Friday, 26 September 2008

The Banana King's Progress

Most people are other people.
Their thoughts are someone else's opinions,
their lives a mimicry,
their passions a quotation.
Oscar Wilde (De Profundis)

UNTIL THEY ARRIVED in Bermuda in the first week of August of 1925, my mother's parents, from Harle Syke, Lancashire, near Burnley, had only seen one person of colour. For the first quarter-century of their lives, the only black man they had ever set eyes on was The Banana King who, I gather, marketed bananas that had crossed some ocean to the west or south, somewhere in Burnley. They don't grow bananas in Lancashire, not even under glass. Not then, not now.

My grandparents had followed my grandmother's cousin towards the Americas, but must have got side-tracked. The cousin had gone to Canada with her husband, and then crossed into the USA, illegally, in upper New York State. They ended up on Staten Island, where their descendants still live, so far as I know.

Life in the failing cotton mills in Lancashire must have been quite grim in the early 1920s; I've read a few books on the subject, and heard the tales first hand, of course, from my grandparents and back in Harle Syke when visiting family there who'd not moved away. However, bearing in mind that my grandparents didn't go to The Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave in search of a better life, but to a backwater island some 600 miles from anywhere that grew Easter lilies and Bermuda onions, I think it was more a case of getting away than of going somewhere. My grandfather had hoped that his Uncle Mick, who had no sons, would leave him the farm that Mick owned. When Mick said no to that, my grandfather was mightily miffed, he had a temper, and was probably embarrassed at having asked, so they went and booked a passage on a boat to Halifax, and then another down to Bermuda, wherever it might be.

My grandmother was expecting their first child, they were newlyweds, when they left England, but they didn't tell anyone as they knew the family would not be happy to see them go in that delicate condition. My mother was born, in Bermuda, six months after they arrived.

On 3 August, 1925, coming down the gangplank onto Front Street in the City of Hamilton in Bermuda, the first thing William and Elsie noticed was that the Banana King was not unique in his blackness. In Burnley, the Banana King had been a curiosity, he had a certain charm, and he was wonderfully rare. In Bermuda, upwards of 80% of the people were Negroes. Racial segregation was the law. My grandparents never quite warmed to the population mix, they never liked the coloured folks. My grandmother died, in Bermuda, aged 104, in her right (if prejudiced) mind, and complained as long as she was able about the lazy, shiftless coloured girls who cared for her in the home she'd gone to live in when she was 98. She sometimes complained to their faces in her thick Lancashire accent. My grandfather had died some 25 years earlier, and he'd actively disliked the locals till his time ran out.

I never, ever, heard my mother say something disparaging about any person of colour. She had many black and Asian friends, and not just in name or as a convenience. My mother did things with all her friends, went out with them, visited, telephoned and waved to them. My mother was mentally ill most of her life, and one might ask if that is to blame for her simple acceptance of people as people, not considering racial types, or religion either.

I've often wondered if my mother ever clashed with her parents over her unwillingness or inability to see non-whites as different, hostile, fearsome, untouchable or unattractive beings. I certainly had some rip-roaring arguments with my grandparents, for the most part about racial prejudice, segregation, and disharmony in Bermuda. I didn't know a whole lot about the world as a boy. I don't know all that much now, but I recognise illogical hate. It's easy, all hate is illogical!

As a member of a minority group myself, I have to deal with people who have a problem with it. You see, I am a fan of Joni Mitchell, have been for over forty years. For the majority of people, perhaps as much as 90%, I'm a freak. You thought I was going to out myself as a Mormon?

My grandmother operated a little shop in the hospital in Bermuda, the profits went to charity. She sold sweets, ice-cream, soft drinks, potato chips, air-mail writing pads and envelopes, postage stamps and tampons. I'd usually get her to buy me a Nu-Grape drink, sometimes an orange sherbet in a paper tub with a wooden spoon. Through the window, or hatch, at the shop, you could not really see a great deal, you had to know what you wanted, and people did. No point in asking for a sandwich or an apple, everything was pre-packaged.

When someone offered the money, usually coins as I recall, to pay for their crisps or Tampax, or was accepting change, something happened that I always noticed, and that bugged the hell out of me. If you were white, your cash was taken by my grandmother in her hand, and she would place any change into your palm. But, if you happened to be other than white, she would point at a rubber mat on the counter, and you must put your money down on it. Change was placed on the mat for you to pick up. My grandmother could not bear to physically touch a black person. She didn't like cats either, but that's not important in this story.

In the last months of her life, incontinent and crippled, unable to move about, but still thinking clearly, my grandmother had to be handled in every way, touched in every place, by others, usually black nurses and nurses' aides. And she'd yell at them! They could wipe her arse, but they didn't do it right. What a hell it must have been, and it seems, to me, a divine sort of punishment!

My father disliked blacks too. He once had a black man turn up to be interviewed for a position at the bank where my father worked, and the black man pointed out that his middle name was Eldridge, like my father's surname. And then cheerfully offered: "I think we must be related." It took my father weeks to calm down from that affront to his good name.

On one occasion, my father happened to board an aeroplane for London that I was travelling on. We bumped into each other in the Departure Hall in Bermuda. When we arrived at Heathrow Airport, my father asked me how I was getting into the City. I told him a friend was meeting me, and said that if there was room in his car and time, perhaps he'd take my father to his hotel. And my friend, who is dark-skinned, was waiting at the exit. I made the most simple of introductions, no explanations, the ride was agreed, and we headed for my friend's car, which happened to be an enormous Bentley, black, gleaming, spotless, leather interior, buttons to push. I sat in front with my friend, my father reclined in the back. He thought my friend was a chauffeur, as you've guessed. We off-loaded my father and then headed to the apartment I'd rented for a month. My friend was the son of the Ambassador to the Court of St James (the UK) of an African country, and he'd borrowed an Embassy car to come out to meet me at Heathrow. I told my father a few days later, and invited him to join us for lunch, but he declined. A drink then? No, thanks. It was never discussed again.

A few weeks ago I upbraided a sister of mine for complaining about her "Paki doctor" to his superior, pointing out that she was fortunate someone from Pakistan was here in England to tend to her neuroses, and that "Paki" was not an appropriate word to use. My sister snarled: "What's wrong with 'Paki'? And I call the Irish 'pikeys'!" She's like that. She doesn't like coloured people, as she calls them, even though her husband is a person of colour, and their son is mixed-race. Go figure! Finally, she said the most damning thing she could think about me: "You never did care what colour people are …"

The Americans are a fair people; they
never speak well of one another.
With apologies to Samuel Johnson

My grandparents, and my parents, have all passed away now. My grandparents and my father (who detested each other, my parents' marriage was short and unhappy) would be truly horrified to have lived to see a person of colour in the 2008 US Presidential Election. My sister, who is alive, is not happy with it, and says so. I feel sure she knows nothing of American politics, except a few names, and those confused. Republicans? Democrats? Huh? But Barack Obama must not win. She will not know that Senator Obama is accused of being a Muslim, or that it should not matter even if he was. She doesn't know his politics. She only knows he's not quite white for the job.

A reporter from the BBC was in the USA recently, interviewing prospective voters, mainly in Eastern Seaboard states. The blacks, male and female, tended to support Barack Obama. A few whites did as well, but over and over again, concerned white voters said there were problems with both candidates. What might they be?

"Senator McCain, there's the age factor. That is a problem."
"And Senator Obama?"
"Well, the race thing. That could be a problem."

The race thing. Could be a problem, and indeed it is. As one comedian here said: "There are many Americans who won't put a cross by a black candidate. Unless it's on fire."

The Americans pride themselves on the belief that the Puritans, back in the early 1600's, left Europe in search of freedom from the cruel laws that they felt persecuted under. Of course, they took their own brand of those laws with them; they were very nearly Christian Taliban. One's own freedom can only be achieved through the servitude of others. Later immigrants to America, likewise, sought a better life. Many got it by riding roughshod over the rights of others. Ask the original inhabitants of America! Ask the Jews! Ask the Catholics! Ask the Mormons! Ask the Latinos! Ask the Chinese! The Hawaiians! Oh, and ask the women! The blacks didn't immigrate to the Americas in search of a better life, which is just as well, because they certainly didn't find it waiting for them. They haven't ridden roughshod over much of anything, only moving to the front of the bus in 1955!

In 2008, I believe the Americans should think hard and ask themselves if they are The Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave. Then demonstrate it to the world. Elect the Irishman! O'Bama for President!

Monday, 22 September 2008

Blame it on the Boogie

I have seen a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion.
William Shakespeare (All's Well that Ends Well. Act II, Scene I)

THE AUTUMNAL EQUINOX is today, at exactly 15:43 GMT, and I suppose, if the rain were to ease up, I should head for the nearest stone circle, barrow or oak tree and do a dance. As it is British Summer Time, I must remember it would be about quarter to five that I should get jigging. The folks in Salt Lake City, many wearing funny knickers, should step outside their car dealerships at quarter to ten this morning, their time. If you are in Honolulu, in a grass skirt, knackered from entertaining tourists from the Mainland all night, a quick run around a palm tree at sunrise will suffice. If you happen to be in the Bourbon Street Pub in Key West, which will have opened 45 minutes ago, take off your t-shirts and give your best rendition of I Will Survive just before noon.

As the rain is pissing down in Northumberland, unusually, I am going to be reading this afternoon: An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Twits in Charge by John O'Farrell. He's the author of a number of amusing studies, including Global Village Idiot and I Blame the Scapegoats. Put him on your reading list.

For a week or so, I have been reading the Impartial History, which began with Julius Caesar having a hell of a time getting four good seats together on the cross-channel ferry back in 55 BC when he invaded the British Isles. It is a big book, factual for all the humour. A critic says of it: As entertaining as a witch burning, and a lot more laughs.

At two o'clock this morning, I reached 1401 AD; Henry IV has just decided that it would not be a particularly bad thing to incinerate the Lollards in town squares as heretics. The Lollards, originally followers of John Wycliffe, who had translated the Bible into what passed as everyday English in 1382, believed that the average bloke might learn to be pious from the scriptures, not just from the priests. In other words, that piety might be developed at home, around the hearth with your family, in your vernacular, rather than struggled with at a church where someone mumbled Latin. Clearly, a revolutionary idea.
Henry IV, as we all know from our Shakespeare, meaning it must be so, fell ill with insomnia, became insane, and his face was covered in ghastly pustules, which could happen to any of us. The clincher, however, was the poor, old-at-forty-five, King waking to find his son, the future Henry V, trying on the crown that he'd left on his spare pillow. Seems that torching the Lollards resulted in some bad Karma for the King. We should take note! If you must take your symbol of office to bed, then wear it, or someone will nick it. Uneasy lies the head that doesn't wear a crown.

It's riveting stuff for me. I studied English history generally, in Bermuda, but my high school course was centred on the first Hanoverian monarchs (Georges I, II and III) and, particularly, the American War of Independence, as we call it. O'Farrell suggests that the American Revolution might well have arisen from disputes over standards of British dentistry. I'm enjoying catching up on Boudicca, the Black Death, Stephen and Matilda, Piers Gaveston fondling the crown jewels and Edward II taking a red-hot poker up the bum, and so on.

What a history we have here! I'm sure that my ancestors must have known just a little of what was going on. A friend's cousin's brother-in-law took part in that Peasants' Revolt of 1381 when my great-grandad Eldridge was shovelling pig-shit for his master. I have never, for a moment, considered myself the heir to any sort of baronial title, much less a descendant of some mighty prince of the realm. I know one old queen in Bermuda who has linked himself back to the Plantagenet kings somehow. I'm never impressed when he tells the story. He's a twat, and a shame the Black Death missed his family's no doubt fabulous palace back in 1348.

Amble by the Sea, also known as The Friendliest Port, is historic in its own way. Amble has been ambling along for around 2,000 years, and there are lumps and bumps in the landscape, columns, walls and castles, coins in the fields, and ghost ships sunk in the Coquet Estuary, and the memories of the older folks who've managed to live here despite the winters, all testifying to things past.

Sometimes a bit of history comes to town. Last Saturday afternoon a troupe of Morris Dancers from Yorkshire (that's a northern English county well to the south of us) turned up in the Town Square. I had seen a little note about this in the window of the Bread Bin Bakery, a few doors down from my flat, and decided that if the sun was shining at one o'clock, I'd go and have a look. I've seen Morris Dancing on the telly, and in movies, it's quaint these days. I'm sure the young people think it's just naff. It does appeal to the tourists, I have no doubt, and I fancied some tourist-watching.

So far as I know, I've never seen Morris Dancers live. They were certainly naff when I was a student! I was too busy applying Clearasil to my face, combing my hair forward and wearing flowered shirts and ties from Carnaby Street to watch silly people in top hats, dressed in funny clothes, with bells strapped to their legs, and waving hankies about as they did in Nether Wallop before Noe's Floude.

I hitched Cailean up in his new multi-coloured harness and leash at quarter-to-one as, miracle, the sun was out on Saturday. It was not only sunny, but quite warm. We made our way down to the Square, with the usual stops to meet & greet and pick up the newspapers. At the Square the dancing had commenced. There were eight dancers, two alternates, a fellow playing some sort of squeeze box, and a girl who might have been ten or eleven who was clearly dealing with some developmental handicap. The girl was keeping watch over an upturned top hat with some coins in it placed on the cobbles at the entrance to the Square. The little girl, chubby, her bare bottom hanging out of her white, baggy sweat-pants, stared into some other dimension, her mouth wide open with amazement. I spent the late 1960s like that.

The dancers, all male, were dressed in white tunics and trousers with criss-crossed blue and maroon bands over their chests and backs, and grey top hats with matching blue and maroon ribbons, brown belts—some with mobile phones attached—did not match black shoes, bells were strapped below the dancers' knees. Most of the men were bearded, grey bearded. There was only one young chap, tall, fair-skinned, red-haired, dark glasses, too young to produce even a rudimentary whisker. Most of the group wore sunglasses, as I'm sure they did back in the Middle Ages. Tucked into the belts were white hankies, and there were duffle bags containing what turned out to be long sticks and short sticks off to one side of the designated dance-floor.

There were group dances from various villages in Yorkshire, which were not terribly unalike, one song in someone else's language, and then the leader of the pack said that young somebody—turned out to be the nice-looking lad with ginger hair—would do a solo turn. The group moved back, a tune was squeezed out enthusiastically, and the boy took to the air with his handkerchiefs. Look out, Billy Elliot, there's a new kid on the block. I'm not sure whether the dance was accurately performed, but it was well-done and rather entertaining (yes, like a witch burning) and I was most impressed that somebody of the next generation was going to take this peculiar custom forward. At least, I trust he will.
The afternoon's show ended with some stick banging and the red-head did an odd run out of the line-up, swung around the metal sundial in the centre of the Square a few times, bobbed about a bit there—in theatre, this is called chewing the scenery, I believe—then ran and leapt back into the group with a flourish. Of course, we all applauded, scaring Cailean.

The audience, no more than twenty people and my dog, was, indeed, mostly made up of tourists. There had been one teenaged boy wearing a Newcastle United FC jersey, but once the jump-up began, he hurried off into a ginnel at the south side of the Square, no lover of history, pageantry or the arts. That or he preferred a wank.

I discussed the goings-on with a lady from Essex who'd been sat near me. Cailean had taken an interest in her and had climbed onto her lap when it was offered. The lady had suggested she mind him while I took some photographs. My accent, of course, baffles people. Are you Canadian? When you have the town's cutest dog, and an odd way of speaking, you can go a long way.

So, we wondered how regional accents have managed to survive, and whether they will do so in the future, and how long history can last in Britain. And we turned our faces to the sunshine, Cailean too, just like they did back before the Renaissance, and enjoyed the warmth of it all.

Friday, 12 September 2008

The World Always Ends on TV

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
Right after these commercial messages
T. V. Eliot (The Wasteland)

I'VE HELD OFF writing up my brief notes on the Large Hadron Collider experiment just in case the other shoe dropped and there wasn't much point in doing it. No computer. No Barking Mad blog. No Internet. Nobody out there. No Amble. No out there.

But the experiment is incomplete, even though the news headlines announced that the universe had not ended. The news of our survival may be premature. The risky bit, when the particles going clockwise around the LHC accelerator in Switzerland meet the particles going anti-clockwise, will only happen, they now coyly say: Some time in the next month, perhaps. The other shoe is yet to drop.

Last Wednesday morning, 10 September 2008, just after eight o'clock, the LHC was to be fired up, and if the red standby light turned green, big things were going to happen. And it was going to be on the television. Some said it would be the end of the world, the end of the universe, live from Geneva.

There could be small Black Holes created when these miniscule protons bumped into each other at very nearly the speed of light. [99.999999% of the speed of light, apparently, which is almost as fast as the speed of a dachshund grabbing a bit of steak. I'd like to race wiener dogs round that 17 mile track.] Black Holes worry people, even if they really haven't got a clue as to what they might be. If only they'd been called Pale Blue Holes, everything would be hunky dory.

The things that could be discovered, that will be studied, and the measurements, the names, the contortions, and logic, are so peculiar (the Higgs boson, electromagnetic symmetry breaking, masses and decays of quarks, dark matter, dark energy, extra dimensions, the string theory) that my mind would be wound up tighter than Stephen Hawking's voice machine if I tried to think too much about them. [Please note that I have my own String Theory: No matter how long you cut a piece of ribbon to tie up a Christmas present, it is always too short.]

I was home on Wednesday morning. Optimistically, I even made my bed. I skipped my bowl of cereal and wondered about a beverage to consume while watching the big Switch-On on Channel 80. Tea? Coffee? Hemlock?

Cailean joined me on the sofa as I settled down with my coffee. I reached for my TV remote. The upper left button should switch the flat-screen on, but the battery is loose and I had to whack the remote a few times before it made contact. What do you expect for £250?

White men, a very few white women, and no people of colour that I noticed, were standing around or sitting around on what might have been the deck of the Starship Enterprise. Lights were a-flashing, screens were a-screening, and a voiceover from London told us that we were watching the control room at CERN in Switzerland. Then we got to see some animation. We even had a bird's eye view of that part of the Swiss-French countryside with a dotted line superimposed to indicate where the LHC was buried. I wondered if it ran under anyone's bedroom. Imagining Claude calling Marie to the window and saying, in French, of course: There's a big dotted line coming straight towards us from the east, and going out again to the west. WTF?

The voiceover said that it was about time to turn on the Large Hadron Collider. I was astonished to hear that it might just not work. That's what they said. The whole project was so far out: Who could be sure? And what do you expect for £5,000,000,000?

If it had refused to operate, I expect some boffin would have called out: Try switching it off, then on again.

A sip of the coffee, I stroked Cailean's ears. I waited to be dragged by a mighty wind across the North Sea, up into the Alps, and through a small black hole, surrounded by millions of spinning chocolate bars and Rolex watches to find Tom Cruise being crowned Grand Poobah by tiny, green aliens fresh from a tear in the Space-Time Continuum. Nothing. Not one Toblerone wrapper.

The television news team went over to another story. A banner on the screen promised an update regarding the Big Experiment later in the morning. No World's End, just Credit Crunch. This reminded me I'd not had breakfast. I got on with the rest of my day, but left the TV running, the sound muted.

It was mid-morning when the headline came up to announce that one beam had gone around the LHC successfully. Hopefully a second beam would take the opposite track in the afternoon. But the real experiment, to get the beams to collide: Some time in the next month, perhaps. In fact, the second single beam made its trip before day's end, before the world's end.

As we survivors of this non-event know, some time next month might be around 21 October. Put it in your Doomsday Book. And pray the Universe has a Reset Button.

That might be the end of this post, but I saw a programme on the TV last night that included an interview with a man in America, outside his home on the Texas Coast as Hurricane Ike approached. All the residents in his town had been told to evacuate their homes immediately, there was almost certainly going to be some heavy weather, perhaps a huge storm surge that would wash anything in its way from the face of the Earth. The man insisted: I'm not going. I believe in God, and he'll look after me. I'm a Christian.

And a damn fool, I thought.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Aspects of God

OUR DAILY NEWSPAPER in this part of the world is The Journal, and I suppose the best-known part of this part of the world would be Newcastle. Like sending coal to, and all that. And, in this part of this part, the best-known part might be St James's Park where the Newcastle United Football Club lads kick a football about.

I have walked by, and driven past, St James's Park a number of times, but I have not been inside. However, over the past few years, the names of some of the characters associated with Newcastle United FC have stuck in my head, and I've even experienced the occasional frisson when something good (not often), or something terribly wrong (frequently), happens to the Magpies or Toon, as we commonly refer to the Club.

Yes, I seethed over Joey Barton, and I'm pissed off today with his mere twelve match suspension (it may be as few as six if he behaves, which is doubtful) for his act of violence against another player. Toon manager, Kevin Keegan, stood up for Barton. Thousands did not. I'm not sure that I believe in a God that follows footie closely. At least I didn't until this week. Suddenly, it seems, things became so uncomfortable for Kevin Keegan, that after several days of wrangling, hours and pages of media time and space in the Northeast, then the UK, then across the globe, and large crowds shaking fists outside St James's Park—even without the benefit of a few in Shearer's Bar—in the deluging rain, Keegan quit last night.

Some of the headlines in the Journal:

"Fans rally to Keegan's side"
"Day of rumour triggers uproar"
"Reports and analysis, Pages 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 70, 71 & 72"
"Rumour and counter-rumour are rife"
"Keegan's future in doubt after day of high drama"
"Keegan Crisis"

Those from pages one and three only! It gets worse:

"Supporters endure day of torment at the gates"
"Don't you mess with a Messiah"
"Closest thing to God has gone, says fan"
(That headline in a Millennium-sized, very bold font.)
"Why tell us nothing?"
"Fans salute one man who feels their pain"
"Shambolic day really tested my patience"

And, of course, photographs of Kevin in happier times. The man should have been shot for the hairstyle when a player back in the 1980s. He must have spent more time at the beauty parlour than practising with a soccer ball, and as he wasn't such a great player, all told, but had charisma, he did very well. It was said that when his hair was flapping about, the massive perm of black curls, the other players simply couldn't tell what was going on beyond him. In the right situations, this would have been useful.

He's gone now, he's resigned, it's official. It is Friday night. The fans will be crying in their beer. Hopefully, the continuing soap opera that is the Toon will resume tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I have to face up to something Chris Gibbons, a footie fan in Bermuda, told me eight months ago when Kevin Keegan returned to manage Newcastle United (which was then in a dreadful slump and in danger of being relegated). Chris said something like this: "Keegan! Hah! The minute things start to get a bit tough, Keegan will get going!" And I protested. The Toon turn of mind was affecting me already!


ON PAGE TWELVE of the Journal there is a headline on quite a different subject.

"Explicit statue row rages on"

This story is making national headlines—we are a nation, even if we have no credible government at the present time—as it involves an outrage against public decency. I'm sure even the tacky newspaper The Sun—which always features a topless blonde on page three—is noting that the Baltic Gallery on the Gateshead Quays across the Tyne from Newcastle proper is in court, charged with displaying something so offensive that a Christian lady in Essex decided to make a private case against the Baltic.

The prosecuting lady's name is Emily Mapfuwa; the shocking artwork, which was exhibited for a few months at the end of 2007, is owned by Newcastle-born billionaire Anita Zabludowicz and her husband Poju; the artist that created Gone, Yet Still is a Chinese-American chap called Terence Koh. All good English names, eh?

And the piece of art? A white, plaster figure of Jesus Christ, only a foot high, portraying Him considerably over-dressed and—here's the rub—sporting an erection. The newspaper uses the words "in an aroused state" which could, it seems to me, mean, if you wanted, no more than he was pricking up his ears. So, I'll say "erection", just so you don't picture his ears.

I guess the loss of our Messiah, Kevin Keegan, got me started. I was in no mood to read about art censorship. Not that there is any obvious connection between the stories. Just the business of annoying news.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, explorers from Great Britain went to Egypt and snapped the phalluses off the statues of the pharaohs and their chums, and scraped off and over-painted the offensive things on the walls and columns. Never mind the art, it was history! And never mind Victoria had nine children and had, one assumes, some experience with erections. The Christian thing was to pretend they didn't exist.

The Puritans smashed statues centuries before, and whitewashed walls, and applied loincloths and leaves to the most exquisite private parts in art. We regret that now.

I'm one of those blokes who believe that if Jesus Christ existed, it is most likely that there was a Mrs Jesus Christ, and children. And if He got the wife with children, I'm guessing he got aroused, and not just around the ears. The Mormons were taught (though they tend to avoid the subject now) that Jesus was fathered by a God with Mary in a normal act of sexual intercourse. No Harry Potter magic.

I also believe that Christ's apostles were married men, most likely with children. So, we don't read about the wives, kids, in-laws, kitchen curtains, colour of the fishing boat. It's not because they didn't exist, it is because the Gospels concern other things and, in those days, writing anything down was quite an effort. Keep it brief! I'm sure that was uppermost in the minds of those who wrote the New Testament. So, I think Christ and his followers were regular folks.

I don't think they had halos, or wings, or glowed in the dark, or had beating, bleeding, bright-red hearts hanging out of their chests … all of that would be weird and, frankly, I find it unpleasant. Bad art, but I wouldn't censor it.

Am I offended by a statue of Jesus with an erection? Not at all. When I was a child, seeing the movie The Bible at the cinema, I certainly giggled at Eve's long hair awkwardly taped to her bare breasts as she stood behind a medium-sized shrub. That is offensive, to see that sort of daft censorship. It was the censorship that made it vulgar. I found, online, a photograph of the statue in the Baltic case, with the naughty bits pixillated to keep me pure.

Bah! I looked up a photograph of Michelangelo's Risen Christ (of the Minerva) which has a completely naked Christ holding a cross and striking a slightly clumsy pose that the experts suggest Michelangelo used elsewhere in his work (look at the Rebellious Slave, for another example) to somehow suggest movement and vitality. Doesn't work for me, unfortunately. And Jesus is naked, for all to see, and I don't think he's circumcised. You'll recall the David isn't either. Was it an oversight? Was it censorship? Was it some distaste for something so, erm, Jewish?

It is not as if Terence Koh's tiny statue had a white dove perched on the offending part. That would have been funny, and forgiveness never extends to humour. (We read in the Bible that Jesus wept, but not that he laughed, smiled, giggled, slapped his mates on the back while guffawing, kicked a ball around while telling a funny story, or had any sort of a good time. And you just know he did all of that.)

SO MUCH FOR art, religion, football, and no sense of humour. So much for the overly dramatic. And if Kevin Keegan really is the father figure of football in Newcastle, could he pose for Terence Koh and prove it?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Emptied Nests

GROWING UP ON a very small island some six hundred miles from any mainland, I was not raised with many creatures that were native, or even naturally resident, on our little coral outcrop in the Atlantic.

In fact, I think it would be true to say that no animal or plant developed exclusively in Bermuda over the millennia. At best, a few Rock Skinks and an odd bird called the Cahow (named for the sound it made) have been specially attached to Bermuda. Those two are rare now. I have never seen a cahow, for the few dozen remaining nesting pairs on the Island (and that means in the world!) are in a protected area. Millions had been eaten, you see. Tasted like chicken, I suppose.

I saw a Bermuda skink on a cliff face at the back of a beach once, forty-five years ago. So unusual to see one, even then, I recall it exactly. A dark brown lizard with a paler underbelly, this particular variety, remnant, is now endemic.

Everything else flew in, or arrived on a boat. Sometimes these critters made their own way; a few birds like the Longtail spend the summer in the more northern Atlantic. Most came in boxes, crates and cages, and on the decks of ships. Cats come under airline seats. My Aleks, a miniature dappled dachshund, came in the cargo hold of a British Airways jumbo jet.

Some household pets leave Bermuda when their people do, the lucky ones fly First Class.

The whistling frogs and toads that were a big part of my childhood have simply been decimated by traffic, overpopulation and building, and poisons. You might see toads with more than four legs each now, which is not a good evolutionary development. And where can the birds nest? Where are there bugs for lunch?

THE WILDLIFE IN Great Britain will have changed, of course, but it is still far richer than what I am used to. With this Global Warming going on, the habitats of animals and plants are changing. Spring comes earlier; the north is warmer than it was.

I have been paying particular attention to the birds as they pretty much come to me. I don't have to walk far, or take a bus, to see a dozen different types of bird in an hour; as the months go by, the birds that visit my courtyard, or the meadows below, change regularly.

It does not seem long since I watched skeins of geese heading north for Iceland, Scandinavia and even Canada from a friend's conservatory one Sunday afternoon. They will be returning about now.

The River Coquet is presently home to quite a number of swans, herons and smaller gulls. The black-headed gulls that I fed in early summer have gone, I rather liked them. Large seagulls come here for the winter months, to perch on our chimney pots to keep from freezing. We have had a sudden influx of large crows in the last fortnight, timely as the crops are just being harvested and there are things to eat. My friends, the jackdaws, have been gathering on the rooftops above the courtyard, the youngsters out of the nests. They must be making travel plans.

This summer—and I use that word loosely—I had three families of swallows in a collapsed garage behind the flat. The first nesting pair arrived very early in the summer. At that time, Cailean was a small puppy and the birds were anxious as we walked past their garage many times a day in the process of house-training. The swallows would dive-bomb us, coming within a few feet, swinging around us. Cailean ignored them, birds don't much interest him, he's into bunnies. After a week of trying to see us off, the birds realised we were no threat and became remarkably tame.

We'd see the swallows flying at incredible speed, inches from the ground, over the meadow, looking for insects. They seemed to be flying as much for the joy of it, as for getting lunch for their chicks.

Happened, the day the youngsters in that first nest fledged, we were sat outside and watched the very event. A good deal of flapping and chirping, the parents full of encouragement, and, apparently, communicating that the man and his dog were okay. Three new swallows took wing, the five stayed nearby only for a day, and then the garage was silent.

Several weeks later, two more pairs of swallows moved into the garage, not far from each other. Like the earlier tenants, they soon came to ignore Cailean and me. I missed the moment that the chicks left their nests, but both families took wing on the same day, this past Monday. On Monday evening, a small group of swallows was doing aerobatics around the courtyard; yesterday they were far overhead, doing widening circles. Today they have all gone.

The jackdaws are looking down. I can see them from my kitchen window. I have half a loaf of stale bread, and I believe they expect it.