Thursday, 25 December 2008


WE WENT TO BED EARLY last night, and then woke at midnight. A quick walk outside (cold, a bit foggy), then we settled in the front room, the little fibre-optic tree switched on, and the electric fire that looks like burning coals (those were the days!) taking the chill off.

I gave Cailean his very first-ever Christmas present. A fuzzy, green slipper of his very own (hopefully mine will no longer go missing and turn up under the bathroom mat or nudged behind something) which he ran around with, at top speed, for about 15 minutes. I made a mug of Horlicks, for I am old.

Then Cailean napped on the sofa, keeping the slipper close by, and I watched the movie The Narnia Chronicles: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe which is a favourite (remember reading the stories 45 years ago?) and is certainly relevant to the Christmas season.

The people upstairs were awake. They had some rather glorious Christmas carols playing on their stereo, but not too loud for comfort down here.

A couple of hours later, we went back to bed with the soft buzz of Horlicks, slippers and Aslan to send us straight off to sleep.

I'm going out to Christmas dinner with friends just after noon. We will, no doubt, watch HM The Queen's Annual Christmas Message on the telly at three o'clock. We got our first television in about 1959. I'm not sure whether the Queen's Message aired in Bermuda that year, but I've watched it in Bermuda and in England for about 50 years. Before that, we listened on the radio. It's a very nice tradition.

Growing up in Bermuda, Christmas dinner was on Christmas Eve: my grandparents, my Uncle Harry and his family, and our dear friends Margaret & Joe came every year. Turkey, ham and vegetables, roast potatoes, then sherry trifle. I recall the year I moved up from the small table to the main event. After dinner we walked through the citrus orchard to my Uncle Jack's house for eggnog and a slice of cassava pie. My sisters and I opened our gifts on Christmas morning. Always a big tin of Quality Street Chocolates from Mr & Mrs Coddington. The choccie in the purple wrap was, and still is, my favourite. Our spaniel of that year usually had a red or green bow attached to her collar. Not something my little dachshund would tolerate in 2008.

Christmas Day was quiet, leftovers to pick at, books to read, telephone calls and the Queen's Message. Sometimes my father would come by and we'd visit with him for an hour or two ... a drive in his car and we'd find a little cafe open somewhere and have a milkshake (usually too expensive an option, but it was Christmas).

On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, we'd be ferried somehow to my Uncle Harry's home for the afternoon. More eggnog and cassava pie, and another sit-down meal in the evening.

It's a wonder my sisters and I were not fat children, you might think. However, be assured that this was probably the only time of year when we exceeded our RDAs of anything.

My parents have been dead well over a decade, my grandparents are gone, Harry's and Jack's wives, my Aunt Anne and Aunt Brenda, have passed away, Joe left this life in the 1990s, the Coddingtons as well. Our spaniels were brief candles.

Of course, I returned to the UK, as did my youngest sister and her family. My other sister is anticipating (most keenly) her first grandchild in a few weeks' time, her daughter lives in the south of England and I wonder if my sister and brother-in-law can stand to be 3,000 miles away for long. This baby, a girl according to the ultrasound, would be my parents' first great-grandchild had they lived, and my grandparents' first great-great grandchild.

For Cailean, this is a first Christmas. He's only nine months old. In just a moment, we are going to walk out in the village for an hour. We'll most likely bump into some of his friends, dogs and people, as they get their exercise before lunch.

My flat is next to a little Catholic church with a very long name (let's not leave out a single local saint!) and I can hear singing there, through the fog. Christmas morning mass.

Isn't it remarkable that in this crazy world, the only sounds at this moment are carols in the mist? Christian or not, you'd have to like that.

Merry Christmas, Cailean. Merry Christmas, one and all!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Things That Go Bump in the Night

"Marty, if you see anything suspicious, you know where I am."
"The trouble with this swamp is that everything is suspicious."
Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster

IT WAS AN OFFER I had to take up: My Internet, telephone and television service all through my broadband connection, for a combined price saving me some dosh.

Of course, I agreed and asked "When?" and was told that the new Hub for the broadband would be in the post that day. I could set it up myself and in doing that would activate it. The device for the telly, however, would not be delivered until Monday, 5 January, 2009. Wait! The good news: I'd be first on the delivery list and it would be at my door at seven o'clock in that morning on the 5th. Would I be home? Well, yes. In bed. And I could install that machine on my own as well. I'm not very technical. Oh! It's simple. Easy enough for some bloke called Rui in India to say.

The next morning the broadband Hub turned up. It weighs less than the instruction booklet that came with it, if you don't include all the wires, plugs and adaptors that came in a plastic bag labelled "You may not need these. See the set-up instructions."

I called Sky TV and asked them to collect their satellite dish and equipment when convenient. They'd be right round. Before I had figured out what Hub accessories I did and did not need, there came a knock at the kitchen door. The man from Sky. He had everything removed in under five minutes, and didn't charge me for doing it. And I had only my telly and DVD player, and no connection to the outside world as far as television is concerned. I'm now counting the days until 5 January.

One would miss certain things keenly, and, fortunately, a number of our TV channels feature their programming online a day after the regular broadcast, and available to view online for a week or more. I'm not going to miss Coronation Street much to my relief: Maria has realised that Tony had her husband, Liam, killed for having the affair with Tony's fiancée Carla, and Tony realises he has to despatch Maria as well.

Watching things on my computer monitor, in the kitchen, is not the way I prefer to spend an evening. I use my computer a fair bit at other times during the day, recently on my personal genealogy project (577 names as of yesterday), and for some correspondence, and I consider my desk area an office of sorts. I like to get away from it by teatime. The sofa calls.

We have, in Amble by the Sea, a little DVD rental store. Now and then I do rent a film, but the store tends to stock the goriest horror films involving power tools and Disney cartoons. That's what they can rent and make money at it, I guess.

21st Century Movies is Amble-sized: a walk-in cupboard sort of place. Because there is so little room, the rental copies are sold off a few months after first appearing in the shop. As an extra source of income, the owner brings in rental copies from other dealers, puts them in racks out on the pavement, and sells them. And here one can find a shiny seam among all that dark computer-generated gore. I buy used DVDs for a pound or two each.

I've picked up some classic old movies, better newer films, concert films, documentaries. One never knows what to expect. There are a great many westerns, a genre I'm not terribly fond of, though I've been to Kanab, Utah, a number of times, where many of the great westerns were filmed, and loved the place. I don't care for the face. Sorry, Duke. And there are horror films. The chainsaw features sell immediately, leaving the likes of The Lost Boys, Bride of the Monster, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and real horror like Gallipoli for me to pick through. Curiously, nobody had taken In Bruges and Phonebooth and Alexander, recent offerings. Do we not care for Colin Farrell in Northumbria? In Bruges and Phonebooth have an element of horror, Alexander is just horrible.

Last night, at two o'clock in the morning, I put Bride of the Monster into the DVD player. It was made before I was permitted to go to Saturday matinees, or just never made it to Bermuda's Island Theatre. In fact, those horror and sci-fi films were missing from my childhood, with the exception of serials like Flash Gordon that ran before features that tended to be gladiator flicks. I looked for Ed Wood films after seeing the Johnny Depp comedic bio-pic.

Bride of the Monster is hilarious, camp, and makes one wonder. Was Ed Wood serious, or just having a laugh? The film features a monster which appears to be file footage of an octopus, references to that creature in Loch Ness, super-men, mind transfer, devious hypnotism, a heroine with perky breasts strapped to a gurney, electric shocks, flashing lights, sliding fireplace backs, cabins in the woods, an alligator, bumbling coppers, big cars, thunderstorms, swamps, the famous giant rubber octopus without a motor that Bela Lugosi had to manipulate himself, lights in the sky, and it ends with an atomic blast and cloud and the cop saying: "He tampered in God's domain."

There was so much thunder added to the film's soundtrack that I didn't notice that we had a storm going on outside my flat. To be honest, I expect the storm was affecting the whole of Amble and inland for a few miles. When the film ended, I heard the real storm and a metallic clanging around in the courtyard. Cailean looked out from under his blanket. Fix that, papa.

I went outside, of course, and there were plant pots tipped over, and the lid of the barbecue had taken wing, looking not unlike the saucers in Ed Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space. The wind was howling; I could hear the sea booming on the beaches.

I secured the barbecue's lid, and looked upstairs at the windows and saw lit, real candles burning, flickering. It was three-thirty in the morning. One doesn't feel too happy knowing someone upstairs in an old building has candles burning while they might be unconscious. That really is scary. There was no sleeping on the cards for me.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Miming on the Karaoke Machine

A black cat crossed my path today
Then another made his way
That I couldn't get around

And there were cracks in the pavement
Cracks in the pavement
And I couldn't get up to you
Some downs I can't get through

But there's rain coming
Heavy rain's coming
Going to wash away
My black and blues

Cracks in the pavement
There are cracks in the pavement
What if superstition's true?
Some downs I can't get through

But there's a storm coming
A high wind's coming
Going to blow away
My black and blues

There are secret signs and evil eyes
And devouring wolves as sheep disguised
Truths whispered
Might as well be lies

But there's love coming
And peace is coming
Going to kiss away
My black and blues

I RATHER LIKE that photograph. A friend, who would know, said it looks like Heathcliff walking his ferret.

I suppose that day, abbreviated as it was so far north as we are, was the last chance to go to the beach until next spring. Next spring might be two days in August 2009, this being Northumbria. We took a bus up the coast at mid-morning, had lunch in a pub called The Hope and Anchor, then walked the few yards onto the sands and wandered about for two hours.

A nice sniff-round for Cailean: he likes to get his nose into dead crabs, empty sea-shells, strings of seaweed, and the unnatural rubbish that people drop after their polystyrene-packaged picnics are eaten, after they've smoked their rollies, after their penises deflate. Really lucky dogs find a dead seal or a stinking, bloated sheep on its back.

At the pub, I had haddock, chips and mushy peas, and a pint of lemonade. The barmaid asked if Cailean might like a plate for some of my fish, and I thought he might. However, somewhat to my embarrassment, the little dog refused to eat from the plate, and not even from my hand. There was another very large dog watching him, and some other diners making a clatter with salads, and two frightfully gay men at the bar chattered away loudly about the antique auction on the plasma screen telly attached to the end wall, apparently more interested in presenter Alistair Appleton than the hideous detritus from some old lady's attic. All so very different from my kitchen where Cailean usually sups from his steel bowl. I paid my £10, which seemed a bit steep for what I'd had, especially as my lemonade had never been near a lemon, and we scarpered.

By half-past-two the cool sunshine was quickly vanishing as a storm rolled in. I set up my camera on a bench at the back of the beach and took the one photograph with the sunset, inland, behind me. We walked quickly back to the village as the temperature started to drop, and had to jog to the bus shelter to beat the rain. We shivered there for thirty minutes, and were ready for the warm, even stuffy, bus when it turned up.

However, we'd had a day out, and during the two weeks since then we've had light snow, ice, and a blizzard, word that this is the coldest winter in 33 years, odds 3-1 that we'll have a white Christmas, more ice, and yesterday and today we've had heavy rain. In fact, we've not been more than twenty feet from the kitchen door in two days. Cailean was okay with his first snow, though he refused to pee in it because it was touching his bits (I'm like that too) and we had to step into shelters to do it. But he dislikes this icy rain and running water. Try and keep him out of a hot shower in the flat though!

We have our very small fibre-optic Christmas tree up on a table, and Cailean has totally ignored it. He has dragged his bed up against the radiator in the front room, gathered his soft toys, blanket, spare cushion and three balls around the bed, and spends a good deal of home-time there. He can see the tree with its out-of-sight-light-show (if only I'd had the tree in the 1960s, I'd have found God) and doesn't seem to care. I have to wonder if the slow changes in colour that creep over the tree rather subtly just don't register on the boy's retinas. I'm nearly in a state of Nirvana, and Cailean hides his Snakey-Snake under a blanket and has a kip.

The Christmas cards are going up on string and on the mantelpiece each day, just as my mother's were displayed, and the room looks quite jolly. My Easter cactus is blooming at Christmas for the first time, some sort of religious conversion. As I recently put new covers on the furniture, recovered the pillows and bought some small mats to add colour to the room, which is now golden rather than maroon and white, it is most pleasing to sit and enjoy the warmth when we get home in late afternoon.

I am going to three Christmas dinners. One is in a posh restaurant (I've already ordered fresh raspberries and a sorbet for dessert) with about 20 others, and Cailean will miss that one. Yes, a doggy-bag is planned. I'm also attending an open house the next day, hoping there will be something other than turkey to nibble at. Cailean will be with me, I believe. Father Christmas is to turn up. I'm hoping Cailean will not be frightened. Christmas Day will be spent at the home of some friends in town. I shall be awfully full by Boxing Day.

Cailean is getting his own slipper for Christmas. He's eaten one pair of mine, and has started on their replacement, so I'm hoping the neon-purple-and-green slipper from the pet emporium is more appealing. Please.

Last New Year's Eve, at the stroke of midnight, I was wakened by knocking at the kitchen door. This was before I'd got Cailean; I'd been watching the telly and dozed off. I opened the door to find a Scotsman in a white t-shirt and jeans, in the bitter cold, holding a bottle of whisky. He wanted to know if I'd like to share a wee dram with him. I do not drink, and have never liked the taste of whisky, and who expects strange Scots on their doorsteps? Of course, I now know it was my (then) new neighbour who I'd never seen before, he's a nice bloke, brings Cailean treats, and it's good luck all round for Scots to have a wee dram at midnight at the New Year with someone. I declined a year ago, but hope he'll return as we move into the first minutes of 2009. I won't drink his Scotch, but he may let me sip my Horlicks and not think me totally naff.

I have a few resolutions, I suppose. Stay fit physically, read more, and travel a bit, and try to really make a good job of my now-large genealogy project. I have over 400 names in the family tree now, all direct lines back to about 1800, some back another 100 years. I need to attach references, certificates, photos, and stories if I have them.

My sister's daughter is expecting a daughter of her own in February, and she would be my parents' first great-grandchild if they were living. With another generation, it seemed to me that I might record what I could in case the little one, one day, wonders where she got her love of shoes. We have shoe-makers back in the early 1800s on both sides of the family, in Thirsk, Yorkshire and Lubenham, Leicestershire. My great-niece might like hats, and there were Moon relatives who made bonnets in Canterbury 150 years ago. She might like to grow things, and could blame the several farmers directly back in Colne, Lancashire during Queen Victoria's reign. Yes, I want to spend some of the near future in the past, as it is a pleasant way to spend the present.

Summing up 2008: It has been a terrific year since 28 April when I collected Cailean. I'd had severe bronchitis for a few months before that, and was on the underside of my mood line. I've now walked off 30 lbs, mastered my high blood pressure after 15 years, and started writing again (a dog is a perfect audience or focus for a writer). I'm cooking and baking. I'm rereading books I first tackled 40 years ago with a view to understanding why they appealed so much, how they might have affected me, and I'm pleased, so far, to find that I wasn't spending my time reading rubbish. I may look ten years older than I did in 1967, perhaps more than ten, but I still find some magic, some wonder, in the books it seems we were all reading back then. We were so cool. I think those books served us well. Odd that my Counter Culture of the 1960s was reading the books of the 1920s and 1930s. What do the young people read today? Where do the children play?

Happy Holidays!

Friday, 28 November 2008


Not for those on a strict diet, I'm guessing

1 loaf, 15 servings/slices

2 ¼ cups self-raising flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup light brown sugar
¼ cup butter (softened)
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed well-ripened bananas
1 cup softened, diced apples (Bramley, if possible)
¾ cup crème fraiche
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Well-butter and flour a loaf tin (8 ½" x 4 ½")
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°)

Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl.

Place sugar and butter in another large bowl; beat together with a mixer, at medium speed, for a minute. Add eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add banana, apple, crème fraiche and vanilla; beat until well-blended. Add flour mixture gradually, beating at low speed until just moist. Spoon the batter into the buttered/floured loaf tin.

Bake at 180°C for 1 hour, then check to see if a wooden pick inserted in centre comes out clean. If not, give it another 5 - 10 minutes, resting some aluminium foil over the top of the loaf if the crust seems well-done. After removing loaf tin from oven, cool 10 minutes on a wire rack before removing loaf from tin. Completely cool loaf on wire rack. Wrap in cling film and store in refrigerator. It tastes better a day later, spread with butter.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The Lie-In in Winter

"Going to the Feelies this evening, Henry?" enquired the Assistant Predestinator. "I hear the new one at the Alhambra is first-rate. There's a love scene on a bearskin rug; they say it's marvellous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects."
Aldous Huxley (Brave New World)

AS A SCHOOLBOY I enjoyed an unplanned day of reading and daydreaming when the weather kept me from playing cricket or football with my mates. As if. All those years ago, I don't think I ever had a regular date, or any date at all, to play an organized sport outside of school hours. I would have been out fishing, possibly walking with a friend on the beaches of Bermuda, at the movies or at the Library. And, come the rain, wind and cold, I would not have hesitated to reach for a book, a blanket if necessary, a spaniel, and would have settled on my mother's sofa. I certainly wouldn't have complained at any misfortune. Let the storm rage, I will not.

Books from the Junior Library at first, Enid Blyton's stories (the butch ones, I wasn't into her Naughtiest Schoolgirl tales, which I regret now), the Hardy Boys, Mark Twain, CS Lewis, HG Wells (especially The Time Machine), Jules Verne, and anything described as like those on its cover. I recall the day I presented myself at the Senior Library, almost certainly the first moment I was able to do so. Would I have been twelve or thirteen, perhaps? That is when I started reading histories and biographies (I'm still at it).

Unable to afford new books, I'd go to the second-hand shops when I was hardly able to reach the shelves. So, on to the James Bond novels: I was a spy on rainy days. I bought many of the best-sellers of the 1950s that had become tattered, well-used, second-hand goods in the 1960s. I enjoyed Nevil Shute, Nicholas Monsarrat, Daphne du Maurier, and Robert Ruark's, stories. Of course, I read Irving Wallace, Irving Stone, and James Mitchener. Harold Robbins was a guilty pleasure. Music magazines were de rigueur. The usual teenaged-boy things. Not sure what sort of a buzz I got out of them.

After that, as one does, I moved on to Mann, Hesse, Gide, Orwell, Huxley, Woolf, DH Lawrence, TE Lawrence, William Blake, Yukio Mishima, Joyce, Wilde, Bernard Shaw. Mormonism brought a flood of books by and about noted members of the Latter-day Saints.

I am blessed in having had friends who pass books along to me, and who generally know exactly what I'd appreciate. From about 1975, I could hardly claim to have kept the publishing industry in the black and white. Nearly every book I read had been handed around a group. I still use the public libraries.

These days and nights, I am drawn to non-fiction first, and the classics. I am reading plays. And I have looked for novels set in the part of England where I live, and/or written by local authors. I still enjoy a good biography.

If I have only a few minutes, perhaps waiting for my car or a bus to arrive, I often spend that time reading lines from something poetic, without being poetry. At this moment, I have Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and André Gide's Fruits of the Earth at hand. I pick up Shakespeare several times a week.

In the past few months I have read several histories on the First World War. I have been reading Alan Bennett's autobiographies (Untold Stories and Writing Home); an autobiography by William Woodruff (Nab End and Beyond) about growing up in a Lancashire mill town in the 1920s; a book about the correspondence between Hitler and Stalin by Laurence Rees (Behind Closed Doors); a biography of the painter Francis Bacon (The Gilded Gutter Life) by Daniel Farson; and Simon Doonan's fabulous account of growing up in Reading in the 1950s and 1960s (Beautiful People). This last book, like the BBC-2 TV series based on it (also called Beautiful People, but reset in the 1990s), has had me doubled up laughing.

The book I'm holding in the photograph is the stage play The History Boys by Alan Bennett, which is brilliant. Bennett adapted it for the film, and that's terrific too, I've watched it many times as it's a great way to spend ninety minutes enjoying fine language and thoughts. I was something of a history boy myself.

I celebrated another birthday recently, and, using some money my sister sent me, I bought something which is, I suppose, a bit naff. A faux-fur mink blanket. It's 79" square, and warm as can be. It feels lovely. Cailean is not sure whether it is friend or foe, and growls at it from time to time, then burrows under it (the underside has a faux-suede finish) for several hours. Friend. That's the blanket in the picture. I look pretty damn good for 82, don't I? That's because I'm not nearly 82, which would be my mother's age.

It has been a chilly, rainy day. Not fit outside for man or beast, as WC Fields put it, and perfect for lounging about under the faux-mink. We posed for the photograph, time delay, but had been reading through the morning, and continued to do so all afternoon. Cailean popped up for the flash. He did not bark: I was worried about him disturbing the neighbours when I got him, so I trained him to bark in Braille. If he needs to alert me to something at the door, he stands by it and paws the floor almost silently.

We had the fairy elephants upstairs clunking around, but they were not brawling at least. For a half-hour, one of them hoovered their floors with its trunk, and they have a good deal of dust and debris to vacuum up and/or the elephant has sinusitis. I put my reading down and tried to come up with an appropriate name for two elephants in Northumberland. Elephants? Grey … Northumberland? Earl Grey. So, I've got Earl and Countess Grey thundering about overhead.

I read a bit, then wondered about this really odd and vivid dream I'd had last night. I had dreamt that I'd built a time machine (it looked rather like one of those steam-boxes for sweating off one's excess fat) and it was all set to go (from my mother's back garden) except for the fuel. The casing, the circuits, the science … those were hot to trot … but the tank needed topping up. What did the time machine in my dream run on? This is the strange bit: gossamer. I asked my mechanic where we might get some. "Fairies' wings," he replied. There might be a short story in that. How the fairies have to learn to be like normal people. The Sarah Palin Manifesto, 2012.

Now, back to The History Boys and the touch of faux-mink.

That's the way it is just north of Narnia tonight.

Thursday, 13 November 2008


Queen Street & Mill, Harle Syke, 1910

Military Record for James Arthur Lancaster, 1918

Wancourt British Cemetery, France, 2008

War Memorial, Harle Syke, 2008

Queen Street Mill & Museum, Harle Syke, 2008

A certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

St. Matthew, 8:19-22

My little dugout, my home these last two or three days: I am in a narrow trench about four feet deep, and my dugout is a hole scooped out of the trench side and roofed over with a piece of corrugated iron. When, at night, we settle to rest, and hang up oilsheets at the openings, and light our candle, we are quite comfortable, and happy.
Lance-Corporal Frank Earley, 1 September, 1918. (He was killed the next day, aged 19.)

I DID NOT KNOW of Lance-Corporal Frank Earley and his death in battle on the Western Front on 2 September, 1918 until I read the Imperial War Museum publication "1918 - Year of Victory" penned by Malcolm Brown. I was looking for information on my grandfather's older brother, James Arthur Lancaster, who was killed on 2 September, 1918, fighting alongside the Canadians as they smashed through the "Drocourt-Quéant Switch" offshoot of the Hindenburg Line.

There are only five sentences in the book about the battle for the Drocourt-Quéant Switch, and four of those are reflections on the use of names with Wagnerian connotations by the Germans for the lines in that area. They called the Switch "Wotan". I do not know how many hours the battle lasted, or exactly how many men died and what exactly killed them, or how much firepower was expended during the battle on either side. What was the ground like? Were there any trees left near Arras by 1918? Was it raining? Had the Tommies had time for breakfast? Were prayers held? Did anyone sing "God Save the King" (or even think it)? Did anyone try and run away? Did my mother's uncle die immediately, and was his body quickly removed to a morgue? Was he bagged or boxed? Was he missed?

I've never seen a photograph of James Arthur Lancaster as an adult. He was only 24 when he died fighting for his country, and, as he'd volunteered in 1915, I imagine he did care about his country. He'd been 21 when he signed on, and would have started working in the Queen Street Mill in Harle Syke, Lancashire, ten years before. Of course, that would only have been part-time when he was eleven years of age, he might have had another year with some schooling before becoming a full-time weaver. Perhaps, after ten years in the Mill, the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, and the likelihood of some foreign travel, even under fire, appealed to the young man.

I have seen a photograph taken, I'd guess, in about 1905, picturing James Arthur Lancaster, then aged eleven, his sister Maud, who would have been about nine, and my grandfather, William Lancaster, four or five. The boys looked much alike, their hair cut to a stubble, dressed in identical outfits that may have been borrowed or hired for the occasion, as I doubt that the Lancaster children had much need for fine-cut, black, velvet suits with white, lacy shirts with enormously wide and high collars that seem purely decorative. Not even as useful as linen antimacassars, and the family would not have had those either. The boys looked a bit flash, to be honest. Maud had been dressed as I'd have expected a girl to have looked in her circumstances: plain. However, plain did mean many layers of unattractive cloth, set off by drooping ringlets. That sort of plain takes some work.

The Lancaster children had been posed amidst some grand furniture in front of a photographer's backdrop, a brocade curtain. And that is my picture of James Arthur Lancaster, the only one that might approach the real thing. He looks a good deal like his brother, so he may have grown up to look like my grandfather did, and I have seen photographs of my grandfather at the age that James Arthur was when he was killed in the Pas de Calais. James Arthur must surely have been taller than my grandfather to have been able to enlist, for my grandfather was only a very few inches over five foot. If like my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, he would have tended to be stocky, though I cannot imagine he managed to stay very plump in the trenches. His face would have been narrow, not a very good chin, and he would have been a bit bow-legged, small feet, but not unattractive.

James Arthur was sent to France in October of 1917. I don't suppose anyone in the family had crossed the English Channel in living memory. My father's people, the Eldridges, were sailors in the Royal Navy going back many generations, but my mother's relatives had been farmers and weavers and I have no record of even a distant cousin of some sort putting on a uniform. And we didn't have the money for holidays on the Continent.

I have a number of James Arthur's military records now. It is interesting to see his rather poor penmanship, as if he struggled when signing his name to his Attestation documents when pledging allegiance to His Majesty, King George V.
King George V had the family name Saxe-Coburg Gotha, he was the first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II of the Hohenzollern family. Lancaster was the name of an English Royal House, long before those Germans got involved.

One of the last of the papers that have come my way is shown above, and one can see James Arthur was "In the Field", which might have been fairly accurate. Or in a foxhole in the field. He was taken to a rest station a few times suffering from diarrhoea, and I imagine it must have been more severe than that one gets after a dodgy curry on a Friday night.

And, on 23 September, 1918, someone has made a memo on the records to show that the soldier was "Killed in Action". The memo was entered three weeks after James Arthur Lancaster died, and then the page seems to have been stamped and signed.

My great-grandparents, Harry and Elizabeth Lancaster, received word of their oldest son's death at their home in Harle Syke. Who answered the door? I wonder. It was just a few weeks before the War ended, my grandfather, turning 18, had been called up (fortunately, he contracted the influenza virus and was not caught up in the madness, he got to stay in the Queen Street Mill).

Another document, dated 4 May, 1919, has my great-grandfather signing for two medals awarded to his dead son. The War and Victory Medals. I have no idea where they might have gone.

The exact whereabouts of James Arthur Lancaster's grave was not known in my immediate family until five years ago when, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I located him in the Wancourt British Cemetery in Northern France, not far from where he died. His grave reference is VIII H. 10. His name is on two memorials in Harle Syke, Lancashire, and I've shown the one by the town's bowling green. I wonder if he bowled.

The Queen Street Mill in Harle Syke is now a tourist attraction, a museum, boasting the only remaining steam-powered looms in the world. It has free parking, a gift shop and a café.

11 November, 2008, was commemorated as the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice that ended the War to End All Wars. Two Royal Marines were killed in Afghanistan today, squabbling with dusty people over some real estate that they want for their own people and we wouldn't know what to do with if we could take it from them successfully. So it goes.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Explaining All That Is Mad

The Apple Universe

The Hazelnut Universe

The Multiple Hazelnut Universe

The Convenient Hazelnut Universe

And in pis he shewed me a lytil
thing pe quantite of a hasyl
nott. lying in pe pawme of
my hand as it had semed. and
it was rownde as eny ball.
I loked per upon wt pe eye of
my vnderstondyng. and I
pought what may pis be. and
it was answered generally thus.
It is all pat is mad.
Julian of Norwich (Showing of Love)

UNDERSTANDING, FOR ME, COMES SUDDENLY. I recall vividly the first time I truly understood gravity. I'll tell you the story.

Our physics laboratory at Warwick Academy had been created by dividing the former lunchroom (which was where we were supposed to eat if it was too rainy to go outside) into two rooms. The two rooms were unequal in size; the much larger space being devoted to the biology lab, the physics lab might have been twenty feet square. In order to reach the physics lab, one had to troop through the room in which a biology lesson might be in progress.

We had two tables, and two benches, without backs, on which to sit, rescued from the lunchroom's detritus, in the physics lab. The room had two small windows. Overhead, the usual fluorescent lights flickered. The master's desk and chair faced us, behind him a blackboard and, high above that, not easily reached, was a shelf. On the shelf, a few books and a number of plaster busts, each a little over a foot tall, of the great physicists (Galileo, Faraday, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, and so on). I remember, also, a dusty set of scales. We never used them. The only hands-on lesson we ever had involved pouring blobs of liquid mercury into our palms and feeling the weight and magic of it. We'd let the metal slide from our hands back into its clay jar and go out and eat our sandwiches.

One day (it's always one day, isn't it?) the physics master, a Welshman with a fondness for the bottle and the art mistress, was scribbling out a diagram on the blackboard, an electrical circuit of some sort with rheostats and switches, and his chalk broke. It crumbled, actually, and fell onto the floor. The physics master muttered SHIT! and thumped the blackboard with his fist. That's when a bust, that of Sir Isaac Newton, fell off the overhead shelf, accelerating at 32.2 feet per second per second, onto the master's head. The master hit the floor like a sack of apples.

At that very moment, I fully understood gravity. Gravity is having dignity or sobriety of bearing. Clearly our physics master had neither.

I WAS BROUGHT UP A CHRISTIAN. I still have a Church of England hymn book for children, purchased in Canterbury Cathedral in 1952 by my two grandmothers (doing a little sightseeing), and sent to me back in Bermuda, where I might be raised amongst Heathens for all they knew. I was two at the time and couldn't read. I still cannot sing at the age of 59.

I attended the Anglican Church in Bermuda as a small child. It was racially segregated; I guess God thought that was a good thing, certainly his devout servants did, and they preached it. I have no doubt that the Vicar had black servants in his oversized rectory. The pale, frequently sweating, well-fed priest with his double chins and fat wife would not have mowed his own lawns either. God must have liked that set-up, and provided the money required to pay for it.

Curious as it may seem, I became a Mormon when I was not long out of my teens. I was attracted by the fellowship, the friendly nature of the members, the welcome and the abundant food. There was something else, something more important. I met somebody, a young LDS missionary from Utah (wherever that was), and the very moment I set eyes on him, I had an understanding. It was clear to me, it did not require further thought, I knew him from somewhere.

A little about Carl Burke, and this is not a completely invented story like the one about my physics master and the bust of Isaac Newton. [Or was that something I made up? A creator might be thought clever if nobody realises what his occupation is.] Carl was born about three years after I was, into a Mormon family in Utah (which I discovered was just beyond the peaks of the Rocky Mountains). His father, Bill, was a convert, originally from the American Midwest, I believe. Verna, Carl's mother, was the daughter or granddaughter of immigrants from Europe who had converted to the Church. The couple had two sons when they were getting on in years, and Carl was much younger than his brother.

I do not know what pressure was put on Carl to conform to Mormon ideals and beliefs, but he got into a good deal of trouble. He liked anything mechanical, fast cars were appealing, and he developed a taste, a longing, for alcohol and, particularly, drugs. It was the early 1970s and he wasn't the only one. I was never much for drink, though I didn't shy from it, I just didn't really enjoy it. It would never have occurred to me to drink at home alone. I liked drugs though. I made a career of abusing drugs.

Needless to say, Carl got caught. In 1972, the year my manic depressive illness began as severe anxiety and mild depression, Carl was nabbed breaking into a drugstore. I didn't know him then, he told me about it in 1974. It had looked as if Carl was going to be spending some time in jail: His behaviour was out of control, his health and addictions were at a crisis point, his emotions were shot to hell. And somebody pulled a miracle out of a hat. If Carl would go on a mission for the Mormon Church, under the particular and knowing supervision of a Mission President approved by the courts, and would behave, he would not be jailed or otherwise institutionalised.

Carl was sent off to the Eastern States Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the care of Mission President David Lawrence McKay. David Lawrence McKay was no ordinary Mormon; his father was David O. McKay, the Ninth Prophet of the Church, from 1951 until 1970. David Lawrence McKay had read his father's sermons in General Conference from time to time. He knew everybody. He was connected. The Eastern States Mission was centred in a grand Mission Home on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and among Carl's duties was keeping track of Mission vehicles. He also travelled and tracted, wearing that uniform (white shirt, dark trousers, tie and knapsack, and the Elder Burke badge).

In February of 1974, Carl Burke was sent to Bermuda, then in the Eastern States Mission area, and the day he arrived his companion, Elder Steven Love, brought him around to meet me. I wasn't a Mormon then. And I shook Elder Carl Burke's hand (his handshake was not the crushing one some elders seemed to affect on the likes of me) and had this understanding, quite naturally, that he was an old friend.

Within weeks, Elder Burke was taken seriously ill and arrangements were made to get him back to New York City as soon as a replacement could pack his bags. And I knew that this wasn't the way things were supposed to be. Carl and I had not just become fast friends; we'd resumed, somehow, a friendship. Despite the activities of the Bermuda Branch leadership in preparing to ship Carl out, I decided to contact Mission President David Lawrence McKay (who I'd never met). I told President McKay the story: Elder Burke is an old friend, he has a real purpose in Bermuda, not least of all to change my life, and he's meant to be here. Be damned, but President McKay had to agree with me!

Carl Burke did change my life. He's even responsible for me uprooting myself from Bermuda three years ago and returning to England, my family's home country, where I've longed to be all the years I was away. Three years ago, in his early fifties, Carl died quite suddenly. He'd developed heart troubles, had been put on the waiting list for a transplant, and died. All within a very few months. His daughter, Gina, expecting her first child, contacted me a few hours after he'd passed. And I had to wonder where, when and how I might bump into my old friend, who'd been Carl Burke to my Ross Eldridge, again. I did think that I might go on something of a Mission of my own. Home to England.

THE REVEREND DR. PETER MULLEN, rector of the Anglican church of St. Michael's Cornhill and St. Sepulchre without Newgate in the City of London, made headlines recently by positing and posting, on his church blog, the following:

"Let us make it obligatory for homosexuals to have their backsides tattooed with the slogan SODOMY CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH, and their chins with FELLATIO KILLS."

Dr. Mullen, the sort of doctor who doesn't really do anyone much good, was rapped over his knuckles, we're told. However, I don't think they took a Pectoral Cross to him, at best a Tippet.

I decided to look up Mullen's church blog, and found that the offending remarks had been purged. (St. John 15:2). However, by their fruits, and all that, I decided to look up some of Mullen's sermons. The Rector preaches regularly, and is Chaplain to the Stock Exchange (so he must be up to his Amice in prayer requests), and tackles many subjects as a very (very) conservative cleric.

One of Mullen's sermons was on science and religion, and he chose to tell the tale of the mystical nun, St. Julian of Norwich (1342 -1416), who had some sixteen "shewings" or revelations, visions, in about 1373. Mother Julian was deathly ill at the time, but recovered. She wrote up her experiences (as we all should, particularly if God appears to us, and he visited this nun), and rewrote them about twenty years later. Her spelling didn't improve, but that's the way it was when Richard II was King of England.

Reverend Dr. Peter Mullen preached that Mother Julian asked God, during one of his visits, how big the Universe was. Those nuns, eh? And, according to Mullen, God said nothing, but placed an apple in Mother Julian's hand. And Mullen went on to relate that recently when scientists, astrophysicists and so on, got together with Einstein's work (and that of others) on the table, they decided that all the matter in the Universe, when packed together, as it was at the moment just before the Big Bang, was the size of an … apple. Which kind of made Julian of Norwich look pretty good, or Stephen Hawking, or both. I imagine Mullen's flock were chuffed to hear that.

However, if you bother to get yourself a copy of Revelations of Divine Love, the account of Julian of Norwich, you'll find that God, when he popped round to see Mother Julian and answered her query about the size of the Universe, placed a hazelnut in her palm. Apples, hazelnuts, astrophysics. I think size matters, I really do.

The Reverend Dr. Peter Mullen was misleading his parishioners. If he knew what he was saying, which was inaccurate, and said it just to impress, the man needs to be defrocked. Be interesting to see if he has any tattoos under his skirts!
Does one bad apple, one bad Christian apple, spoil the whole bunch? (Please excuse bunch as the collective of apples!) I have this understanding that it just might, given the pyramidal nature of religion.

Of course, I do not know if all the matter, when compacted, is as big as an apple, or as small as a hazelnut, and I'm not going to ask God about it because I'm not exactly sure about this God thing right now. I'm certainly not counting myself as a Christian, I believe in eternal matter, eternal life, but as reincarnation. I'm looking at Past Life Regression.

I have this peculiar understanding that we've been this way before. And that one must keep looking out for old friends. One may well, in fact, one must change. So, let's not be afraid of all that.

Sunday, 9 November 2008


MY MOTHER HAS VISITED ME a few times this past fortnight. When she turns up I'm always aware that, even as we converse and interact, she is quite dead and has been since September of 1992. Death has not calmed her down; she's as manic as ever and just as difficult to cope with. Still, I enjoy the visits and I appreciate that she's always gone by the time I wake up. No lingering ghost steaming up the mirrors or making the curtains billow when there isn't a breeze.

When my mother was alive, she was something of a responsibility, rather than responsible. Manic depressive, with periods of complete fantasy and what was, at times, insanity, my mother struggled to be any sort of a parent at all. As bad luck would have it, she was forced to be a single parent long before that was a common, almost popular, way to raise up one's children.

I'm not sure that my mother did anything wrong, at least not intentionally, and not of her own volition. She was manoeuvred by her family members who felt she needed to be more assertive. My mother also tended to believe, having been told to do so, anything that was said by someone who appeared to be in authority. She believed that titles and badges and signs on office doors were everything, perhaps not bothering to really evaluate the person behind them. So she did not question things, or draw her own conclusions, but acted on those pressed upon her. That's how it goes.

Looking back now, at an age my mother only surpassed by about six years, I think I can safely say my mother was not a capable parent, and some might say she was not a good parent. My opinion is that she did her best, which was a real struggle for her emotionally (she was, after all, mentally ill), physically (she was a grand-mal epileptic, relying on considerable amounts of drugs), financially (at times she was penniless), and ability-wise (she couldn't cook, didn't drive, didn't read after she left school).

My mother would get ideas into her head and wouldn't let go of them, no matter how annoying, peculiar or unhealthy. When we were quite young, she suddenly decided that it was easier to fling the kitchen trash, item by item (cartons, bottles, bags, vegetables that had gone off, egg shells) onto the back patio. There was a bin in the back garden for these items, but my mother thought they could be gathered up every few days and binned, there was nothing wrong with letting things lie about on the lawn. I did not, and do not, understand how anyone who had a trash-can only 15 feet from the kitchen door could come to such a conclusion about refuse disposal. Particularly when she chucked the things over the top of the bin to get them to land on the patio.

We also had to live with African violets. My mother was mad for African violets, though she had no success in growing them. There were pots all over the house. Now, I have a few plants in my flat now, I like indoor plants, but I do not have my kitchen counters covered in dozens and dozens of plant pots, crammed up against each other, so that there is hardly any room on the counter for something useful, like a cutting board or bread-bin.

Dish-washing was interesting. My mother believed that washing-up water should be boiled and poured into the sink (this was before machines, of course). On the face of it, boiling water for the dishes sounds healthy. However, that's where she lost the plot. Our electric kettle was small, probably holding less than a quart of liquid, which was hardly enough to wash dishes, so my mother then topped up the sink with water from the tap. Which was cold. Dishes were not, by the way, rinsed. They were washed with a bar of Ivory Soap, and our dishes and utensils seemed to have that flavour.

I could go on and on. Perhaps I should not be trashing my mother at this stage of the game. I offer the information more as a warning to others. Given modern medications, treatments and social programmes, chances are few people need be quite as peculiar as my mother. If you or your loved ones, or not-so-loved ones, seem to be acting a tad odd from time to time, have a chat with someone about it. What? Me crazy?

For all the hassle, most of my memories of my mother are fairly bland. We got away with a good deal, we had wonderful days as children, we attended the best school, we had clean clothes (though often hand-me-downs or second-hand store purchases), we had books and record albums, money for the movies, we were hardly reined in. I have, personally, some splendid memories of my mother having fun, which she only ever did, it seems to me, away from Bermuda. I'm going to say it: Away from her own parents. She really could fall about laughing at times, found things fascinating, took dares and while she lived totally in the present, never speaking of anything that had happened before, seemed incapable of doing so, she could chatter on about something we might be looking at (a film, a play, an animal in the zoo, a gravestone, a monument, a view) intelligently and in great detail, at that moment. It would be gone the next day.

My mother, if I was not in the same country that she was in, or was some distance from her, wrote to me at least once a week. Telephone calls were too expensive. I am a writer of letters, perhaps as a result of her example or influence, and I'm glad about that. I use the telephone as well, but that's the difference between 1968 and 2008.

A memory that tells something about my mother that I'm not sure she was aware of herself. We were not at all well off and our diet, I think, suffered from variety and my mother's failure as a competent cook. She could not make what food we had tasty or interesting, perhaps because she used no herbs or spices. She made do with a great deal of salt, and a very little white pepper. That was it. No flavourings, extracts or essences. No powders, granules or leaves. Just salt. The rare and special dish we'd have was a meat pie, made in a shallow Pyrex dish, lined with my mother's own plain pastry, using hamburger, a few sliced potatoes, an onion and maybe a pat of butter, pastry over the top. The pie was pretty dry, but it was beef and I like onions. Some gravy would have been fabulous, but it didn't happen. Ever.

My mother would slice up the pie amongst the four of us (I have two sisters that I grew up with) and she would always, always, cut a very small piece for herself, nowhere near a quarter, and then cut the remainder into three equal portions. Did she do that on purpose? Was she aware that beef was a treat for us? That we probably could do with the nutriments in red meat? That we might otherwise become anaemic on our diet of boiled chicken, over-cooked cabbage and tatties?

I made a meat pie last night. I use almost two pounds of Angus beef that I cube, fresh mushrooms, onions, parsnips and baby carrots. I make a sauce using beef stock and double cream, I use lots of herbs and spices and little salt, and my crust is flaky pastry. I prefer a deep clay dish to a Pyrex pie dish. The first serving is more than sufficiently moist, but when I reheat the leftovers (I have plenty, I prepare food for several meals at a time to save time, energy and money), I usually have an onion gravy as well. Served with chips or rice.

I wish, I really wish, my mother could stop by long enough for a slice of pie, a big, generous slice. However, in my dreams I don't seem to make pies when my mother is visiting. It may be that, after all, she made the better pie.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

TOAST (Served With No Porkies)

I TELL YOU NO PORKIES: Winter has arrived! That's the way it is in Great Britain.

One day the poets are out raving about the daffodils, and the weather and the scenes are picture-postcard- and calendar-photo-perfect. One writes to the cousin in Australia:

"You'd love this! Warkworth Castle is up to its keep in golden blossoms. Songbirds are flying in from Africa. The sky is an exquisite blue that defies the palette. Our noses have stopped running. Off with the overcoats. Restaurant doors are open and the fragrance of food wafts into the street. Pretty girls and boys are everywhere."

And three or four days later the poets have to run for cover as the rains set in. Rough winds shake the darling buds of May that hadn't been shaken right off the branches in April. The people start coughing, the birds start wheezing. This is the real spring.

One day there are tourists consulting guidebooks and looking up at Warkworth Castle. It is quite warm for England, must be all of 20°C. Suddenly the countryside is green and pleasant. William Blake's ghost must be in Heaven. Well, here.

"Hey there. Nice little castle you Limeys have got. We're from the USA, by the way. Kansas City, Missouri. We're your American cousins."
"Are you Democrats or Republicans?"
"Geez, man, we're McCain-Palin Republicans."
"Then you're not my cousins. Fuck off!"
"Ethel, the natives here are almost as rude as our cousins in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Ukraine..."

Right about then the summer flooding begins, tourist arrivals fall again. The leaves hang on, however, even when the uprooted trees float down the rivers and across the tidal marshes into the sea. The two days of summer, the balmy 20°C, are remembered well as we get the sweaters out in July and when the anoraks come down in August.

A flight of birds, a mad scramble really, heralds the end of summer. A few days of glorious autumn colours (rosy red noses and gin-flowers, hepatic-yellow eyes, and orange fingers on the blokes outside the pubs) and then a violent wind. Something one has eaten, I imagine. And it's over.

One good thing at this point in time is that the great outdoors shops have all their unsold camping gear on sale, just in case you think it might be fit to go out and enjoy the countryside and being close to nature next, erm, summer. Now is the winter of our discount tents, sleeping bags and backpacks.

This year, before Hallowe'en, we've had blizzards in Scotland, moderate snow in Wales and the Midlands, snow flurries in London (the earliest since 1934), and just a few days ago we had about 36 hours of on-and-off hail in Amble by the Sea. Not your picturesque hail, this was heavy-duty stuff which woke me several times in the night with the clattering on the windows (so much for double-glazing), and which made it impossible to take Cailean for a walk past the courtyard. He has a winter coat, but his head is bare and I'm not much for being hailed on either.

On 2 November, 2008, I find myself bundling up, having to have the central heating on, and drinking a good deal of hot tea to keep myself comfortable, which is not to say warm as toast. Even toast doesn't make me warm as toast. In fact, if you've been to England you'll know that toast is prepared the night before and served at breakfast … cold!

It's Global Warming, of course, that is responsible for this frigid weather. Thank God we don't have Global Cooling, or we'd really be fucked.

PORKIES: Cockney rhyming slang. Porkies = Pork Pies = Lies

Sunday, 19 October 2008


SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A LIFE BEYOND POLIO is Gary Presley's account of his life after contracting polio in 1959, when he was a boy of but 17 years. Gary had gone along for the series of injections to prevent polio (many of us had those, or the vaccine on the sugar lump), and a week or so following the final jab, Gary collapsed. He has not been able to walk, and has had to rely on assistance with his breathing, since that time. Over the past 49 years, Gary has rolled along on seven wheelchairs, and presently enjoys the company of Little Red.

Gary Presley worked in insurance sales, and also in commercial radio. He is pretty much self-educated, and did a superb job with it. He is a son, a brother and a husband and father.

Gary has become a writer, and that is how I came to know him. Gary is an administrator of the Internet Writing Workshop. He is a published essayist. With this book release, he is becoming something of a media personality and I had the distinct pleasure of listening to him, over the Internet, speaking on the radio in Iowa. They've got him signing books as well: events, they call them.

In this quite easy to read, if difficult to live, history, Gary Presley uses words that make some of us a little uncomfortable: disabled, handicapped, invalid (and what a word that is, suggesting someone is not "valid"), paralysed, isolated, frightened. Another troubling word that pops up: normalcy. One might think: "Well, that's all about life in seven wheelchairs." Listen: Who among us cannot apply these words, even the terrifying "normalcy", to his or her life?

This is why I particularly enjoyed and benefitted from Gary Presley's account: There are Riding Lessons in Seven Wheelchairs for the likes of me.

It was interesting, and pleasing, to find that Presley's style is, at first, simple, untroubled (and untroubling), and has almost the naivete of a youth about it. The descriptions of falling to the earth, of being slotted into an iron lung, of being fitted for breathing apparatuses, at the age of 17, are fresh. There is no roughness of the man of 65 in it. As the autobiography, for that is what this must be in many ways, progresses, the style and content matures. When Gary finds love the writing really is a serious read, you linger over every line, liking it all so much. You feel he has grown, the book itself, the medium, has been a transport.

The book: Mine has 226 pages, I read it in two days at a leisurely pace. It is printed on pleasant paper, and the University of Iowa Press that published it is committed to preserving natural resources, and that's all worth noting. The book weighs about 420g, so you can figure out how much postage you'll need to send a copy to a friend or family member this coming holiday gifting season, and it shouldn't be onerous. Of course, can do that for you.

Finally, it seems to me that more than a few young people in their mid- to late-teens, say aged 17, could find this book a bit of a primer for life. Parents: Leave a copy on your son's bed.

When I was in my early twenties, I read, for the first time, The Rack by A.E. Ellis, and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Both novels, of course, and dealing with something that even 40 years ago we didn't trouble ourselves over much (tuberculosis). In my case, it was the musings of the characters, the troubled love lives, the frustrations, the breathing lessons, the psychologies, the philosophies, that kept me reading (and eventually re-reading) The Rack and The Magic Mountain.

I don't know whether people can be arsed to read those particular books now, but SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A Life Beyond Polio by Gary Presley deals with things that "other people get, not me" in our lifetime. It's an important book, makes you take stock, look at your feet and the door, and it might give you the push to get a move on.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Revolution Revisited

Protestors. Grosvenor Square, London. 17 March, 1968

This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a
foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures,
shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions,
revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of
memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and
delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the
gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am
thankful for it.
William Shakespeare (Love's Labour's Lost, Act IV, Scene II)

I HAVE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. Do people who work the night shift ever suffer from sleepless days? Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on my mood, these hours awake when others sleep are not so regular, so frequent, as to render me useless most of the time. Four or five times a week I can get safely to the minimart for milk, to the greengrocer for broccoli, and to Roland's Butchers for a bit of fresh lamb's liver for Cailean, and not be standing out on the street wondering whether it is Thursday or Norway. When I am truly knackered in the daytime, I try not to stray past the pages of the book I'm reading. Cups of tea and a blanket over my legs on the sofa, and the dog kipping on his back alongside me.

When I become the vampire, the creature of the night, I usually have fallen asleep in the early evening, as early as tea-time, and wakened by nine o'clock. From that hour my mind races, I often pace the floor, and have to fight the temptation to leave the flat and go walking in the mists that this seaside village hides in every night. Fortunately for me, Cailean is not much of a werewolf, and he doesn't often care to go outside after dark, except for pee breaks in the courtyard, and snappy ones at that.

I did actually take him for one late night walk recently in the moonlight, near the River Coquet, and very nearly had to carry him home: hooting owls, barking dogs, splashes in the water, rather a lot of bunnies, and the clanking of cables on the aluminium masts of the sailboats. Oh, I think Cailean would have stayed by the river, but I was scared shitless and couldn't get home through the heaped autumn leaves fast enough. We were like two protons in the Large Hadron Collider!

Back at home. I find I can watch the television comfortably until midnight, and can push on for another hour if there's a good film showing. I rather like weird foreign films with subtitles; T-rated films: transvestites, transsexuals, tortured priests, twinks, trolls, tits, theatrics, twists in the plot, therapy, trench-coats. Well, anything by Pedro Almodóvar.

When I've had enough of the telly, I read for a while. Cailean, for many hours by this time, has been asleep under several blankets with all his toys. Approaching two-thirty in the morning, bladders must be relieved, mine first. Then out into the cold with the pup. The security light blazes and any inclination to sleep is blasted right out of me. We run back inside, switching off any lights, stand-by switches and the heater if it has been on. Cailean vanishes under the covers with "Snakey", a favourite stuffed toy that is a good deal bigger than he is. I pull the blankets up, face the ceiling, and start thinking.

Some years ago, I wrote a newspaper column that tended to be about days gone by, which were sometimes the good old days of my youth, sometimes about the travel I'd managed when my health and finances permitted, about people that I'd met, books I'd read, things that influenced me, the shitty experiences of childhood, conversions and diversions. My therapist thought I was getting all the past out of my system. I kept a journal for over twenty-five years, scrapbooks as well, and photo albums. Everything was on paper, somehow. As we carry the past along with us, perceiving time as we do in these dimensions, I hardly expected to get everything out of my system!

Three years ago I took all my journals to an industrial incinerator plant, along with my scrapbooks. So much for what I did in 1980; so much for the newspaper clipping of my mother's funeral notice; so much for important telephone numbers; so much for jokes that were so funny when I heard them that they had to be written down; so much for my thoughts on 11 September, 2001; so much for theatre tickets, and an address blotchy on a beer-mat, and a coin I picked up that I did not recognise. Into the fire.

I left my photo albums (and I'd been the keeper of the family photographs among my siblings), my personal papers, my newspaper columns, my reference books and notes, everything that I'd written, in an old cargo container in a damp field in Bermuda. When I turned my back on it, I knew that I'd not pay the storage fees after the first six months, and I didn't, and that was three years ago. Those things have gone. Apparently, as of three years ago, I'd pretty much dumped the baggage of my past, mentally, and the physical followed.

Back in England, I found I was unable, couldn't be arsed, to write about schooldays and fishing off the rocks and climbing Mount Pisgah on Beaver Island, though I was vaguely conscious of those times. Instead of panoramic views of driving through the Grand Tetons that just go on and on, I have a little, the smallest, Post-it Note reading "Saw the Tetons". Enough seen, enough said.

I'm tending to write about the moment, or at least last night or a day or two ago. I've taken up photography, I see something interesting, camera always at the ready, I get my snapshot, and I write about it. Or delete it. I don't save it.

And, in the night, in the last few hours before sunrise, my mind races. Something I saw the day before. I have a tiny torch, the sort that one might attach to a key ring, and I reach for it, my biro pen, and a jotter pad (they are scattered all around the flat), and I write down my great thoughts. Light out. Another thought. Light on. And through the night. Light off. Light on.

Sometimes I sit up completely and my thoughts become visual. In the room, awkwardly manoeuvring around the clutter, walk people and animals, sometimes flags flutter, things blow across the carpet which has become a street. There is no sound, unless I make it, and I don't want to disturb Cailean by talking to short-term memories.

Last night, I watched water cascading downwards through what should have been the carpeted floor, only it had become a rough path down a mountain, and pine trees hovered behind the furniture. It was quite remarkable; I made a note of it on my jotter pad. Had there been full sound, I imagine I might have been frightened.

Cailean only needs to pee once in the night, but I must go two or three times, so I got up from the sofa-bed and walked out of the woods, down the hall to the bathroom. When I came back, the room was a room again. I decided to make a large mug of coffee, which I do using skimmed milk rather than water. Four minutes and ten seconds in the microwave does it exactly. And I sit in the dark and drink the coffee and listen to music playing in my head. Coffee does that to me. Indie and Brit Pop.

Coffee also makes me sleepy at five in the morning. This morning, I wrote a few more notes and then rolled over in the bed, felt Cailean curl up behind my knees, closed my eyes, and then it was eight-thirty. Cailean was playing with Snakey on top of the blankets; the room was so bright that I knew it was a sunny day outside.

I do my house-cleaning chores on Friday, and I made beef stew from scratch, which takes two hours, not including the suet dumplings. So, I've done all that, it's Friday evening.

Just now, I had a look at my jotter pad. It reads, in part: "Revolution revisited before 2008 has passed!"

I must tell you my mind is not so far gone that I cannot figure the line out. You see, 1968, exactly 40 years ago, was quite the year for social unrest and upheaval, assassinations, invasions, riots and beatings and strikes.

The Rolling Stones sang their take on it, their anthem, Street Fighting Man, which is a shit song as far as music goes, but it included the lyric: "Summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy..." which is memorable to an old Stones fan such as myself.

John Lennon wrote one of my very favourite Beatles' songs, Revolution, which includes the lines:

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out

On 17 March, 1968, which was a Sunday, I was in London with a dear friend of mine, who reads this blog from time to time, he's still dear, and we saw crowds in the streets heading for the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest against the Vietnam War. The riot that followed kicked off the revolution season that year.

I was into all that Peace and Love business back in 1968. However, I am looking for some evolution, some revolution, in 2008. In international finance, in coming to grips with hunger and pollution and terrorism, in international political relations. I am hoping that a revolution of common sense over prejudice will see Barack Obama become President of the United States of America. The election of John F. Kennedy back in 1960 broke the evil spell over Roman Catholicism, and I imagine only those hillbillies and crackers in the USA give a hoot about the Catholic influence now. Can Barack Obama, even if he is only half a man of black African blood, if elected, contribute hugely to a decline in institutionalised racism and prejudice? I think so. I hope so.

I'm afraid, for me, Obama's opponent, John McCain, is the hero from the Vietnam War. Can a war that should never have been (and that was ultimately lost) truly have great heroes? I'm not sure that suffering, which McCain certainly had his share of, can be equated with heroism. Many would disagree with me across the Atlantic.

Struggles against suffering, however, can be heroic at times.

I say I want a revolution. I do!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Something You Mustn't Do

When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.
William Shakespeare (Richard III. Act II, Scene III)

OH! FOR FUCK'S SAKE! My first thought—in fact, I said the words out loud—yesterday morning when I opened the kitchen door in the now-dark morning after the alarm went off to allow Cailean to relieve his bladder in the courtyard.

This actually started in earnest on 6 September, 2008, a Saturday, four weekends ago.

There had even been a hint the weekend before that: Rain that refused to ease up, some flooding in the courtyard, six inches of water outside the kitchen door. The hint was a gift: I went and bought caustic soda, signing the poison register at the hardware store. I then scraped old leaves, clumps of moss, bits of gravel and other detritus from the drains, and poured the lye into them, and replaced the grates. A half-hour later, I poured a good deal of hellishly-hot water down as a chaser. The obnoxious effluvium indicated that something serious was going on. The serial killers one reads about, flushing the dissolving bits of their victims' bodies down their pipes, cannot have a pleasant time of it. But this was just a gift, unexpected, but not unusual, this heavier rain and rising water.

We had a bit of a spring in 2008. There came a day when I noticed a dead rat that had been frozen solid on the pavement just down the hill from me, which had not moved or been moved all winter, had thawed. It was worth celebrating after a cold and most miserable season. The rat's corpse vanished a day later, a meal fresh from the freezer we call Amble for a cat, or perhaps a fox. Soon after, the householder of a delightful bungalow nearby totted his half-dozen plastic sheep out of storage and set them up on his lawn. I wondered if plastic sheep should graze on Astroturf.

That was spring. It turned out to be summer too. The balmy months following the Solstice never really panned out. I did not use my central heating in July and August, but I slept under two blankets every night. We had, perhaps, five sunny days, and I wore my shorts and stretched out for long, long afternoons on my lounge chair and read. I potted plants and had some success with them. However, I only went to the beach twice. In 2006 I had spent an entire month on the beach, baking! I never broke a sweat in the summer of 2008.

And we had record rain in August this year. About twice the monthly average in most places, more in some. More in my garden, I'm thinking. The earth soaked it up where there was earth to do that. I live on a hilltop, my courtyard is concrete, I'm surrounded by paved roads up here, you cannot dig at all, much less expect to plant something in England's fresh soil. Down the hill there are farms between Amble and the next village of Warkworth. The fields dedicated to crops sucked up the moisture, day after day, and the pastures did the same as the sheep and cows squished about.

On 6 September, the Saturday, I was to go to an indoor rock concert in the evening, in Alnwick, with some friends. Trevor and his wife were driving up from Tyneside, which must be forty miles south of Amble, and were to collect me at six-thirty. I was very much looking forward to all of this. The musical group were doing a tribute to The Beatles and were said to be quite excellent at it.

That Saturday began with the usual morning drizzle. The television indicated that bad weather was headed for the northeast of England. We might need our brollies, no mention of wellies, or water-wings, or life-boats and rescue helicopters. I settled down with a book after watching my favourite cookery shows, and, from time to time, ran outside with Cailean, using the umbrella to protect us. I noticed that the drains I had scoured a few days before were working perfectly.

By lunch time, the rain was getting so heavy that Cailean's long walk was out of the question and, umbrella or not, the brief trips past the kitchen door had the poor boy doing the dog-paddle as the water gushed toward the outflows. He was not happy. I was not happy. The concert was to be held at the Alnwick Playhouse, but one must park some distance away in one of the Duke of Northumberland's lots and walk, with no shelter or overhang, to the theatre. That's a bother, especially if about ten people are trying to meet and then keep together as a group.

At four o'clock, the rain was getting serious. I'm on that hilltop, but from inside the flat, thanks to a garden wall, I cannot see down the hill to lower ground. I look across the rooftops to Warkworth Castle. On those occasions when the rain is not so intense that the visibility dwindles to a matter of yards, that is. I could only see the wall at the end of the garden, and that was hardly clear. Torrents of rain were running down the street on the other side of the flat, headed for pastures and chicken coops.

There's a stream, with the unpleasant name The Gut, below the flat that flows into Amble Harbour. It is normally a trickle of water, perhaps a foot deep and six feet wide. This trickle originates somewhere to the west of town, it would be run-off from fields I expect. It is affected by the water in the harbour and rises a foot or so during unusually high tides. I could not see The Gut that day, but I saw it the next. It had become a burn. The bunnies and moles and voles that live in burrows along the waterway must have had quite the experience. And I could not tell what was going on with the River Coquet a few hundred yards north of that, even a day later. I couldn't get near it a day later.

Trevor telephoned at five o'clock. He'd called the highway police to ask the best way to get to Amble bearing in mind that the rain was pretty heavy and wasn't letting up. A two word reply: By boat!

Between the River Tyne and our area the rivers were raging and overflowing, the town of Morpeth had 1,000 homes flooded, bridges were being washed away, trees uprooted, fields flooded, roads eroded and there were landslips. A new lake some six miles long by three miles wide had formed somewhere. All that wet earth from the summer of record rain had been unable to take a drop more.

The concert wasn't going to happen. In fact, the band was trapped somewhere south of us as well, and Alnwick was cut off from the north and west. I watched television reports on the flooding at Morpeth, 15 miles south of Amble: Helicopters, boats, firemen and rescue crews, little old ladies being carried feet first from their flooded homes, rising water, rising water, rain, rain, rain.

The next day, we were back to mere drizzle. And that's when I found out that the River Coquet had flooded. Rothbury had been badly damaged, Warkworth as well. The water roaring down the Coquet into Amble Harbour had undermined the town's docks by twenty feet, causing parts of the docks to fall into the harbour. Boats had been washed off the riverbanks, and from their moorings, sinking or being carried into the North Sea. The fields between Amble and Warkworth were under water. I believe the sheep that graze below my flat survived, but 800 in the district drowned. And mud. So much mud. Mud had washed up over the river's banks. Sand dunes had been shifted in the Estuary. The Coquet was choked with trees, logs and rubbish. That was the end of a not-so-glorious summer.

The rest of September surprised us. Chilly weather, but some sunny days. I'd discovered a spot near the river where, behind a windbreak of pine trees, I could lie out on the grass with Cailean and enjoy the sun on my face, at least. Not warm enough to bare the arms and legs. But the light from the sun, scooting lower across the sky every day, was very nice. And my patch of grass, with red berries and rosehips on the trees and in the hedgerows, bunnies nosing about (Cailean too content to fuss over them), and interesting birds—an influx of swans, cormorants and gulls after the storm—made for hours of recharging my mental batteries after all the gloom. It was just seven dwarves short of a Disney movie set.

I also made apple crumble with windfalls. I enjoy peeling and cutting things up, and apples are a nice change from carrots and tatties. Then I moved on to banana bread. The leaves started to fall on their long journey to oblivion, just like D.H. Lawrence's apples. No gorgeous colours yet, this year. Last year was stunning, once in a lifetime. I took a train trip to the Lake District, over the Pennines, in 2007, and I can (and must, apparently) revisit that memory through my own latter days. The folks at the house near me with the plastic sheep folded up the flock and put them in the garage for the winter.

The real rams have been covering the ewes. Cailean's grandmother, Holly, had puppies. I have flowering azaleas and cyclamen on my window ledges indoors, and I'm finding large spiders in the house. Cailean is sleeping under three blankets with me, behind my knees, like my Aleks used to. A dachshund thing. Life goes on.

Then, yesterday morning, I opened the back door at about seven-fifteen, and looked out into the darkness. Cailean stood behind me, and refused to step over the stoop. The rain was tipping down, the wind was truly howling, it was bitterly cold, not much above freezing it turned out. I was standing in my shorts and t-shirt and wearing slippers. Because one has to, I picked the dog up and walked a few paces into the storm and set him down. He assumed the position immediately, peed, and ran for the door, and I followed and switched on the central heating.

Hours later, in winter clothes and hat and coat, I took Cailean for a brief walkabout. He pushed through piles of leaves while we dodged around other piles of dog excrement that hurried dog-walkers had not paused to pick up, and we returned with Cailean muddied and soaked. Into the bathtub with him, which he loves. For fuck's sake, as the little children say, winter was upon us.

Until this morning. Today: Not a cloud in the sky. Warkworth Castle was brilliant in the sunrise. The light twinkling in Amble Harbour and on the Coquet. Birds everywhere, pecking about and preening their feathers. And it is not too chilly, jacket weather, but no need for a hat, scarf and coat. Cailean lay on the concrete briefly, rolled on his back and warmed his bits. I did laundry and put it out on the lines and it is drying nicely. People have been walking past the flat on the street side, headed for the outdoor market, some wearing dark glasses. There are young men having beers in the garden of The Wellwood Arms across from me, all in shirt sleeves.

There's a saying here that I hear a good deal, but do not use myself. It is something one offers when all hell is breaking loose: "Still, one mustn't complain!"

Given today, after yesterday, one mustn't complain.