● Lady Percy moves me - might she move you? CLICK TO FIND OUT
● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
● Most posts are 300 words. I respond to all comments/re-comments.
● See Tone Deaf in New blogger.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

"gaily purple with purple sand"

Jab day. And – exhilaratingly – I’m transported twenty-five years back. Out of the inertial murk of retirement to a place where news is happening. Journalistic instincts switch on: observation, suspicion, collection of facts, conclusions that are mine and no one else’s.

The invitation comes from our own GPs; their Belmont Medical Centre will not be big enough, hence Saxon Hall, just down the road. And yet BMC accommodated the earlier flu jab; we queued in light rain in the car park and were only slightly moist by the time it was over.

Saxon Hall tells a different story. Real social distancing requires X/Y co-ordinates: left/right and backwards/forwards. You need area and lots of it, very little of which will be occupied. For space itself is protection.

And lots of people, about 35 by my estimate. Some ensuring car-park priorities for the lame and the halt. Some asking questions. Guiding prickees from the jab-seat to the waiting-seat. Recording statistics. Equalising small queues.

Signs in multiples, black-yellow warning tape.

Details cause you to wonder. After the jab you must wait on the premises for twenty minutes to check possible reactions. You carry a large egg timer, gaily purple with purple sand, to measure your wait. Several million, ordered, designed and manufactured.

Another masked operative puts your emptied timer into a bag marked Dirty Egg Timers. Her only job, but vital.

You knew that vaccine would be budgeted for. But when did someone say: “We’ll need egg timers.”

You leave via an exit through which you did not enter. And reflect. Our leaders have not covered themselves with glory during the pandemic. But certain others – once given the starting gun – have created a vaccination centre in next to no time. They’ve helped mitigate the shame I’ve recently felt at being British.

Don't let the size of the cheque faze you

You may already know, in which case good for you. But if you don’t, what line of business would you expect Louise Glück to be pursuing? Even though it means luck and/or happiness in German it isn’t a surname that hints at delicacy, profundity and stylish expression.
Oh heck! You knew all the time, didn’t you? She’s an American poet who won the 2020 Nobel prize for literature: Swedish krona 10m (£ 902,235, $1,221,795). Poetry isn’t all unheated garrets, or a blood-spotted pillow.

To give myself a tiny bit of credit I did ask for a book of her poems for Christmas and Occasional Speeder obliged. And here was another surprise. Poems 1962 – 2012* is no “slender volume”, it’s nearly 1½ in. thick and runs to 634 pages.

And that thickness is a major virtue since it provides a synoptic view of her talent. Perhaps I should say genius. More, it reveals a style of writing that endures and is adaptable to all seasons. 

Lines from the first poem (The Chicago Train, 1968):

Across from me the whole ride
Hardly stirred: just Mister with his barren 
Skull across the arm-rest while the kid 
Got his head between his mama’s legs and slept…

And from the last (A Village Life, 2009)

The death and uncertainty that await me
As they await all men, the shadows evaluating me
because it can take time to destroy a human being,
the element of suspense
needs to be preserved –

The directness, the confident rhythms, the pared-down vocabulary. OK, perhaps I’m stretching a point. But I have read some of the other poems. An individual yet immediately recognisable voice, then, which addresses the world. She’s rich now but I doubt it’s affected her.

*Courtesy: Poems 1962 – 2012. Louise Glück. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Saturday 26 December 2020

Unwrapped but welcome


Two significant Christmas events.

A phone call from the GP (while we still lay abed) announcing jabs for both of us next Wednesday. At Saxon Hall where wearing woad will be optional. One advantage of having lived long past our sell-by dates.

I felt for V, my singing teacher, still much younger. I would have willingly kissed the backside of our wretched prime minister to have her criminally jumped up the jab queue, given what she contrived last Monday. 

It’s technical, I fear, but I’m bursting to communicate. My upper limit is F and I can reach this during warm-up. But warm-ups are like mounting a ladder, small steps that take you upward easefully. Reaching F (even some lower notes) in a song is another matter; I may get there but the strain is inescapable and the change of tone audible.

The answer is to produce the singing sound from the front of the mouth. Almost as if the teeth were vibrating like a clarinet reed. Easier said than done.

As it happened we had another problem where the key lay in better articulation, the lips re-shaped non-intuitively. Back and forth, through the Skype cameras, we gurned like vaudeville comedians.

“Do that again,” said V after several minutes. I did so.

“And again.” I did so. And again.

“Is that it?” I asked, hardly daring. V nodded.

In the bath (at home I hasten to add) I went through my repertoire, searching out the hard bits, lips formed into a trumpet. Gliding not straining. Yeah.

In the past I’ve been there for a few seconds, then lost it. Now I’m fairly sure I have the bastard by the goollies. Courtesy V.

Why do I do this? It means nothing elsewhere.

Because it’s hard.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Could Skype save us?

Look, I’m  serious. Here’s a huge unanswered question.

I belong to a very small, totally informal blogging group, no more than six or seven active. All affected to a greater or lesser degree by Covid-19. Cut off from families, reduced to domestic routines, half-mad from watching telly. Why has it taken ages for the possibility of Skyping among us to be raised? And then only timidly.

Does everyone understand Skype? It’s very very simple, for many (ie, mobile phone and laptop owners) it costs nothing to install and use (the software’s free), the few would need to spend about fifty bucks for a webcam/mic. The rewards? Long, long conversations round the world that cost nothing and allow us to see each others’ faces as we talk.

I Skype three times a week. Twice to members of my family. Once to receive my singing lesson where the shape of my mouth and my enthusiasm – or lack of it – for certain works can be precisely checked by V my teacher.

There are risks. Perhaps we don’t care to reveal our looks, our foreignness, small details about the interior of our residences, our incapacity to frame interesting conversation or our inability to wrestle with new technology. Those are understandable restraints. But we face an indeterminate period of incarceration. We need new stimuli to prove we are still developing human beings.

Or are we getting to like our prisons?

Wanna ask me a question without blurting your misgivings to the world? I can’t promise I’m not the ogre you suspect. But what the heck – try rodrob@globalnet.co.uk

Monday 21 December 2020

Merry? How about reflective?

A merry Christmas is possible, but unlikely. Too many matters would have to be ignored.

In one’s eighties the past offers more than the future provided one doesn’t succumb to nostalgia. That indulgent yearning for golden eras which never existed. I'm trying clear-eyed reflection

Not so much past events but the periods of change. The way science, via National Service, shaped the rest of my life. Those determined eighteen months in which I struggled to leave the West Riding of Yorkshire and eventually succeeded. A life split into two as I tasted the nature of marriage. The USA, as exotic as Saturn. My first editorship which opened up another door on what constitutes journalism. The long, long haul of children and how I eventually responded. Travel, lots of it. Comfortable wealth. Retirement and the gentle decline into whatever destiny the microbes working in concert with physical decay have in store for me.

Against several backgrounds. Intensive reading which slowly diminished to give way to writing fiction. Language as an alter ego. Music from the inside.

The rest – I hope – will consist of less guided reflection, wandering where it may to the accompaniment of popping champagne corks. The view from Carmel peninsula (see pic), chatting with Norm close to another peninsula – the Coromandel, buying a present for VR in a Tokyo department store, failing at golf.

My wishes for you – dear readers - will hardly be persuasive since I cannot summon up wishes for myself. Surely anyone can wish anything so WTH. Hope then? I hope for a reduction in worldwide irritation.

Salut! say the French. And you sort of hear their heels click.

Saturday 19 December 2020

Best laid plans...

The plan was to remain together, alone, for Christmas so we could spend New Year’s Eve/Day with Occasional Speeder and family. A fivesome. That way Grandson Zach, who’s been exposed at school throughout December, would then have passed through the longest period possible of self-isolation at home.

But Wednesday’s Ten O’Clock news said otherwise. The oh-so-familiar daily Covid-19 figures were all going the wrong way. Afterwards VR turned to me and I knew what she was going to say. I emailed OS and almost immediately received one in return. Starting: “Ah you beat me to this - I had this conversation earlier with Darren and said…”

One thing about Covid-19 is that nothing surprises you. There’s so much uncertainty that disappointment becomes a chronic condition. How might we mark the now lonesome year’s end? In the past opera DVDs have been our support. But by now we have a huge pile covering all the operas we know and all those we care to experiment with.

I scratched around and came up with Mozart’s Seraglio, Gounod’s Faust, George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence, and Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment.

And, since OS would be paying us a flying visit to hand over and receive presents that would have been opened on December 31, and was due a late groceries delivery, we tacked on an extra couple of bottles of champagne to her order. That’s six bottles in total for us. Plus Bordeaux and Burgundy of course.

VR and I have had rows since. Nourished by our state of social nothingness. Rows quickly resolved. It’s important not to fall back into cliché. My default reaction. A cousin died two weeks ago; I wrote to his widow, careful to avoid that lumbering horror “condolence”. In these times language demands great attention.

Monday 14 December 2020

Doing what we like

Christmas Eve/Day will be just the two of us.

Not for the first time. When your kids get married off you share them on alternate Christmases with the other set of parents.

More music than usual probably: certainly Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But VR has a new suggestion:

“Let’s not get dressed. PJs and dressing gowns throughout the day.”

Good idea! Also, if I didn’t shave and used a spoon to eat my dinner* I’d be sluffing (The educated classes spell it sloughing). Snakes slough when they get rid of their skin; more recently, and especially in Yorkshire, the word can mean temporary rejection of all middle-class morals and standards.

Well why not?

And there’s a poignant detail. I have slippers but if I wear them all day it’s too much off and on. Instead I wear my old thick-wool après-ski socks and weep an occasional nostalgic tear. Once I frolicked among the snow-covered high mountains but that was in the days when my legs wore muscles and I knew not fear.

Some things never change. I will blow dust off the cocktail shaker and make a pair of KCBs, courtesy Mr Boston’s Cocktail Guide, a definitive encyclopedia. Main constituents are gin and kummel (an aniseed/caraway seed liqueur) in the ratio 6:1. Very adult.

* An individual beef Wellington.

COMPENSATION For at least ten years VR has been a member of Ewyas Harold art group, presently hibernating from Covid-19. She suggested they all create Christmas cards: the originals to go to one other member, the scanned versions to form an internet exhibition. My second blog, Tone Deaf renewed, was launched as a test pad for New Blogger. It’s doing nothing so that’s where the cards reside.

You could pay them a VISIT.

Monday 7 December 2020

Me, a larger fragment

It’s just after seven in the morning and still dark. I’m clean-shaven, the wheelie bin has been pushed to the end of the drive and I’m nearing the end of five years of weekly singing tuition. That’s potentially 250 lessons and I’ve missed very few. Say 230 sessions.

For four of those years I’d have driven through Hereford’s heartbreakingly lovely landscape to V’s tiny village (see pic). To stand next to her piano. This year I’ve waited in my study for her Skype call at 08.30. I’m not her first pupil of the day (some are in foreign places) yet she always looks fresher than I do.

Things have changed. Lesson anticipation used to thrill me, now it’s simply part of my life. But no less important, no less rewarding. The repertoire has grown to about seventy songs, some came easily, some were a struggle. During the early years some of my faults were overlooked, not now. The coming lesson will be all detail.

Today it will be Weep You No More Sad Fountains, the words written by an anonymous Elizabethan four hundred years ago. The setting by Roger Quilter (died 1953) one of V’s favourite composers. Here’s a 17-year-old baritone doing Weep you no more. CLICK.

But the biggest change is that I’ve entered the whole world of music making. I listen differently, I admire skills that were previously obscure, I’m aware of the disciplines musicians willingly accept. The songs I now tackle are not those that immediately reveal their qualities.

I self-isolate (with VR of course) but I’m eighty-five. A chance encounter with Covid-19 could blow me away. I don’t suppose I’d be happy about that but knowing something about music might make it less of a wrench.

It’s a bit like Wotan’s spear.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Me, in fragments

FOR TWO months in the USA I lodged in the YMCA. My own room for $13 a week. Old men, presumably retired, lurked in other rooms, avoiding eye-contact in the corridors. I wrote copious airmail letters back to VR in the UK and read into the small hours. At nearby Riggs Lounge, where I’d gone for a beer, I fell into conversation with a scrawny guy, querulous in tone, looking for an argument. I said something in German and he snarled my accent was “bad”.

A dish of fat prawns graced the bar counter, I ate them absently, imagining they were free. Abruptly Querulous Man said, “Yuh know, yuh gotta pay for them.” He must have seen from my face I was ignorant of this. Still grumbling QM fished out his wallet and paid the barman for my prawns, as if obeying some ancient law of hospitality extended to foreigners, however unlikeable. Then he left.

NEVER BUY underpants in batches. The elastic in all will fail during the same week a year hence. The sensation is one of unease, as if the pants were about to slip down inside one’s trouser leg and lie like a guilty secret on the sidewalk. This can’t happen but the belief persists.

BEFORE responding to a question posed in French by a foreigner, a Frenchman will first correct the speaker’s grammar. Not always but enough to generate what is known as Urban Myth.

DURING six years in the USA I ate no more than half-a-dozen hot-dogs. Not because I disliked them, rather they would have reduced my social status had I been in the UK. Which I wasn’t.

ONCE my life depended on libraries. I haven’t used one for ten years. Instead, I buy books, often second-hand. I have no idea why.

Thursday 26 November 2020

Thy wish, Harry, was father to the thought

Tangible events are rarer in old age. We contemplate, we wait for the unspoken, we doze. If action filled our earlier years we may be forced to find quieter alternatives later on. Are we adaptable enough for this?

How about: thinking? In youth, thought seemed as natural as breathing, hardly worth thinking about. A jeu de mots! Are we on our way? Not really.

Purposeful thinking is hard. Quite distinct from daydreaming. It requires a subject. With possibilities. With blank spots not yet filled in. Marked out in logical steps.

Let the subject be: thinking! A good choice, offering infinite possibilities. But should we first define thought? That is, apply our mind to it, not Google it. Immediately difficulties are apparent. Thought seems to be a dynamic sequence. But of what? Images? Spoken words? Written words? Music? Mathematical statements? All these things and more?

Obviously, thought – with all its implications – is too enormous for a retired journalist (A shallow profession in many people’s view.) who has reluctantly put aside ski-ing and long-distance swimming. Understanding thought may be enough.

We lurch forward. We think to arrive at a conclusion – ie, information that may benefit us. Ironically the conclusion must come first, it is the target we aim at. With the bow, arrow and force applied to the bowstring. What might the first step be? A forest of signposts arise. Let’s choose To History. Have I ever thought successfully?

I have. I read a book so vivid, so comprehensive, so important I felt honour-bound to arrive at its essence and to convey this to others. My debt to the author. The book’s essence was not stated; articulating it was up to me. Hard abstract work conducted in the vault of my mind.

Today, I faced my next blog post.

Thursday 19 November 2020

Paradise for non-believers

As I suggested recently you need to pre-qualify for an essentially Christian heaven, an exam many would fail. But suppose a secular heaven for non-believers was launched. Would that attract my custom?

Via much lateral thinking and billions spent on a time warp machine. I may volunteer for the planning phase.

Mozart’s clarinet concerto is the 622nd work he composed, very close to the last. The first/second LP I bought and not even stereo. Not as famous as The Marriage of Figaro or the Haydn Tribute quartets but I know in my tripes it’s a masterpiece. Its opening theme is part of my backbone, proof of what music can do to me and for me.

Suppose Secular Heaven allowed me to watch Wolfgang compose it. Or Rembrandt paint a self-portrait. Or James Joyce write you-know-what. To be there at the creation. Just as an observer, you understand. It would ease the sting of leaving my four-bedroom, detached residence with integral garage for the last time.

Previously I mentioned controlling the narrative of half-awake dreams. Perhaps I was over-precise, more a case of willing the next stage. Whatever, it is a seductive experience. Mechanising it for greater sensitivity would be a great Secular Heaven project.

Overhearing discussions by Doctor Johnson and Isaac Newton. Swimming the Hellespont with Byron. Watching Neanderthal Man create the flame that would make mammoth steak more digestible. Discovering why Orson Welles’ directorial genius is only manifest in Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil and part of The Magnificent Ambersons and how self-destructiveness took over. I could go on. And so could you.

Heaven – secular or Christian – should be a place of wonder. For me it should also be based on inarguable truth. I suppose oblivion is truthful; no one can argue about nothing.

Monday 16 November 2020

For those without a reservation

Heaven is only for Christians, non-believers need not apply. Fair enough, it’s a Christian concept. But here’s why.

VR’s brother-in-law, Mike, dying of lung cancer was philosophical. He expected no after-life but admitted he would be content sitting on a cloud, reading, sipping eternally replenished red wine, and being endlessly served cheese-and-pickled-onion sandwiches. I wasn’t able to tell him this was unrealistic.

Pickled onions are powerfully flavoured; the normal human palate would baulk after three. Being able to eat them continuously would require a modified physiology. Thus the contented cloud-sitter would not be Mike as he knew himself. Proof that heaven – which in any case he didn’t believe in – was not for him.

And Christian heaven, as traditionally described, would demand a great deal of personal modification from earthly life as we know it. Anyone for harp-tuning? Christians are presumably OK with this.

But suppose secular heaven existed and I qualified (unlikely, I know). What could I expect? Sitting at a keyboard, rattling off a best-seller with intellectual appeal? That would simply be copy-typing. No uncertainties, stresses or hard-won delights typical of novel writing. Heaven doesn’t deal in uncertainty and stress.

Might I sing Du bist die Ruh like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? Uh-huh; it’s the struggle which counts. Heaven dwellers would expect daily perfection plus uninterrupted delivery of The Guardian. Make that The Daily Telegraph.

Even the most placid Earth-dweller struggles. Bad things help make us appreciate good things. My heavens here are fantasies; none, I am told, may comprehend the mind of heaven’s landlord, God. Faith is a given but I prefer Ohm’s Law. The proof is duplicatable.

But could I risk hubris and devise a secular heaven? See my next post.

Thursday 12 November 2020

Dreams - here's my repertoire

Mick's David, without the comparison

Two or three times a year I dream of appearing naked in public. I am of course not alone in this, many men share the experience. Freud relates it to a sense of futility. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The passers-by are not shocked by my nudity, they’re indifferent. Coarser readers of Tone Deaf will suggest this is inevitable, sensing my tackle is probably unimpressive. For a long time this was my opinion too and I was only reassured when I saw a photograph of Michelangelo’s David; proportionately, in that department, we could be twins. Except for the marble.

As I say, things could be worse. Throughout the dream I’m able to persuade myself I am “getting away” with being unclothed. However this is not the case with another recurrent dream wherein I walk bare-footed on sidewalks coated with… I leave you to guess. No comfort from Freud, the roots are sexual of course. Awake and fearful, I try to imagine what it is I’ve been suppressing.

Much rarer, alas, are dreams in which I have a theoretical – never physical – relationship with one of the objects of my passion during fevered adolescence. These are pleasant enough but are spoilt by an adult desire to behave as a critic. The blurred views, the unnatural warmth of the atmosphere, the melodramatic nearness as a hand reaches out but never touches – overdone scenes, reminiscent of movies directed by Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life).

The best dreams are those when I’m only half asleep and may exercise control over what is happening. My French is perfect and I knock over bullies with artistic sweeps of my fist. I suspect the backgrounds are transported directly from New Zealand. Chilled fizzy water is essential when I emerge. 

Sunday 8 November 2020

A condign end?

Yes, I felt a huge gush of relief but I'm a retired hack. Was there something else that might be said?

I reflected on all the traditions and gentlemen's agreements Orange Man has ignored or broken (refusing to release his accounts, hurrying through the the supreme court appointment, using the White House for his campaigns, etc, etc).

Well there's another tradition coming up: OM being allowed to loll in the White House for another ten weeks. Why not send in a couple of cops with instructions to show him the back door and to hand over a pre-paid voucher for some hotel out on the Beltway?

With this explanation. Biden urgently needs the space to meet his number one priority: creating the beginnings of an active solution to Covid. The country cannot afford to wait ten weeks on this; another hundred-thousand citizens could die in the interim. By going quietly Trump would be making his own - admittedly reluctant - contribution to preventing this needless waste of life.

Nothing in his life, it was said, became him so much as his departure from it. Thanks Will.

Saturday 7 November 2020

View from the east (where the sun rises)

I confess, it’s been impossible to break away from the computer. I have gorged on men in suits telling me about Maricopa County, asked VR to define a run-off and risked colour-blindness (one eye blue, the other red). Here’s what I’ve learned.

It’s amusing that the UK is ahead of the USA in time. That, fully awake, I could conceive, draft, correct and reveal a post while the USA slumbered. And that the USA could never catch up however superior its non-stick frying pans. That there would always be a five-hour dawn gap between backward, tractor-dominated Hereford and vibrant, drug-charged New York.

But you wouldn’t know this from YouTube. The men in suits appear never to sleep, never to take off their make-up. And the chat-show hosts crack one-liners – seemingly – at 3 am, the time many people just give up the ghost and die.

Are you aware of the crime of sedition (Conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.)? Traditionally practised by ragged-trousered, bottom-feeders with Das Kapital in their back pocket. In the USA things are different; one inciter wears a recently-changed white shirt with cuffs just so, and may not even yet shave. He just happens to be the son-in-law of the guy who is nominally in charge.

I once watched a televised US football match between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. Green Bay is in Wisconsin (almost in Canada) and the temperature was -17 F. Several GB fans out of suicidal bravado were stripped to the waist. It comes as a surprise that such people also vote but they do. Perhaps with prosthetic fingers.

Yeah, seriousness is happening and things seem brighter. But you know all that. I’m still with you but differently.

FLASH ! People are letting off fireworks in sleepy, backward, isolated Hereford. A very expensive bottle of Chablis awaits. Thanks America, for doing the decent thing.

Thursday 5 November 2020

Not the happiest, gladdest days

For the first five or six years of my life I suffered from a strangely repetitive illness. Twice a year my breathing apparatus tightened up, my temperature soared, my sleep was dominated by jagged abstract patterns of colour and waves of screaming sound. These attacks lasted five days. I was told it was bronchitis; VR, who is a state-registered nurse, says asthma seems more likely.

Medical officers used to visit primary schools and examine the kids, mother in attendance. One listened carefully to my symptoms and prescribed cod liver oil. This was long before capsules. I had to take it in teaspoonfuls and it was the horridest taste I have ever experienced (I still shudder at the memory, seventy-five years ago). The bronchitis/asthma immediately disappeared and no one ever believes this story. But why should I lie?

The illness had an always-repeated pattern. Tiny hints of that pattern - but without the terrible physical symptoms - echo faintly as I try to follow the aftermath of the US presidential elections.

Bet you don't believe that, either. I'm not sure I do.

Sunday 1 November 2020

The other US: Say it ain't so, Joe

 Why the US must be saved from the abyss - a personal view

☼ The moon was but a chin of gold
A night or two ago,
And now she turns her perfect face
Upon the world below.
– Emily Dickinson

☼ Basket catch at Forbes Field by Roberto Clemente

☼ Joyce DiDonato: mezzo in excelsis, teacher, wit

☼ Zinfandel, once a house red, now something grander.

☼ Andrew Cuomo, NY governor. For political honesty

☼ But how strange, the change
From major to minor.
– Cole Porter

☼ Sublime sleaze of the Larry Sanders Show

☼ FDR - a traitor to his class. How bloody ironic.

☼ Wynton Marsalis (tpt): Telemann to bop.

☼ Fall.

☼ …Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had. – The Great Gatsby.

☼ Two martinis, a lobster, bottle of “California Chablis”, a plastic apron. Klein’s restaurant, Pittsburgh.

☼ Jewish Y, Pittsburgh: Classical music’s stars for peanuts.

☼ By Continental Trailways the length of Pennsylvania to a new job.

☼ Leonard Bernstein on Melody.

☼ Groundhog in our garden.

☼ Gore Vidal vs. William Buckley Jnr on TV

☼ Weight of the NY Times, Sunday edition.

☼ Mount Lebanon’s public library.

☼ How long it would take to spend Citizen Kane’s wealth

☼ Simone Biles defying gravity

☼ Never open a book with weather. First of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Good Writing.

☼ Cardinal in our garden

☼ To create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. Faulkner

☼ Air conditioning.

☼ Star of The Wire – Baltimore!

☼  I was raised to be charming, not sincere. Stephen Sondheim

☼ Snapper soup before it was politically incorrect. With sherry.

☼ Rarity of filling stations among the redwoods

☼ Paradoxical disappointment of Niagara Falls

☼ Stopping grounders with my own glove.

☼ Willingness of youngish, corn-fed woman to kiss me. Socially, of course.

☼ Price of gas.

☼ How easy it was to pass the driving test.

☼ When Obama was elected: the glow.

☼ For fun at the diner: name the states, name the state capitals

☼ In the 1980s, discovering the north-west wines.

☼ There will be no whitewash at the White House. Little did he know (tee-hee). But – and it was a big but – he invited the Ellington band to play there and clearly enjoyed them.

☼ Undefined sadness as the radio antenna of the SS France, travelling east, seemed almost to scrape the underside of the Verrazano Narrows bridge.

☼  Exhuming all these memories – and more – via blogging. 

Saturday 31 October 2020

The other US: Even the quahogs were friendly

Before moving to the USA in 1965 I lived in a flat 5.7 miles from Trafalgar Square in the centre of London. You could fairly say I was Londoner. I knew none of my neighbours and they didn't know me. Had I died, my body would have mouldered for days, weeks possibly.

It sounds like deprivation but Londoners wouldn't have it any other way. You live in London you look after yourself. On the underground you read to discourage casual conversation. You hurry for the same reason. Deluded or not, you see yourself as part of an elite.

In Pennsylvania my neighbours cared. My friends at work cared even more. A holiday loomed. My best friend said his parents always spent this holiday with a family who had a beach cabin on Misquamicut Beach, Rhode Island (see pic); why didn't I join them? A round trip of several hundred miles.

I hunted for clams, called quahogging. A relaxing hunt where movement is almost imperceptible. One wriggles one's toes in soft wet sand until they detect something hard. It's a clam; drop it in the bucket. Do that again one-hundred-and-forty-nine times.

Back at the cabin, men opened the clams, dabbed ketchup and laid them out on trays the size of car bonnets (US: hoods). Elsewhere several stones of meat (US: a British stone is 14 lb) were being barbecued. One served oneself beer, comforted in the knowledge that it would never run out. Later, on the beach, we tossed a football (a smaller version of a rugby ball) and discussed the Celtics.

Look, I know hospitality occurs in the UK but it’s more formal. The cabin-owning family at Misquamicut had never seen me before. All they needed was my abbreviated first name (“Hi, Rod.”) and confirmation I was at my ease. Ahhh.

Friday 30 October 2020

The other US: The presidents and me

Now reduced to my car number plate

I arrived in the USA on December 30, 1965 and left in mid-April 1972.

These six years bestrode a tumultuous period for the US, heavily influenced by the Vietnam War. Now, I feel slightly sorry for LBJ who might, had there been no war, have introduced telling welfare legislation. But he only served one elected term and chose not to run again,

For my current car I had a choice of plate numbers, one including the sequence LBJ. Out of (no doubt) misguided sentiment that’s what I chose. I’ve pointed out these three letters to a number of Brits and, alas, none has recognised them.

When LBJ departed Tricky Dick took his place. Thus I watched Watergate (June 17, 1972) unfold from afar.

My personal experiences of US politics were brief and comical:

Phone rings 1. I am asked if I care to support the Republican candidate for whatever.

RR: I fear I can’t do that, I’m not enfranchised.

Her: Wuzzat?

RR: (Always the smartyboots, loving long words) Enfranchised.

Her: Is that… like being…. a Democrat?

Phone rings 2. Same question. Different, more sympathetic voice.

RR: I’m sorry, I don’t have the vote.

Her: Why’s that? You pay your taxes don’t you?

RR: Yes, local and federal.

Her: I’m gonna look into this. You should have the vote.

RR: You don’t understand. I’m an alien.

Her: (Genuinely distressed) Oh no! I’m sure you can’t be that bad.

Both times my English accent went unnoticed. I must say most Americans have a tin ear for accents. Queueing for lunch, my friend said to the check-out girl: “Hey, this guy (ie, me) is just in from foreign parts. See if you can guess.” I say something. She: “Albanian?”

Thursday 29 October 2020

The other US: Listening for the heartbeat

A faithful commenter, robin andrea, asks about my favourites place in the US. The question is complex; often people matter more than scenery.

DORMONT A leafy Pittsburgh suburb (see pic). Beatlemania was fading but neighbourhood kids saw me as a Fab Four John-the-Baptist. I bought a glove and we played make-up baseball. When VR was giving birth to our second daughter a mother from an adjacent apartment taught me how to use the washing machine. The landlord gave me a bottle of bourbon at Christmas.

WATCH HILL, RHODE ISLAND Tranquil good taste. An overwhelming sense of privilege at the tiny under-populated harbour. The rich don’t cluster so I was left alone with my thoughts. Instead, the place spoke to me.

SAN FRANCISCO Everything was slightly better than the clichés said it would be. The waiter at the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant contrived to suggest this wasn’t a tourist destination. The Golden Gate Bridge toll system was typical: you paid to get into SF, not to leave.

DRIVING THROUGH THE WEST VIRGINIA PANHANDLE Luckily I had not yet seen the movie, Deliverance. Otherwise I might have stayed away. The residents eyed us from their stoops – a sort of silent dialogue which I didn’t care to interpret, But beauty abounded.

BOSTON Seemingly detached from the rest of the USA, and feeling ineffably superior. In one of its swankier restaurants, a diner said my face reminded him of someone. I said I had been likened physically to William F. Buckley, the right-wing columnist. The diner said this comparison should never have been uttered.

MOIKE’S BAR, MOUNT OLIVER, PITTSBURGH A strange meritocracy: speak briefly or not at all. I felt I needed a chaperone and only went there with a friend. Cheap beer; hot sausage sandwich impossible to eat tidily.

Boo Orange Man! You know not your own land.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

The other US: "Tears run down my little cheeks"*

It’s impossible not to write about the USA just now. Europeans must forgive me.

In 1965, poverty-stricken in London, a daughter just arrived, my career (That ironic word!) still fledgling if not egg-bound, I decided I’d like to live/work in the USA. VR supported me even though – for family reasons - it would be far more of a wrench for her. Getting there lasted a year. Eventually I convinced the US Embassy I would not live on the earnings of a prostitute. I flew out just after Christmas, stopping for an hour in Reykjavik. Which is in Iceland.

Many Brits envied me but for the wrong reasons. They thought I was going for the money. I wasn’t. Just as well since I lost money on the six-year stay.

Why did I go? Well, I was, and am, a wordsmith and my working vocabulary expanded enormously. Words I roll round my tongue even now. One job I applied for (Glad I didn’t get it.) was in Duluth. Just say it, it ain’t the Home Counties, Pavements became sidewalks. I watched the Pirates play the Cardinals. I yearned for the Grand Tetons even if I never got there.

I went for spoken wit. Novels suggested that ordinary working stiffs in the US spoke a terse language that appealed to me. Not all did, of course, but some were word perfect.

For central heating. I’d have died without it.

For friendliness (noticeably lacking in London). The idea sounded like tourist office fluff but it happened within one hour of my arrival.

For space. In my apartment (which wasn’t a flat) and all the way west to San Francisco, where I subsequently worked for a week.

Orange Man has poisoned these memories. I want them back.

More follows.

* Daughter PP (Professional Phlebotomist), aged 3.

Friday 23 October 2020

Toying with names

Destinations have names and names are unreliable. They may be unjustifiably fascinating in themselves, misleading or evocative of fantasy. I refuse to explore their roots; imagination beats reality every time.

Yorkshire. Muker is a village where people are constantly vomiting. In Giggleswick, nothing is taken seriously. Cakes in Pontefract turn out to be flexible discs of liquorice.

I lived in London because of the names. Who was Arno of Arnos Grove and where did his apostrophe go? Osterley is out west not east as one might expect. Theydon Bois may have been transplanted from Clichy, a Paris suburb. Is Pinner a low-paid job? It would be amusing if Upney turned out to be marshy.

Further afield now. I stayed the night in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, worrying about knife-toting hidalgos. Dirty jokes ran through my mind when I landed at Bangkok. Comfortably off I avoided Poverty Bay, was certified in Doubtful Sound, disappointed by Ninety-Mile Beach (all NZ). 

The USA provided a rich harvest. The Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet in Pittsburgh not to form the Ohio river but a bel canto opera in Welsh or Italian. New Yorkers reduce the grandiosely titled Avenue of the Americas to Sixth Avenue. Parts of Mystic (Conn) are straightforwardly beautiful. In my hotel on El Camino Real (SF), I took off my crown and slept well (Courtesy, WS). A railway runs through Statesboro (Ga) to provide a wrong side of the tracks. Kennedy Airport used to be Idlewild; any reason why Heathrow shouldn’t be Grant Shapps Field? Intercourse (Pa) is, I believe, in Amish country; the Amish are devout and eschew zipped flies; some dysfunction here.

That celestial beauty, the Moon, incorporates the clumsily named Mare Humboldtianum. Astronomers needn’t read music but must not have tin ears.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Horror of horrors

As if a pure white
fountain, or an
egret's feather
sprouted from 
his head

Should one confront nightmares or just roll over in bed?

Trump may win!

Aarrgh! Nausea as reflux. And yes, my dear, that was the last sheet of toilet paper. But what’s your view of hell?

LYING. We all do it, sometimes claiming the lie is “white”. But not casually. With blatant self-interest. To the accompaniment of imaginary trumpets. Facing irrefutable facts, Contradicting an assertion made in the previous sentence. Through cherubically pursed lips. With hand gestures that suggest a nose-picker in private.

LADDISHNESS IN AN ADULT. Something he should have grown out of. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink about sexual matters. Disregarding society’s discrimination against women, blacks, gays, the poor, the dead. Contempt for the law, worthwhile tradition and quietude.

STUNTED VOCABULARY. Whingeing about being asked “nasty” questions, Being unspecific; unaware that “bad” tells us nothing. And a touching if somewhat imperfect understanding of the superlative form of the adjective: “We gonna have the greatest (Economy, Trade War, Pandemic – fill in your preference) the world has ever seen.”

IMPOLITENESS. Sounds like a minor defect, doesn’t it? Yet he behaves like a man who bumps through social gatherings with his belly. Interrupting others to obscure the dialogue. Remember how he hovered over poor Hilary in the debates, like a swarm of wasps. How small, inoffensive islands – in the Caribbean, was it? – were described as “shitty”. Not that it matters to him but he has another type of image problem outside the USA.

DODGINESS. Denying the US Post Office the cash to process postal votes. Making a crony head of the USPO. The small matter of tax-paying obligations. Self-confessed groping. Continuous firing as an expression of amateur management. Attempting to push Mar-el-Lago as a venue for the G7 meeting – and charge for it. Time spent playing golf. Russia, ah yes, Russia – what dark tales yet to be told?

Friday 16 October 2020

An Age Away

The Ever-Rolling Stream

Short story

The newly styled perm cost twenty pounds more than normal and Harper must have noticed her reaction. Harper whined, “You did say tighter curls; it was like starting from scratch.”

The tip increased the total proportionately and she was left with one lonely ten-pound note. Although she’d watched the re-styling throughout, she took a further hurried glance in the mirror, checking whether it represented value for money. Her face certainly looked sharp, her cheeks tauter.

Harper held out her beige coat, apparently unconcerned about the cost of her labour.

- She must think I’m paid the same rate as the clients who arrive in cars; that I’m some kind of manager.

Two buses sailed past full and her mother was impatiently waiting lunch. “You should have gone to Maisie, it would have been less than half,” Maisie had done her mother’s hair for nearly fifty years; now retired she worked part-time from a barely modified front room.

“It is nicer though, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so.” The tone was grudging and thus close to high praise.

It was Saturday and Wimbledon quarter finals were on television. Her mother would have been offended if she’d played music in her bedroom and so they watched the tennis together. Waiting for the second shoe to drop.

It dropped when the French player her mother favoured was beaten in straight sets. Her mother sighed, got up, made afternoon tea and laid out digestives. “I suppose you’ll be going to the music with your friend,” she said, as she had once a day during the preceding week.

“It’s the Tákacs,” she replied mechanically. “They won’t be back for two years.”

“You’ve already seen them twice this month.”

“They’re playing all the lates.”

“Huh. He likes them too, I take it?”

She nodded. Her mother sighed then added, “Eh, Izzy.”

The hated abbreviation. She got up abruptly, “I think I’ll walk in part of the way. Good exercise.”

“In your high heels! You’ll cripple yourself.”

Only three-centimetres as her mother well knew.

The sense of release made itself felt as she put on make-up. “Di-dah, di-dah,” she whispered, grasping at the opening bars of the Grosse Fuge, anticipating the tension and the sheer volume of sound the four instruments would generate. That tender yet exciting world.

Through Dalston Market and its flurries of human activity, going south. “Muss es sein? Es muss sein,” she sang gleefully to herself. Only three miles to go; she’d walk all the way and have forty minutes to spare. Kill time reading Constant Lambert’s Music Ho, watching the Thames slide past every now and then.

They were to rendezvous in the booking hall but he’d spotted her on a bench near the river and sat beside her without a by your leave. “Isobel!” he proclaimed, “You’ve read that tired paperback twice to my knowledge.”

She smiled happily. “I bought Shaw’s Wagner as you recommended. But it’s too heavy to carry all the way from mother’s. You look healthy. I on the other hand have just been watching Wimbledon.”

“I played two friendlies on Romney Marshes during the week.”

She put Constant Lambert into her handbag. “I wonder if I were twenty years younger whether I’d be tempted by football. Women do, don’t they? Even Rugby. Things were so traditional in my youth. Tennis in summer, hockey in winter. I hated the hard ball.”

“But you swim regularly.”

“Doctor’s orders. Keeps arthritis at bay. Whoops, I promised to avoid nattering on about age. Have we time for a glass of wine before we go in? My treat.”

He looked at her in a slightly odd way; instinctively she recognised this had to do with his sensitivity about her low wages with the Council. He earned twice as much at an analytical lab in Southwark. “Let’s wait til the interval and see how we feel.”

They walked slowly through the loosely distributed gathering and she was amused at the way girls of his age maintained their glance on him. Amused too by his irritation at this. As they took their seats in the main auditorium he sat up with a jerk. “Just remembered, there’s this.” He held out a ticket for a Wigmore Hall piano recital. “A chap at work said he was interested and I bought two. Now he tells me he’s leaving the company.” Involuntarily she reached for her handbag but he shook his head. “It’s free. He…er paid me for it.”

She stared at his bright blue eyes, usually so frank. Twice he blinked and she knew this wasn’t true. That it was a gift. “I seem to be lucky with your free tickets,” she said. They’d first met under a similar premise at the main entrance when he’d played the benevolent tout, dangling what he described as an unwanted ticket which she could have for half-price. Almost immediately adding, “Free, if you’re a real enthusiast.” The concert was a sell-out for that year’s favourite tenor and she’d been vainly searching for returns. They’d babbled non-stop into the evening when she learned he was a moderately advanced violinist, had a Festival Hall membership and could get pairs of discounted tickets. A year of friendship cemented by over fifty concerts.

Now, it seemed, he wasn’t inclined to discuss these coincidences and pointedly looked away. A tiny awkwardness soon blown away as both of them were reduced to silence by the Tákacs’ re-creation of Opus 127. An extended silence in which they remained at their seats during the interval pondering together but alone with their thoughts. The offer of wine forgotten. It had happened before and there was no embarrassment in it.

But if Opus 127 had been magisterial the Grosse Fuge’s depth clawed at Isobel’s emotions. Sending her back into her own fragmented history when music had opened up to her through the piano lessons her mother had briefly been able to afford, then stumbled on through the decades as she took whatever musical opportunities presented themselves. A force that bypassed life’s disappointments and gilded her few achievements, that prepared her for what she jokingly referred to as becoming an Old Maid. Alone but sustained.

And into the sweetness of the fourth movement when she ceased be alone and a shoulder pressed against hers, a first physical contact.

The Tákacs were stamped deliriously off the stage. Unspeaking she allowed herself to be guided out of the auditorium to the bar and handed a glass of merlot. Sipping occasionally, considering the structure she had built to protect herself and wondering at its future strength.

“Where have you gone?” he asked. A lost voice, worried by the transformation.

“I’m older than you,” she said, as if this might explain everything for ever.

“I know,” he said.

“The three of us are friends.”


“You, me and the sounds the Tákacs made.”


“Just friends.”

He frowned and she recognised disagreement. “A wonderful year and there might have been another. But perhaps not, now. I have a theory that as time passes the difference in age matters more. That we may delay this as friends but not if we become more than friends.”

His eyes were blank as shillings.

She said, “But… but… being touched was… it added to the music. And I may die from it.”

He pushed his chair back. “Let’s stand by the river.”

The Thames eased its way down towards Gravesend like the body of a python. His straw-like hair hung in front of his eyes and she wanted to brush it aside so that he might see more clearly. But he seemed unaware and said, “I need to be like you.”

She smiled wryly. “Older?”

“Having made use of time. Calmer. In charge of myself. Music helps.”

“It should happen naturally.”

His blue eyes shone with tears. “I’m not at all sure. My parents divorced, unpleasantly. I was the ping-pong ball. These days divorce is supposed to be routine for kids. But not for me. Perhaps I was cossetted too much.”

And she realised there’d been signs of the wound, his body curling inwards.

He said, “That fourth movement of the fugue was an opening to somewhere new. It seemed as if you’d already been there. Were there. I leant against you.”

Neither said anything for two, perhaps three minutes. An eternity. His voice was low, almost inaudible. “Did I invade you? If so was I first to cross that frontier?”

“I’ve worked hard to be separate. Physically separate.”

“Today your hair had changed. Closer, almost sculpted. Staying separate, are you entitled to tinker with your looks? Your beauty?”

She wanted to protest but she also needed to be honest. “It may take time.”

“That’s all right. Time is our raw material.”

Thursday 15 October 2020

Wanna end it? Either way

Here’s the prologue to a story about the possibility of love, stripped bare, its resolution not the issue.

A 46-year-old single woman and a 23-year-old man have a social relationship: they attend classical music events together. That’s it. How this occurred is not explained. The age difference is never referred to and seems unremarkable.

But the woman feels age will become a factor and end their friendship. And that this can be held at bay provided there is no hint of physical attraction. On her own behalf she decides to suppress this happening. Optimistically, you may say.

They have attended a concert consisting of Beethoven late quartets, music of great intensity. The performance – by the Takacs – has been profound and both are moved. Reflecting on what she has heard the woman realises her friend’s presence has enhanced the experience.

He questions her self-absorption and she explains, partially. Unable to utter “physical attraction” she reluctantly opts for “fallen in love”. His face remains emotionless and he asks her to elaborate.

She says she spent time and money in the hair salon this morning. She’d done this before other concerts and never thought twice. However, this time she’d examined herself in the salon mirror and the music reminded her (“rather smugly, I must confess”) she’d thought her appearance would surely meet his approval.

“So love demands approval?” he says.

“It was a step in the wrong direction,” she says firmly.

As I say, this is just a précis. The full account of this bit would swell from 300 words to 1500 words, at least, and the characters would, I hope, take on life. And yes, I have an ending in mind. But does this situation deserve an ending?

Monday 12 October 2020

Personal no-nos

Things I do that I shouldn’t

● An irresistible addiction to Bloody Mary cocktails. Telling myself (fallaciously) the tomato juice is a health drink.

● Hum while engaged behind closed doors in certain intimate functions; tunes I’m having difficulty with. The link may hinge on the concept of purging but the jury’s still out on this.

● Delay having haircuts under the belief that long hair makes me poetic.

● Delay washing hair until the central area turns yellow-ish.

● Re-read paperbacks by Robert B. Parker. Perhaps because they’re set in Boston, Mass. Told sententiously in first person by private eye Spenser (spelt as British poet), a self-serving superman. Pretentious beefcake.

● Avoid books, movies and TV documentaries which I suspect may “improve” me.

● Rarely let a day go by without reminding someone I’ve read Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (but only in English).

● Fail to suppress my tendency to over-use the adjective “rebarbative”.

● Toss my fleece shirts reluctantly into the laundry basket. Justification: dirt is hard to detect on fleece material.

● Wake up and dwell unhealthily on which eventual pathology will effect my quietus. Trawling a selection of ever-present symptoms.

● Continue to hand-write notes, etc, I am subsequently unable to read.

● Continue to ignore BBC radio (Other than BB3 for music) knowing that most radio is pitched at higher levels of intelligence than most TV.

● Refuse to replace gossamer-thin handkerchiefs with those of thicker, more absorbent fabric.

● Not wash the car.

● Grumble about the car’s unwashed state.

● Fail to recognise my inability to sing to the beat of my metronome.

● Avert my eyes from my uncleaned nails.

Saturday 10 October 2020

New light on the lounge

Woke up in the dark, mouth like a hay-barn. The result of drinking white burgundy too close to bedtime. Went downstairs and swigged chilled fizzy water from the fridge. Returned to bed. An hour later the same sensation and the same solution. I chose to sleep on the couch in the lounge to be nearer the fizzy water.

Woke at dawn with sunlight starting to peer through the fabric of the pull-down blinds in the lounge. A pleasing effect, never previously noticed. Mouth back to normal so I daydreamed.

Twenty years ago we’d just moved in, neither of us with a shred of talent for enhancing our living space. Where colour was an issue we always went for sage green, mainly because it was innocuous.

At the time we’d incidentally come into touch with a fledgling interior decorator service – two young women just starting out. Amazingly they charged peanuts and we gave them their head – well, more or less. It was they who specified the individual pull-down blinds and I for one have never thought to change.

The windows the blinds cover are in a bay recess and for that they specified a heavy wooden rail with permanently tied-back curtains at either side, implying the bay is a very shallow theatre stage. Corny? All I can we couldn’t have done better. They also spec’d the wall lights and the central light fitting to our satisfaction.

It’s taken me a full generation to notice the effect early morning sun has on the blinds and I’d like to compliment them. Alas, we may have been their first and last client since they fell out with each other and retreated into oblivion. Both perhaps rather too pretty.

Old age has made us timid. Doubt we’d ever again hire an interior decorator.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

A little learning... can be quite hard

Yesterday was Monday. At 8.30 am Skype hoodled and V appeared on the computer screen with another singing lesson. I’m well into my fifth year and the telescope is now reversed: once it was broad structures, these days fine detail.

I deliberately upped V’s fee at the beginning of The Plague when her other students were losing their jobs and unable to continue. Subtly she has lengthened my nominal hour, sometimes to ninety minutes. I threatened to up the fee again and we both laughed.

Often we discuss music teaching in general. How discouraging is it for her when a problem arises and – for a time – I am unable to grasp her solution? I’d noticed she often varies her approach several times when this happens. This turned out to be fundamental. If she exhausts all her approaches she tells the student – kindly, I’m sure – she can do no more.

I have a long-standing problem which is still in the balance: singing duets, my most profound desire. The idea of being “ploughed” doesn’t bear thinking about. Especially during The Plague. But V has let me indirectly know my zest for learning seems undiminished, and she approves of the work I do on my own.

The teacher/student relationship is both intense and remote. Over the years I’ve picked up odd details, especially about V's daughters, but this is one area where my journalistic curiosity is put on hold. On the other hand I’m required to inspect the shape of her mouth and even the position of her tongue when we’re dealing with tricky vowel sounds. What I can say she is infinitely patient and can also work magic. I outline a difficulty and inevitably her recommendation involves something I’d never considered.

Learning is personality as well as facts.

Saturday 3 October 2020

Twilight of the Gods?

Inevitably one has mixed feelings. Trump has done many things I have hated, notably undermining the whole concept of democracy. I must confess I've hated him for that. To the point where I hoped he would experience deep humiliation since humiliation seemed the only thing that would get through.

But did I hate him enough to wish this on him? Tell the truth, it never occurred to me. Fatalistically - and very ironically - I shared his own superman view of himself; that somehow his flouting not just of medical recommendations but of basic common sense would see him through.

But now I hear there've been undercurrents. That the situation was known within the White House before the public announcement was made. That many people - maskless and otherwise unprotected - may have come into contact. That several White House staff have subsequently tested positive, including Kellyanne, the spokesperson.

If that's true it's not just irresponsible, it's criminal. There are laws. And one has to say, adding in the tax revelations and the mad debate, there's a kind of Jovian Götterdämmerung endgame going on at the moment. But without Wagner's music.

Hatred? Yeah, I know it's childish but...

Thursday 1 October 2020

Future could be brighter(er?)

Satnav tended to slip off sloping dashboard

... but will now be secured by wires installed
- at great personal cost - by RR

This post, also about our anniversary, requires techno-patience.

Parenthetically “augury” is a five-dollar alternative to “omen”. Most auguries are grim (Think Macbeth/Dunsinane, Caesar/The Ides of March) but this is, I think, a happier one. 

My satnav is mounted on a rubber mat which adheres to the sloping top of the car’s dashboard by ingenious friction. The mat has worked well for several years with the previous satnav, but the new satnav is heavier. Slippage has occurred.

Suppose I anchored the mat to the dashboard without damage. The dashboard is smooth and offers few anchor points. However, a long narrow vent, beyond the driver’s sight, delivers hot air for demisting. Could a wire attached at one end to the mat be threaded into the vent, under several louvres, and picked out for connection to the mat.

“Picked out” proved the source of nightmares. The windscreen slopes back shallowly and there is almost no hand room above the vent. And, obviously, no head room so one is working blind. Also the vent’s slots are so narrow the tweezers I used had to be introduced almost closed. Yet the tweezer points had to straddle the loose wire. On Monday I gave up. I resumed on Tuesday with no better luck.

I felt trapped and persecuted by this obscure corner of the car. Getting in and out laboriously to check the wire was visible. Times passed disagreeably. I wondered about glue.

Suddenly everything clicked. The tweezers gripped the wire and I pulled it into accessibility.

Definitely an augury. A good one. That the Hermitage would prove to be mature, we would pass the evening in harmony, and I would die in my sleep, dementia-free in a handful of years’ time, having been nominated for a literary Nobel.

Yeah. Happy Diamonds everyone.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

It passed like a flash

In 1960 I smirked a lot. Suit was dead cheap

Diamond – said to be hard

We tied the Golden knot ten years ago,
And now it's Diamond on October One.
As to Salt, Tin and Copper, who’s to know?
At ninety Granite's not a lot of fun.

We're staying in and trying to avoid,
The faults that turned the wedding into farce,
The groom an oaf and sadly adenoid,
The only blessing was his speech was sparse.

There's Chablis, vintage fizz, and Hermitage,
We'll argue, since it's old-folk's exercise, 
Drop off and snore as well becomes our age,
Skirt round the truth and decorate the lies.

And when the heating's off it's duvet time,
To dream up sonnets and their final rhyme

By the oughties smile had improved. Ski anorak
cost ten times more than wedding suit

A more conventional (and humane) treatment of this subject will appear on Tone Deaf, October 1

Friday 25 September 2020

Snapshot of the infantile RR


I was lousy at school though you might be puzzled by this end-of-term report card (click to enlarge). I publish it not out of self-glory or self-damnation but as proof I didn’t get on with my teachers and they didn’t get on me.

The report belongs to the dark ages, 1947, when I was 12 years and 4 months old. What’s interesting are the enormous discrepancies between how I performed during the term and in the end-of-term exam and the apparent unwillingness of the teachers to explain or even acknowledge the difference.

Take French. My term performance was rated 23rd (out of a class of 26), whereas I was second in the exam. The teacher says: “His oral work is weak as he does not try to do well.”

Physics reveals the teacher’s genteel priorities. Term 25, exam second; “He is interested in his work but untidy written work has resulted in a low term order.” I wonder what Einstein’s penmanship was like.

Note the grudging admission for Maths (Term 20, exam first). “He tries and has made some progress.”

Only in Divinity (these days Religious Studies) is the discrepancy addressed but in a way that confirms what most foreigners (especially in the US) think of British slyness. Term 20, exam 4. “Very fair.”

And with applause comes the slap on the head: English; term first, exam 4; “Good work; quick and keen in class, but written work too often spoiled by untidiness.”

To tell the truth I’m surprised by the exam results. That isn’t how I remember school which was dominated by continuous physical punishment, sarcasm, and teacher/student incompatibility. Nor, I think, is it typical of the school. Throughout, I remained among the low performers; those with talent were treated better.

Eheu fugaces labuntur anni.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Grown up but not necessarily matured

To most people, becoming adult depends solely on time passing. To those who have given the word five seconds’ thought it is defined by change: a mortgage, parenthood, taking out funeral insurance.

The concept worries me, mainly because my adolescence lasted so long I felt senility might well arrive first. Nor am I yet shut of those worries; at eighty-five I am still accused of childishness.

A scene from my youth emerged at about 5 am today. I’m still only a tea-boy at the newspaper. I have lunched in the canteen and am watching reporters who have also lunched play dominoes. There’s a technique to dominoes and a special vocabulary; the reporters are skilled in both these matters.

Clearly I am not an adult during this scene. But let’s be more specific. This is the passive part of my life wherein I merely observe. I’m sitting with the reporters because I admire their reporting skills and want to be like them. I’m also learning a little about dominoes. I also secretly admire the outward demeanour that goes with playing this game.

When it comes to girls, I don’t even dare to observe.

When I write my first article I take a first step out of passivity. When I finally become an editor, twenty years later, I am no longer passive, I impose myself. By my own professional standards I am now adult. But not in all senses. During these twenty years I have become a husband and a parent and many years are to pass before I become what I consider to be an adult parent.

“Adult” demands qualifications. A father who takes his son to Saturday soccer, rain or shine, yet is fanatical about stamp-collecting is not wholly adult. Some way to go then, but not with stamps

Saturday 19 September 2020

Not a toss, I say

Unless you have immersed yourself in the Tour de France for sixty years, as I have,   you tend to think of it as just a long bike race. It is far more than that. More like a monstrous game of chess lasting three weeks and played on a 643,803 km2 board (ie, the area of France) where each of the 180 pieces (ie, riders) carries a unique number representing the cumulative time gap between him and the leader. The leader’s gap being, of course, zero seconds.

At any one time six or more separate stratagems between individuals and groups of individuals may be being played out. And…

But enough of that. Chances are you are now too old to understand.

Live TV coverage of the Tour, sometimes starting as early as midday, is available on ITV4, an obscure channel I never otherwise visit, Here’s my confession: I watch the whole stage each day, a glorious benison of retirement.

Neighbours and acquaintances erect new fences, order house extensions, garden til the sun goes down, experiment with cakes, moan about being separated from their family, and even go for bike rides. I loll on the couch, read The Guardian during the commercials and avidly follow each tiny variation in the state of the race. Assisted by a six-man team of expert and wholly articulate multi-linguistic commentators. As France’s natural beauty – lovingly caught by helicoptered cameras  - unscrolls on the screen.

This inertia is bad for me. It’s probably shortening my life. I should be up and erect, doing things that have visible conclusions and are approved by society in general. Frankly, I don’t give a toss. VR also watches. My daughters loved seeing part of a stage for real in 2018.

Not a toss, I say.

Monday 14 September 2020

Gone with the wind

What exactly is conversation?

Three times a year I’d take a train to Paddington, cross London, and meet my pal, Joe Hyam, at a scruffy curry restaurant on the Aldwych. We’d lunch, then move to a pub across the Thames. We’d start talking promptly at 12.30 pm and only cease at about 6.30 pm when I took the tube back to Paddington and thence the train to Hereford.

We conversed, I suppose, so the end result must have been a conversation. Joe died in March 2014 so those lengthy, noisy, often impassioned exchanges are now an aural blur.  The subjects would have been obvious since they were all shared: blogging, books, France, magazine editorship. Yet not a single strand remains in my memory banks. Hence my initial question. It’s as if making conversation came close to the creation of a fishing net – a mass of holes encircling emptiness and tied together with string.

From more than a dozen lunches and boozing sessions, nothing! One exception: I’d just started writing sonnets and tended to fill up my iambic pentameter with over-long, polysyllabic words. Was this a failing I asked Joe, a poetry expert. No, he said, and we switched to other things.

I could of course consult the posts I wrote at the time but that’s not the point. Why the void? One reason might be the talk was fast and intense. We spoke for the moment not for posterity. Also, it was like a relay race – pass the baton and it came back a different shape. It’s a big claim but I may fairly say our chat was original. Both of us regarded cliché as a sin against the human spirit.

All gone, except it seemed worthwhile at the time. And I for one looked forward to it.

Saturday 5 September 2020

Love without anchovies

A cautionary fable of modern times – quite short - set in a fictional part of France and populated by residents whose existence and situation are the sole product of the author’s imagination, with some explanatory detail to assist non-Francophone readers

 M. Prénom and Mme Sans-Couleur had been adulterously attached for fifteen years. Each year they dined out to celebrate their marital wickedness but this year they would be avoiding Le Restaurant au Bon Courage. Their respective spouses – irritated by their continuing absences – had formed their own adulterous relationship and had booked the Bon Courage two months beforehand. M Prénom and Mme Sans-Couleur could foresee problems about which couple got which table and had reluctantly chosen the only alternative, Le Jazz, a pizzeria which had so far attracted zero reviews in Trip Advisor.

Le Jazz was located in the centre of a Zone Industriel which meant driving. In fact neither ever walked anywhere so choosing which car was a recurrent problem. Both had Citroens but Mme Sans-Couleur had persuaded her husband to buy her one with a slightly more powerful engine.

“It has a motor with an extra seventy-five centimetres cubed,” she said winningly. “It is more chic, chérie. Also it has a radio.”

M. Prénom gave in. He usually did. But who would drive, given that a more draconian version of the Suppression of Public Drunkenness law had recently been introduced. There were rumours – probably facetious – that the Ile du Diable prison in French Guiana was to be re-opened for extreme offenders.

“I will drive,” said Mme Sans-Couleur. “And I will drink only one glass of wine.”

“But this is a celebration. Where is human equality in that?”

Mme Sans-Couleur tentatively suggested one glass of wine, shared between them.

“Yes,” said M. Prénom, “but we must fill up our half-glasses of wine with water. To prove our gaiety.”

They both agreed, knowing that red wine at Le Jazz was bought directly from the supermarket at €3.99 a bottle and the mark-up was a mere 25%. That they would, as usual, drink four bottles of red and drive back in drunken stupor with the headlights turned off.

A Zone Industriel is an industrial zone

The Zone Industriel had never really caught on and the only occupants were three companies, all near bankruptcy, devoted to processing used car tyres. A piercing smell overhung the area and Mme Sans-Couleur insisted on what she called “la route touristique” even though it quadrupled the three-kilometre drive. They arrived at Le Jazz twenty minutes late but this was of no consequence since the only other diner was a local character known familiarly as Le Clochard (The Drunk) who, in effect, hired a pizza and left it to grow cold, allowing him to order an unending sequence of house reds.

“He adds character,” whispered Mme Sans-Couleur gaily. But with character came body odour and they took a table as far away as possible, even though this brought them uncomfortably close to the pizza oven.

Le Jazz didn’t really do starters. They rejected the paté, ominously unchristened,  and, after some debate, the Regional Plate which consisted of three gherkins, three cocktail onions and a wizened tomato. A €1 supplement proclaimed the Chef’s Salad and this seemed a favourable omen. True it included two curled slices of salami and a clump of oily greenery finally identified as artichoke heart. But at the centre was the French restaurant trade’s ultimate insult to diners of any nationality: a triangular metal foil package containing a whitish cheese-flavoured paste and labelled La Vache Qui Rit.

“What do you think the cow was laughing at?” asked Mme Sans-Couleur, her gaiety undimmed.

M. Prénom recognised the need to share his partner’s good humour. It was after all a celebration. “I will add the phrase to your climax.”

He didn’t often refer to their physical antics and Mme Sans-Couleur’s jaw dropped slightly. Then she smiled bravely. “Ah, my brave knight.”

In France a flank steak is called a bavette

Neither enjoyed pizza and they opted for flank steak, printed in a discouragingly small typeface on the laminated menu. This visibly angered the patron’s wife acting as waitress and they both averted their eyes as the equally angry patron wrenched open the door of the freezer and rattled among the mini-icebergs probably untouched for half a year. Both M. Prénom and Mme Sans-Couleur were capable of being embarrassed, given their irregular sexual arrangements, but by now they were already into their second bottle of red and a certain fatalism had descended. Less than prompt service seemed inevitable but there was no reason why they should limit themselves to four bottles of wine.

M. Prénom looked fondly at his lover, slightly surprised that his ardour had lasted as long as it had. Fifteen years! Not bad at all; there were times at home when he had to remind himself he was actually married to the solemn churchgoer he shared the house with. He had been drawn to Mme Sans-Couleur by her cherubic face but this attraction would have hardly lasted a year if it hadn’t been for her willingness to spend a great deal of her husband’s money on clothing. Each occasion they met she wore something different. He found this strangely exciting, perhaps because these fashionable garments were so easy to remove. Today she wore a white two-piece with navy blue trim; the jacket secured by a single, large padded button offering all the facility of a garage door. The sheath skirt must be held at the waist with built-in elastic, he felt sure. So convenient.

“You out-class Le Jazz, my dear,” he said, taking hold of her fierily manicured hand.

“I would rather hope so,” she said with glowing sincerity. “But I’m with you - "

 French “caff” owners don’t willingly do cocktails

The latter sentence, which had started so promisingly, was fated never to end. The pizzeria’s rackety door burst inwards to admit M. Sans-Couleur, the new lover of Mme. Prénom. Greatly stressed, he barked, “Table for two?” and the patron nodded resignedly. The flank steak had only just thawed. M. Sans-Couleur shrank with relief, glanced around and noticed M. Prénom for the first time. It should have been a moment of profound sexual tension but M. Sans-Couleur had obviously been confronting other, more pressing, demons. “Bon Courage had forgotten my reservation. I shall sue them in the courts. Meanwhile Le Jazz is my only hope. I trust we may be civilised about this.”

M. Prénom glanced at Mme Sans-Couleur. “Of course,” she said, “but we shall be leaving quite soon.” A coded message to the patron to be less languid.

M. Sans-Couleur bustled out of the pizzeria and returned with Claudette, M. Prénom’s neglected wife. A tiny shaft of pain traversed the regions of his husbandly stomach when he saw Claudette was wearing a wafty full-length dress – could it really be Versace? – he had no idea she owned. Where had she found the money? Not from M. Sans-Couleur who was notoriously mean. M. Prénom’s mind flitted through meals he had eaten at home over the past year; had there been economies which had saved the necessary cash? But then Claudette had always been a lousy cook and any shortfall would not have been noticed.

Nods were thought appropriate greeting under the circumstances and for several seconds the gathering resembled a Japanese art-house movie. In a loud voice M. Sans-Couleur ordered two gins-and tonic and was rewarded with a look of pure venom by the patron.

You pay local taxes at the Trésor Publique

Their two tables were consecutively positioned and it was quickly evident that even the most furtively whispered conversation would be audible. This led to briskly clear exchanges about absolutely nothing: car service intervals, rudeness at the Trésor Publique and PSG’s inexplicable inability to score goals. Despite the banality of this talk maintaining the flow proved exhausting and an increased consumption of red wine.

Finally, and quite accidentally, Mme Sans Couleur averred that petunias made perfect bedding plants and Claudette’s eyebrows – plucked for the occasion – rose in thin arches. From then on the two women were lost to gardening babble and the hosts could sit back in silence and drink even more heavily.

When M. Prénom finally paid his bill (the others were still waiting for their flank steaks) the two men wished each other a gruff “Au ’voir” and the two women nodded, smiling with horticultural fervour.

Mme Sans-Couleur sat motionless at the Citroen’s steering wheel, perhaps waiting until the nearest of the three tyre-processing plants stopped rotating in space. Now she started the engine. “You know, chérie, they will be ages. We would have time to visit our little nest.”

It took M. Prénom a while to acknowledge the meal they had just eaten was intended to celebrate physical needs they had sated over the years with each other. His mind was on other things, or one thing in particular. That dress! Its style. Its cost. Its mysterious acquisition. And the way it had hugged Claudette’s derrière over a contour he’d never known existed. He kissed Mme Sans-Couleur with more force than he’d intended, dimly aware of a decision he might well articulate quite soon.

“Alas choufleur*, the wine. Rather too much of it. Next week, I promise, we will make love.”

 *   Cauliflower