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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
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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