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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.