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Wednesday 27 December 2023

Sir, it's about cars not cash

I’m as guilty as anyone so why not shrive myself with a Christmas post that’s not about eating, drinking, cooking, gifts and/or self-indulgence?

How about grandson Zach passing his driving test, aged seventeen and a bit, more or less the UK’s minimum age. And how shrewd of him to pick a post-Christmas day with minimum traffic on the road. I had a theory about this. He’s excelled at virtually every one of the many sports he’s tried which says much about his powers of physical co-ordination. And co-ordination is central when one’s behind a car’s steering wheel.

A note to US readers from someone who holds US and UK licences. Things may have changed since I took the US test but it was an absolute doddle compared with my experiences in Catford, a cramped suburb in SE London. In an underpowdered vehicle (me bulky, the examiner even bulkier) that made hill-starts a nightmare. The US examiner (in his Boy Scouts hat) got so bored he decided to throw me a whammy: “Say, bud, whatsa max. fine for dropping trash from a car window?” I guessed $100 and he grunted. He so wanted to fail a furriner.

More non-Christmas news. Our bank statement arrived today (the day after Boxing Day) so I re-established my financial situation. Ill-health for both of us has led to heavy expenses during 2023, not least the Stannah stair lift. Despite this I find I am comfortably off at a time of year when balances usually plummet. Sufficiently flush to discuss another costly villa rental in France in the summer. But that’s not self-indulgence, more an extended language test.

Did my singing lesson this morning, launching into eight of the nineteen songs forming Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin cycle. Some untouched for months. A super stimulant. Begone dull care. 

Saturday 23 December 2023

Pawn Two to Bishop's garage

On the TV a lissom young woman performs exercises that get more and more difficult. It’s five-ish in the morning and – obviously – dark outside. I’m lying on the couch in the dimly lit living room, certain in my mind that the young woman’s gyrations are well beyond my enfeebled body.

Not that it matters. Elsewhere in the room, daughter Professional Bleeder, a mere fluttering shadow, is mimicking the exercises and doing a fair job of it, given she’s five years short of retirement. It’s all to do with Buddha, I’m told, and a regular feature of PB’s health regime.

But both of us share another concern, we’re waiting for the butcher and the delivery of a six-part lamb crown roast, several Chateaubriant steaks which will form the heart of a Beef Wellington and other meaty bits and bobs. Costing a small fortune.

As it happens the butcher fails to turn up and things have to be re-organised. And here we are at the very essence of Christmas. Organisation and re-organisation of an interlocking series of events, movements, transportations and cash transfers. Strangely reminiscent of the last magazine I edited, devoted to logistics. An industrial practice that’s frequently misunderstood but may be summarised as: getting the right amount of stuff to the right location at the right time. Inexpensively.

We will eventually be a group of eight. But before that happens the group will fragment and three separate locations will be occupied. One of the meals – Whoops! That’s four locations! – will be in a restaurant. The cumulative mileage will be in the hundreds. Acres of wrapping paper will be wrapped.

Dwight D. Eisenhower did something similar prior to D-Day and was rewarded by becoming the US president. At eighty-eight my contribution is to spread my hands. 

Sunday 17 December 2023

The bottle? It's traditional

The party (see previous post) had a mildly odd aftermath but I’ll get to that. VR’s medical concerns meant I went alone, carrying a bottle of Languedoc red. Martin, my host, opened the door and there was a tiny confusion as I handed him the bottle while we shook hands.

VR and I are both invalids. When did I last shake hands? Months ago? Years?

I first met Martin walking to the supermarket during the last couple of years. Casually. The party started stiffly, new arrivals just standing around. Not me of course. Journalism taught me to break social barriers by forcing conversation. Encountering a Chinese woman married to a Japanese man I asked what language did they speak when alone? Their answer released a welter of possibilities.

The spread of food was enticing and varied and I’d have liked to return to the table more than once (At home I’m responsible for very dull fare). But people were sitting now and conversation was broadening. I joined in, frequently startling people into discussing subjects other than members of their families. 

No doubt you, dear reader, disapprove of such dictatorship. But most Brits welcome those who help guard against social silence. I am not necessarily liked but I may be  tolerated.

The party started at 5 pm. Most had left before me and I was home by 8.30. Resuming my duties by creating a G&T for VR.

Then the aftermath. A strange “otherness”. For a year now we’ve mainly spent our evenings alone, just the two of us. Earlier I’d been part of a group, now it was quiet in our living room. As if I was the traveller from an antique land. Nothing unexpected would happen. Just reading and some telly. Old age solitude. Ah, yes.

Saturday 16 December 2023

Death's rehearsals

We’ve been invited to a pre-Christmas party today. I tried to remember my last party outside the family. Years ago, but when or what I can’t be sure. I imagine people nodding: who’d be so foolhardy as to ask him? His blog says it all. A walking black hole.

Too true, I’m not an ideal guest. But this time perhaps the reason is unexpected. It’s 04.21 and I can’t sleep. Why? Because of Putin and the Ukraine. Given the most recent developments, far away from Kiev, I sense – for the first time - Vladimir’s going to win. And many many people will die as have already died.

As I might have died during the fifties, when I was a conscripted military men. There were several warlike opportunities. Instead I’ve reached very old age. Yet can’t sleep.

I flatter myself I have a well-developed imagination, thus I write fiction. But imagination can be a curse. I remember the way the city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine was systematically destroyed; that arid shell now provides raw material for envisaging what may happen to the country’s capital city. Presided over by the tight smiling man in the Kremlin who may, or may not, wear a toupée. An irrelevant detail which, nevertheless, stimulates relevant thought.

Shakespeare’s good on sleep and especially its absence. But this isn’t the time for easy quotes. Sleep replenishes the living body and should keep disturbing images at bay. But I – having slid lusciously beneath the duvet at midnight – must now sit around wakefully a few hours later. Thinking about irony. That Ukraine has slipped down the priorities of the news organisations to be replaced with newer horrors in Gaza. Where death is strangely more immediate.

Time to re-try the bed. There’s the party to be considered.

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Like the first sniff of a casserole

The Guardian’s Saturday edition profiles certain chosen people by posing a fixed set of questions. One question: When were you happiest?

Did you learn technical English grammar at school? - many kids now don’t. Older readers will recognise the above as the superlative form of the adjective, neither “happy” nor “happier” but “happiest”. Implying an extremity.

Alas, this concept means different things to different people. Those doing day-long manual labour might say the first step towards “happiest” would be avoiding work altogether. With others it’s both good and bad: teachers, who just want to teach kids, feel frustrated marking exercise books at midnight. Journalists, dreaming of a soccer scoop, mutely collect names at a funeral.

“Happiest”, in this context, needs further definition. Ideally it should be unique, not a repeated pleasing event. Ideally too, since happiness is a state of mind, it must involve thought. And, for goodness sake, avoid anything that’s merely socially acceptable; like the act of being married. Was it all wonderful? Me, I hated not knowing what happened next in this alien location (a church).

Other amplifications. Happiness is warm not hot, pervasive not piercing, may arrive slowly and indirectly, may not be easily discussed. I was happy when my deputy editors went on to more elevated jobs. But happiest didn’t apply.

My first singing lesson induced a new physical awareness. Tight as a drum-skin. But again, happiest didn’t apply; what was I comparing it with? The best pork sausage ever?

Hey-hoo. Parts of Out Of Arizona satisfied me. Another re-read and they got slightly better. Yet another go-through and a short, carefully slotted sentence (“Like all those things.”) hinted I might be a writer. 

Happiest? Well, stronger than “happier”.

Monday 11 December 2023

Not what you'd call cuddly

Unsmiling, looking neither up nor down, a grey figure against a grey background. A man most likely to be stopped at the douane.

Note the thunderous double eye-bags, the twisted mouth, the eyes that have lost all hope. Only the hair retains any sense of  style.

MikeM, an intermittent visitor to Tone Deaf, asked to see it. So here, for his delectation...

Since I, like you, am looking in on this I may ask: What does it say? A face gravely affected by wars and there've been plenty: World War Two, Korea, the invasion of Suez, various skirmishes in South America, the Malayan emergency (in which this ghost figure played a tiny part), Viet Nam, the invasion of Grenada, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Ukraine. Not forgetting the Cod War involving Iceland

He's written books and some authors append a selfie in the end-papers of their works. But no publisher would see any advantage in including this! 

Some faces are a sum of all their successes; this suggests a huge mound of failures. No happiness here, surely. But the gloom merchant pursued the job he wanted (and was best fitted for) for 44½ years and he's been married for 63 years.

Against all the odds.

Saturday 9 December 2023

Swift, pleasing and faultless

Goodbye old friend, gateway to France

UK passports last ten years so you have time to forget the palaver of renewal. But here’s a happy story based on technological development.

I wasn’t looking forward to renewal. One reason was pure sentiment and normally I detest sentimentality. It meant junking my little red booklet representative of belonging to the EU. Replacing it with the UK’s flag-waving blue number and thus being forced – symbolically – into joining the Brexit voters. Who are now strangely silent about the “benefits” Brexit is bringing us.

Even worse is the very real palaver of organising a photo acceptable to the passport authorities. You sit on the stool in the supermarket cubicle, twiddle it up and down, yet still cut off your hairline (Forbidden). Get your hairline right and find you smiled (Forbidden). Contrive to look serious but your chin’s too low (Forbidden). An adult woman I know became so disturbed by all this she rang her father to help her. I sympathised.

This time a digital photo is required and so to hell with twiddling the stool. I spent £12 at a specialist. If I hadn’t chatted a perfect photograph would have been mine – approved and paid for – in three minutes. A lad with a Canon said “Lips together.”, “Chin up.”, etc, and that took 20 seconds. He fiddled with the Canon at the counter for a minute, handed me a colour proof (I looked dully insane.) with an eight-figure code. I swiped my credit card and was gone.

Online at home I followed a simple procedure, entered the code and was gratified to see my face appear on the filled-in application. The time-consuming bit was putting my old passport into an envelope and posting it to the authorities.

I was mildly exhilarated. I rarely yearn for Old Times.

Friday 8 December 2023

Self-torture? 2

During my RAF National Service (1955 – 1957) my technical competence was examined and, astonishingly, I was deemed capable of repairing complex electronic equipment carried in warplanes. I wasn’t convinced but when The Military says “Do this.” you do it. And the Military was right. During an 8½-month course I passed 25 exams and emerged as a Junior Technician.

Thus I learned about electrical systems and, especially, some of their associated mathematics, an interest later stretching all the way to quantum mechanics. Ah, quantum! Hard stuff which revolutionised techno-thought and led to misunderstandings about Schrödinger’s Cat.

I must confess my useful knowledge is virtually zero but my curiosity remains enormous. Rovelli’s book (see Self-Torture?) was reviewed, I think, in The Guardian so the prose is not considered hopelessly specialised. In fact, Rovelli’s aim is to reveal – as simply as possible - a decades-long quest to find out how the force of gravity can be incorporated, mathematically, into what is known about the atom.

Beyond this I cannot explain. That’s up to Rovelli. But I can hint at the weirdness.

How about: “… Planck’s length… in numerical terms… is equivalent to approximately one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth (ten to the power of minus thirty-three) of a centimetre.” Never mind about the “what”, just consider its smallness. Rovelli puts it into context: “It is at this extremely minute scale that quantum gravity manifests itself.” 

And it’s not just numbers. “Energy makes space curve. A lot of energy means that space will curve a great deal. A lot of energy in a small region results in curving space so much it collapses into a black hole…”

You see my problem. The mental images are inexplicable but I can’t stop reading (ie, letting the images form in my brain).   

Thursday 7 December 2023


Help! I am reading a book ninety percent of which I do not understand. Yet I continue, often no more than two or three pages at a time. Why?

Could we rule out: that I’m doing this to boast about it in Tone Deaf. This post demands I summarise the book’s contents and that’s far from easy. In my sere and yellow years I shun hard work.

Reality Is Not What It Seems, subtitled The Journey to Quantum Gravity, is by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist  and international best-selling author. He wrote Seven Brief Lessons on Physics which I have read and - I think - understood. 

So, what izzit? To use his own words "... coherently synthesizing what we have learned about the world with the two major discoveries of twentieth-century physics: general relativity and quantum theory"

More particularly it tries to bring gravity into what went before. And it's the simpler declarative factoids that require chewing. F'rinstance, "the granular structure of space", or "the disappearance of time at small scale", or "the origin of black-hole heat."

Already I'm admitting defeat. Rovelli explains things for non-scientists. Am I asking too much of myself to simplify what he has already simplified? No comfort in “non-scientist”, by the way. For me it requires dedicated concentration and much memory - both qualities undermined by old age.  Still I mainly fail.

So why persist? Perhaps because of the way I earned a living. To ask worthwhile questions I needed - at the very least - to know little bits about lots and lots. Maybe brushing against this arcane world will add to those bits. Or is this self-delusional?

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Where are they now?

Writing's an imaginary rocket that can take me to all sorts of places. That’s me re-commenting on a comment from Colette.

Here I am at take-off with: UK jobs that have disappeared since WW2.

National hangman. Yes sir, we Brits were breaking felons’ necks back in the fifties The night before, people gathered round the relevant gaol; nominally (see pic) to protest against capital punishment, more likely to share the buzz. To avoid national shame hangman had a Frenchy sort of surname: Pierrepoint. Ran a pub (and yes, I know the name) while fashioning nooses.

Chimney sweep. To emphasise his authenticity he didn’t wash. Came covered in soot. Attached a collection sack (also sooty) to the fireplace by nailing it to gaps between the surrounding ceramic tiles. Was forcedly jolly, unusual in that part of Yorkshire.

Door-to-door milkman. Ladled milk from a sort of bucket which must have weighed a ton. Customer provided the receptacle, typically a jug; as a token towards hygiene the jug was then covered with a lace doily with glass beads round the edges.

Oral campaigner. Only saw him once. He stood bareheaded in our street (about 125 yards long) and, lacking amplification, shouted pitifully, urging us to vote against the opening of cinemas on Sunday. Was he successful? Haven’t a clue.

Ancillary job for trolley-bus conductors. Often the bus’s poles detached from the overhead cables carrying the power. The conductor descended, walked to the back, drew an equally long bamboo pole (with hook) from a tube under the bus, and hooked the power poles back up to the cables. Lots of dangerous amps.

Outdoor newspaper vendors. From sites at street corners in the city they yelled their presence, sometimes summarising the main headlines. Generally thought to be “characters”. 

Monday 4 December 2023

Husbandly gesture

Shaving in the dark? Why do it? Isn’t it horribly dangerous?

On Mondays I rise early in preparation for one of those activities listed above, now excluded from Tone Deaf to avoid subject-matter repetition. VR is able to lie abed. However, all impedimenta for shaving, tooth care and the prevention of certain pathological conditions are to be found in the en suite bathroom adjacent to the bedroom. Turning on the light there would disturb VR’s slumbers. I choose to let her sleep.

But before picking up the razor other tasks must be faced. Selecting an anti-gout pill from the bubble-pack, for instance. And ensuring the freed pill doesn’t drop down the plug-hole. The cod-liver-oil-plus-vitamin capsules are more manageable. 

Next I must fumble for my detachable brush-head and attach it to the electric toothbrush. Squeezing paste from the tube means standing closer to the window to gather light from the street lamp outside.

Then shaving foam from the aerosol. Amazingly, because the foam is bright white, I am able to monitor its distribution on my face via reflection in the mirror.

Et enfin, the five-bladed razor. Certain facial sore areas must be avoided and up-and-down sweeps are necessary to hack bristle from my neck.

All this before the central heating radiators switch on and I’m bare to the waist.

VR often raises the subject retrospectively, saying she wouldn’t mind the light going on. But it’s tiny – seemingly unimportant – observations like this that have helped maintain the marital state over 63 years.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Yearning for the Golden Age

Easier for clumsy hands; authentically coloured

Once upon a time there were “sayings” – oft-repeated phrases and/or sentences said to offer wit, wisdom and comfort in compact form. My maternal Grannie, who lived to be 96 (more remarkable since life expectation, then, was much shorter than now), knee-jerkingly added “All being well.” to any discussion about future events. It didn’t do to tempt the devil.

Now there are epigrams and apophthegms.

Less popular is “Fashion follows form.” which sort of translates as: “Successfully pleasing design must always grow out of being easy to use.” Thus, a hat-stand fashioned out of deer antlers could never be considered fashionable given the antler points would tear the silk lining out of top hats. Something we could all profit from.

Bringing me to my mobile phone which I contemplate with mixed thoughts. Earlier mobiles were the size of house bricks as we sneeringly remember. Manufacturers saw they had to get size and weight down to make them more pocket portable. Thinness became an obsession; ads proclaimed the new Skeleton Phone was 2 mm thinner than last year’s Fatty Phone. Thinness became a quality rather than a mere specification. A bit like opera singers.

And now…? As with other designs the volume control and the on/off switch on my phone are vestigially located on the wafer-thin right-hand side. Ideal for tiny fingers and quite close together. Aiming to turn off the phone I accidentally reduce the volume to silence, leading to reduced info. And angry confusion.

Touchpad controls are so smoo-oo-th, so tactilely sexual but vulnerable to accumulations of sweat. Unthsheathed the oh-so-smooth phone body slips easily between arthritic figures. So buy what could, I suppose, be described as a phone condom. Ensuring our imperfect device doesn’t breed.

No doubt about it, though. Mobiles are utterly fashionable. 

Friday 1 December 2023

My noisy world

Overhead wires thought unsightly.
Comparative silence was bliss

The sounds of my life, past and present. 

Ѿ Air-raid sirens warning of enemy bombers during WW2. Moaning and wailing. As an infant I asked: why so sinister? Now I see why.

Ѿ Immediately post-war, we were unusual in having a phone. It had a real bell which tinkled, wearily. As if power struggled to get through.

Ѿ Transport was by electric trolley-bus fed from overhead wires via two spring-loaded poles. Gliding past, it hissed and whirred. A more tranquil alternative to the diesel engine.

Ѿ Morning assembly at my secondary school was marked by a quasi-religious service. Strangely, we cynical kids shouted out the familiar hymns. As if finding some kind of release.

Ѿ Producing hourly editions of a daily newspaper requires a fast-working printing press. For fast read noisy, very noisy. To the point of menace and excluding all other sounds.

Ѿ London means underground tube trains. Tube travel sound is regularly captured in movies but it’s the hydraulic (pneumatic?) sighing of doors opening and closing I now remember.

Ѿ Reaching the Continent by car involved a cross-channel ferry. A multiplicity of sounds and shouts of barely controlled chaos. Now I relish the silence of Eurotunnel. Sitting at the steering wheel, advancing my watch an hour

Ѿ My first US flat was on a very steep hill. US cars with huge engines strained at the gnat.

Ѿ US again: the insistence (and frequency) of TV commercials while lacking the merciful mute button.

Ѿ Steel plant, Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela. An unknowable extreme sound as if close to the sun.

Ѿ Distant rumbling and more hydra/pneu gasping as a modern garbage lorry picks up and discharges our wheelie.

Ѿ An unidentified hum if I wake from sleep during the night.

The symbol? Use your imagination. 

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Time as a shape

Which subject did you hate most at school? Maths is one popular (unpopular?) candidate. Transatlantic note: We Brits add a terminal s to maths; the US doesn’t. Doesn’t dare, possibly from lack of confidence. Discuss. 

Why might maths be so hateful? Well, it’s a language and very precise. When we speak English we don’t always get it right first time. We resort to “er” and “um”. There are none of these in maths. There’s only the right way.

But, if my experience is anything to go by, there is one form of maths that’s slightly more congenial - geometry. You can see why. Algebra, for instance, is all numerical theory whereas geometry is lines, angles, circles. Things we can recognise and draw. More reassuring.

Which brings me to wristwatches. VR bought me an elegant (and expensive) Longines for a birthday thirty years ago. I love it. Alas, my family responsibilities have recently grown and I now need to tell time at night in the dark. The Longines can’t do this and thus I wear a cheapo Casio-type with a light feature.

A major difference: the Longines expresses time with hands and a clockface (ie, analogue display), the cheapo with numbers (ie, digital display).

Shelving the Longines has deprived me of more than elegance. For me analogue time is often more immediate; I recognise analogue time via the disposition of the hands. In effect, by the shape they form,. Digital time requires my mind to do a sort of calculation.

Shapes are meat and drink to geometry. To which, it seems, I’m more responsive.

Do shapes instinctively mean more to you than numbers?

Sunday 26 November 2023

Tone Deaf: New T&C

Now under new Reduced-Subject regime. Tone Deaf and – before it – Works Well are and were out of step. Why, I was asked, do I limit posts to 300 words? The reasons were complicated and related to my non-retired life. But I did have a quickie response: writing too much is more likely to draw complaints than writing too little. 

But that rule broke down re. my blog comments. Often these exceeded 300 words. And now, following my policy announcement about reducing the range of subjects I write about (see Welcome to Vacant Horizons) this has been brought to my attention. Feebly I protested; might comment length be an indication of my interest? But secretly I acknowledged nobody loves a blabbermouth.

Best to comment as if responding by telegram (US: cable) and paying for each word. We’ll see.

For those who’d rather see less than more, the above three paras amount to 138 words. Possible solution: verse is terse. 

Policy query: No pic to this post. Do pix count as words? 

Friday 24 November 2023

Welcome to vacant horizons

Been reading my posts, going way back. Not from self-love but to check out where I went wrong. Lengthy complicated sentences were one fault, breathless displays of wasted energy another, and – a grievous and unexpected discovery – REPETITION. A dozen or so subjects over and over. Those at least can be addressed.

From now on Tone Deaf posts will be shriven of: journalism, tortured adolescence, my impact on the USA and vice versa, singing lessons, forms of transportation, cancer and its implications, wine, ski-ing, rock climbing, swimming, reports of progress with fiction, DIY, language scrutiny, left-wing politics, family relationships and francophilia.

Already I feel refreshed.

Regular readers - a shrunken group - may wonder what’s left bar brief smoke signals relating to personal change. Having a leg amputated, for instance. Beyond that, a moment’s reflection reveals a billion other things and I’ll go further. Purged, I’ll look only at new areas.

Does this sound too radical? Think of it as a late-life graduation exam. I’m pleased (over-pleased, many would say) to call myself an ex-professional writer. Which should cut out picking material for my own benefit. Thus: this week, 300 words on transubstantiation; next week, culinary justifications for using saffron.

I’ll try hard not to cheat. I’ll not bulk out the prose with egregious lists, fill space with lengthy quotes by others, or invent unnecessary sentences employing the vocative case. The style will be taut and, I hope, hypnotic. I’ll rate it a success if readers start asking: When is he going to trip over himself?

Mind you, it’s possible there’ll be no readers.

Thursday 23 November 2023

Dark thoughts

It’s just after three in the morning. I can’t sleep. As I’ve got older writing has become something of a therapy. So here I am. Wondering where the dead hours will take me.

Not towards fiction, however; that’s far too intense an activity and I may have lost the urge. Four novels completed, thirty-plus short stories. I’ve pecked at my fifth novel, having reached 60,000 words, but I can’t see an ending and it’s languished for several years.

The blog presently consists of 1916 posts; at 300 words a pop that’s rather more than half a million words. Given I started in 2008, not a lot. As a reporter working mainly for a broadsheet weekly I could write 1000 words in an hour straight on to the typewriter.

The blog has taken some twists and turns. Under the title Works Well I devoted myself to broad technology but found it too restrictive and went general. In November 2011 I announced I was ceasing blogging, but resumed twenty-four later. Why? Perhaps I was imitating the courtship routines of a pouter pigeon.

Changed my blogonym from Barrett Bonden (A bosun in O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels) to Lorenzo da Ponte (Mozart’s librettist) when I decided I would write exclusively about music. Ill-advisedly the blog became Tone Deaf. Nobody was much interested. Went general again.

As an ex-hack I know a little about quite a lot. Which means I will never run out of material. Nor do I need the stimulus of “events” in my life. When in doubt float an idea. Once I compiled a list of a hundred written works that had interested me.

In the end the posts are about me. I am not important enough to warrant an autobiography but the skeleton’s here. May I now sleep? 

Monday 20 November 2023

Getting away with very little

Andouillettes; best say they're misunderstood

The good news from Mr Blazej, (see “Early Christmas card…”) triggered a winter problem: booking a holiday villa for next year. Since several family members will accompany us this is costly. Also there’s time enough for good news to become bad news in the interim. When do I take the plunge?

Since I’m paying, I choose, and for the last two decades it’s been France. Lack of imagination? No; I get to speak French. Others loll on beaches, get drunk on cheap wine, marvel at the countryside, discover that andouillettes don’t bear contemplation, tour the soccer stadia, exercise their culinary skills… I do the parly-voo.

Obviously to show off, you conclude. But here’s the thing. During those twenty years perhaps a dozen French people, from various strata of society, have said I speak French well. Since language has been my tool of trade I can say, with certainty, they were wrong. Close-up my French is fairly primitive; at best stiffly formal.

I’m sure about this because I’ve taken weekly lessons for thirty years and know when progress bogged down. Not all French people are articulate; if they were they’d say I’ve entertained them with a linguistic competence halfway between O-level and A-level. 

More particularly I’ve made them laugh. Laughing, they’re less likely to nit-pick about the subjunctive.

Knowing me as you do, you’ll have realised I’m not abasing myself here. What I do is a rare skill and I’m damn well proud of it. On one occasion, and with time to spare, I tried to explain the situation to a Frenchman far better educated than I was. Silence happened. Accepting my premise would have made him look a fool. Disagreement would be based on an untruth. We went our separate ways.

Might this be cruelty?

Saturday 18 November 2023

Bricks conquered

The tree roots saga (see previous post bar one) ended on a far happier note than I had any right to expect.

As the earlier photo shows I removed the “heaved” bricks, exposed the thrusting root and cut it free from the tree. Leaving things overnight. I suspected re-installing the bricks would be difficult and so it was. Although I was returning the bricks to the spaces they’d previously occupied all were a very tight fit. Much hammering ensued and I contrived to break three bricks.

The job was completed, but horribly. Many bricks on different levels. I knew I’d have to re-do it. I devised a plan which I’m too ashamed to summarise – it would have assuredly failed. Luckily it wasn’t needed.

I awoke this morning to a familiar noise, a thumping and a bumping. That sounded like… but, why and how? Looked out of the bedroom window. All the unlevel bricks had been uprooted and Wonder Gardener Carl was putting things to rights. Two hours it took and, I swear, you couldn’t see the joins.

Carl is from South Africa and no stranger to Tone Deaf. Looking for permanent work in the UK (which, happily, he has now found) he made do with DIY at the highest level, utterly transforming my garden. Once he found salaried work I reluctantly ceased calling on him; feeling he had other fish to fry.

But Carl learned of my current problem, inspected it without my knowledge, saw its incompetence, then waved his magic wand. And lo! Time for him get in a round of golf.

And I may give myself up to leisure.   

Wednesday 15 November 2023

The French call it deracination

When we moved into our present house there was a miserable patch of grass in front. Neither decorative nor useful. Feeling flush (ie, rich as Croesus) I had the whole area, including the double-width driveway, bricked over.  Gave my mower to the Deserving Poor of the suburb.

Gardening problem solved. But Nature has a way biting back. Weeds started sprouting from the gaps between the bricks. After various research projects impelled by a growing sense of anger I got that one licked.

Only to be presented with a more sinister threat. The so-called front garden has always boasted a much-wounded tree, one side devoted to a deep and hideous scar, four feet long. Nothing much was expected of this invalid but over the years it has become much more treelike. Leaves and such. Alas, it was also flourishing below. Roots, sensing the presence of water in a drain access, edged towards the house.

Thrusting up the brick surfaces, installed with the express intent of inhibiting nature. Must I always be at war with greenery?

Something had to be done but I dithered. Definitely lacking confidence. Tried to enlist the help of a neighbour but he too dithered. The Guardian’s post-lunch easy crossword beckoned. And then an email from daughter Occasional Speeder. She would come over tomorrow to discuss the knotty Meat-at-Christmas project and would cook tomorrow’s evening meal, normally my job. Joy! But how might I react to the sudden availability of extra energy?

The above photo provides half the answer.

Yes, the tree may well die. But not immediately.

Sunday 12 November 2023


I’m an atheist and, thus, disinclined to believe in the supernatural. I explore various happenings as an individual not as a member of a group and/or according to the group’s rules.

Atheism tends to be misunderstood. I would no more try to “convert” anyone than suggest they copy my accent. My atheism is for me alone.

Atheism is difficult; it requires me to accommodate contradictions. I am thrilled by The Goldberg Variations, secular piano music, yet the same composer created the Mass in B Minor. I have read and re-read The Sword of Honour trilogy written by a devout catholic. I regard Raphael’s Madonna and Child as a masterpiece. I agree with much literary criticism by Rowan Williams, the now retired Archbishop of Canterbury.

Religious people say, when ill, they turn to their god. What do I do then? I suppose I rationalise. Ask: Am I entitled to complain? Is complaint logical?

Atheism encourages me to doubt certainty and knowledge of science helps. Scientific truth is, ultimately, provisional. Informed disputes are welcome. Think of Newton modifying Descartes and Bohr/Heisenberg modifying Newton. Non-scientists see radical scientific developments as flashes of intellectual lightning; more often they are another spadeful of vegetation on the compost heap.

I’ve even experienced such spadefuls myself. No verse, short story nor novel I’ve written could be even regarded as consistently competent, Yet, on re-reading, I may take pride in a combination of words, a neat choice of verb, or an unexpected divergence in the plot. Whence came these details? They are the result of writing, revising and re-writing. Over and over

I have good and interesting friends who “believe”. Normally I only raise the subject in response to proselytising forays. Atheism, properly pursued, is demanding. I struggle on.

Monday 6 November 2023

Snaps from a Box Brownie


Aversion. I hated my first name. Would have liked Tank (picked up from Wizard); sounded more masculine. I shudder at this now.

Post-divorce 1. My Dad got to entertain his three sons on Sunday afternoons. Mostly he drove us somewhere dull, read the newspaper, then dozed. Occasionally he visited an antiques dealer friend and on one such occasion I took my trumpet. Uninvited I played a hymn tune. To faint applause.

Post-divorce 2. Or we visited Grannie R, wearing her hat, waiting to be driven to Idle Baptist Church. Grannie R was forgetful, tended to repeat anecdotes. Cruelly, my Dad drew her attention to this; I admit I too was irritated. Luckily we’re rarely visited here in Hereford; so no poetic justice.

Mendicancy at the Telegraph. At Christmas it was traditional for one of the three tea-boys to beg for cash from the editorial staff. As senior tea-boy I found this demeaning, adding, “Besides there are plenty of them (ie, journalists) I don’t like.” Fred, the beloved sub-editor and who taught me much, stood in for me.

Getting used to London’s underground system. My first magazine job in the Great Wen; I was always late and knew the commissionaire took the names of latecomers. Took to entering the offices by the back door. Not knowing this was monitored by another – albeit invisible – commissionaire.

Sartorial blockage. I wore delicate elastic-sided boots at my first US job. It snowed and the company boss growlingly commanded I buy galoshes. In the UK galoshes are worn by the effete, the very old or the enfeebled so I ignored him. A week later I heard a voice, “Still no galoshes.” My work colleagues were horrified. “Disobeying the Old Man. Oh-oh.” Give the bastard credit; he’d hired me because I was foreign.

Saturday 4 November 2023

Slow down; delicacy ahead

Occasionally I’m paid a compliment by commenters to Tone Deaf. Since I don’t set out to be likeable (or unlikeable, for that matter), I’m always surprised and, of course, grateful. Recently one commenter went further, devoting a whole post to me. Went further still by acting on something I’d written. So I’m even more surprised and even more grateful

I won’t identify the commenter or the subject now since this raises a related matter: How does one respond to written compliments? Note the adjective; spoken compliments are another breed of fish.

Easy, say some. Here starts sadness. Easy writing is usually easy because it lacks even a smidgeon of thought. The same tired phrases, the same over-used vocabulary – suggesting a writer glad to be done with a tiresome task. Even if this is not the case

Of course the compliment may be expressed as cliché. But suppose it’s well thought-out, inventively expressed, revelatory, and/or – Well, damnit! – useful? Proof of effort dissipated.

It seems only right the recipient should match that level of effort. One general rule is to ignore first reactions. They may work but only after they’ve been thoroughly tested.

I emphasised “written”. One failing concerns the phrase “well written” since it’s far too vague. Stylish? Novel? Factual? Incidentally amusing? Morally right? Courageous?

An initial priority is for the recipient to re-capture the compliment’s “effect”. Much, much harder than it sounds. Some compliments may still be worthwhile while carrying some flattery.

A peculiarly English response is to introduce a negative tone. Agree partially but point to a related defect in the recipient. The “Yes, but…” technique.

And how about disagreeing entirely with the points made while appreciating the existence of the compliment.

Confession: I have no 100% answer. Try me out with a compliment (Joke.)

Friday 3 November 2023

And then there was light - again

“Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.” Thomas Carlyle said it; yesterday I saw it in action.

Abruptly we were without power to our upstairs light circuit. The local guy was quite young, he arrived in shorts, wearing a beanie on his head. Came at 9 AM, left at 1 PM.

All the easy options revealed nothing; now the grind. Four bedrooms, one bathroom, one en suite loo and a landing. All had overhead lights, some more than one. Each ceiling fitting was dismantled with full power off, checked with power on, power switched off, move on to the next. The consumer unit (ie, the fuse-box) is in the garage. Up and down the stairs he went. VR and I sat in the lounge lit by its own circuit. Reading uneasily as the centrally controlled lights there went on and off.  Twenty times? Thirty times?

At 11 AM I asked if he wanted coffee. Turned out he’d had a quick bite in his van. He’d tracked down the part of the circuit at fault. But it was in the wiring, not at the ceiling fitting. No easy solution. Up into the loft he went.

Midday the burglar alarm tweeted, When power was lost it had switched to its battery which had discharged. Power was now getting through. I went up to congratulate him. He shrugged. A wire had been trapped when floor-boards were fitted in the loft. About ten years ago!

Afterwards I noticed the bathroom dome lights. Years ago wasps had crawled into the domes and been roasted. I’d delayed. He’d cleaned out their corpses.

Pure routine, you might say. I’d say cool persistence. The lengthy National Covid Enquiry is currently revealing hideous government incompetence. He could give them lessons. Never knew his name. 

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Was it a transaction or charity?

Three ones and one two

VR and I live like hermits. We don’t get out; new acquaintances are rare to non-existent; significant conversations are via Skype rather than face to face. Blame illness and the inertia of old age.

Yesterday this routine was shattered – charmingly.

I was considering a problem in the upper-floor lighting circuit and the door-bell rang. Outside were two ten-ish children, boy and girl, friendly, animated, even well-dressed. I said haltingly, “This is to do with… er…um… Halloween?”

They pointed to a sign I’d put over my bell-push. “We are deaf. Please use the bell.” Most neighbours were showing Halloween non-participation statements and I’ve usually done it myself. This year I forgot; my sign had seemed encouraging.

I said, “Trouble is I’ve got no cash.” Smiling they shook their heads. No cash. I reminisced. In my UK youth Halloween (Guy Fawkes Night then) was preceded by Mischief Night. Tricks on neighbours. Writing on car windscreens with candles. Unhooking a garden gate and hanging it on a lamppost. My two visitors listened attentively.

Then I recalled Halloween in the US. “I don’t even have any sweets.” But they weren’t fazed. “That’s all right,” they said cheerfully. I rambled on; they were so agreeable, those kids. Then a thought. I returned with a bag of VR’s fruit pastilles. The kids seemed overwhelmed, reluctant to take the bag. Finally it was over.

Again the door-bell. Same two kids, same smiles, each holding something small. Money! Thrusting six pounds ($7.11) at me. “What for?” I asked, flabbergasted. “It was a whole bag,” they said. “It’s all the wrong way round,” I said.

I tried to refuse, how I tried. Laughing they insisted. Eventually the girl reached past me and put the coins on the hall table. Bid me goodbye

And there the cash still lies.

Sunday 29 October 2023

Trying to fan the spark

Growing old can be expressed musically as a diminuendo of life expectancy. Actually it’s more (or possibly less) than that: it’s a list of things one can no longer do. Poignant and ever-growing.

I can no longer: ski, do distance swimming, find solutions to quite simple DIY tasks, resist draughts, read omnivorously rather than specifically (with a tendency towards re-reading), find much pleasure in buying expensive wine, take VR to art classes because she has had to give up art, visit Christmas markets in Germany, find a French teacher who can meet my exacting standards, attend music recitals in Birmingham, face shopping at Tesco with a cheerful mien, tolerate the dreadful treadmill of laundering and drying clothes, feel inclined to wash the car, sleep continuously every night, regard the vacuum cleaner with anything other than loathing, accurately remember time-spans of various periods in my life, usefully vary the inevitably simple meals I prepare for VR.

I could go on. 

But let’s be brief. My life has become limited as has my expectation of anything new. And this affects my writing as I have discovered when I read my posts of the earlier oughties. Understand, I don’t aim to record newness (a very limited objective), I look for newness to trigger my imagination, send me off down untravelled byways.

Singing lessons are the exception; for me that is, but not for others. It’s a discipline (which I welcome) but the experience is private, gradual and, more or less, unconvertible.

I do chat en route to Tesco but the common bonds tend to be familiar rather than unexpected.

Imagination is at the heart of writing but she’s flirtatious. She comes and goes. I must learn to make myself more inviting. Got my hair cut recently. There’s new.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Moral: stay away from mirrors

The tilt that creates the sneer.
Would suit a Pantomime Villain

Did you want proof?
A hand big enough to blot out a keyboard

Did you know hair grows at about half an inch a year? Depending on whether your hair’s thick or thin. “So what’s my hair?” I asked scissorswoman extraordinaire Shara. “O definitely thick,” she said. Unthinking I murmured, “Thick hair, thick head.” Shara’s immediate protests of sympathy told me I’d gone too far, as I often do. As various readers of Tone Deaf will confirm. “Blunt,” is Avus’s judgement and others, silent on the matter, would probably opt for something stronger. As this para proves I don’t stop at insulting others

These days, invalidism has immobilised the Robinsons and our social life – never much of a feature – is almost non-existent. Take away rare visits from relations and it would be zero. Thus, having my hair cut for socio-aesthetic reasons would be a waste of time. But the finger points warningly when my forelock brushes against my eyeball. Quite sickening.

In the next chair VR was receiving serious coiffeuresque attention, leaving me time to examine myself in a large mirror. Something I rarely do. Shaving doesn’t count since, then, I’m concentrating on not slashing myself to ribbons. 

I noted that the 2021 mouth op left a downward tilt at the left-hand end of my lips. This makes me look entirely sackless. (Good word, that; should use it more.) As if I’m sneering at nothing. No doubt I deserve this late transformation.

But I also discovered my hands are disproportionately huge. I never knew. Two great bunches of bananas clearly devoid of any manual ability. The hands of a strangler? Nah. More the mitts of a self-taught burglar caught trying vainly to pick a lock. “I’m innocent, officer.  There was no chance I would ever have succeeded.”

Others in the salon were being prettied. Me? “The before” before “The after”.

Sunday 22 October 2023

A sort of announcement, with apology

Just finished verse that may – just – qualify as a poem. Previously I’ve only claimed to write verse at best. More often closer to doggerel. But this one flows, has something serious to say but includes humour, is slightly longer than usual, sustains its theme throughout and ends on a note that accurately reflects how I see myself.

Seven six-line quatrains in iambic pentameter (What else?)  with, I hope, all the stresses in the right place. I think my late friend Joe and an even more attentive critic (in the best sense), his brother Ken, also dead, would have approved. 

Perhaps even Lucy who, happily, is alive and who has taken a progressive view of what I’ve written would also give me the nod. Her recent responses were the most rigorous: well-considered praise (ie, the sort I recognise as appropriate, technical and truthful) for an unexpected effort which gained wider circulation than this blog; dispassionate condemnation of a short story which I was considering including in my collection, Two Homelands, and which I subsequently left out on her judgment.

I seem to be making a meal out of this. Fact is I came very late to reading and writing poetry - within my life as a blogger. With no time to take instruction I rushed at it. About fifty pieces, three of which say something poetically. Otherwise the quality is variable and tending toward rubbish.

So why, you will ask, have I not posted this most recent piece instead of blathering? Left it to your judgment? I promise I will. Trouble is it’s what’s called an occasional piece and it awaits its occasion. Persiflage continues.

Monday 16 October 2023

Is it? Will it?

Old age discourages us from pondering the future. So let’s turn time upside down and start from the other end - our youth.

One difficulty: in those dim days our future seemed no further than the next weekend. Or our birthday. If we ever considered the future it was to believe we were going to beat the system and live for ever.

That was me, aged ten. Then I woke up about midnight in the antique stillness of my grandparents’ house. Emerging from a dream in which I lay in a grave with pedestrians passing by, not caring about my entombment. Me! The centre of the universe! (ie, the universe as I knew it). I think I cried.

Oddly, now death is much closer I’m less perturbed. I’d expect pedestrians to be unconcerned.

Occasionally I did think ahead, but in personal terms. Eventually I would have money and thus buy a bike. Whence, I knew not. But money would arrive, I’d be an adult and adults had money. It was the rule.

Adolescence forced me to blank out the future. Convinced I would never find favour in any young woman’s eyes. An unbearable nothingess. Greatly daring I whispered an invitation to a young woman I didn’t particularly like. And was told she would be washing her hair. To wit: “Drop dead”.

Youth ended when I decided to create a future: finding work in the USA. The project lasted a year and, somehow, I never doubted it would happen. When it did, acquaintances seemed astonished and envious. But why wasn’t I exhilarated when I stepped off the plane at Kennedy?

Simply, the future had become the present and the present is merely a string of tasks which need addressing. 

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Using up the kilowatts

Ski-ing had to end somewhere and perhaps 
here is as good a place as any. Switzerland
on this side, Italy beyond. Glühwein to
warm the cockles of your heart.

Mountains have always been my favourite natural backdrop. I read about them long before I was old enough or – independent enough – to use them. First it was rocky outcrops near home. After four weeks with the Outward Bound Mountain School I graduated to longer climbs in the Lake District.

Climbing lapsed when I moved to London and got married. Round about 1978, in my early forties, I had enough money to consider the Alps but for various reasons I turned to ski-ing. Rhapsodising about it right up to 2007 when, aged 72, on the lower slopes of that most mountain-like mountain, the Matterhorn, I was made to realise it was all over. Finito. The body couldn’t take it any longer.

But here’s the thing. Ski-ing is a sport but it’s also physics. An energy transaction and that too is part of its charm.

Ski-ing requires us to buy energy. Down in the valley we’re unaware of the need, clumping around, our boots returning to earth in an unregarded way. But then we spend money (a shocking amount these days, I’m afraid) and emerge at the vertiginous top of the ski-lift, the lower temperature sawing at our cheeks. Below is a delicious slope which is also our bank statement. And hey! We’re temporarily in credit. Gravity smiles up at us and says: spend me.

No engine needed. Not even the beneficial effects of airflow. We may spend our credit very quickly in a direct Schuss, or more slowly, swinging from left to right to left in a series of elegantly contrived curves. Dancing, if you will; where style outranks the distance travelled. The peaks rush past and we are exhilarated. 

Zero quickly arrives in the right-hand column. All gone. But we’ve moved and have been moved.  

Sunday 8 October 2023

La langue et toujours la langue


You could say the French house
lacked presence. No problem,
I was there for what's spoken

The house we owned in France in the nineties was old, thick-walled and dilapidated, on a noisy main road and in an unfashionable and somewhat charmless village. By unfashionable I mean a million miles from being a resort. To me resorts are typically by the sea, the residents are greedy and the visitors whine a lot.

Unfashionable suited me fine. For one thing the house was cheap, very cheap. For another nobody there spoke English, there was no need; great, since I wanted to practice my French.

How does one practice a second language? Simple, you initiate conversation. The easiest way is to ask questions.

I was tidying up my wretched garden, fifty metres away from the house down the noisy road. An elderly man stopped by and said something bland. Perhaps concerning the weather, a subject I refuse to discuss at any time and in any country. Instead, I said, “Hey, did you watch yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France?”

He nodded and I was away, chattering breathlessly. A terrific result! French racers doing better than expected! Such steep gradients!

I was an Anglo who spoke about the Tour in French. He listened, commented, I responded. Then he asked me if I’d like to watch that day’s TV coverage of the Tour in his house. Obviously he was lonely but not many previously unknown Anglos receive that invitation in France.

Another trick. Talk conventionally then add something unexpected at the end. “In France the French are so good at giving directions. Geographically knowledgeable. Very precise, very concise. But I have to be careful when I speak to French women. Given I’m such an unstylish Brit.”

The French like to hold differing opinions. So you can guess what their reply to that is. What it has to be. 

Tuesday 3 October 2023

To avoid confusion...

Tennant: More than "the Doctor"

I may be the only person in Britain who’s never seen a single episode of the TV series, Dr Who. And since Dr Who dates back to TV’s b&w era I’ve had to work hard to avoid it. Tell the truth, I always thought it was for kids.

I need to make this clear. On Sunday VR and I watched Hamlet (a play by William Shakespeare many find a trifle difficult) in which the title role was played by David Tennant. You would irritate me profoundly if you thought we watched it because David Tennant also played Dr Who.

From which you may conclude – justifiably – I am an intellectual snob. What, I would ask, has taken you so long?

In fact I “collect” Hamlets. And if I risked my snobbism with David Tennant (he was, coincidentally, terrific) how about Mel Gibson (surprisingly good)? Or Maxine Peake, a leftward-leaning British actress whom I otherwise admire but not – it gives great pain to say so – as the Prince of Denmark.

Anyone for Ethan Hawke? I have the DVD.

I started as a teenager when (I think) I heard a full BBC radio version – all 4½ hours – with Christopher Plummer. Wasn’t he in a famous musical?* Also on radio: Sir John Gielgud.

More recently Sir Kenneth Branagh and Benedict Cumberbatch. The most unusual? Gregor Kozintsev in a 1964 movie filmed in Russian. But with sub-titles.

Why Hamlet? All those hours! Gotta be more than snobbism. It is, of course. It keeps on giving.

The best lines?

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

Bless you Bill. Another non-gardener.

* I jest, I jest


Friday 29 September 2023

Not just a reporter

Malaya. Singapore is the pink bit, bottom right

I am standing on an observation tower guarding an RAF camp on the island of Singapore. To hand is a loaded rifle. Also a searchlight which I may swing this way and that. Dusk; the jungle beyond the camp is becoming darkly impenetrable.

Something moves. It's a skinny guy in a white shirt and short pants, down below on a narrow path. He’s moving towards me accompanied by three or four Asiatic cows almost as skinny as he is. I wash the searchlight over the cows, briefly lighting up their eyeballs. The skinny guy is resentful as if I’m interfering with his way of life. Which I suppose I am.

A hundred miles to the north, up the Malayan peninsula, shots are occasionally exchanged. The CTs (communist terrorists), surrounded by British Commonwealth troops and starved almost into skeletons, are coming to the end of their resistance. Soon the fighting will stop. Otherwise it’s still a war zone and sometimes an unlucky Brown Job – conscripted into two years’ national service, like me – will get his head shot off. Back home in the UK, months later, I take delivery of a General Service Medal with Malaya Clasp. Solid silver, no less. My name, rank (Junior Technician) and RAF number (2751052) inscribed round its edge.

Did I earn it? Well, I repaired VHF radios which allowed war-plane pilots to speak to each other. Implausibly this makes me a combatant.

I’m a long way from the action but terrorists are, of course, mobile. In the dark they could get quite close and I’d be a standing target atop my tower. But I'm bored rather than scared. No, I didn't deserve the medal. 

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Trying to be careful

I have said I’m prepared to write at any time (But not at the drop of a hat: I don’t do clichés) and am never short of subjects. If all else fails I recycle my thoughts. As a last resort, other people’s thoughts.

But am I willing to write about anything? Are there forbidden subjects? 

One springs to mind and that’s feminism. I would support feminism with my last breath but I’ve reluctantly concluded that my most useful contribution to this noble cause is silence. Why? I get feminism’s grammar, syntax and vocabulary wrong and from these errors some women have inferred I’m anti-feminist. Perhaps these critics are right; that these errors tell the truth about me. That I’m merely a self-appointed fan and my efforts aren’t worth a damn. Even if it doesn’t feel like that inside. Trouble is silence may be interpreted as support for the lads and morons. Tough.

I cannot write about warm milk. There’s this feeling of… ugh.

Oscar Wilde was asked if a certain book or literary passage was obscene (ie, does it tend to corrupt?). He replied, “It’s worse than that; it’s badly written.” Look, I’ve read Dan Brown, James Patterson, Jeffrey Archer and concluded I won’t read any more of their stuff. That’s it. Occasionally I make a snide reference but it’s purely accidental. Fish in a barrel – see what I mean about snide?

I’m an atheist yet I subscribe to T. S. Eliot’s observation: “Britain is predominantly irreligious but Brits are fascinated by those who are religious.” I try, but frequently fail, to avoid treating religion as a subject for argument.

I have my dislikes: Gamay grape wine, soccer fans facing the camera, easily verifiable lies of some politicians, many forms of patriotism. These are fair game  

Thursday 21 September 2023

Repetition can be good for you

Today I assembled this brunch for VR. The tomatoes are San Marzanos (shaped like, but not tasting of, tiny squashes). Below are slices of cucumber, dabbed with vinegar, on Ryvita spread with Philadelphia cream cheese. A barely unvarying meal which symbolises – unexpectedly - life as an invalid. VR and I are enduring ailments which will kill us off. Probably quite soon. No need for sympathy (Not that I’m presuming, y’unnerstand!); we are both in our eighties and there are worse ailments.

I shop, on foot and by car. Generally we stay in. Apart from intellectual divertissements days don’t differ. A routine sets in and one may hate this repeated pattern. That would be a grave mistake. Routines act like skeletons in our bodies, they hold the flesh in an upright position. Routines give our lives a metaphorical structure.

Note the pillbox; a fortnight’s supply for VR; each compartment labelled morning and evening for each day of the week. Like the brunch it represents one of a sequence of tasks I regularly perform. Forgetfulness is a concomitant of old age and I need reminding of my obligations. Collecting The Guardian, washing up, ordering stuff online, laundering, drying the laundry, watering the garden, renewing prescriptions, regularly interrogating VR about her preferences, searching Netflix and Amazon Prime for bearable entertainment (more burdensome than you might imagine), opening and closing windows according to the weather, washing myself more frequently, staying alert for deliveries, forcing medical sources into conversation, maintaining the flow of family birthday presents. There’s more but you get the idea.

Some might regard routine as a prison. I am reassured by each Job-Done tick, a happy progression now in the past. Bed at 11.45 pm always seems well earned. No variations? Our talk does that.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Hank, me and pain

APOLOGY The post below is about me, but Henry (Purcell) deserves a mention too.

Henry belongs to a band of composers who died young (Schubert, Mozart, Chopin), wrote prolifically, and went on to worldwide fame. There's a Henry Purcell Society in Boston, Mass, for instance. 

Born in Devil's Acre, London ("a notorious slum") in 1659 he started composing aged nine, wrote in many genres including a handful of operas and provided music for 42 plays. No later England-born composers approached his fame until Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton and Britten, all working in the twentieth century. 

His tri-centennial anniversary was marked by the Royal Mail with a commemorative stamp in the Eminent Britons series. Buried in Westminster Abbey under this elegant tribute: Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that Blessed Place where only His harmony can be exceeded.

322 weeks ago I had my first singing lesson.That's seven and two-thirds years. There’ve been gaps but not many. Missing a lesson is like losing one’s trousers in Trafalgar Square. Feeling incomplete

Early on I yearned to sing duets with a soprano. V obliged with We’ll Gather Lilacs, (Operetta, ugh! But not too taxing.) Alas, my voice lacked certainty; V’s trained voice, even reduced to whisper, pulled me off my baritone line. Lilacs was shelved.

I made better progress with Bei Männern from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. For technical reasons this wasn’t a true test.

Finally a real duet: Purcell’s My Dearest, My Fairest. The first twenty bars are hard but – still a beginner and practising alone at home (Admittedly difficult with a duet!) - I bodged them, rushing on to passages I fondly imagined were easier. Yet after two or three more weeks with V, the work was “sidled” away. No other word. Music I loved and I was heart-slufted (West Yorkshire idiom for “cast down in sorrow”).

But I didn’t protest. Students don’t argue with the source of light. Often V’s reasons are hidden, and they always work out. We’ve resumed with MDMF. Under the microscope, crotchet by crotchet. Hard repetitive work. The difference being I’m a big boy now. MDMF was once a mere song for two, now I dimly perceive it as the subtlest of masterpieces. I make endless mistakes but as V wryly says: “Purcell’s always going to be difficult.”

Mistakes are, after all, prior evidence of learning. The structure is now clear, something to aim at. More important I have an inkling of Purcell’s “tone of voice”. You’d hate to hear me singing MDMF with V but my pain is necessary. On y va.

THIS is what it should sound like

Friday 15 September 2023

The (less than magnificent) seven

I didn't know, until today, that making a list of the Seven Deadly Sins (Envy, Gluttony, Greed (or Avarice), Lust, Pride, Sloth, Wrath.) is or was a Christian practice. A moment's reflection... Thus I may be ignorant which - mercifully - isn't one of the Sinful Septet.

To me sins become dangerous when considered as single words. Their meanings and implications are multifarious; they need qualification. 

Pride. I may be proud of an act of charity, but not of trying to defeat someone in argument. 

Envy. I envy no one. Even if I openly accept I boast, show off, am frequently intolerant, love expensive wine more than cheap wine, don't envy the late Michael O'Shea who was married to the late Virginia Mayo, am criminally forgetful, and lots more. Question: But should I want to be more like Sir David Attenborough, James Joyce and/or Franz Schubert?

Gluttony. Once I gorged, now, in old age, hardly at all; even Hereford-made sausages. 

Avarice. Hands-up confession: I scan our growing savings account as if it were a poem.

Lust. Depends on detectable evidence. I may look pleasurably at a photo of the late Virginia Mayo but am horrified at even imagining the role of stalker.

Wrath. The present UK government angers me but wrath suggests a visible and/or audible display, a waste of energy. I'd rather analyse, give reasons, arrive at unexpected conclusions. From which wrath may be inferred, of course, but there are better words.

Sloth. I previously got domestic jobs done quickly; now I postpone them. In defence, at 88, I lack energy. Intellectual sloth, however, includes refusing to pursue facts and deserves contempt.