponte – Mozart’s librettist). My first TD post starts: “The readers were the best thing about my previous blog. I’m proud of that.” It continues: “Mrs LdP says people liked my previous blog because it was eclectic (aka misguided, scatter-gun, indulgent). Thinks this one won’t work.”

To some extent Mrs LdP was right. TD has never achieved the same kind of rapport Works Well did. Readers fell away; blog friends died.

Still I wonder. My first “real” novel, Gorgon Times, appeared a year later. Did I discard WW to devote myself – monastically – to novels? If so I hadn’t thought things through. Novel writing is a lonely sport. Throughout most of my life I’ve done without friends. Works Well had changed this; it seemed I had friends though it’s not for me to say. Whatever, I’d hardly served them well.

Destructive acts are exhilarating but not for long. Writing fiction can be exhilarating but it’s mostly sweat and tears. Now, with age, fiction is ten times harder. Blogging, strangely, gets easier. Answers to questions, however, become more remote.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Stepping up

Plastic Yamaha may have a more important role to play
I hate missing singing lessons. They’re an essential fixture and will be until I succumb to gagaism, fire, flood or any other Act of God. V has said if old age deprives me of car insurance she’d drive over each week. “You’d accompany me on my plastic Yamaha?” I asked, knowing we haven’t space for a Joanna. “I’m up for that,” she said, cool as a Dry Martini. I was touched.

Last night my runny nose morphed into tight coughing; today I was due at Little Dewchurch for my estimated 171st. lesson. My bedroom warm-up (Ah-ah-AH-ah-ah) sounded precise and plangent, though singers are poor judges of their own voice. In the car, sucking a mentholated pastille, I warmed up again; still OK. I decided that if my throat turned out to be crap I’d opt for purely verbal instruction. As it happened, V gave my voice thumbs up.

Which was just as well. This morning turned out to be a big musical step forward, only exceeded by January 5, 2015, when V first said my voice had a future. It will take more than 300 words to do it justice, it may not be comprehensible or even interesting to many, but forgetfulness compels me to provide some sort of permanent record. Pardon my indulgence.

The song. Nun wandre Maria (Journey on, now, Mary). Hugo Wolf, one of Europe’s greatest German-speaking song-writers along with Schubert, Schumann and Mahler. Previously (ie, as a listener) I could never get on with Wolf, finding him austere, remote and – musically – slightly odd. The German lyrics are genuinely poetical and were written by Paul Heyse, a writer and translator awarded the 1910 Nobel Prize for Literature.

What’s it about? Joseph urges a tiring Mary on towards Bethlehem (“... your strength is weakening, I can hardly – alas – bear your agony...”) . The song’s musical heart is the refrain, Nah is der Ort (The place is near), repeated five times, each progressively more heart-rending.

The difficulties. It has a comparatively small dynamic range and many of the prominent intervals are quite small. The impression is one of musical subtlety. Also Wolf frequently favours sequences in which one note is repeated – in one case nine times. Wolf introduces time variations, again quite subtle, to these one-note wonders and the singer must concentrate to make the best of them.

It’s a masterpiece and this morning – with V’s help – I uncovered a tiny example of how masterpieces happen. The revelation lay in that refrain. Unfortunately for monoglot Brits, the translation above has been anglicised. A literal translation of Nah ist der Ort would be: “Near is the place”; this maintains the order of the German words and is vital. “Place”, a humdrum almost anonymous word, has been deliberately chosen by Heyse the poet to label the exact spot where Christianity originated. A word without the frills at the end of a line! A gift to the composer which Wolf receives with eager hands and reacts appropriately.

Recognising these small acts of genius – on behalf of the composer and the lyricist – helps put those one-note lines into perspective but it’s harder for me to focus usefully on that causal relationship. This is all new stuff to me.

I can do no more now than provide the means whereby you too can share this masterpiece. Here’s Olaf Bär gently acceding to Hugo Wolf’s bidding.

Readers with better memories than me will recognise I posted about Nun Wandre Maria (and Olaf Bär) as recently as May 6 this year. But that was pre-revelation. Today I’m more grown up.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

My anonymous guide

The height difference didn't diminish my affection
Damn! I’ve forgotten her name. I need to be sympathetic, let’s call her Han.

Han was guide to thirty European journalists visiting Japan in 1988, guests of  techno-giant Citizen Watch. Frequently it was grim work. With our bus immobilised in Tokyo traffic-jams, she told “little stories” – vignettes of Japanese life. Alas, French, German and Swiss journos proved just as oafish as their British counterparts and she was ignored.

I, however, had other fish to fry and needed Han’s help. I’d been commissioned – quite separately - to explain those Japanese hotels where guests sleep in tubes like torpedoes in a submarine. Han found me a contact. In a hyper-technical interview about just-in-time procedures at Citizen I needed the company’s best translator. Han got me the company president’s personal aide. Finally I’d been forced to represent the Brits at the Sayonara evening and had peppered my speech with sentiments in Japanese. Han phoneticised them for me.

Han was an attractive woman and knew Western culture; I liked her. Crossing a plaza we let a wedding entourage pass. Why, I asked , did everyone look so gloomy? Han averred it was probably the money. Years ago I'd read H. L. Mencken saying Japanese Shintoism was perhaps the silliest religion in the world. I was minded to follow this up but needed to know whether Han was religious; I didn’t want to offend her. “I am a free-thinker,” she said, and I liked that.

On the last day I struggled into central Tokyo and after several linguistic misunderstandings I bought the latest Graham Greene, Han’s favourite author. At the airport she tore away the beautiful wrapping and was overjoyed. I laughed, explaining she should have waited to unwrap it just in case the gift proved duff. She said, “I knew it wouldn’t be.”

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Look back in detail


What was life like 59 years ago?

We were living briefly in W1, London's swankiest postal district, could shop at Selfridges if we'd had the money (I was paid £800 pa = $981.46) and could walk into the West End at night without the risk of being mugged. Work was half a dozen tube (ie, subway) stops away and I could just about afford the cost of a rail ticket to my home town, Bradford, which these days, costs £120 (= $147.22) one way, if bought on the day.

I doubt I bought more than two or three books a year (couldn't afford them) and we were both regular visitors to Marylebone Public Library (see pic), now pulled down. Amazingly we were able to eat out a couple of times a month, thanks to The Student's Guide to London.

We bought a TV later but only installed a phone when we returned from the USA in 1972. I was working on a couple of ramshackle magazines (Tape Recording Fortnightly, Stereo Sound), was made redundant and moved to a house magazine published by Wimpey, the building and civil engineering company - the first of  two low points in my life as a journalist.

VR was finishing her training at Charing Cross Hospital as a State Registered Nurse and I occasionally cooked for myself: a pound of fried sausages (speared and eaten from the fork) and "curry" (boil rice, add curry powder, stir).

Supermarkets had been launched but only in the outer suburbs. Grocery shopping in W1 was over the counter and some items had to be weighed and put into bags.

Privation didn’t matter. I was off the leash in one of the world’s greatest cities and finally had a girlfriend. On the whole my good luck has continued.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

The sun supreme

Brexit! How that clicket-clackety word deadens the spirit.

Brexit will allow us to "take back control" we were told. Failing to add we would find ourselves in a circus where a clown had become the ringmaster and was insisting the audience too should don the motley and paint a big red smile on its face.

This morning I was in the Forest of Dean, a place my father warned us about just before our honeymoon tour. "Bogeymen will come through the trees and carry off you and your bride," he said. More on that later but don't hold your breath.

My needs today were more mundane. For reasons other than the most obvious, my car needed a new cigarette lighter. In the stylish if austere dealership waiting-room a huge TV tuned to Sky News burbled almost inaudibly. For a while I ignored it, Sky was once owned by the saurian Rupert Murdoch and my antipathy still persists.

The clocked ticked on beyond 10 am and abruptly I was transfixed. Today was THE day! And 10.30 was THE time! Britain's supreme court would rule on whether Clown Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament was lawful. And here we were: court president Baroness Hale, a gilded spider brooch on her right shoulder (Bad omen for the political right?), spoke the momentous words clearly but almost silently. It's considered bad form to turn up the wick on a waiting-room TV and I strained every ear muscle.

In a phrase I, a wordsmith, could not have bettered the suspension was deemed to be "unlawful, void and to no effect." The future is still cloudy of course but briefly the sun broke through. A happy morning. The bogeyman held at bay.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Recumbency: yea or nay?

Young people (ie, 75 and below) won’t make head nor tail of this.

Should one feel guilty about dozing while the sun shines? Especially after lunch or, in my case, brunch.

Drifting off on the couch is one of the most seductive experiences I know. It’s not just a matter of parting (temporarily, one hopes) from an increasingly defective body, one also discards the carapace of history. The memories of commuting, of wearily contemplating some unattractive DIY project, of reminding oneself about the need for toilet rolls. That delicious onset of heaviness as we descend... In dozing we are shriven.

But the question about guilt remains. In becoming an atheist I passed briefly – in my youth - through various Christian institutions, mostly Noncomformist. All seemed to suggest that pleasurable experiences should, perhaps must, be paid for. I believe it is a Calvinist tenet and somehow I’ve never shrugged it off.

VR is in two minds about dozing. Yes it happens, but she finds the abrupt return to wakefulness so traumatic that any delights are immediately swept away. While I, alas, find reality’s renewal almost as seductive as its disappearance.

My maternal Grannie was born into the mid-Victorian era and died at 96. She dozed but, when awake, sought niggling tasks. Were these two things related? I doubt I’d have got a straight answer.

Here’s the crux. Awake, is it likely I’d devote this “saved” time to useful work? It’s true I wash up (and dry!), occasionally water the garden, prune the more obstreperous bushes – all unwillingly. But rehearsing An die Musik, writing a sonnet or struggling through Bertrand Russell can’t be regarded as useful activities.

The question is of course rhetorical. I shall continue to doze. Framing rejoinders to a Calvinist figure of authority as the eyelids subside.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Marly - Salutations

In religion, some literary tastes and politics I’m Marly Youmans’ polar opposite yet it doesn’t seem to matter a damn. She doesn’t blog much now but earlier I was tempted into long comments at The Palace at 2 AM to which she always conscientiously replied. For me a window on an entirely different and civilised way of life with strangely Faulknerian roots. We both write novels (she much more professionally) and that was a bond.

I bought Marly’s The Book of The Red King, suspecting it might not be my cup of tea, poems written by Fool en route to the Red King’s palace. I’m not into myth/fantasy and my fictional characters include a former production manager at a washing machine manufacturer. Not social realism y’unnerstand, but slightly gritty.

However in my sere, yellow and almost-dropping-off years I write verse. Marly’s good at that except hers is poetry. Red King may emerge as a narrative but in the interim I’m treating her poems as separate entities. Looking for what races my motor. Plenty does. It’s not exactly news but Marly loves words:

And beauty – golden perianth,
Blown glass, the bending trees
A marble fairy on a plinth.


But they don’t have to be exotic

The water let him down. It took him in
The water waved his hair as if with love
Cold lensed against his eyes as if to show...


Marly’s eclectic in this cento (ie, a patchwork)

A different kingdom, whole words apart (Proust)
Voices in the waves always whispering (Dickens)
And murmuring of boughs, and sleepy boughs (Yeats – a Marly trade mark)


Edges into my Schubertian world with The Miller’s Son

The arms are strange, almost a pair of legs
Borrowed from a horse...


And there’s The Twelfth-night Fool but I’ve run out of...

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Goodbye Continong

Whatever happens to Britain, it’ll take ages – perhaps for ever – to suggest
we’re not a bunch of oafs. Since oafishness prevails, here’s another tranche*.

*French for slice.

Damn Brexit, curse Brexit,
And all the votes that spawned it,
To seek a past that never was,
And bring us this Hell's armpit.

Not Europe, they whimpered,
They'll do us down, unhindered.
They envy us our history,
And all the duds we've knighted.

Those rightists, those Tories,
Those half-told fairy stories
Who gave a crown to butch BJ
To choke half Kent with lorries.

It’s fear that’s behind it,
It’s foreign and they mind it
Un-English is what scares their pants
Although M. Thatcher signed it.

No grand thoughts, no culture,
Just relish for a rupture
A love of futile loneliness
And pickings for a vulture.

Oh England, you shame me
I don’t care if you blame me,
I care for European peace
And, yes, I am the same me

To the tune of A-tisket, a-tasket.
For a sprechstimme version click HERE


Tecno-note. For several years, thanks to MikeM, I've used dead simple Picosong
to post audio files to my blog. But Picosong has closed down. No worries,
Soundcloud is even simpler

Friday, 6 September 2019

Blessed surcease

It's Friday, VR's art group day. This afternoon I'll drive her 11 miles to the village hall in ultra-middle-class Ewyas Harold, two hours later I'll pick her up. Since I'll have the car out of the garage we'll pay a morning visit to Tesco for any necessary weekend shopping. A Friday like hundreds of others since we moved to Hereford over twenty years ago.

I get up slowly to ensure I don't enrage my lower back. I'd like to pretend I may get up without reflecting on my age but my back prevents this. Yup, I'm old! Even though going downstairs slightly eases unwelcome messages from the Malign Kingdom of the Lower Lumbar Delta. God rot them all down there.

One cannot consciously forget one's age but one may - temporarily - replace that awareness. How? By doing something new, never attempted before. There's a general election in the offing and I could vote Tory. Risky! Very risky! My left hand would reach stranglingly for my throat as my right hand wielded the pencil.

I could Google the rules of lacrosse. Read a whodunnit by P. D. James. Count backwards from a thousand. Try to play Wiegenlied on the keyboard with my toes. A multitude of novel experiences.

In the kitchen is a fruitcake, cooked yesterday and scattered with almond flakes. It's VR's cake day at the art group. I could bake a cake, that would be new. I imagine the procedure. Obtain a mixing bowl, yeah I know where that is. Then... what? Crack an egg. Then....? Beyond is only a void.

But never mind. For the first time ever I've imagined baking a cake. Forgetting my age. And the MKLLD messages have become fainter.

Simple really.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Gripped

Monday's singing lesson was hard. And mildly unbelievable. The last seven notes of Gaelic Blessing ("Deep peace of Christ to you") are all the same pitch – B. How hard is it to sing the same note seven times? Fact is, the notes have different lengths yet must hang together as a musical phrase.

Also, in singing any note you are not only influenced by what went before, you’re anticipating what's to come. A "time travelling" state of mind I’m still coming to terms with.

"I've worked you really hard today," said V.

Quite true, I thought.

"You've done really well."

It hadn't seemed like it.

"It's amazing how far you've come."

Have I? But then I'm nearing four years of solo tuition, that should be the case.

The room was silent from our labours. V sat at the piano (“It needs retuning,” she fretted.) and, because of intermittent back pain, I sat on an upright wooden chair. The much-scrutinised score, source of all rewards and difficulties, stood near-vertical on the music stand.

V said, "The better you get, the more picky I have to be."

I thought. "The better I get the more pickiness I must be prepared to take."

Not a brilliant aphorism but it would pass.

V said, "Don't work on Gaelic Blessing at home. We're going to forget it for a while."

That was a blow. There were answers I’d envisaged trying, but V's the boss. She’s the one who has brought me this far. As I drove home the embedded words of Gaelic Blessing rose unbidden in my mind/throat and I mumbled them before I realised and stopped. Same again, today, as I waited at the hairdresser’s.

I don’t actually possess music, it possesses me.