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Thursday 30 May 2024

Sharps, flats and inexplicable

I'm right-handed by the way

Most British Protestant church hymns are musically simple. My mother sang them around the house and I was further exposed when - uncharacteristically – my treble voice sang briefly in a church choir. All this three-quarters of a century ago.

When I started taking singing lessons in January 2018, Grandson Ian (informed by I know not who) bought me the BudgetBooks collection of 316 hymn scores with lyrics. A nice gesture; alas it covered US hymn versions which frequently have different tunes. The book languished.

Another instinct draws me to piano keyboards. I have frequently irritated piano owners by tinkling without guidance on their instruments. More recently I bought a Yamaha keyboard.

I also write.

The two keyboards are at right-angles in my study (see pic).

Writing is not continuous. Frequently one stops and thinks. Unbidden, my left hand strays to the Yamaha and tinkles. Sometimes I abandon writing and address the Yamaha with my right hand. Hymns for simplicity, Schubert lieder – which I’m being taught by V – for a greater challenge.

Because my immediate memory may run out of hymns I use Grandson Ian’s gift to remind me of first lines of hymns long forgotten. Just an aide mémoire, the different tunes are irrelevant.

And, strangely, after some time, my fingers, quite untutored, instinctively find succeeding notes in these ancient tunes. Ten notes at a stretch, say. Not perfectly first time round; more competently the second time. Music last considered in the nineteen-fifties. Dormant since

And sometimes, greatly daring, using my left hand while NOT LOOKING AT THE KEYBOARD, I resurrect admittedly shorter passages. Like archaeology but without the sweat and shovels. As if a real musician dwelt within.

Sunday 26 May 2024

The Crown of Thorns re-visited

We have a General Election looming and the Tories intend to re-introduce national service (ie, compulsory one-year membership of the armed forces). There are other options I’ll ignore but the reasons given for this backwards step are political bunkum. They say it will offer trade training to those who would otherwise go through life knowing nothing. I say it’s a way of filling workforce gaps in, say, the NHS. 

In some respects I am a shining example of national service’s benefits. I entered the RAF in 1955 (two years duration then) having more or less failed at formal education; in those days journalists didn’t need to be educated. Took the RAF’s intensive eight-month course on electronics which transformed the rest of my career as a journalist.

But I was the exception. The majority became clerks, a coded term for the useless shuffling of paper, boring in the extreme and an enormous encouragement to drag one’s arse. The really unlucky ones got their heads shot off in Malaya or Cyprus.

One thing that disturbed me was the burden of accommodating, training, feeding, clothing and attending to the health of all these non-doers. Today I believe the UK’s army numbers about 76,000 souls. During national service the total must have been in the high six figures, spread around the globe. Huge costs and eventually too much for the country to bear. NI ended in 1968. 

Tories continually advocate the re-creation of non-existent Golden Eras. Perhaps very aged politicos who spent their two years in the Brigade of Guards, cossetted in central London, have a different view of national service.

Me? Perhaps I’m whinging. My two brothers escaped NI (quite legitimately, I must add). I profited but there was much militaristic drudgery. I read a lot.

Friday 24 May 2024

Funeral on the button

Following up on my post “RIP? Nah”, several serious reasons prevented me from attending my friend Pat’s funeral. However it was streamed – a funeral service I’d never heard of – and I was able to watch and listen to 90 minutes of tributes on the telly from my own couch. Somewhat wryly.

Regarding my own obsequies I was utterly shocked in the USA by the enormous costs of corpse disposal there. I determined that any money spent on my departure would be devoted to pleasure and not to ritual. Body shipped to the hospital for anatomy instruction, music and soft drinks. No good dispensing fine wine, the mourners (if any) would almost certainly arrive by car.

Note “if any”. Neither VR nor I have led sociable lives and any attenders from outside the family circle would be unexpected and probably panhandlers.

Streaming is probably expensive but it must – surely – encourage the widest participation. Hence the wryness; I can’t see it paying off for me. But there was one novel experience. Pat’s wife (somehow I can’t bring myself to write “widow”) had let me know she wanted my “RIP? Nah” post to be read. Since I wasn’t there a woman (whose name I missed) stood in. Those who know anything about my fiction will be aware of my feminophilism and this pleased me greatly. Better still, those listening were denied my West Yorkshire whinge. 

Pat was certainly a polymath when it came to all branches of science, national and international politics, energy conservation, computers, website design, trade unions, the Catholic church, golf and being, generally, well-read. When he joined the magazine I was working on we immediately started arguing. I tested him by asking for a definition of “riparian”. He provided it. Relations became more civilised for the following fifty years.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Going way back

Among other failings (see 
below) our family didn't 
go in for photo-ing each 
other. This, however, is a
grey Homburg as worn by 
Grandpa R.

Relations I’ve neglected 1.
Whereas Grandpa S once lashed me (for being clumsy) with a cane kept handily on the living-room picture rail, Grandpa R was more tranquil. Not surprising, since Grandpa R was a retired Baptist minister and wore his dog collar to the grave.

I must confess Grandpa R didn’t interest me very much. Perhaps I reckoned he was simply too old. If this seems callow I’m willing to be considered too old by anyone who feels that way inclined. Living through the Hitler War suggests I’m past my sell-by date.

Remarkably, Grandpa R had a club foot. I saw it bare, once, and it made me feel queasy. But then I was no milk-of-human-kindness grandson. He also wore a grey Homburg.

He was stone deaf (as was Grannie R) and I fear he got left out of things. His figure was skeletal and his fingers were of a length one might have expected of, say, Chopin. He would occasionally raise his hands and contemplate them. One of the family (Not I.) said he was telling himself: never done a day’s labour in my life. As no doubt you have deduced, we were that kind of family.

On a hidden agenda I asked him what was his “favourite book”. Not what you might have expected, he said “Burns.” Adding “The Scottish poet.” I released my sucker-punch: “What about The Bible?” He dismissively waved one of his elegant hands. “Different,” he explained

He continued to wear his ministerial black and was knocked down at night by what must have been a fairly rare car. I returned home to find the car driver, visibly sweating, sitting at our table. Elsewhere was Grandpa’s leather-bound crutch, also black, now broken. It seemed to say everything.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Proof of mental decay

I have four pairs of specs on the go. One pair packed into a case and carried in my shoulder bag (see pic), one on the desk in my mancave, one on a small side-table in the living room within reach of the couch and one on the bedside chest of drawers. I am thus prepared for any reading task – anywhere - this side of a nuclear attack. How prescient.

Alas, these four pairs of specs also measure my mental decay as times slips by. For instance: I am peering at the monitor through the mancave specs, writing a blogpost, when I am reminded to add “Satsumas” to the shopping-reminder chalkboard in the  kitchen. Forgetting to remove my mancave specs I shuffle downstairs, do the business with the chalk, pass through the living-room and notice VR has finished reading this week’s New Statesman. I sit down and read an improving article on the perils of Brexit; this takes ten minutes.

I glance at my watch and realise it is time to prepare VR’s two slices of Ryvita spread with Philadelphia cream cheese and loaded with defrosted prawns in salad cream, a dozen to each slice. I don’t need my specs for such haute cuisine and I remove them from my nose to put them on the side-table. Only to find a pair of specs already there. The ones I took from my nose belong upstairs in the mancave.

Once I would have indolently left the two pairs on the side-table. Experience scrabbling round the house on an angry specs hunt has taught me I must – Now! At this moment! – go upstairs for the sole reason of returning the mancave specs to their rightful location. But not on the Stannah stair-lift. Such ascents qualify as exercise.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Beyond expectations?

How did I make it to 88? Not that 88 is an unusual age these days, as The Guardian’s obituary pages confirm.

More particularly, how might I reply to that question without appearing insufferably smug? Without implying my life-style must have been superior to those who cocked their toes in their sixties.

One contributory factor was I never smoked. But I can’t take credit for that. Chronic bronchitis in youth meant I was never tempted. In contra-distinction I was tempted – and gave into – drinking. With enthusiasm.

In my teens I cycle-toured but only to get from A to B. Rarely to go round in circles admiring the scenery. Quickly I swapped pedals for an engine. Rock-climbing turned out to be more damaging than healthy. Ski-ing was restricted to two weeks a year.

In my early fifties, and for six months, I jogged for 45 minutes before setting out for work: a first tailored gesture towards my otherwise neglected body. In retirement, on the threshold of becoming elderly, I swam rigorously, regularly and lengthily; this genuinely benefited my lungs.

But there’s a tendency to relate general decay only to muscular matters. I’m more inclined to believe my advanced age is the result of how I treated my brain. Journalism consisted of doing things I would have done anyway, without the rewards of a salary. Fact is my retirement days much resemble my days as a magazine editor. I write and strive to write better. Taxing my imagination – in order to come up with something original – can be at least as tiring as jogging. And being tired is evidence of work done. 

Might learning to sing have added extra months, perhaps even years? Dunno. Is exhilaration good for you? It seemed like it.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Unhealthy stuff

Weeded but worrying.  The three gravel beds 

Had the weekly Skype session last Sunday - VR, me, our two daughters. I opened with a provocative invitation: “Yesterday, and the day before, I engaged in an activity you’d least expect of me. Guess what.”

One daughter (I’ve forgotten which) said, “You went to Dunelm.” Dunelm sells soft goods and I’ve posted about it before. Entering the Hereford branch is like diving into a swimming pool filled with cotton wool. Or taking a triple dose of Nightnurse, an over-the-counter pill for those who can’t sleep. I begin to yawn uncontrollably and this does not end until I pass through Dunelm’s exit.

In fact, as I key the above words, I start yawning.

Everybody laughed; they know my little ways. But the actual activity was even more atypical. I weeded the three gravel beds that form the heart of our back garden.

Weeding is gardening and I avoid gardening. But not suicidally. If I notice a problem which will get horribly worse (Not that I’m good at this.) I do the necessary. Albeit, very reluctantly.

But I’m not good at bending. And weeds – hoe-ed from the gravel – need picking up. Which means bending. One solution is to use a stool and pick from a sitting position.

But notice “gravel beds”. Have you ever tried to move a stool you’re occupying with its lower supports sunk into the gravel? Theoretically it’s impossible – you cannot lift yourself. But you can slightly extend your knees, briefly reducing the load, and shuffle the stool six inches. Farcical to watch, cumulatively wearying and unforgivably inefficient.

But there is a worrying sequel. Work done, I found myself returning to the gravel and finding solace in its weedlessness. Purged, as after a visit to the toilet. This cannot be healthy for the mind.

Saturday 4 May 2024

RIP? Nah!

I don't have photos of him; The Trafalgar suffices

My closest friend has just died of long covid. Closest in spirit if not geographically; he lived in London, 150 miles away. A journalist, a novelist, we shared many interests and some of the same political views.

As with past deaths my reaction always centres on language: I must not betray him with funeral-home vocabulary or badly-worn phrases that might suggest I haven’t bothered to think about the loss. If I mention that cumbersome word “condolences” it must only be to condemn it.

In fact our friendship went through different phases and the best bits came at the end. Rather similar to my relationship with Joe Hyam (Plutarch in the blogosphere). From time to time I drove from Hereford to Lewisham where he lived, we taxi-ed to Greenwich of meridian fame, lunched in a wine vault, walked past the Cutty Sark (a beached tea clipper), sat in a bow-window niche overlooking the Thames in The Trafalgar, best pub in London, drank five pints of draught beer over about six hours. And talked.

There were other things to treasure (he published my four books) but those talks stand out. Made me realise how rare real conversation is. The giving and taking of information, equably and without insistence. The exploration of familiar subjects and the unearthing of new ones. An eagerness to contribute tempered by the rule of not interrupting. Science, politics, books, malicious gossip, introspection, and the laughing acceptance of weak bladders in old age.

At its best conversation shares something with good music. Structure, a continuing flow, sharp revelations.

One other thing. It was he, with his wife Caroline, that suggested we all visited the Hay Festival. Stimulation over ten years.

He was Pat Coyne. Don’t rest in peace, Pat; it sounds too passive. Keep talking.