Sunday 31 March 2019

Family stuff

Email to our elder daughter

I know Mum has already emailed saying last night's Walkure was streets better than our boxed set, even though both were put on at the NY Met and used that same shifting-planks set.

I have never been more absorbed by opera. Acts 2 and 3 just slid by and I was completely unaware of my bum. Act 1 is comparatively humdrum; Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love and are threatened by Sieglinde's husband, Hunding. But the following acts are about big matters, the nature and dilemma of authority, the slow realisation of Wotan's obligation towards his neglected wife Fricka (fat as a medicine ball but with a voice and an expressiveness to die for), the clash of being a boss and Wotan's love for his daughter Brunnhilde, disobedience by Brunnhilde but driven by a love for what she knows to be her father's secret wishes. Finally Brunnhilde's terrible punishment. These things are complicated and require lots of dialogue. But not a word was superfluous and great music roils and bellows in support. Much of this is credit to Wagner but all the performers were deeply in tune with what he wanted to say.

I was halfway there with our boxed-set Walkure. Last night took me way beyond, a perfect demonstration of what voices and instruments can do. Perhaps I suspected why - if subconsciously - learning to sing would have unexpected as well as expected benefits. Music that tangible thing.

The tickets were a good idea raised to the power of n (where n is a very large number). Thanks.


Saturday 30 March 2019

As the abyss

I continue to wear all-black: black polo-neck, black jeans, black gym shoes. A couple of months since my last visit to the hair salon and a great thatch has developed - fluffy white morphing into dull grey as the days slide by. I've never been ideological shampooer.

I'm not sure why black. Perhaps because I prefer villainy to antiquity. I get the feeling people stare more these days as I pick up The Guardian; imagining I'm out under licence with a tracker bolted to my ankle. I walk faster which may be menacing.

On Tuesday mornings, over our small Americanos at the Tesco café, I watch other male ancients arriving at the supermarket. Their clothes are unimaginative but always new. I suspect their wives are in control: "You may be old but there's no need to look shabby." The shirt sleeves often show ironed creases. The husbands visit the barber (always a barber never a salon) more often than I do. Perhaps the wives book the appointments.

Clothes are the easy bit but what expression should old men adopt? No doubt, some look defeated; hag-ridden by all those visits to the lav. Others, holding their ailments at bay, go for cranky surprise. "Youth's the stuff will not endure," except they've only just found out.

In The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman dresses Death in black and, not surprising, this gives the other characters the colly-wobbles. Significantly Death doesn't wear jeans so I'm off the hook for that.

One disadvantage: spilt food shows up on black. Being a messy eater undermines any benefits such clothing confers. Since I’ve still got my own teeth I eat apples and avoid the crumbs.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Why not lie? Most lovers do. 1

Short story – part one

TIGHT for time, harassed by white vans, manoeuvring an unwieldy bicycle - this was no reflective prelude to a funeral. The lights ahead went red and Amanda smiled grimly. Marion herself would have avoided all this. Would have consulted a bus timetable, made allowances and taken a paperback. Dear Marion! Confined to her chipboard coffin and alone with her dead thoughts somewhere else in north London. Perhaps sighing towards the same destination in a genteel hearse.

A Peugeot cut in, aiming for a left turn and Amanda braked as hard as she might, squeezing the outmoded, rod-linked brakes: cursing the male clown at Jed’s Cycles who’d sworn the two-wheeler would suit a woman. “See the full-size chainguard. Keeps your nylons clean,” he’d said. No mention of the top-heavy design.

An uphill stretch and the crematorium’s ridiculous chapel came into view. A building for secular occasions that had shrunk in the wash. The pitiful steeple, fashioned by an uninspired carpenter and bolted on some lazy summer afternoon. Dear Marion! Why did you choose to die in November?

Having chained the bicycle to the imitation lych-gate Amanda looked again at her watch and realised she’d misread it. She had quarter of an hour to spare. From inside the chapel seeped an amateur recording of I Did It My Way.

I too-ook the blo-ah-ows...

Here, corpses were processed like logs in a sawmill. The crematorium was booked solid for the next three weeks, as if death had become suddenly fashionable north of Dalston.

Devon arrived by taxi, wearing mute black. At what point did one acquire  clothes specifically for funerals? But then Devon was employed by an aviation company with hints of a high salary. Quality control, whatever that was. Amanda imagined Devon sliding manicured hands along the smooth flanks of an airliner and murmuring approvingly. With nothing black in the wardrobe Amanda wore the tweed two-piece she kept for fortnightly departmental meetings. Quickly the jacket had become baggy but it had cost too much to discard. She justified keeping it on the grounds that certain aristocrats – at least in fiction – wore tweed at weekends.

Devon’s blonde cloche must have been styled that morning. She glanced around at the loiterers waiting for Marion’s incineration. Leaning, she said to Amanda: “I’ve been meaning to ask. I thought those who did themselves in were damned. Not allowed this fol-de-rol.”

“The crematorium is run by the borough council. It’s non-denominational. In any case Marion’s sister has hedged her bets by bringing in a Humanist.”

Devon shuddered. “Squalid.”

“Are you saying you’d favour – what was it? – fol-de-rol?”

“My parents are Catholics. I don’t suppose I’d have any say in the matter.” She smiled reminiscently. “But the music appeals. And the sense of certainty.”

“I’m surprised,” said Amanda.

Devon laughed, took Amanda’s elbow and guided her towards a side door that had just opened. At another corner of the building those who had just made their observances towards another corpse were streaming out and lighting cigarettes. Devon said, “We seem to have avoided talking about death. Can’t think why. None of us has led what you might call blessed lives.”

This time Amanda shuddered. But only slightly. Finally Marion’s death was becoming a reality.

The Humanist wore trainers and spoke estuarine, his style truculent. “I’m dressed casual ‘n’ there’s a reason. We’re here for what we can remember of Marion Darlington. The stuff in that coffin is no longer important; can’t be insulted by me not wearing a tie.”

The Humanist cleared his throat and for one horrid moment Amanda feared he might now spit. “We won’t be talking about souls flying business class to heaven because Marion didn’t go in for them fancies. Since she isn’t here we’ll concentrate on what she’s left us. The bits and pieces of her life. I’m standing in for Marion’s sister, Teena. Reading out what Teena remembers.”

He stared at his audience angrily. “But this group, this meeting won’t work if some of you don’t break in with your own stuff. Proof that you’re here.”  His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “Proof you’re ALIVE.”

Amazingly, people did. Some in tears. To the point where Amanda herself stood up shakily, her voice strangled. “I’d... I’d like to speak. Perhaps controversially.”

A collective sigh agreed this was acceptable.

“Marion... my friend Marion ended her own life. There’s no secret about that. There was an inquest and the local paper reported it. I suppose it’s important we know these things, that sudden deaths are investigated. The verdict was ‘Suicide’ and I wouldn’t argue with that.

“Things were different when I was younger. You didn’t say, ‘Suicide’ and leave it at that. You tacked on: ‘While the balance of the mind was disturbed.’ I’m glad that’s been retired. I never liked it.

“But there may be others here who remember those words. That judgment, or whatever it was, doesn’t apply. Marion had a difficult life, definitely suffered, but she was always clear-sighted. When she decided on suicide I’m convinced she thought it through. I could guess why but that isn’t the point. Whatever the reason I’m sure it was important. And that matters. Marion didn’t die in any sort of mental fever; dying made sense and so... she died.”

Afterwards, outside the chapel, women with uncertain faces glanced at Amanda, looked away, made up their minds and tip-toed towards her. Most were incoherent. Death as such is rarely discussed that close to a crematorium; the euphemisms run out too quickly. One woman, much older, walked over briskly, touched Amanda’s arm, said, “Twas a comfort.” And left.

Devon was waiting with a people-carrier taxi capable of accommodating the bike and they travelled in silence to the pub where lunch had been ordered. Amanda was left behind as Devon strode purposefully to the bar. “Two gin and tonics. Large ones.”

Silence as they gulped at their drinks. Devon looked distractedly down at her soup, just served, and pushed it away. “And now we are only two. Were you surprised?”

“I thought she’d recovered. She always spoke thoughtfully, seemed composed. But the court case was delayed two years. So late.” Amanda paused. “It was pretty grim.”

Devon was signalling to a waiter, making circling movements. “Ah yes. You attended. I was at a conference in India. It would have been three grand down the Swanee.” She took Amanda’s hand. “How grim?”

“I’m not sure I can... He was allowed to ask her questions in court. Horrid personal questions. Was the sex consensual? Did she... enjoy it? The courts have stopped that now. She looked on the ragged edge.”

“And the bastard got one year suspended. Bastard!”

Lunchers nearby held their knives and forks in abeyance at this audible damnation. Unaware, Devon and Amanda looked into each other’s eyes. Reached for their fresh drinks the moment they touched the table.

Amanda said, “Has The Haven found new premises yet?”

“They’ve pulled down half the street. Jill, Haven’s treasurer, waylaid me at the office. I was just back from India and wrote her a monster cheque.” Devon’s eyes wandered, unfocused. “Guilt money.”

Their salads were virtually untouched as drink dulled the need to eat. Quietly Amanda asked, “Did The Haven really help? You I mean.”

The glass was an inch away from Devon’s lips but travelled no further. “It was never intended to cure our ‘ailment’ was it? It was just a place to – reluctantly – discuss the undiscussable. With others of our ilk. And after that look to our futures. One thing: I can’t imagine that first year without your company. And Marion’s.”

The latter two words carried extra passion but Amanda didn’t mind. Whatever Devon had gained from the trio, she’d been a good friend to Marion.

Amanda said, “What a strange gathering we were. Nothing in common other than our hideous... qualification.”

“Which turned out not to be as rare as we thought.”

Devon appeared to sit up straighter, eyes focused. “Dear Amanda. I’m going to pay for this, I must. It could be our last meeting.”

Amanda stared horrified.

Devon laughed harshly. “No, I haven’t got enough of Marion’s guts to top myself. But I must do something. I thought I’d won when David was sent to Belmarsh for two years but he was out within months. I’ve seen him twice in Marylebone High Street. I don’t think he saw me. As you know, I’ve moved, but I’ve never felt safe!

“And so...?”

Devon’s smile was that of a death’s head. “I’ll be sharing with Zizi.”

“But...” Quickly Amanda adjusted her voice. “Have you explained why to her?”

“Oh she’s eager. ‘Bring it on,’ she says. It seems she’s never taken part in any LGBT demos or protests. Sees looking after me as a penance.”

“But what about the other side of things? Her gayness?”

Devon put down her drink, pushed it to the other side of the table, intending these acts to be decisive. “I’ve changed. Not so surprising I suppose. My pelvis wasn’t just unbearable, it was broken by my partner. A man. And I could see - through the pain – he enjoyed it. Worse, there was no warning. We’d been together for a year or two.”

Amanda stared at Devon’s dead face, realising  she’d never before noticed such absence of expression. Devon said, “I’ve been with men since. Restaurants, the theatre, National Hunt race meetings way out in the country. Decent, attentive, entertaining men who enjoyed my company. But it was no use. Sooner or later I’d start to tremble. To wonder: Where are you hiding... that... tendency?”

Amanda nodded.

Devon added, “I was never drawn to women. Not even at school when everyone else had crushes on someone or other. I’ve explained this to Zizi and she seems to understand. Seemed to suggest there’d be nothing physical.” Devon shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps she’ll see me as a sex challenge but would two women in a bed be the worst thing in the world? What I need is some peace of mind.”

She bowed her golden cloche down to the table. “Oh God, God.”

AMANDA had taken a whole day off for the funeral and rode back to her flat in Stoke Newington. It was early afternoon and she stood indecisively in the tidied-up kitchen, unfamiliar at this time of day. Taking off her coat was mildly daring, a temporising act, not knowing what might follow.

Sitting on the sofa she could almost touch the radio but wasn’t tempted to turn it on - the programmes wouldn’t be what she was used to. Unopened letters from charities lay on the coffee table. Amanda closed her eyes and imagined Marion’s cheap coffin on fire, the sides collapsing and eager flames surging in towards softer kindling. After a while she dozed.

To be woken by knocking. Through the distorting lens of the door's spyhole she saw a young, well-muscled man in a yellow boiler suit emblazoned Southern Logistics. If he was a threat he was well disguised.

“I’m opening the door,” Amanda called out, sliding the big bolt back.

He stood there cheerfully, on the threshold. “Your neighbour’s out, would you take delivery? It will save a trip to our depot.”

She nodded, reached vaguely for the bulky cardboard box but he was ahead of her. “I’ll do it, it weighs a ton.” Now it lay, part-blocking her short hallway, as he stared at the mechanisms on the back of her front door. “So that’s what took the time, all those gadgets.”

She spoke quickly, defensively. “The old door was rickety, I had it replaced. The carpenter recommended the lock and bolt system.” Painfully aware she should have said “we” - for security reasons.

“Much safer. Good idea if you’re alone. Whoops!” He covered his mouth comically like an infant. “I shouldn’t have said it, should I? Alone. You never know who’s listening."

His apology touched her. A nice sort of lad. “I wondered if it might draw attention. As if I’d got things worth stealing.”

He looked at her, assessing her vulnerability to crimes other than theft. His face softened. “Lousy times, eh? Ever thought of an alarm bell-push, somewhere near the door? Good and loud.”

He seemed to be reaching out.

“I might look into it.” Then spread her hands. “But where will it all end? I’d hate to look pathetic.”

Silence hung between them. Might he say she wasn’t pathetic? Might he..?

“Better a couple of locks than...” His voice faded then became crisp. “Thanks for taking the box.” He was gone and she was alone. Except for Shane and the immediate past.

It was not the first time a visitor had commented on the door. It had been installed six months after the divorce when Shane had ceased to make phone calls and had come a’knocking. Marion had urged it. But others had fingered the functional ironwork and looked doubtful.

 “Well-made,” said one of her Human Resources colleagues. “Very well-made.” As if being well-made were a defect.

Shane must have guessed the nature of the door from its outside appearance. He had left a slip of paper - “This barrier just isn’t you.” – which she had read repeatedly without understanding.

Continued in Part two, below.

Why not lie? Most lovers do. 2

Short story - part two

The effect of the four gins – dormant during the bike ride back – had come out to play and she was finding it difficult to concentrate. She made coffee – proper coffee – first dropping the coffee tin lid, then the spoon. Then overfilling the mug so that it splashed down her tweed skirt. As she scrubbed ineffectually at the skirt over the bathroom sink she timorously examined her reflection for signs of disintegration. Nothing, it seemed, had changed. Springy blonde hair flecked symmetrically with grey. High eastern Mediterranean  cheekbones. The neck muscular but not – thank God -scrawny. Forty-one and bearing up physically if not mentally.

Devon had been wrong that there were two left. One was now ash, another intent on discarding her gender. Two had gone to the wall, leaving only Amanda to look for the resumption of womanhood they’d all sought. A goal that had taken a horrible beating of late.

Discussions, so circular, so repetitive and in the end so desperate. Each of them clinging to The Haven’s simple aid that talk was therapy. Talk that echoed round the bare-brick cellar beneath Eyelid Studios on the northern edge of Soho. No great encouragement from the environment, Marion had said on the last evening they’d been together.

Amanda had begged for change. “Is it healthy to go on reliving the agony? If we hold ourselves responsible for that why not give the good stuff equal time? Might that help?”

It was a novel approach. It came as a surprise to learn that the man who had done such damage to Devon’s lumbar region had made his millions from a range of baby clothes decorated with ingenious copies of French Impressionists. Advised by a marketing consultant that children wouldn’t respond to such sophisticated images, he had pointed out robustly that infants wouldn’t be doing the buying. Devon, with a fine arts degree from East Anglia, had advised him to expand further into the less obvious field of medieval triptychs and he’d been grateful enough to hire a fully-crewed power yacht in which he and Devon toured the Adriatic as the two lone guests.

Alas he’d been manic-depressive when it came to financial matters and had fallen out late one Friday evening with his merchant bank. Frustrated by a series of answerphone messages when he wanted a real live whipping boy he turned on Devon instead. The fact that as he lashed out with his customised Doc Martins a three-carat emerald was being shaped to fit Devon’s ring finger merely emphasised the width of his illness.

“Did he swing back afterwards? Being bipolar, I mean.” Marion asked.

Devon sighed. “He saw me just once more. Bandaged, semi-conscious, in hospital. At the time he was still scrambled and associated me with his moneymen. Hired investigators to prove his point. At the time I had other fish to fry: whether or not to hang on to my womb.”

Marion ordered another bottle of sauvignon blanc and poured out full glasses. “Those good times. On reflection they sometimes look like the bad times, but in another set of clothes.”

“Of course,” said Devon. “You put yours through uni, didn’t you.”

Marion nodded. “The good times were always just over the horizon for us.”

The others were only too familiar with the string of betrayals and thefts Marion had endured. Amanda, who had raised the change of subject hung back. She had divorced Shane after a decade of marriage on the grounds he’d beaten her. True, up to a point. In the divorce hearing he was forlorn and defenceless and Amanda found no need to mention that Shane, somewhat beer-sodden, had delivered two half-hearted cuffs with four years in between. Or that on each occasion he’d immediately broken down in tears and asked to be forgiven. Which she had accorded.

At the time the divorce had seemed justified. It was only after meeting Marion and Devon at The Haven she learned what real beating meant, by men who had worked with a will. Had she been over-sensitive? Never mind. Shane had irritated her in other ways and she had been right to get rid of him. She’d hoped for a life without mounds of washing and the disappointment that arrived most Fridays when he handed over pitiful sums of cash in small brown envelopes. Heck, Shane was 42 – you didn’t support people at that age.

The more she thought about the early years the less she felt inclined to talk about them. Shane, a site foreman for a housing developer, had been a victim of one of the sudden catastrophes that regularly lay waste the building industry. When she first met him he was earning an irregular living doing manual work on the sort of projects he’d previously commanded. Surprisingly he had a leftist outlook and was ideologically committed to contracts based on affordable homes. Amanda, an HR manager with a hotel chain, found it mildly gratifying to subsidise him through what she imagined to be a bad patch.

But for Shane losing what was, in effect, a white-collar job had proved to be an insurmountable reverse. After eighteen months of legitimate job-hunting he slowly retreated into the curled-up protection of work which asked him for no decisions. From being a New Statesman reader he became a stoic, shrugging his shoulders at corned beef rather than sirloin, at the radiator turned off permanently in the bedroom. Unfortunately stoicism can be read as inertia and this was how Amanda eventually saw it. Even if it did take time.

And yet... and yet... Shane had been a man. And men were...

AT SEVEN in the evening Amanda’s neighbour knocked on the door for the parcel. A breathless twenty-five-year-old woman in designer clothes whom Amanda knew only slightly. “It’s rather heavy,” Amanda said.

“Power tools, I believe. My nearest and dearest is rethinking the kitchen.”

“Really?” The enormity of such work was beyond Amanda.

“He’s nothing if not ambitious. Look, these flats are all identical. You have the same kitchen as us, don’t you? I’ll show you.”

They were still chatting when Nearest and Dearest came in through Amanda’s open door. Amanda associated his tailor-made jeans with senior positions in IT. He wore them swaggeringly as he plunged into their conversation. “Ignore everything my wife says, Dear Neighbour. She has no faith in me.”

“Justifiably,” his wife said, laughing.

“That book-shelf was horribly overloaded. By whom I dare not say.”

It was a teasing, happy routine. Their marriage could hardly have been more than two years’ old and was still an endless source of amusement. They stood arm in arm as he told Amanda how he would move the fridge here and the sink there, sketching the details on the parcel now lifted on to the work surface.

“Won’t it be terribly disruptive?” Amanda asked.

They looked fondly at each other, one of them whispering. “We’re good at co-operating.” She stroked the tight fabric stretched over his bum and Amanda wanted them both out of her home.

Men – confident yet subtle – dominated the evening’s TV. A twenty-seven-year-old billionaire in the news for setting up an African charity. A new drama series featuring a smouldering French film star. Healthy men engaged in outdoors activity. Amanda ate grapes and watched the TV screen dully. Knowing she wouldn’t sleep.

In the eerie early morning of a London suburb she got out of bed, put on her dressing gown and booted up the laptop. Opened Favourites and clicked on Dates – Dates – Dates. Printed out the application form and took out her fountain pen. Reckoning ink would underline her sincerity.

First name. No equivocation here. Her parents, having struggled for a fortnight choosing Amanda, had no energy left for a supplement. “Worthy of love,” went the translation but ten years were to pass before she noticed the ambiguity. A boyfriend who had gone on to Oxbridge had dropped her with: “It’s a good name for an old blanket.”

Gender. Devon, who had avoided all juvenile crushes, would now know whether she shared Zizi’s definition of “physical”. Perhaps she had already sought comfort there. Amanda, more giving then than now, had been drawn to a third-year classmate Glynis because of her slinky name. Then to admire her glowing auburn hair. Then to reposition a barrette amidst that glow. Then to touch the broad waves of hair without the need for any excuses. In the fourth-year Jules and his flared nostrils arrived and the Sapphic fashion was quietly dropped.

Age. At forty-one the “one” sounded pedantic, an unnecessary precision. The questionnaire’s guidance notes suggested vagueness, Late Thirties being one option. But was it right to start lying so early in this self-portrait?

Occupation. Twelve years in Human Resources, previously known as Personnel, questioning and sifting applicants relative to their future employment. Ultimately the questionnaire sought to gather her qualifications as a potential lover but not her durability in that form of employment. Were her professional skills – sympathy, curiosity, persistence – assets in bed? Perhaps Shane should be invited to fill in this deceptively simple slot. Or might she lie?

Bearing (Helpfully subtitled: How we appear when standing up). Amanda was above average height and regularly checked herself in shop windows for signs of stoop. The evidence was elusive since she automatically straightened up on recognising her reflection. Might she surreptitiously hide three inches of height and start wearing flatties? Ah, but men appreciated stilettos and not for the more obvious aesthetic reasons. Something to do with women’s fortitude in the face of discomfort.

Manner. I can be all things to all men, Amanda told herself, knowing this to be untrue. Having had to fight to get into university she found the uneducated hard to take. It wasn’t a class thing. What grated was an absence of certain touchstones that formed a working minimum. That Jane Austen had also written books. Politics: a singular noun. Africa: not a country.  Atoms: divisible. Race as distinct from colour. Maths seen as more than arithmetic. Likeness a snare and a delusion in painting. Strange how often they cropped up – one waited for them, gloomily. Shane had only a handful of O-levels yet had initially redeemed himself by his commitment to affordable housing, a moral standpoint.

Amanda screwed up the partially completed questionnaire and let it fall to the floor. Among the lies. But then lies were everywhere. She had lied to herself that two feeble slaps had constituted a reason for divorce. Had pretended she’d suffered in order to share the real suffering that had driven one friend to take her own life and another to shelter in a relationship that would surely end in tears.

Abruptly Shane’s brief note came to mind: “This barrier just isn’t you.”

Why not me? What did those extra locks represent? An even greater determination to keep men at bay? Looking for help in The Haven had been a logical step. Invalidated by a personal and inescapable lie.

Dawn was breaking and she wearily resumed the cold double bed. Reached beyond the left-hand side where she normally slept. Felt only still colder sheets and sensed the emptiness. Fell into uneasy sleep. Overslept and awoke, as on other occasions, to loneliness.

Worse still, to  banality.


Sunday 24 March 2019


ITEM 1 There's an uneasy belief in the UK that a majority would favour the reintroduction of the death penalty. Perhaps by tacit agreement no major party has ever raised the subject. But could such a conspiracy of silence be regarded as a legitimate function of a democracy?

ITEM 2  Not wanting to go to war with Hitler in the thirties was labelled "appeasement", a term now universally pejorative. Yet this was a  perfectly understandable view given that WW1 was still a hideous and recent memory.  In the end it was seen that war was inevitable and it may be assumed many "appeasers" changed their minds.

ITEM 3 An online petition to revoke Article 50 (in effect bringing the Brexit process to an end) has quickly attracted 5m signatures including those from me, VR, Occasional Speeder and husband Darren, Professional Bleeder (all three without parental chivvying) and the whole of Sir Hugh's family. Theresa May has shrugged this off but there are signs she may be due a long walk on a short plank quite soon.

ITEM 4 Should Item 3 come to pass I am mulling over an all-expenses paid dinner in Cologne (including transportation expenses, accommodation, unlimited drink, blue flags and a German choir to sing the choral bit from LvB's ninth) for the extended family. Plus a couple of willing, articulate and adult Brexiters to discuss how Britain may retrieve some of its battered reputation in the following months.

Intelligent followers of Tone Deaf (are there any other?) will be able draw the inferences that provide contemporary relevance from the above items, since I lack the space to do so. 

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Eine kleine Puzzle resolved

In what country would you expect to find this turreted structure? Get that right and the next question is: in what sub-section of that country? And overlooking which natural feature? Answers below.

BOTH MikeM and Sabine are of course right, if for different reasons. We stayed the night there to celebrate the sort of thing that crops up in families. The skyline is Snowdonia, the small ship in the Menai Strait is a dredger. Our bedroom had a projecting turret reminiscent of the punishment The Man In The Iron Mask was subjected to. But larger.

The CH radiators resembled goat skeletons and were fed by tubing 5 in. wide. Thus most of the heat helped warm the hotel's stone structure. Spent £22 on two rounds of Janneau armagnac, discussing Brexit with two other guests.

EN ROUTE to Anglesey I picked up snacks at a filling station and fell into a time warp (see small pic). The last time I drank dandelion and burdock I was wearing short pants. Wiki says it dates back to the Middle Ages when it was brewed from fermented dandelions and the root of burdock, a weed said to cure cancer, diabetes and inflammation. But an expert cautiously adds: "results have not been universally agreed upon."

It is said D&B is closest in taste to sarsparilla, one of the few US drinks I never cared for. The present version is fizzy and probably harmless. As I tilted the can I realised this would be the first time I'd drunk D&B chilled. The past came swimming back: both my knees were grazed, my hankie should have been washed three months ago, and I was worrying about the imminence of my death. I bought two cans but VR wasn't keen. Next time I'll be more exact and less Proustian.

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Just that other me again


My song’s a rose, I’ll pull its petals free,
Reveal its softness and track down its scent,
By asking questions of its mystery,
For beauty should be no impediment.

Dick Strauss was here before*, that’s no surprise,
His cavalier, a gorgeous androgyne,
Wooed Sophie with a rose and yearning eyes
To earn her honour and her love divine.

Dick asked if words or music wore the crown**,
A query which proved madly circular:
No text, no tale - a sense of discontent;
No notes - no warbling at the uvula.

My song’s by Hank*** I have the coded score,
Assisting those of cryptographic bent.
The notes will wound you to the very core,
The words arrive and your emotion’s spent.

They fuse and bind me to their shared design,
I am their reed, their prophet here below.
Sounds, voice and meaning in this space align
And I am song and lost in afterglow.

The waves rebound to agitate all sense
As words take on more than they ever knew,
Where love and fever in their modes condense
And definitions fade in much ado.

This uttered thing, this noise, this warming fire,
This essence of a soul I may possess,
May urge and cause mere beings to aspire
To states beyond mere human consciousness.

A better part of us, refined in light,
A harmony on ghostly wings of flight.

*Der Rosenkavalier. Opera. Richard Strauss
**Capriccio. A Conversation Piece for Music. Richard Strauss.
*** I attempt from love’s sickness. Rondeau. Henry Purcell

Tuesday 5 March 2019

A day out in the park

Hereford's Borderline Film Festival is in full swing. You retain your ticket and, after the movie, you drop it into one of five boxes ranging from Excellent to Poor. The guy next to me says laughingly, "I'm toying with voting Poor."

I said, "You wouldn't get out of  here alive."

We both dropped our tickets into Excellent. Next time I visited the movie had scored 98%. Phenomenal!

The movie is called Free Solo and it's a documentary about rock climbing. That's under-selling it. Better to say the ultimate rock-climbing movie.

In it a guy called Alex Honnold, arguably the best rock-climber in the world, ascends a desperately hard 3000 ft route on El Capitan, a magnificent cliff in Yosemite National Park. Along the way are four sections (especially Boulder Problem) that are very very hard even by El Cap's demanding standards. But they've all been climbed before so what's new?

Honnold does the route on his own, without another climber or the aid of a rope. Were he to fall it would be to his death.

The camera crew, all expert climbers, discuss what he's about to do in sombre tones. Honnold practices the four hard bits on a top rope and falls off Boulder Problem twice, saved by the rope. Then he goes ahead.

He does it. You know he's going to succeed because the camera crew say they would junk the film if he were to be killed. Yet the tension as you watch is unbearable. The cinema is dead quiet.