Wednesday, 28 December 2011
“But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.”
St John 19:34
THE WIND IS BOOMING TODAY. Here in my kitchen, the sounds made by the changes in pressure on the chimneys on top of the building are no less than those of a relentless hurricane passing over the Bermuda Islands at the end of summer. In my life, I have experienced a number of those.
I have just walked to the corner shop, about a hundred yards away. Getting there, with the wind at my back, I had to struggle so as not to be pushed forward on my face. Coming back, with my carton of milk and bottle of apple squash, I tried to get as close as possible to the walls on my right, pausing several times in doorways, then pushing ahead again, gasping for breath.
I have a memory of my grandfather, Henry Charles Christopher Eldridge, stored away in September of 1961. Charlie Eldridge was born on 26 July 1894, which happens to be the same day that the English novelist Aldous Huxley was born. In 1961, my grandfather and Huxley would have been about 67. My grandfather died in 1962, and Huxley in 1963 (on the same day that JFK was assassinated, so that Huxley’s passing went pretty much unnoticed in the media). Cancer. They both died of cancer.
The two novels I have read most often in my life, and love the most, are Aldous Huxley's "Island" and D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love". Huxley and his wife were at Lawrence's bedside when he died of consumption back in 1930.
My memory of Charlie Eldridge, recorded in late summer of 1961, is of a tall man bent over by poor health. Charlie could not, and did not, walk too far. Not without sitting here and there to catch his breath. He had advanced lung cancer. So, we are in London walking along a street that seems to feature many antique shops. My grandmother and I had to keep stopping to allow my grandfather to catch up with us. It seems remarkable to me that he would have gone up to London with us, which would have involved an hour on a train and then buses. I am glad he did, because I have had the memory of it for 50 years now.
About the time my grandfather died, I began writing letters to family members who happened to be across the country or across an ocean sometimes. I corresponded with family at first, but as the 1960s rolled on, and I left school, I tended to keep in touch with friends. I suppose many of my elderly relatives were dead or dying by the 1970s.
I have always enjoyed writing. It has been almost a compulsion at times, making things real. I came to write a newspaper column for a few years, and then, in about 2008, I began blogging. My blog was “Barking Mad in Amble by the Sea”. I use the past tense, because I expect this will be the last entry there.
I am done with writing.
I have finished reporting, finished remarking, finished with the news. I have finished preaching. I am done with writing. All the words I ever had have gone out of me. Done.
A fortnight or so ago, I received the sort of Christmas present one really does not want. The diagnosis of cancer. I have skin cancer, which started in my right side, then moved into the lymphatic system, both lungs and other tissues. Funny, I celebrated 30 years since I last smoked a cigarette last August, and the disease is in my lungs, of all places.
What can I say? If you smoke, then quit. If you are young and are tempted to smoke, it is possibly the worst thing you could do with your life to smoke.
I have that memory of Charlie Eldridge, walking slowly along a pavement in Chelsea. It was a sunny day, not windy, unlike today, 50 years on.
Yes. All the words have gone out of me.
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
The Heathen, which is to say the Writer, had dabbed at his wet body while flinging towels about, and was able to get dressed. On with the central heating to get the floor quite dry.
An experiment: A jug of water poured into the bathtub bubbled up through the space between the bathtub’s housing and the floor. Here was trouble.
I had cursed a blue streak, but calmed down enough to phone my landlord for advice. Unfortunately, he was out of town due to a family emergency. I figured I would wait a few days and make do with my bathroom sink and the hose from the shower, which could be used there.
When I was a boy, at my Nan’s home in Kent, and at my Mother’s family home in Lancashire, we did not have indoor plumbing. In the morning, Nan or my Auntie Maud would pour heated water from a ewer into a bowl on a washstand in my bedroom, and I would bathe in some fashion that way. The small child does not usually smell as much as someone does at my present age. Using my bathroom sink, I have washed myself incredibly thoroughly for the past few mornings. I had no complaints.
I shall tell the reader now, the first time I have told anyone, that my Mother, who lived most of her adult life in Bermuda in a house with good modern plumbing, never, ever, had a bath or a shower. She washed at the sink. Might she have been afraid of water? I never knew. In her last few years, she could not bear to be in a room with a closed door, and that included the bathroom. It was rather discomfiting. Her bathroom door faced across a hallway to the living room. One had to make excuses ... I think the dog needs a walk ... privacy should go both ways.
Was the Heathen, the non-believer, to be flung into the world of his grandparents and peculiar Mother, when it came to bathing in October 2011? For a few days it was interesting, gave me something to think about.
Yesterday, I had had enough. Was I getting all the shampoo out of my hair (the few strands remaining)? Could I be sure I was not malodorous? I was also missing the physical pleasure of a hellishly hot shower.
Then, last night, I dreamed that my Mother was telling me about a bolt in my bathtub drain. I doubt that my Mother had any knowledge of drains, taps or pipes or the nuts and bolts that hold them together. How did she get into my dream with the explanation that a bolt had fallen down my drain? I know so little of plumbing myself; I could not invent her words (could I?) I should point out that Mother passed away over 19 years ago, and has never appeared in my dreams with helpful hints.
I told a friend here in town about the bathtub drain, and he brought over two small washers. Told me he thought there would be a bolt somewhere below the drain and a screw passed through the washers would restore the drain. Well, the Heathen was not too much of a believer.
This evening, on my own, I shone a torch down the drain after lifting off the sieve plate, and way down I could see a metal ring with a ... wait for it ... bolt through the middle pointing up. It was awkwardly distant to be reached by fingers or pliers, but I had the sudden thought that a fishhook on a line might be lowered into the drain and the device below snared and pulled upwards. As if I had a fishhook and a line! However, after hunting through the many drawers and boxes in my flat, I found a long twist-tie with a thin metal centre coated in plastic. I bent the end to make a hook and lowered it into the darkness of the drain (impossible to manoeuvre a torch at the same time) and, praying “Please!” to no god in particular, pulled upwards. The hook had latched onto the bolt and its ring; it came up to the bottom of the bathtub. I quickly unscrewed the bolt, took off the corroded and worn washer on the end of it, dropped on the new washers, and screwed the bolt down again. This pulled everything tightly together.
The Heathen, with his dream, his Mother, his friend and (his luck?) had fixed the drain. He dared to run the tap for a good long time, and no water bubbled out from below the tub.
When I was younger (but older than I was at my Auntie Maud’s) I used to find religion, hints of God, in both major and minor events. The night sky might make me tremble and so might a few minutes of listening to sitar music. Words, especially, could turn me on. Words still turn me on, but they no longer seem to turn a god on. Not the way they did in the 1960s. I took drugs to try and find the way to God.
That said, I recently watched again, after a few decades, the television series “Cosmos” written and presented by Dr Carl Sagan. I recalled reading that Sagan, as he was dying of cancer, had pretty much decided that there was no God. When I read that, years ago, I was surprised. As a Heathen, watching the series from start to finish over a few nights, I had to ask myself how Sagan could have dismissed God while speaking of so many wonders in the Cosmos.
Haydn’s “The Creation” oratorio has the line: ‘The wonder of his works displays the firmament,’ which is pleasant to sing (which I did in school) and thrilling to hear. Happens that the original German does not make sense in English as commonly translated. It has to be ‘The firmament displays the wonder of his works’.
The works displayed so wonderfully by the firmament that Sagan wrote and spoke of had me thinking that maybe I had it wrong. Maybe there is a god, even a God.
“That the Mormons assume a right exclusively to the benefits of God will be a lasting witness against them, and the same will it be against Christians.”
Thanks to William Blake (1757 – 1827)
For me, I think the main difficulty with a belief in a deity is that people tend to create Him (or Her) in their own image. This exclusivity extends beyond the worship service, beyond the sacred image, beyond the promises attached to this or that god. The True God and his True Church (for there must be one, if just to collect tithes and offerings) can only succeed when all opposition is crushed. There was never a god that whispered to the prophets: “Tell the people to pray as they will, do as they would, be what they wish.”
At the present time, there is a run-up to the Presidential Elections in the USA. A year from now, Americans will elect a leader. One of the Republican candidates is a Christian, we are told, of the Evangelical bent. Another Republican front-runner is a Mormon. The Christians, the Bible Believers (dare I say Bashers?), are getting the word out that Mormonism is a cult, not Christian, and that a Mormon President would surely lead the country into the jaws of Hell. The Mormons, by the way, believe that when the American Constitution is “hanging by a thread” the Mormons will take over America (and eventually the world) and rule for the Mormon god(s). There will be a political kingdom of God.
A True Christian, and a True Mormon, cannot believe outside their particular Catechism.
JFK was elected President despite (we must assume) adhering to Roman Catholic doctrine, which differs from that of our Evangelical Christians almost as much as Mormonism. Except, so far as I know, the Pope was not pulling strings.
Mormons in their meetinghouses vote to sustain their church leaders by the sign of the raised hand. I have never, ever, seen a hand withheld, much less a hand raised in opposition, no matter how difficult a decision. Simply, the members vote for the candidates that the Church leaders tell them to.
Do not expect the voters in Utah to sing the praises of Barack Obama, the Democrat, or Rick Perry the Republican Christian. Utah Mormons (and those elsewhere) pushed The Osmonds to the top of the pops 30 years ago, and Brandon Flowers of The Killers is repaying his fan-base by backing the Mormon Republican Mitt Romney for President in 2012.
I would not back a Mormon candidate for high office because I know a little about Mormonism, and a good deal about what True Mormons are expected to believe and do. Mormons are expected to withhold information that might put their church and its leaders in a bad light, indeed, they can lie and it is quite all right. They do lie. I have lied for them and with them.
As I stood in my flooded bathroom the other morning, sending up the sort of prayer King Canute might have, that Noah might have, I did not really expect an answer. Dreaming of my Mother and the bolt in the bathtub drain was rather odd, and finding my answer in the dream was even odder. I am not going to found The Church of the Flood (that would be a very catchy name, of course) and get religion. I might put the clues together, admire the firmament, and feel comfortable with the casual thought that someone or something, billions of years ago, released everything into time and space, and that matter and energy flooded outwards in every direction. Did someone or something create the laws of nature, of physics? Perhaps they were inherited from an earlier incarnation. Let it roll.
The Heathen is enjoying his shower again. This is a rainy day outdoors too. Bless the drain that works!
Friday, 7 October 2011
D. H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)
MOST NIGHTS I TAKE CAILEAN FOR A WALK some time after ten o’clock. In the summer months, this would be in daylight, even as late as half-eleven. However, for most of the year, it is well dark and we rely on the city lights illuminating our main street to mark the way out and the way back. The glitter of the sign above the door at Euro-Pizza, the creamy glow through the fogged window at Taste of China, the twinkle of the cigarettes youngsters are smoking on the bench outside the Post Office may not be visible at the International Space Station (indeed, I don’t suppose the folks up there can even spot Amble by the Sea in the daylight), but for the dog-walker they are signs of light and thus life.
I remember Marianne Faithfull being interviewed back in the 1960s, might it have been on the Simon Dee Show. The singer was not talking about her song - she may not have managed one that month - but about light and thus life. In her somewhat growly voice, Marianne told us that a spaceship from some distant world on a reconnaissance mission in our galaxy would have been disappointed until they slipped into the skies above the side of the Earth celebrating night. There, in the dark, would be sudden pockets of extraordinary brilliance. Where millions gathered in cities, the street and vehicle lights and the lights from windows in blocks and homes, would tell our visitors in no uncertain terms that we are at home here, their journey was worth it. I dare say the aliens overhead might wonder if we were glowing creatures, rather than the dark lumps we actually are. Might we gravitate to the dark with our inborn light, rather than light the way artificially as we fumble about without it?
It is curious how one recalls a brief interview conducted 45 years ago on the same day one pops across to the corner shop to buy milk and bread, but comes away without the bread because one forgets what it was one needed (and no list was made).
Last night, at about eleven o’clock, I walked Cailean as far as the Post Office on Queen Street, and turned back when I reached the three under-dressed young schoolgirls who seem to be there every night, smoking and yelling obscenities at passing cars and into mobile telephones. I crossed the street and walked up the pavement on the other side and at the top I was slowed down by scaffolding around the building next to The Waterloo public house. Outside the pub were a half-dozen or more youngish people, males and females, smoking, some drinking, and all in loud conversation.
Over the past few years, my dodgy hearing has worsened and I have a hearing aid in one ear (I am waiting for a device for the other ear). I struggle to make out ordinary talking, radios and background sounds. I can hear loud birds (the feathered variety and the lasses) quite well, something about the pitch, perhaps. People yelling on a dimly lit street do register with me.
And so, outside The Waterloo, I heard:
“She was really small. Not a dwarf, like ... But really, really small.”
“I recall her too. Lost track of her.”
“Remember what people used to call her at school?”
“Oh, yes. Bridgette the Midget.”
“Even though she wasn’t a midget.”
“And her name wasn’t Bridgette.”
“She was that small. Well under five feet. Maybe four.”
“Don’t know where she went after school.”
That I remembered this afternoon, though I forgot the bread.
We may well have snow a month from now, if the past few years have marked a pattern. In any case, we are wearing nearly the full complement of winter clothes, though I have not worn my hat and gloves yet. God knows, walking Cailean late last night I wondered why I’d not reached for a hat when I left home.
Last winter our pavements and all but the main street were blocked by snow for weeks at a time. My courtyard was under ice. This year I have a snow shovel, and hope to make pathways.
Last winter, and the months through to early summer, my mood was buoyant. My Manic-Depressive Illness has, more or less, highs (mania and hypomania) and lows (depression) lasting around nine months each. When I am up, I feel brilliant, I am something of a superman, a rising star. I cannot sleep more than an hour or two a night. I read several books at once, an hour of this one, an hour of that one. I also walk a good deal, which is healthy. My medications tend to get me to a level point between high and low, but it is not easily done and requires monitoring. Nine months of flying near the sun and feeling untouchable ends, and I come to earth. I slow and cannot keep awake. My appetite goes. My enthusiasm dims.
Winston Churchill famously suffered from Manic-Depressive Illness, and he referred to his depressed periods as “the black dog”. I have a black dog, but Cailean tends to guide me through the light and the dark, aware of my wobbling, and he loves me as much when I stretch towards the sun claiming it for myself as when I go to bed at noon and pull the covers up because the light hurts.
I have been south of the centre for about four months. I am heavily medicated, more than I have ever been when low. I am sleeping too much. I am reading one book, and slowly. I am watching less television. I stopped writing entries for my Barking Mad Blog a few months ago.
Today, despite the wintry feel without and within, the cold and the dark, and struggling to eat regularly (I sometimes forget to eat for a day), I had a short group of words come to my mind. Not “buy bread” which might have been helpful this morning. Rather:
Look to the left,
And look to the right,
And walk into the starry skies.
Walk into the night.
I have been watching Carl Sagan’s wonderful television series from about 30 years ago—Cosmos—and know that Sagan, before his death, seemed to stop believing in higher powers, gods, divine creation. As I have watched his lectures on the telly, I have found myself returning to a belief in something. Christians and other religionists might not think much of the belief that flickers within me somewhere (nothing as bright as the light on the sign at Euro-Pizza). I find myself somehow content to think that something may have set our universe in motion (and that is that, no further interference, the laws of physics were set at the beginning). There are some scientists that think we may dwell in one bubble in a vast bowl of bubbles, each bubble a universe. Who is disturbing the soapy liquid, blowing the bubbles?
This flicker of belief, sadly, has given me little in the way of hope. Hope is a religious principle, and it seems to be the promise in a rather unpleasant life. I am not feeling any hope that I will see my dead loved ones some day. I feel the light, I feel the dark, the highs and lows, and they are real, but there are no visions. One day, it seems to me, I shall look this way and that, then walk into the unknown. Perhaps I shall see well-lit cities as I go forward, and shall know there is life, light in the darkest night. Will I dare to land?
“Life is a travelling to the edge of knowledge, then a leap taken.”
D.H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)
Sunday, 21 August 2011
AS YOU CAN SEE, this is a picture of Krishna and Radha, a most exotic couple. In 2006, I bought some colourful postcards in a gift shop at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hare Krishna Temple in Hertfordshire. These certainly are extravagantly dressed gods. I have not only been in this temple of Lord Krishna, but in a Mormon temple. I can tell you truthfully that the Mormons’ attire is a damn sight more peculiar, and not nearly so attractive.
The gods, Krishna and his partner Radha, use rather a lot of makeup. I like the clothing best. I am too old now—and too short and fat—to wear anything fancier than corduroy trousers and a Harris Tweed jacket, and the odd Liberty of London tie if I must. That said, in the late 1960s I fancied being more colourful than the few flower-patterned shirts I could afford to buy in Carnaby Street or on the King’s Road in Chelsea. For good or evil, I could not save up enough to buy myself raw silk jackets, in bright colours, that fastened with golden frogs. White trousers with huge belts and buckles. Pale blue shoes. I once prayed for a fur coat having seen they were “in” with the Beautiful People. “A fur, just like you wear, dear God.” In 1967, the “Summer of Love”, I had a vision of myself that I cannot now revisit comfortably. As all those who take a look back more than twenty years say: “What was I thinking?”
Visiting London for a week in 2006, in the hottest weather on the books, was perfect for trekking around the city on foot, and to go out by car looking for the countryside. It is there somewhere, if you can just get past the new housing estates and old neighbourhoods. I saw a sign that read: “Suburbs next 50 Miles.” No, of course not.
So, onto the highways and byways of old England. My friends, Nalini and Shekhar, had asked me if I wanted to pop in and “See the God Revealed” as the traffic had been so congested that we could not travel far and hope to be back in Wembley Park before dark, even with the long twilight. We had been wandering around the ring roads of north and west London looking for touristy places. I had no idea what I might be getting myself into. God revealed. Might this be like the film shown in a Mormon temple during the secret endowment ceremony, featuring gods and prophets and men and at least one snake-like devil?
We arrived at two large gateposts, with plaques reading “Bhaktivedanta Manor” and “Hare Krishna Temple”. Inside the gates, past neatly clipped hedgerows, finely boxed hedges, greenhouses, and brilliant flowerbeds, was an enormous Tudor manor house, white with black beams, at least three storeys, outbuildings, and with leaded windows big enough for a church, some with stained glass. God’s summer cottage, perhaps? He might kick off the shoes and stretch out on the lawn, sipping a cold beverage. What would God drink? Nectar? Mead? The first and last of the wine of Cana? We parked with many dozens of cars in a designated field. It would be muddy in the rain, but was brick hard in the summer of 2006.
“You’ve been in a Mormon temple,” I told myself again. “It just cannot be weirder than that.” Following the crowd, I too took off my sandals, putting them at the edge of the many outside the main door, wondering aloud: “If I find a nicer pair of shoes when I come out, can I trade up?” My joke was not appreciated. Too Church of England, perhaps.
The late George Harrison of the Beatles had presented the Manor to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness movement back in 1973. In June 2006, I wandered about the Temple, with lots of other pilgrims, they turned out to be worshippers, waiting for the God to turn up. I was one of very few whites in the building that afternoon; half a dozen others were dressed in the saffron dhotis we have all seen in airports. I tried to sense George there. He wrote and sang: “All I have is yours, all you see is mine.” This was quite a donation, quite a gift.
Most of the adult visitors were people my age or older, of Indian heritage, and beautifully and modestly dressed with sudden touches of colour. With them, grandchildren perhaps: Youngsters so unlike ours. These neatly dressed little ones walked slowly, did not call out or poke at things, and must have had some appreciation for the more sacred things in the Temple. No golden frogs on the visitors. Would the God have them when he was unveiled?
It was to be at four-fifteen. On time!
All the doors, throughout the house, on three floors, were closed. What you needed to do—were encouraged to do—was to open them as you reached them. A gentle push sufficed. You pulled the doors to as you passed through, and all closed gently, quietly, none locking. I examined a huge bathtub. It was very nearly the size of the baptismal fonts in the basements of Mormon temples.
I was given two small dishes of rice when I returned to the ground floor. One was plain, the other spiced with ginger root. No knives, forks or spoons. Paper towels. I was a bit peckish.
As four o’clock approached, I joined Nalini, Shekhar, and many others in a large hall that had no furniture. One end of the hall had a closed curtain from side to side and ceiling to floor. At the other end of the room sat a life-size—I thought it was a live person at first—figure. Nalini told me he was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. That is a fine name. He had founded the Krishna Consciousness Movement. The statue was surrounded with flowers and clothed almost as oddly as I had wanted to be back in the 1960s. People—except for me—kneeled and bowed to the statue, some lay flat, face down, on the floor in front of it. I also saw adults prostrating themselves on the floor at the feet of young children. Perhaps, in sympathy, to remind the children that nothing ages quite like youth: “You could be our age in the blink of Krishna’s eye.”
All the people—adults and children—moved slowly. People smiled and nodded, but did not reach for your elbow to hurry you along to where they thought you should be. There was no running about. Even with four-fifteen closing in.
Nothing seemed too weird in the moment. Even the chanting was pleasing to a degree. In the room with us—I include the Swami—there were a couple of white men in one corner, wearing the robes you see Krishna people wearing in Airports. One man thumped a drum and the other worked a squeezebox. Here, in this Temple, these priests were quite unattractive. They are creepy in airports too, I think. What is that all about? I believe it is because I find their pallid, shaved heads and doughy bodies repulsive, rather than their Consciousness. Tanned and brown-skinned monks in saffron dhotis are wonderfully attractive. These acolytes in Watford would look so much better with a Mystic Tan. In addition, I thought wickedly, after a hearty meal at a Mongolian Barbecue. Clearly, I had much to learn.
Then, my hosts’ bowing over, we joined dozens of others sat on individual sized flat mats, on the floor facing—curiously—the closed curtain, and they chanted. As people lowered themselves, they picked up the Mantra.
There I was, sat on a mat in a dimly lit hall with about fifty people singing “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Krishna Krishna”. To think I was—for over thirty years—severely limited by panic disorder. And then we watched the God unveiled at 4.15pm. Why 4.15pm? Two more shaved, robed men opened the curtains after a little bell rang somewhere. Is my mobile phone switched off? The Divine One had been behind the curtains all along: Or was he wheeled in from the wings? Actually, this Krishna was a sort of conjoined entity: They were very attractive if you like that sort of thing. They were life-sized, unlike Christian Gods, and very colourful, and draped beautifully with flowers as they sat at their altar.
This splendid altar held candles, incense, flowers, dishes of food, and drink placed before and around Krishna and his partner. Offerings over, there followed a thorough scrubbing of the floor within the holy place and then a careful dusting and polishing of the images. I wondered why the God’s place was so carefully cleansed after receiving gifts from his people. Do the gifts of men come polluted? I will write 250 words on that the next time I stay after school.
Chanting! Chanting! I am thinking of the line in “Absolutely Fabulous” when Edina tells her concerned Guru over the telephone: “I’m chanting as we speak.” Before the ceremony wrapped up, a large, wooden chest—that just did not fit in with the general decor—was placed where Krishna’s floor became ours. People went—on their knees and backsides—to the chest and slipped money into the slot in it. Mostly coins. Krishna would prefer the rustle of five and ten pound notes, I am certain; the Church of England does. However, clinking coins sounded good at a ceremony that was orchestrated with bells and other plucked or thumped instruments. Another draped man—they seemed to be getting paler the nearer they were to Krishna—waved a very large feather, perhaps that of an ostrich, to encourage the burning incense. To get the scented smoke up Krishna’s and Radha’s noses. Hare! Hare!
Quite suddenly, a bell rang somewhere off-stage, reminding Krishna—I suppose—that he had another appointment. Therefore, abruptly, the curtains were closed. Getting to my feet was not easy, the mat slipping about, and then fine dust on the floor, and only the flat wall to claw at. I ached all over.
Having withheld my coins and five-pound notes from the temptation of the ugly wooden chest, I headed outside, and noted my own sandals were the nicest in the heap, so I put them on again. I was thus able to afford some postcards and a string of love beads and a mango milk shake at the “Hare Krishna Temple Store and Café.” I bought sodas and biscuits for Nalini and Shekhar. I am wearing the beads today, so many years later. I cannot figure out how to release the clasp. A bit like some branches of Christianity.
Leaving the Café, we walked through greenhouses and past aboveground pools with water lilies in them, and little golden fish chasing bubbles and sparks. You could reach out to a lotus blossom without falling over and into a ground level pond. We could see the parked cars in the distance, but went through wooden gates towards the posted “Temple Farm”. Enormous cattle, water buffalo, gave us the eye from a field very nearly crowded with enormous multi-coloured wagons. Nalini explained—poor thing had been explaining before we ever left Wembley Park—that at times the oxen would be hitched to the wagons, which were then considered “chariots” and the teams raced about. I recalled the charioteers in “Ben-Hur” and laughed somewhere behind my Foster Grants. I could not imagine it here, and they had no postcard showing bus-size wagons drawn by burly bulls. How fast could that be? Do they smack their oxen to hurry them along?
A very large building had a sign reading “Temple Barn”, and as we walked in, we were asked to wash our hands. That is not a bad idea; for over an hour I had been pushing myself about on my mat on the floor of Krishna’s audience room, trying to get my folded legs under me bearable, and some feeling back in my lower body. I was dusty.
There were no cows in the barn after all that. It was milking time in another building, somewhere sterilised. This barn looked as pristine a place one might have. We found a ramp that went up to an elevated platform, higher than the barn floor, about six feet. Up I went. Outside a gate on the platform was a shining steel bin filled with exquisite, fresh, unblemished fruit and vegetables. Behind a stall door, lying on fresh hay, were two calves: Quite young and almost golden, coats brushed clean, no flies, no bits of straw, eyes enormous and brown almost as if they were wearing make-up. No manure in the stall, and only a sweet fragrance. A picture of total serenity. One calf was called Krishna, a common name at the Manor, and I cannot be sure the other was Radha. Their mothers must have been in the milking shed.
I crouched on my aching legs to reach in and touch the calf nearest me, who might have been Krishna, or the other one. I did not recall ever having touched a live cow. This one did not look as if it would bite me. I gave the creature’s ear a nice massage and did the same routine that works for dogs, cats, swans, budgies, lions and tigers, and everything else, including Lotus Europa sports cars. Singing:
I would like to stroke your muzzle!
Come on Baby! Come on Baby!
You are such a beautiful Baby!
My knapsack came up behind my head and upper back when I reached the concrete floor below the platform, protecting my head from a direct blow. Some loose, clean hay softened the fall of the rest of me. The barn was so immaculate, that not even a straw was out of place and in need of refreshment. Does Krishna actually keep a lookout for his followers and visitors? If he does: “Thank you, Sir.”
We then had the very fresh ice cream, again mango flavoured. I was but a little shaken by my fall. As I hit the ground, I had thought: “This will make a good story.”
Sunday, 7 August 2011
Where when men been, there's seldom ease;
For now the wind begins to blow;
Thunder above and deeps below
Make such unquiet, that the ship
Should house him safe is wreck'd and split;
And he, good prince, having all lost,
By waves from coast to coast is tost.
William Shakespeare (Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Act I, Scene IV)
AT WARWICK ACADEMY, from time to time, the recess or lunch break on the playing fields would be interrupted by loud shouts of “Fight! Fight!” and suddenly a knot of boys would form here or there, encircling something unseen but understood. One boy would have taken umbrage at something another lad had said or done, and would launch an attack of fists and feet. Sticks, stones or knives simply did not enter into it.
The spectators would continue to call out their encouragement until one (or both) of the boys was bloodied; and then the knot would unravel rapidly, the gladiatorial ended, and runny noses, split lips and blackened eyes would be dabbed at in the toilets.
I do not recall teachers, or even prefects, ever breaking up a fight.
I might add that I do not remember ever seeing girls fighting, except by way of words and distant gestures. The girls were as adept with a rude finger or two as their older brothers were.
There was not a great deal of bullying at Warwick Academy, bigger boys lording it over younger or smaller pupils. That said, in my day, some of our young tin Caesars felt it necessary to dictate hairstyles and the length of one’s hair. As this demand for short hair was the same as that dictated by the Headmaster, I never saw people punished for ganging up on boys with hair a little over the ears or collars. Our Headmaster could never be accused of being fair.
Only once was I threatened with a haircut by my classmates, and that was at a party one weekend night. I simply slipped out of the host’s door and walked a few miles home in the dark. I can still remember the walk home, 45 years later. Slipping out of the house, slipping along the roads, and taking a longer route than I need have done so that if anyone came after me they would expect me elsewhere, slipping into my home after midnight and never telling my mother I had walked home. One or two friends at the party did worry when I had vanished, knowing I had no transport and four or five miles to get home.
The Headmaster bullied me over my “long” hair. Many the times I was called up in morning Assembly, and told to report to the Headmaster after our little services were done. In his office, I would be shrieked at by a man twice my size, who would go so red in his rage that one expected something to pop. I can tell you he lived into his nineties, possibly because when he retired from his position at Warwick Academy he grew his hair longer than mine had ever been.
Last night, very late, I watched rioters, looters, and arsonists attempting to level part of London, starting in Tottenham’s High Road. Apparently, a small protest over the shooting death of a bloke two nights earlier got “out of hand”. It appeared more likely that a peaceful protest was hijacked by mini-gangsters who wanted to rumble. Soon I was watching people fleeing, while a few males pitched rocks and petrol bombs at vehicles and buildings, and there was a live view of the arsonists’ younger brothers wheeling shopping trolleys loaded with electronic goods from shattered storefronts.
A reporter from the BBC seemed to have taken a position in the centre of a street, with fires raging in the buildings behind him, and rock-throwing youths battling mounted police nearby. Two teenagers, in jeans and T-shirts, came up behind the reporter. First, Yellow Shirt gave the viewing audience a bit of a dance and hand gestures that were offensive even to someone as out of it as I am. Punching fists, rude fingers, and thrusts. Then Blue Shirt jumped in from the dark and shoved Yellow Shirt, who stumbled about.
I was waiting to hear “Fight! Fight!” However, the shirts decided to play for the cameras, smiling widely and looking anything but tough. The BBC reporter did not seem to know what was going on two feet behind him, or was simply not going to be bothered by it. The camera operator narrowed the shot so that only the reporter’s face and some flames behind his left ear filled the screen. The boys were out of the shot. That is when the reporter got the push and other rioters and yobs went for the camera and the BBC van. The presenter back in the studio told us that there appeared to be some confrontation between their team in Tottenham and protestors. "And here are some earlier pictures ..."
Today, it is all smouldering buildings, streets covered in rubbish and ash, and police walking about looking for “evidence”. Walls of now-roofless Victorian buildings are tottering in Tottenham. The locals are homeless and some even have no clothing but that they wore to flee the fires in the night. Somewhere, one supposes, boys and their slightly bigger brothers are setting up splendid stereo systems and HD television sets. How do young kids explain the new 42” telly with a surround-sound feature in the front room to their parents? Do they even have parents, or people who parent them?
From what I can gather watching the Beeb, at first only about 15 police officers were on duty when the protest started. One of the Police bigwigs tells us they misjudged the size of the crowd and the emotions of those taking part. Several riots this summer have also been poorly anticipated. Our Government is busy reducing the police services, and our military, despite protest marches and gatherings and the heartfelt anger that the population seems always to feel during Tory administrations.
Right now, our Government is off on holiday. No doubt Cabinet Ministers travel well on the taxpayer. The world’s economies are collapsing, and the world’s leaders (all in their holiday digs) simply do not have a clue and no end of photo-ops will calm the markets.
Our Government’s huge budget cuts have resulted in the closure of youth clubs. Notably in the parts of London with the ethnicity of Tottenham. Is it not time to weigh up the many millions lost in riots and arson and looting against the cost of providing boys and girls with somewhere half-decent to go on a Saturday night?
In the television coverage last night I was amazed at the many different types on the streets, though must admit there were 9 boys to every girl. But there were whites and blacks, Arabs and Hasidic Jews, and people in all sorts of clothes, from conservative to rather sluttish. Nearly all, when interviewed, seemed to speak with English accents. Imagine the fun they could have at youth group events!
Yesterday we saw a posed photograph of President Obama of the USA chatting on the phone with his military advisor, being told that over 30 US soldiers had been killed when a helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. Obama’s hair looks grey, he looks weary, and that is how he had to look. It was a single still picture, not a film. Did he also swear? Shake a fist? Curse the Taliban and their Allah? Did he shed a tear, edited out?
Could the economies of the great western nations be up shit creek because we are fighting unwinnable wars? Not just unwinnable wars, but wars that nobody seems to understand (or want) back at home.
Why are we bombing Libya, but not Yemen or Syria or Bahrain? Why not North Korea or Burma? Do we even protest at Cabinet level when a Saudi woman is the victim of Sharia Law?
Why are we being asked to send tens of millions of pounds of food aid to starving Africans who are forbidden by their Muslim leaders to accept aid from Infidels? We have to borrow to get the money to send on its lost cause. Why cannot rich Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states send aid to their Islamic brothers in Africa?
Over the last 30 years, we have been accompanied on life’s journey by no end of video games. We have shot down Space Invaders, blasted dragons, and outgunned dark-skinned forces in a desert town. At the end of the day, we have pressed the “reset” button and all returned to normal. For 30 years, death has been brief and life restored in a click. Magic! No wonder boys shoot their mates without a second thought. Press reset a thousand times to revive your dead, and pull a trigger twice. What is the harm?
Civil unrest, military disasters, monetary mayhem. It is as if natural disasters, those typhoons, tornados, tsunamis and great rumbling earthquakes just are not enough suffering for us.
I enjoyed my late night walk home from the party that threatened to cut my hair in 1965. The air was cool and the lights sparkled on the water. I just left the hassle behind and enjoyed the new moment.
Friday, 15 July 2011
And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the LORD being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.
And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.
And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my LORD.
Genesis 19: 16-18
I WAS NOT AWARE of actually lighting my cigarette last night. I always seem to have a lit cigarette in my mouth, or in my hand. When I am not sucking on the thing, I am stabbing the air with it, an extension of my small, stubby fingers. It is quite possible that my constant waving is somewhat camp, more so when I am smoking one of those extra-long brands. More. Are they called More? 120mm wrapped in dark brown paper. Menthol, I have always smoked menthol.
In 1967, at school in England, I smoked Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes, and then over the next few years Salems, and, finally Kools. Kools were so mentholated, so cold on the palate, and in the sinuses, that it was not unlike candy. I dare say that was the point of those minty additives, taste and a numbing sensation. What did my breath smell like? Did the raw tobacco fragrance come through? My clothes always smelled of tobacco, as did my furniture, curtains, hair. However, I thought that might be from the company I kept, I never attributed the foul effluvia to myself.
In 1973, I was chain-smoking in my office at AIG, drinking all the coffee the tea-lady brought round, and filling my ashtray several times a day. I do not remember whether I tipped the ashes into the bin under my desk, or if one of our janitors came round to tidy unpleasant things away.
In the autumn of 1973, I was investigating the Mormon Church (this was their wording, prospective converts were “investigators”, which may not be used nearly 40 years later when a careful investigation could catch the Latter-day Saints out) and through the missionary discussions (another of their catch-words) I chain smoked. Quite possibly leaving the young missionaries assigned to me with smelly clothing and watering eyes. I sucked up that mentholated smoke from my King Size Kools while I was inhaling the oddest doctrines and nodding and bobbing.
The Mormons encouraged me to quit smoking, but I was not having that wisdom forced down my throat. I could not join their church while I smoked (or drank alcohol, tea and coffee). The best part of a year passed. And in late summer of 1974, one night I had been to see a play (it was “Harvey”, performed by the students at the high school on the USNAS in Bermuda) and I was riding my moped home. I suddenly stopped my cycle, took my pack of cigarettes from my pocket, and removed the one I had been smoking as I rode through the night from my mouth and chucked them into a hedge. I did not smoke again for two years, and was baptized a Mormon during that time.
By 1976, I was involved in local theatre and it seemed that everyone smoked. I was no longer active in the Mormon Church. No guilt. The Mormons were sneaky and appointed me a member of the Branch Presidency, so that I had to attend and conduct meetings (three meetings on a Sunday at the chapel, and a Presidency meeting from time to time, and calls to minister to our flock). I did not smoke in the calendar year 1978.
Despite living in Salt Lake City, I managed to smoke in 1979 and the first few months of 1980. Back in Bermuda, cigarettes were certainly easier to find and buy than in Utah. I smoked heavily, at least two packs of Kools a day, at 55¢ each in 1981. That was about 30p, though cigarettes in the UK were further taxed so that a pack, purchased in England would set you back at least 80p. (In 2011, as I write this, in the UK a pack of cigarettes costs about £7.00, or over $11.00.)
In 1981, in July 1981, exactly 30 years ago as I sit here typing tonight, I was in a psychiatric hospital being treated for severe panic disorder. I was sectioned for about six weeks in late spring. I was taken off all the medications that I had been prescribed for a year or so, and those tablets I had managed to get on the sly. I was locked up to keep me from doing myself some harm. I sat in my tiny room with its tiny toilet and sink and chain-smoked. Night and day, I smoked. Then, in mid-July of 1981, one day, in the hospital, I ran out of cigarettes and was so anxious that I was unable to walk down the hill to the drugstore to buy more. I have not smoked since then, thirty years ago. I tend to suck on mint sweets.
Except in my dreams. Nearly every night I dream, and, in nearly every dream, I am smoking.
If I walk past a pub and there are people outside smoking, I try to hold my breath and walk quickly. I am aware that the stench of smoke attaches itself to one’s clothing so easily. I dislike that tobacco smell so much. So many very young people, as many little girls as boys, are smoking on the streets here, and the awful smell surrounds them. Sometimes one smells the breath of a smoker who is not smoking at that moment. It might be a stranger. It never goes away, no matter how much mouthwash and chewing gum one uses.
My doctor checks my lungs every year, because I had been such a heavy smoker over so many years. My father and one of his brothers, chain-smokers, died from conditions brought about by that unhealthy lifestyle. Died at around 70 years. My two grandfathers, smokers, died of cancer. The one of my grandmothers who smoked (now and then) died, quite young, of cancer. My mother, always surrounded by cigarette smoke (much of it mine) while not a smoker also died of cancer.
I do not know whether I might be at high risk as a former smoker, (has the damage been done?) or whether I just happen to be dealing with some genes that might give me trouble in, possibly, less than a decade.
In my life, until 30 years ago, and in my dreams as recently as last night, I am a rather flamboyant smoker. It is all fun. However, I wonder if the dream will come, in which I cannot catch my breath, which finds me wheezing beyond my annual hay-fever discomfort, that sees me propped up in bed and counting the last days out in tonics and tablets and cannulae.
Yes, it does occur to me that my crippling years with panic disorder in the 1980s might well have saved my life. I was unable to smoke and drink for financial and physical and psychological reasons.
Saturday, 25 June 2011
Hoy-day, what a sweep of vanity comes this way!
They dance! They are mad women.
Like madness is the glory of this life.
As this pomp shows to a little oil and root.
We make ourselves fools, to disport ourselves;
And spend our flatteries, to drink those men
Upon whose age we void it up again,
With poisonous spite and envy.
Who lives that's not depraved or depraves?
Who dies, that bears not one spurn to their graves
Of their friends' gift?
I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me: 't has been done;
Men shut their doors against a setting sun.
William Shakespeare. (Timon of Athens. Act I, Scene II)
TO THE BEST OF MY RECOLLECTION my first paying job was mowing a lawn. About an acre, belonging to my mother’s brother. Our near relatives lived next door to us, on a hillside. I had mowed my mother’s half-acre for a while, and it was rather rocky ground, but not too steep at least. When I moved up onto the slopes, I really did begin to sweat. Seems to me that it was about this time that I first experienced body odour. My own personal stink.
I was saving money to buy a moped. I needed £100, and each time I mowed my uncle’s acre I brought home £1. It seemed that it might take forever. About that time, a second paying position opened. I washed dishes after dinner parties. I would arrive in the kitchen as the dinner was being plated, and start washing anything that was no longer required, working my way through the pots, pans, whisks, and ladles to the demitasse coffee cups and little crystal glasses that liqueurs had been served in. After two or three hours, I had clean fingernails, a moist forehead, and a pound note.
I believe I managed to save the £100 in less than a year. Not bad, bearing in mind I had other expenses. What I did not spend on haircuts, I did use to buy the latest pop records and some rather dodgy clothes. I thought I looked good in flowered shirts with my hair covering most of my face and over my collar.
One short-lived job was tending the bar at The Wheatsheaf Inn, in Ludlow, Shropshire. A lovely old building, where I lived in the attic. I had to remember to walk down the centre of the room and duck my head as I rolled onto my bed. Just above the bed was a flat window in the roof, and as I looked out, I could see bats and night birds flying around the inn’s chimneys. I did not much care for the bar tending, but joined a crew of house painters in the neighbourhood and did that in the daytime. I was paid £5 a week, plus breakfast and lodging.
I was interviewed by the personnel manager at a branch of the Westminster Bank in Maidstone, Kent, and, despite having absolutely no experience of banking and finance, I was offered a job. The Bank advised me to buy a suit or two, and to get a haircut. I might expect £10 a week, before taxes. This seemed rather grand, twice my pay at The Wheatsheaf Inn.
The bank job did not happen. I had put out feelers at the Bermuda office of American International Group (AIG), and flew off to see what that might offer me, a still-greasy teenager. My mother’s brother, the one whose lawn I had mowed some years before, happened to be the president of AIG operations in Bermuda; I also knew many of the employees through their children with whom I had grown up. I was offered a job immediately. In my defence, my uncle did not know that I was applying for a position in his firm.
My talents were judged most appropriate to work in the Accounting and Finance Department. I dare say this was not because I had some experience in an office, but I had never even had so much as a chequebook to balance. So why? I had managed to pass GCE “A” Levels in Mathematics, though only just. There was nothing of bookkeeping in those courses, just a few months of calculus, some statistics, a bit of applied mathematics and physics. I could have worked out something involving Newton’s three Laws of Motion (sometimes I still recall the equations, though not tonight), but I had no idea what a Debit or a Credit might be.
Happens, I learned a bit about bookkeeping, and I worked in that field, for a few employers, off and on for the next 30 years. My mind has now been wiped clean; I now have no real notion of what one might do to balance books, by hand or on a computer. I let the bank balance things for me, though I have a vague idea of what level of poverty I should be classed in.
I have many AIG memories, but the one that comes to mind first involves my boss in the Accounting and Finance Department. The Treasurer was a very large, bulky man, not too many years older than my parents were, but his children were old enough to have been ahead of me academically and socially. I knew his name, but nothing else about him. Mr Dale had a buzzer system that he operated from his desk in his corner office. A single buzz was to summon his executive secretary, two buzzes meant his personal assistant should rush in, three and his chief filing clerk had to get hopping. There were other buzzes that nobody seemed to understand. Had Mr Dale buzzed five times, or was it a two and a three? Had he rested a ledger on the button?
Mr Dale travelled to the company’s New York City offices frequently. We were all glad when this happened. The first experience I had of this was within days of settling into my chair near the Xerox photocopier that I was supposed to keep full of paper, and ink, and to dismantle when copies (frequently) jammed in the works. I was truly clueless. As the boss prepared for his trip, his filing clerk was on constant alert to photocopy everything and anything that might be needed in NYC. This before computers, of course. Hard copy days.
The morning arrived and Mr Dale’s secretary came and asked me to carry his bag to the elevator, and then out to the company car in the parking area. I crept into the corner office, Mr Dale looked at me as if he had no idea who I was (I do not suppose he would) as I reached for the leather straps on a large canvas bag. I hefted and the bag stayed on the floor. I lifted again and it moved just a little sideways. I reached with both hands, got the bag airborne and wobbled towards the door with it. I was sweating by the time I pushed it into the elevator. Downstairs, out of sight of Mr Dale, I simply dragged the bag over to the door and signalled the driver to bring the car up.
I asked for an explanation when we were all horsing around after the boss had headed to the Airport. Turned out the very large, bulky Mr Dale was on a strict diet and his doctor had passed him along to a psychologist. The shrink had told Mr Dale that he must purchase lead ingots equal in weight to the amount he exceeded his perfect weight for his height and frame, put them in a bag, and carry it with him everywhere. He was not particularly tall, and was mostly fat. There was the better part of a man’s weight in the canvas bag. Rather than lift it himself, Mr Dale had staff members lug it about for him. To the best of my knowledge, very little lead came out of the canvas bag. His excess weight remained steady, or increased. Books badly balanced?
I have worked in insurance accounting offices, at a supermarket, at a Peugeot motorcycle and bicycle dealership, for a landscaping firm, in a convenience store taking passport photographs, in a petrol station, and as an assistant to a friend who needed someone to take her dogs to obedience training. I even taught night school classes in creative writing.
Almost exactly ten years ago, late 2001, when George Harrison died, I phoned our local newspaper and asked if I might write an obituary on the former Beatle (my favourite, it happened) for the weekend edition. To my surprise, the editor agreed and I banged out a thousand words. They came easily. A thousand words still flow easily (we are nearly at 1,500 here). I have been writing since I was editor of our grammar school newspaper. I have always kept up a considerable correspondence with friends. It is easy for me. Computers made it even quicker, as fast as I can type with two fingers of my right hand; the words are always there.
I offered the occasional article for that weekend edition, and it would run something most weeks, at $100 a pop. They wanted articles about things I remembered. Things I had seen. As if I was so very old.
Then the art critic for that weekender died. I did not weep long, but offered to have a go in her place. That turned out to be an interesting experience, one I enjoyed. My family has artists on both sides, not just painters, but actors and musicians. I tried to paint when I was in my salad days, not terribly well, but mixed with a fair lot of artisans. I knew painters well, and that lead to set-painters in local theatre, which took me into producing a couple of shows on a small scale.
I attended gallery openings, and first nights at the theatre, and managed to knock out the required column in short order. I only ever struggled when commissioned to write a group of articles on motor vehicles; I was not used to re-writes.
I am reminded of an opening at “Kofu Hair and Gallery” in Bermuda. The hair salon was on a rooftop in a dodgy part of town (one might be gunned down there nowadays) and the owner, a Jamaican with a Bermudian girlfriend, did the hair of black women, and hung paintings on every spare bit of wall space. One was given a programme and, working around the clients, chairs, sinks, and hair-dryers, could study the latest exhibition.
My first visit to Kofu was surprising. The quality of the pictures on show was surprisingly good, even if most of them were the work of the proprietor. There were a few odd things, chairs with nails driven through the seats, hanging from the ceiling. Then the owner took leave of the matron he had been seeing to at the sink, and invited me to go in the “Private Gallery”. I was told that I could not review, or mention, these special pictures, but he would like me to see them to better understand his work.
We walked to a closed door in the centre of one wall, and my host unlocked it, switched on a light, and directed me into the narrow corridor inside. I could tell the walls were hung with huge canvases, some reaching from ceiling to floor, but seeing them was extremely difficult as the corridor was so narrow. One could not get more than a foot away from the surface of a painting perhaps eight foot square.
“What do you think?” The gallery owner asked, indicating a painting.
“I cannot really see it. What exactly would it be?”
Imagine a Jackson Pollock being sucked into a train tunnel. Or the open jaws of a feeding shark.
“It is my girlfriend’s pussy. Close up.”
Close up and eight feet across, at the end of my nose.
“You cannot write about this, of course. The police would raid us.”
This sort of thing might put one off, I dare say. I might have become a John Ruskin. Instead, I see the comedy in it. Ruskin, apparently, never got over Effie Gray’s pubic hair, or was it her menstrual blood, and I am guessing he never had a good laugh about it.
Nowadays I write blog entries. I am not paid, but for the occasional compliment. I also write Tweets, 140 character remarks, on Twitter. Moreover, on good days, I attach my blog entry to my Tweet, and somebody might wind up here.
How did you get here?