Sunday, 20 December 2009

Cold Comfort Forum

Unless we can think peace into existence we
- not this one body in this one bed
but millions of bodies yet to be born -
will lie in the same darkness and
hear the same death rattle overhead.
Virginia Woolf (Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid)

A FEW DAYS OR NIGHTS AGO I dared the snow to come. And it did, with considerable enthusiasm, particularly in the southern half of Great Britain. Northumberland seems to have had a good deal, but it has turned to ice and the temperature has not been above freezing in almost a week. It is minus ten Celsius this evening. Damn!

Yesterday I managed to take Cailean for a walk in town, and even though he was wearing his winter overcoat, when we paused while Gavin got a Lotto ticket at the newsagent's, within seconds Cailean was shivering in the doorway with me, and trying to climb up my leg to be held where he thought it might be warm. We were standing in the ice. Cailean rather likes soft snow. Not the ice. I imagine it hurts his foot-pads. My nose was burning in the cold, my eyes watering, and my knees seemed to be colder than most of me.

Will this weather last another five days? Will we have a white Christmas? Will the Eurostar trains return to service in the Channel Tunnel? Will airports run on time? Will little children get to Euro-Disney for their holidays? If this week remains snowy, icy, all the rest may suffer. Can you have your cake and eat it?

There's been an over-hyped con-fab in frozen Copenhagen recently to discuss Global Warming. As one wit put it, "A good thing we haven't got Global Cooling, or we'd really be fucked!" He was looking out the window, I'm guessing. Or trying to find a public transport vehicle that was able to run, or a highway that wasn't clogged with stalled Lorries waiting to cross the Channel.

A word about Copenhagen. What a waste of time and money. Well, that's seven words. The non-result will be subject to so much spin control that we'll think that Obama and Brown have saved the world. Obama doesn't get out of bed to do less. I'm not sure that pollution is the main factor behind this supposed warming of the atmosphere. I'm not even convinced that our atmosphere, in total, is warming. Over decades and centuries and millennia, we have all sorts of climate changes. An active volcano can make a huge difference. A volcano in the Philippines is just about to pop its top. There's something satisfying about an event that the Americans cannot possibly say they can fix.

We won the wars for you, and now we're going to put a great big bung in Mount Mayon.

Population control may well save the planet. The Catholics and the Mormons and every other faith that promotes breeding without feeding need to get real and encourage birth control. Bombing villagers in dusty foreign lands and adopting polar bears ain't gonna save the world! Get real! Get real!

I'm enjoying the run-up to Christmas this year, even if the cold makes my nose run and my snot freeze on my moustache. It's like a holiday with Roald Amundsen or Ernest Henry Shackleton … More fun than Disney!

The earliest Christmas memories I have are of faces of Father Christmas drawn on paper, cheeks coloured red, and bits of cotton pasted where we thought a beard should be. My sisters and I each had one of these paper Santas and they hung on our trees for several years, along with lights that were filled with some liquid that came to a boil after a time (which frightened me, probably with good reason), and a decreasing collection of brittle ornaments. One year my mother could not afford to buy a tree, and this was before fake firs, and she cut a branch off a casurina tree in the garden. It was a total disaster, but the annual treats from family friends (Quality Street choccies) slid under the casurina.

I hated those Christmases. I hated the Christmas Eve dinner with my mother's family, even when I moved up from the small table to the big one. The food was always tasteless, and bought on a shoestring budget. If I never see another tinned ham running in jelly in this lifetime I'll be happy!

I hated the whole business of gift-giving, and I learned why many years later. If our gifts were piddling and small, and perfunctory (underwear and a new school tie perhaps), we children did not have the funds to buy gifts for those we cared about. One of life's great pleasures for me is to hunt out a gift that I think somebody special would enjoy. I cannot afford anything too grand now, but I've learned that a few pounds can provide a treasure if the digging is done in the right place.

I have a small fibre-optic Christmas tree. It has not come out too clearly in the picture, but rest assured that it's a bit of an out-of-sight light show. In a darkened room with music playing, it's a trip.

Cailean has his Christmas gift already. I'd bought him a very lightweight, but super-warm blanket. Came the ice, out came his gift. He's asleep under it, below my desk, at this very moment. Better to be toasty on the 20th December than to shiver for days and nights just to be precise about a gift-date. Heck, Mount Mayon might rumble and it could be palm trees in the courtyard by the 25th December. Make hay …

I bought myself something rather brilliant: The complete, stereo, digitally-remastered, box-set of the Beatles CDs. Absolutely fantastic. On sale at a considerable savings at Amazon.UK. I've been tripping back to the Sixties. You see, I didn't wait till the 25th for my gift. Mount Mayon and all, I might be out sweating in the heat in the courtyard on Christmas Day. These past few days, however, I've been listening to all the Beatles CDs, hearing things I never heard before, while lying on the sofa, facing the window to the High Street, watching the snow sweep down. And saying aloud: This is magic! Absolutely magic!

If you got a gift from me, you probably could guess that it was a book or CD or DVD. Shapes of things. Things I hope will turn you on.

As we had a postal strike looming and happening in the UK, I decided not to get Christmas cards printed this year, but cards with Cailean and I snarling at the world, as we do, with gentle teeth and not with our eyes, with love really, and the word PEACE. Inside, a quotation from an essay by Virginia Woolf. The words head up this blog entry.

From Amble in the Ice, we wish you the best for the holidays, and let's all come to our senses in 2010, or at least enough of us to drive out the tyrants, warmongers and saviours.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

All Things Bleak and Beautiful

Alack, the night comes on, and the bleak winds
Do sorely ruffle; for many miles about
There's scarce a bush.

William Shakespeare (King Lear. Act II, Scene IV)

ONE CAN NOW COUNT CHRISTMAS in days away, and carded greetings have me thinking of family and friends as close as this block of flats, and as distant as Australia. My fireplace and mantelpiece look like the high altar in a church in Spain, bright and pleasantly garish. I've been playing the music of Hildegard von Bingen, performed by Sequentia, which seems perfect when our few hours of daylight are dulled with rain, and when there is frost on the moss that has covered paths, walls and fences and tree trunks in the months since the sun sank to the horizon.

Yesterday I went to my first Christmas dinner, at midday, of the season. About twenty-five of us had booked the Penny Black eatery in the old post office building in Alnwick. Three courses for £15.05, Christmas crackers and streamers included, beverages not. We had been to Penny Black a year ago, and had all been impressed. I'm afraid I was not quite so bowled over this go round, mainly because a man, possibly the owner or manager, seemed to think that he owed us entertainment over and beyond some gentle, seasonal muzak. Before the pudding was served, the manager interrupted our quiet conversations with some god-awful Christmas popular tunes from the hit parade at a volume that had me wondering when my brain would start bleeding out of my ears. I had a splitting headache before I finished my profiteroles. I don't (and didn't) drink alcohol, though I'm not necessarily a cheap date with lemonade at £2.40 a glass, so I feel certain the loud music was to blame. I decamped before coffee.

As I'd been picked up at my front door to go to Alnwick, I'd not dressed against the cold. I'd not fancied dealing with a scarf, gloves, hat, overcoat; I'd not even worn a sweater, the better to display my cheery tie (Trevor asked if it had a volume control…) When I left Penny Black, which had been plenty warm enough, no faulting the management over that, I immediately realised that it was not so much chilly as freezing outside. The Alnwick bus station is second only to Verkhoyansk when it comes to the title of Pole of Cold, and that's in June. My short socks suddenly seemed even shorter. So I quickly walked to the menswear shop I favour and bought a scarf and a sweater, both on sale fortunately. I figured my feet would thaw on the bus.

The 518 and 420 buses are usually dodging back and forth across the region, and only pause in Alnwick for a few minutes to discharge passengers, and reload for the return to Newcastle or Ashington. That means, even if the driver is finishing a shift, the bus is only switched off for a minute or two, and is warm inside. Yesterday I found a completely empty bus at the station in bay number 4. It had been sitting there for some time and had shed any heat it might have had. I boarded an icebox! Worse, when the heat did start to build up, it came from overhead vents, and my feet remained frozen.

This is, I suppose, a genuine excuse for a bout of depression and misery, but as we slid off into the grey world (it had been too dim for vehicles to go without their headlights the whole day) I tried to distract myself from my physical discomfort by studying the landscape outside.

I was surprised at how many coniferous trees and evergreens there are in Alnwick, all would have been planted intentionally. Most of the trees were leafless; a few of these had fairy lights in them, to encourage tidings of comfort and joy. Once we rolled across the A1 overpass, there were few trees, and nearly all barren. The fields were green enough, with a great many sheep huddled near windbreaks; a few horses wearing blankets stared out at us and I wondered if they slept indoors.

Quite a few of our passengers left the bus at Alnmouth Station. Bus meets Train, is the plan, though I've not found it to work so well. One long-haired and scruffily-dressed lad leaving us looked like a beatnik or hippie, complete with a bit of a pointy beard and a knapsack; he was also carrying a laptop computer in a case. Probably an astrophysicist, or a Facebook addict. He jogged down to the railway station where, almost certainly, he'd have to wait an hour for Bus to meet Train. It occurs to me that the platforms at Alnwick Station are colder than the Alnwick bus station when the wind is out of the north (and it was). Poor bastard.

The River Aln was running high, and the tide was in in the Aln Estuary, and all the rain had flooded the tidal marshes and fields as we dodged into Alnmouth Village looking for passengers. The North Sea was fairly calm, no sign of the beaches. The marshy end of the Alnmouth Village Golf Course was looking more like a lake, complete with waterfowl. All was submerged.

Once on the Coast Road, I appreciated how much rain had fallen recently, with fields well-puddled, some even flooded, and the road resembling a canal as we ploughed through water deep enough to splash up and over the bus's windows on the front and sides. Mostly-brown hedgerows and the green fields were turning brown as the already weak light vanished outside. The canopy of leaves that makes the drive in and out of Warkworth on the north side so spectacular was missing, making the roadway appear to be surrounded by gigantic thorns, which was beautiful in its own way.

Lots of Christmas lights in Warkworth, its pubs and restaurants seem to be surviving the recession better than those in Amble and Alnwick. Warkworth is a tourist trap, Americans and Japanese come thousands of miles to pose for pictures in its street, below the Castle. Swans are found on the River Coquet, underneath an ancient bridge, at any time of year. Might they be mechanical? (The former head of Disneyland Paris, a Frenchman, has been hired by the Duke of Northumberland to turn Alnwick Castle and Gardens into some sort of theme park … And the Frenchman says he'd like to include the town of Alnwick too … And I'm wondering about robotic swans, peacocks and deer, and the townsfolk hired on to dress like serfs, to re-enact the good old days of 1348.)

The Coquet Estuary was swamped, the tide as high as I've ever seen it, only feet from the road between Warkworth and Amble. Amble's few lights reflected in the water. Barren trees after the Welcome to Northumberland's Friendliest Port sign. Black slate roofs running with rainwater which is guttered onto the pavements, rather than under them. I've started to warm up after my half-hour ride home. My headache from the Holly Jolly Music is easing.

Cailean was awfully glad to see me, but not pleased when we went back outside briefly for him to pee. Inside for good, I drew the curtains, for the world outside was quite dark by then, and made the coffee I'd missed at dinner. Cailean slept next to me on the sofa while I read. The electric fire, fake coals in a small furnace, was a nice way to wrap up a surprisingly pleasant day in bleak mid-winter.

My neighbour just called out: "It's supposed to snow!"

Bring it on!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Are People Peeing on Front Street?

I saw someone peeing in Jermyn Street the other day. I thought, is this the end of civilization as we know it? Or is it simply someone peeing in Jermyn Street?
Alan Bennett

THE FIRST MEMBER OF MY FAMILY washed up in Bermuda in about 1880. John William Eldridge was a carpenter with the British Army and was posted to the encampment above the old town of St George. I do not know if the weapons resting on the gun carriages maintained by my great-grandfather's younger brother were facing out to sea, or whether some might have been pointed at vital places on the narrow strip of land making up the archipelago.

My great-grand uncle John married a local girl, Marian Elizabeth Florence Thomas, daughter of James Thomas, a warder, in St Peter's Church, St George's, in 1882. Marian was only 16, and a daughter, Ada Florence Eldridge, was born and christened in Bermuda in 1883. This is all in the Bermuda Government Archives, and I have turned the appropriate pages there.

John, Marian and the newborn baby left Bermuda and returned to England. As far as I can tell, John's family were somewhat unsure about that Bermuda marriage, and the couple were wed again, in London, in October 1885. They never returned to Bermuda.

My father arrived in Bermuda in the summer of 1943. He would have been about 18. Technically in the Royal Navy, my father was an assistant in the on-shore canteen in Bermuda. He was not off sinking battleships and submarines.

My mother's parents, the Lancasters, had originally set foot in Bermuda in the first week of August, 1925. They returned to England a few times with money saved in Bermuda, hoping to make something of themselves back home. My grandfather misjudged the times, or simply didn't have any luck, and lost their nest-egg trying to sell furniture near Blackpool during the Depression. They went back to Bermuda once and for all not long before the Second World War, my grandfather working for the British Forces in the NAAFI. I believe my father worked in some capacity for my grandfather.

I am the result of the unhappy marriage of my British parents. My father remained with my mother (conveniently) for seven years, claimed his Bermudian "status", and that was happy families over and done with. Just in case you thought I was clothed in celestial glory.

Adding up the days, weeks, months and years, I have spent most of my life in Bermuda. I remember best the first twenty years, 1950 to 1970, when Bermuda was a fairly simple place: green landscapes, pink sand beaches, pastel-coloured cottages, and exquisite turquoise waters swirling over purple reefs. Party politics, organized government that took itself too seriously (if nowhere near as seriously as it would thirty years down the road), and the destruction of all that was charming about the landscape in the name of wider roads and broad vistas soured my view of Bermuda. The oleander hedges that had cast blossoms onto the narrow lanes (narrow enough to naturally restrict speed) were ripped up, and outlooks installed. Then buildings were erected to fill the former natural spaces. And now you could conveniently see all these blots on the landscape clearly!

Older hotels, charming and, delightfully, of another world, making them unique and attractive, were pulled down (I watched two of them, the Hamilton Hotel and the Bermudiana, burn down in the 1950s) and hideous cartons were put up in their place. American-style holiday units, horrific anywhere, were encouraged. Within twenty years some of these were already empty, home to vagrants and addicts, stinking of piss and shit. In the past ten years most of the hotels have been pulled down, and condominiums and small clubs have been built or planned. Grand hotel schemes have been touted by Bermuda's current Leader, who also handles tourism and transport, with promises made and broken on a monthly basis.

Even the cottage colonies are closing down. Golf courses and clubs have closed. The City of Hamilton's Front Street was once considered the window of the world (and the British Empire) with fine goods in beautiful shops, with polite and knowledgeable staff. The better shops have shut down, many famous fronts have been demolished and boxy office blocks have filled the gaps. Government decided to ignore the laws about the height of buildings and suddenly ten storeys is not too tall. Even the tourist souvenir shops in Hamilton are closing as Government is catering to maxi-ships which can only come alongside at the former Royal Navy Dockyard. Simply, the cruise operators bring their own hotel (and catering and entertainment) to Bermuda, filled with its own guests, staffed by its own employees. Thousands of tourists who are on these all-inclusive sea voyages (so not inclined to buy much more than a postcard when they reach a port) pour into the Dockyard at once, some, perhaps, wanting to go to a beach. However, the roads and public transport are not up to this.

The little (historic) Town of St George where my great-grand uncle John was stationed is closing down too. And green Bermuda has been paved and concreted over.

It is the business of hotels, like colonies, to be one step behind the times.
Alan Bennett

I recall crime in Bermuda, of course. However, I do not recall living there in fear of my life as gunshots ring out. In 2009, so far, there have been 40 gun-related incidents, 14 people have been shot, and some have died. There have been other murders using machetes and knives. It is gang warfare. The Bermuda Government had refused to admit there were gangs in Bermuda for years. This year the word "gang" is everywhere. Yet nobody, somehow, sees anything. Dozens can clearly observe the murder of a boy at Elbow Beach, yet nothing is seen. Violence on the fields at sporting events is obvious, sometimes it is even on film or caught on mobile phones, but there is no witness.

The gang violence is, apparently, over "turf". The many gangs have carved up a narrow strip of land totalling about 20 square miles. Who the hell wants to sit in his few acres, proud as hell, shooting at anyone who comes onto it, afraid to step out of it? Drugs have rotted the minds of these gang members.

To be right up to date: Many people who attended the Christmas Parade in Bermuda recently felt so offended by the vulgar, violent dancing, language and behaviour, and unseemly costumes of the young girls marching that they hurried their children away and headed home, saying: "Never again!"

Who are these young girls? Who are the young boys in the gangs? They are the children of children in many cases. They are children without proper family backgrounds. "Your daddy's not your daddy, but your daddy don't know…" was an amusing calypso song when I was younger. It's a way of life. The grannies and aunties who raised these boys and girls are church-going, narrow-minded women. They are religiose, rather than religious, seeing evil in gays they don't know, but not seeing evil in their family members that they should know. Bermuda tends to be a matriarchal society at home (so many of the men are simply missing), battling an angry, mostly-male Government. Could the angry men in charge be horribly embarrassed by the boys on the walls? Or is it politically convenient to have an underclass to blame on the British and old history? It is better to have perceived blame than to dispense wisdom?

Bermuda's Ministry of Tourism has the motto "Feel the Love" … I'm not sure that many Bermudians are feeling it these days. How many tourists feel it? I dare a tourist to pause after a Bermudian snaps "Good morning!" at him. My English master used to walk into our classroom and say: "Good morning! The usual insincere wish!" He got that right.

Bermuda is a divided country, ruled by a minority. It was divided and ruled by a white minority when I was a boy. That was quite wrong. It is still divided and ruled by a minority because the Government wants one thing for Bermuda, independence from Britain and an American-style leadership by an individual (not surprising considering the current Leader was an American citizen, and may still be in his heart of hearts), and the people, apparently, want something else. The Leader himself has said that they had to fool the people for their own good. Orwell wrote: "Ignorance is Strength". So, it is wrong, don't you think, to promote ignorance?

"This is your Raja speaking," the excited voice proclaimed. After which, da capo, there was a repetition of the speech about Progress, Values, Oil, True Spirituality. Abruptly, as before the procession disappeared from sight and hearing. A minute later it was in view again, with its wobbly counter-tenor bellowing the praises if the newly united kingdom's first prime minister.
The roaring of the engines diminished, the squeaking rhetoric lapsed into an inarticulate murmur, and as the intruding noises died away, out came the frogs again, out came the uninterruptible insects, out came the mynah birds.
"Karuna. Karuna." And a semi-tone lower, "Attention."
Aldous Huxley (Island)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Street Life: A Little Death & A Little Parade

Dim all the lights sweet darling
Cause tonight it's all the way
Turn up the old Victrola
Gonna dance the night away.
Donna Summer (Dim all the Lights)

I FOUND THAT PHOTO ONLINE. I wanted to illustrate this entry and really had no intention of returning home for my camera after spotting a used condom on the pavement of our second street here in Amble. How the hell does one casually take a picture of such a thing, close-up, I suppose, without coming over as a real pervert? Somebody did take a picture of a used condom, convenient for my needs, and I just Googled it. Perhaps the photographer set it all up, provided the thing and placed it carefully on a flagstone on his back patio. Excuse me while I cringe.

I was walking Cailean yesterday and we went first down Queen Street, Amble's main (and only) shopping district. I might add that about a fifth of the shops are closed and boarded up, or are hardly open … on shortened hours or showing no signs of life (like having the lights on). Rough year or so here, and it's the off-season. Once we reached the Town Square, with its bare flagpoles and its concrete benches growing moss for the winter, we turned back and crossed over to Church Street, and headed west, eager to get home as it was, as the little children say, fuckin' cold.

There it was, on the pavement outside St Cuthbert's Parish Church: A used condom. It was a pale green colour, and I've since wondered if it was luminescent. One should probably not think about that sort of thing too much. It might send a message. There is a wall outside St Cuthbert's, with no indentations, no roofed area, no trees, and that continues for some way in both directions, though the church gives way to terraced houses flush with the pavement. The street is a No Parking zone on both sides as well. It's all wide open.

One must assume the condom was removed from the gentleman's appendage pretty much where it was dropped on the pavement. Chances are the act that came shortly before this took place there too, en plein air, on our second street, where the 518 and 420 buses collect us to take us to Alnwick or Newcastle, or to Ashington. I'd like to think this all happened on Tuesday night, or in the wee hours of Wednesday. It was a bitterly cold night, with the icy wind howling down Church Street. Truly a knee-trembler! Let's hear it for the randy British male, eh?

I'm not really complaining. In fact, it is rather uplifting to discover that our lads are using birth (and/or) disease control. Taking it to the streets. However, Cailean is a curious dog, and he very nearly picked the glowing latex tube up. Achtung! I jerked the leash back just in time.

At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.

William Shakespeare (Love's Labour's Lost. Act I, Scene I)

I DID NOT TAKE THAT PHOTOGRAPH either. I was going to take a picture of Amble's Queen Street Christmas illuminations tonight, but I'd have to walk about a hundred yards in the frosty night, and this year's display is on a smaller scale than other years. With many shops closed down, the lights on the buildings that have the power switched off are not plugged in, or switched on. Just unlit bulbs. The brightest spot on Queen Street is probably the Europizza take-away; we seem to eat that Eurotrash no matter how the recession bites.

So, that's last year's bright lights in the picture, courtesy of Google.

We had the town's Santa Claus Parade on the Sunday before last. It was well dark at five o'clock when a surprisingly large crowd gathered at the top of Queen Street, waiting for a knot of entertainers to emerge from the parking lot of the (closed down) Wellwood Arms. I decided to take Cailean with me, thinking he might be afraid of the noise from a parade if he were home alone.

We'd had rain that Sunday afternoon, but the sky cleared shortly before 5.00pm. That meant the temperature dipped, we were all bundled up. There were no shops with open doors radiating heat out onto the pavement, only Europizza seemed to be open, and they had their door pulled to. Eastern Europeans must find Britain cold.

Suddenly, the last thing I expected or wanted: A sky-rocket. It must have been set off in the space in front of Olive's Tea Room (which was closed). A whoosh and a loud bang, then red sparks. Cailean jumped and wound the lead around my ankles. And the overhead lights crossing Queen Street, and some of the lights on the buildings, suddenly lit up. And that was rather nice in a very modest way.

About a dozen Hell's Angels … or the Amble equivalent … leather clad blokes on heavy motorcycles, with their birds riding pillion, shot down the High Street from the Wellwood Arms, and onto Queen Street, at considerable speed, with no obvious concern for the many small children who could have stepped out onto the single-lane, partly-cobbled street. Where was Health & Safety?

Then two ladies carried a banner reading, I think, AMBLE SANTA CLAUS PARADE 2009. It was not illuminated. Behind that, a few dozen children carrying paper lanterns, most of which were not illuminated, a few of the children had (battery-powered) torches.

Then the music: Quite a few people with snare drums, and some African or Caribbean drums that might be right at home in the Copacabana. A rat-a-tat-tat sound, a lot like the beat that the Gombeys in Bermuda jiggle about to. Not exactly Away in a Manger; not Jingle Bells; The Little Drummer Boy? Not even.

At this point it got what I'd call peculiar … considering this was a Santa Claus Parade. I know we cannot have anything remotely religious nowadays, I was not expecting a virgin on a donkey (as if) … About seven or eight people dressed in costumes made of, I think, wire and tissue paper, some lit from underneath by torches. There was a Cheshire Cat, a Mad Hatter, and a White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland, a Playing Card, and a Chess Figure. Perfect for a Lewis Carroll Appreciation Society do, but odd (don't you think?) for Christmas.

The last entry in the Parade was a flat-bed truck loaded with small children and somebody thin in a Santa suit, and a stereo playing, possibly, holiday music. I couldn't make it out clearly with the snare drums going not twenty feet in front of it. Excluding the Hell's Angels, it was a very compact Parade. Our two Community Police Officers in fluorescent yellow vests, the brightest things in the Parade, brought up the rear.

The spectators at the head of Queen Street walked into the street itself and followed the Parade down to the Square. Cailean had had enough by then, all five minutes of it, and it was clouding over. It rained not long after we got back to the flat, but the Divinity that shines on Wonderland Parades had been kind. I would think the tissue costumes would not take a dose of rain or sleet very well. Saved for another year. Or the next parade, whatever it might celebrate.

It's not a bad thing, the small-, really-small-, town parade. I saw quite a few people, and dogs, one Scottie in costume, that I recognised. A fair bit of waving and smiling. The lights are put up by a dwindling team of now aged people, the costs of new bulbs covered, in part, by a fair at the Co-op Mortuary. The Amble Parade is not beholden to advertisers, and there are no competing preachers, and there was nothing vulgar. Old men, eighty years from now, may remember, fondly, the glowing tissue-paper Wonderland sort of Santa Claus Parade of 2009.

I read in today's Northumberland Gazette that persons unknown have since stolen all the spare bulbs.

Are they really unknown? I'm thinking they are those who would prefer the bitter darkness of December to a little magic. I'm guessing they are not really happy people, and that Christmas, the real Christmas, is just another day off. Turned off. Sad bastards.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Jung Man

JOE ORTON LIKED TO LISTEN IN ON conversations that the participants thought private, if not private enough to whisper or conduct in secret. Orton would then delight his friends by relating his experiences at listening in. I used to think Orton might have embellished his stories, as peculiar as they could be. No longer. Even in the wilds of Northumberland, on our humble buses, I regularly hear the daftest things. Just today, two older ladies:

"My granddaughter is going to Karachi."
"Oh! Where they have white coats and black belts and go chop-chop?"
"No! That's Karate! She's going to Karachi in Pakistan.!"
"So, no black belts then?"

Before I even got on the bus, while in the classic English queue on the forecourt on a bitterly cold and windy afternoon, a very old lady with incredibly bushy white eyebrows, through which she had drawn a line in what appeared to be artists' charcoal, smiled from under what may have been a tea-cosy and faced me and said:

"This cold is so terrible. I can't seem to get warm today. And the wind ... When I was growing up we had an outside toilet and no bath-tub."

I tried not to look at her eyebrows, decided she looked like the housekeeper from "Father Ted" (Mrs Doyle) aged about 93, and figured the old dear craved psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, I must have looked too interested and the lady continued with her family history. Once on the bus, I managed to lose her ... Only to be rewarded for the patience I'd shown with the Karachi story.

You lose some ... You win some ...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Do Only Lost Children Have Secret Places?

The Cat Inn, Cheswick, Northumberland

DUKE VINCENTIO: Many that are not mad
Have, sure, more lack of reason. What would you say?

William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure. Act V, Scene I)

I LOVE THE BUS EXPERIENCE. I am never disappointed by the view: A frozen wind turbine that most Northumbrians might think a useless blot on the landscape is magic for me; I've been longing for windmills around the next corner for sixty years. And there is something truly fascinating about vehicles abandoned on the shoulder of the highway: What stories might they tell? Now and then there is a car so thoroughly crushed that one knows more than the headlights went out. I've rarely been disappointed by a street or highway sign: I miss The Great North Road, replaced by The A1. However, there's a peculiar sign that shines in the day and glows at night, between Warkworth and Alnmouth Village on the coastal route, that has an arrow pointing towards the North Sea and the words "Waterside Ho". Make up your own jokes.

On a chilly late November day, there's precious little as pleasant as the heating on a bus. I try to get my feet near the warm vents. With my sleeve I wipe a little of the condensation from my window so that any windmill or evidence of life or death is more clearly witnessed.

Yesterday I was on a minibus, one of those seventeen- or eighteen-seaters. We left Alnwick just before noon and headed north on that poorly renamed A1. Our destination was The Cat Inn near Haggerston Castle. The Cat Inn is near several places, if one were going to Berwick-upon-Tweed, it would be near that. The postal address is Cheswick, and it is near that, if out on the side of the main road, a little isolated. A beacon. A friend is the pub landlady. Marion and her partner, Paul, have only recently taken over The Cat. Make a note to stop there for a hot meal or a bevy, or both. It's all castles and coast up there, wild birds, seals, sheep and crops, and a couple of miles from the Scottish Borders: Go and see all that, and visit The Cat. You can stay overnight; Marion has rooms and does breakfasts.

A Pair of Tits

On the bus, as we rock-and-rolled in deluging rain and gale force winds, I listened in on an odd conversation. There is always an odd conversation somewhere on a bus if you but tune in … and I travel with some curious characters at times. One member of our group was discussing recent programmes on the television.

Now, I don't watch what is referred to as Reality TV because it tends to be too surreal. I do notice updates on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here! And The X-Factor on my computer, in the Yahoo! Headlines, and in the newspapers. I do read the papers. So I know, for example, that Katie Price, aka Jordan, ex-wife of Peter André, has quit the jungle after only a few days. She was paid many times more than the other contestants. And Great Britain discovered something, at last, about Katie Price: She's detestable. Nobody here actually likes the big-boobed woman after all. Katie refused to chomp down on a kangaroo's testicle (one newspaper suggested that that was a first for her as testicles go) and headed back home to spend all that money the sponsors over-paid her. Meanwhile, on X-Factor, the British public finally gave identical twins John and Edward (nicknamed Jedward) the push. I'd never seen or heard their act till after they'd gone. I felt I should have a listen when the regular news covered the story. I'll tell you, Jedward are as untalented as it gets: tone deaf and clumsy. Disney will buy them. They'll be a draw for a year, and then one can only hope they'll find some addiction or a career in the porn industry. If the Jedward twins had only been born conjoined, they'd be made for life. No such luck.

The lady on my bus kept muttering about some reality show she'd seen on the telly over the last weekend and how she'd hated every minute of it because "there were too many adverbs ..." She continued: "One after another ... adverb after adverb ... It made me quite mad ... I said to myself 'Fucking Nora, why am I watching this? All these adverbs.' ..."

I thought to myself: "She's utterly and completely (and unashamedly) off her nut. Undoubtedly, this woman is in need of medication. Absolutely crackers!" Finally, I decided: "I quite like her, even if there are not enough adjectives to describe her!" I resisted, of course, the temptation to whisper: "You want the noun ADVERT!" We sat at the same table for lunch, and it was quite jolly.

A Nice Shag

Marion told us about some recent guests she'd had at The Cat Inn. A couple turned up in the evening with only a shopping bag for luggage. The woman looked not so much like the common slapper as a lady of the night. She glowed with one of those fake orange tans, the kind that Katie Price thinks attractive. For some reason, the dodgy couple, revealing themselves as obnoxious, wanted the family room at The Cat, which has three beds. They tried to persuade Marion to lower the overnight tariff, and Marion responded by hiking it. One does not mess with Marion! The couple paid the new price and went upstairs. In no time, the clientele in the bar were treated to the clear sounds of loud and riotous sex as the overnighters had a very long shag. In the morning, after the guests had departed, Marion went to strip the bed. She discovered that the couple had used all three beds in the family room. Worse, the hooker's orange tan had come off on all the bed linens, and attempts to wash it out failed. One wonders if Katie Price rubs off that way. I wouldn't touch her with Peter's.

On the way home in the minibus, I sat in the same seat as I had on the way north, but I was, of course, looking out in the opposite direction. I spotted one of those windmills, the tall metal tower type, with a fan having many flat blades. The kind one sees in old western movies, with cattle gathered to drink water below it. When I was very young, my father used to take me and my sisters for a Sunday drive now and then, and we'd look for favourite things. Mine was a windmill, set back from the road, this in Bermuda. Formative experience.

Yes, you get a prize, an honorary title, if you noticed that Jedward has the same hairdo as the Shag.

Monday, 16 November 2009


Crabbed age and youth cannot live together:
Youth is full of pleasance, age is full of care;
Youth like summer morn, age like winter weather;
Youth like summer brave, age like winter bare.
Youth is full of sport, age's breath is short;
Youth is nimble, age is lame;
Youth is hot and bold, age is weak and cold;
Youth is wild, and age is tame.

William Shakespeare. Poem XII

THE OLDER OF MY TWO SISTERS sent me a birthday card last week. The cover read: "A child of the 60's is turning 60" and featured a rough picture of a hippie in tie-dye colours. Inside the card said: "Do you want to drop some antacid?" Karen followed that up with an email: "I just can't believe I have a brother who's 60…"

It seems just a few weeks since I turned 50. I was in Bermuda and two friends took me to dinner at an Indian restaurant. We shared the food, all seemed to enjoy it. I certainly did. However my friends had to stop their car on the way home and run behind a hedge. And that was ten years ago! I have been living back in England for a number of years, those friends are in exile in Mexico. My little dog Aleks died six years ago, Cailean is coming up for two. For all that, November 1999 seems like just last week.

This year I took three friends to dinner at the nearest better eatery, on a stormy night; "The worst storm of the year" according to the BBC. We reached the Sun Hotel safely; the rain started tipping down as we ordered drinks in the bar. When we moved on to the dining room for a candle-lit meal we could not fail to notice the wind pressing on the windows and the rain sweeping across the Coquet Estuary. A few hours later, we had to dash to the car and as we neared Amble the road was beginning to flood. The good news, none of us required an emergency stop in a field full of cold, wet sheep for a severe lower digestive complaint.

While we ate our considerable dinner (we forced ourselves, as one does, to have pudding) there was muzak playing. Just one artist, the hotel must have loaded all their Michael Bublé CDs into the sound system. They would not have known, but Bublé is my favourite performer these days. He's the Canadian crooner, and he's been in Britain promoting his new CD (it's called Crazy Love, and I highly recommend it). Turns out Bublé is a wonderful talk show guest, full of funny stories about his female fans (he gets pelted with knickers) and his family, travels, film work, and so on. He comes over a little bit light in the loafers, but that might just be because he's Canadian (Canada is the United States' gay neighbour, I've heard). No matter his television interview persona, Bublé has a reputation as a ladies' man.

Let's go back 55 years, to about 1955. That would be the year my father inherited an old record player and a stack of 78 rpm vinyl disks. The recordings were all of classical music, and neither of my parents listened to them. My father bought a few new recordings: Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt, Johnny Mathis and Peggy Lee, a year or two later, Teresa Brewer, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. My sisters and I were given a soundtrack to Lady and the Tramp. Somebody gave me a small disk of The Flight of the Bumblebee. Odd.

My father liked crooners. I detested them. I have never liked the early rock and roll of Presley and his generation. Music came roaring into my life with She loves you … Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! in 1964; and it has never let up. And in 2009 I'm suddenly a fan of Jamie Cullum and Harry Connick Jr, and I love to hear Michael Bublé belting out The best is yet to come and Come fly with me, let's fly away.

My father, and his records, had gone AWOL not long after 1955. In the 1960s I listened to all the pop music out of England, and to Motown music on the radio in Bermuda. I only recall one song of my generation that my father quite liked; it was Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones. He was not impressed by the flip side of the single which was Let's Spend the Night Together. I suppose my Dad liked the cellos in Ruby Tuesday. It's a good song (even nearly 45 years later). My father is long dead, Mick Jagger is a knight of the realm, and I'm suddenly retro.

I shall remember the party on my 60th birthday as the one with Michael Bublé and stormy weather providing the backdrop. Perhaps, in what will seem like a few weeks, I shall celebrate 70 years. Where? Will the mind and body cooperate? Will friends be alive to share the moment? Will my sister be saying: "I just can't believe I have a brother who is 70…"

What will the music be?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Losing Count

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
Holy Bible. St. Matthew 10:34

False Sphinx! false Sphinx! by reedy Styx old
Charon, leaning on his oar,
Waits for my coin. Go thou before, and leave
me to my crucifix,
Whose pallid burden, sick with pain, watches the
world with wearied eyes,
And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for
every soul in vain.
Oscar Wilde. The Sphinx

I'VE JUST RETURNED HOME after attending the Remembrance Day ceremony in Amble by the Sea. It was raining heavily early this morning, but had eased to a drizzle when I walked along to the Town Square. A considerable crowd seemed relieved when the sun broke through a few minutes before the two minutes silence and wreath-laying was to begin.

I didn't take Cailean with me, which turned out to be a wise move. We've had Guy Fawkes Day fireworks every night this past week and Cailean has been awfully upset by the flashes of light and explosions. At eleven, the clock in the tower in the Square did not sound, but a rocket was launched nearby and we all went very quiet. Two minutes later another rocket went up and the person leading the parade called for the Mayor to lay the first poppy wreath below the names carved into the memorial in the tower. I think Cailean would have barked.

During the First World War dachshunds in Britain were kicked, stoned and killed in the streets for being German. The Royal Family escaped that, a simple name change. Another dachshund story related by Robert K. Massie in the excellent book Dreadnought: During the Great War a member of the German High Command threw a party in his large country home. All the military leaders were invited; many came, though the Kaiser sent his regrets. Just as well, the host came down his grand staircase to greet the guests below dressed in a pink ballet dancer's tutu. His dachshunds were running rings around him. He stumbled, fell, and was quite dead (natural causes) by the time he reached the horrified crowd. Apparently it was not at all easy to get the plump corpse out of his tutu and into his military uniform so that things did not seem too peculiar when the body was to be collected.

During the brief silence this morning I did think of my grandfather's brother, James Arthur Lancaster, killed in the Pas de Calais on 2 September 1918. I also thought of my many close relatives who served in the armed forces (most in the Royal Navy) in the past 200 years and came home to their parents, wives, children, home to England. My cousin's son is an officer on a Royal Navy ship at this moment, and I thought of him out there in harm's way.

Noticing the young army cadets taking part in this morning's ceremony, I remembered being forcibly enrolled into our school Cadet Corps shortly before my fourteenth birthday. We had uniforms that were less comfortable than the ones the lads and lasses get to wear, as volunteers, these days. We had metal studs on our boots and when we stamped we made a great noise. Noise is good on parade, if not when you are marching towards your enemy. The parade today was dead quiet.

During the week there was a news story on the television showing British troops in Afghanistan preparing for Remembrance Day by erecting a very large wooden cross in their bleak desert encampment. It was a cross big enough to crucify a god on. And I was horrified!

I imagined Afghani folks, in their own country, coming by on foot, on horses, however they travel from village to village, and there's an enormous Christian cross on the skyline. I cannot imagine many Muslims all over the world seeing this on the television being too impressed to see that the spirit of the Crusades lives on.

We had Christian prayers in the Square in Amble today. I believe they were led by a Methodist preacher this year. We were remembering all our war dead (I suppose we are not to remember our dead enemies, even those who were Christians, at these times), but many non-Christians from the British Empire fought and died alongside those of us who might believe Christ walked on England's mountains green. Is it time to use a line from the play Sordid Lives: "Come down off that cross, buddy. We need the wood."?

There are a great many ghosts created on battlefields. At least seven of our boys died in Afghanistan this past week. One loses count.

Friday, 6 November 2009


Youth is wasted on the young.
Oscar Wilde

What's another word for a mother in Camden Town? Schoolgirl.
Frankie Boyle

I'M GLAD I'M NOT A PARENT. It was bad enough having parents that failed to meet the high standards that I believe all parents should meet. I should point out that I've honed my thoughts on parenting only recently as I see teenagers behaving and misbehaving. I am old enough to be their grandfather, suddenly I give a hoot.

I was not given any training by example when it comes to raising children. It took a rather long time, but I've forgiven my father and mother for their failures and failings. They should never have married, but I think I understand, now, the pressures that brought all that about. My parents were married in August 1947. I think they both were seeking some sort of stability; the War had just ended, they were in a foreign country, and, sadly, they'd not had the chance to play the field in the early 1940s.

My mother was advised not to have children because of some considerable health problems. No matter, she had three. She paid the price for that. I dare say my sisters and I are grateful. I know I am on my good days, and there are many of those.

By the time I was starting school, my mother was discovering the horrors of single-parenting. In the mid-1950s this was not a common thing, especially among white middle class folks living in Bermuda. The family, on both sides, back in England, could not understand how a husband and wife could possibly separate when there were children in the equation. My father once visited his grandfather Crow, taking along a lady friend instead of my mother. "Where is Mavis? Where is Mavis?" asked my great-grandfather, who just couldn't get his head around the misbehaviour of the young. My parents, at their wedding, had pledged "Till death us do part…" and for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health had been in the vows.

I'm "into" genealogy and family history, and have just about everybody I descend from, and many extras, for over two hundred years, and some lines go back to the time of Henry VIII, and some go back to the time of the Saxon kingdoms. In all of those families I come from, divorce was extremely rare, though the Normans certainly were not averse to messing around. Illegitimate children did turn up. I'm not sure that comparing family life these days to that in the Middle Ages (and earlier) would be a useful exercise.

My great-grandfather James Henry Proctor was illegitimate. His mother was Mary Ann Proctor and his father was John Clough. In 1869, if your parents were not married (to each other) you could not take your father's surname. Mary Ann and John did eventually marry and had several more children. So five of James Henry Proctor's younger siblings had the surname Clough; his older sister, also born on the wrong side of the blanket, was a Proctor. I don't know if the stigma of all this bothered James Henry, he was sent off to work in the mill at the age of nine because he was tall and could fool the bosses into thinking he was eleven. My great-grandfather married, had seven children, only one (my grandmother) surviving into old age. James Henry died young.

I know that some of my blood relatives were partial to drink. My great-grandmother Jessie Moon Crow preferred to drink whisky alone in her kitchen rather than make conversation with her family and guests in the front room. I've seen photos of the lady and she looked pretty rough, but she reached a good age. My great-grandfather Harry Lancaster would celebrate the weekend in the pubs below Harle Syke, and at least once he vomited out his dentures into the drop toilet in the family's small back yard. Plumbing was quite cooperative in those days and my great-grandmother was able to retrieve the false teeth the next morning when they had washed down to the filtering mechanism at the waterworks.

Last night, on BBC3, I watched The World's Strictest Parents. Now, normally I would not have even considered giving an hour of reading time up for that sort of thing, but the synopsis in the Radio Times guide read: "Unruly 17-year-olds Hannah Thorpe from Liverpool and James Gowing from Leicester are sent to live under the strict rules of a God-fearing Morman [sic] family in Utah." That's one of the very few times I've seen a spelling mistake in the Radio Times, and Mormons interest me as some of you will appreciate. I certainly witter on about them enough!

Hannah and James appeared to be the most obnoxious brats one could unearth in Britain. Both live on benefits and Hannah explained that by cutting back on what she spent on her illegitimate baby she could afford her drink, drugs and cigarettes. "What's the most common bird in Britain?" asked some wit. "The slapper." And binge-drinking, chain-smoking, vulgar, under-dressed Hannah is the poster child for all that is wrong with Britain's youth. James was harder to figure out. He seemed very nervous, came across as gay, though it was never mentioned. He applied a good deal of make-up each morning, and his clothing was as dodgy as Hannah's. Hannah talked Scouse, and James tried to sound like a black rapper, and I noticed his pancake make-up was an orange colour. James is the poster child for a generation that wasted its chance at a good education; he seemed more intelligent than he thought he was.

Off to Tooele, Utah went these two miserable little shits. I've been to Tooele, Utah and it's not exactly the Promised Land unless you are a God-fearing Mormon. They process toxic waste there (making the Hannah and James project logical somehow). The enormous Bingham Copper Mine is nearby, and that is actually worth the visit. But to live there? Not for me!

Of course, the whole point of Strictest Parents is the inevitable blow-up and confrontations between the hosts and their vile house-guests.

Strict, God-fearing Mormon families are pretty scary, but I approve of some, perhaps much, of what they are about when it comes to child-rearing. These were not just Mormons, but Americans and in ultra-conservative Utah. The Stars and Stripes flies in the yard, the family pledges allegiance to the flag and for what it stands each day, and I think they recited the Declaration of Independence. The mother home-schools her four children. The standard they live by is simply: "What would the Prophet do?"

The Mormon mother was shocked to hear that Hannah had a year-old daughter. I wondered what she'd have thought had she seen a picture of the little girl, who was very dark-skinned. Until 1978, Negro blood would keep you out of the Celestial Kingdom of Heaven.

Well, the worst of Britain, James and Hannah, ranted and raved and craved. They tried to run away, but Tooele is very nearly the end of the world. (In fact, it can be seen from there.)

For some reason, the guests were dolled up at the end, Hannah wearing a beauty queen's gown (the Mormons are mad for beauty contests) with a tiara, and James was found an ill-fitting suit, if not a tie, and they were spirited off to a reception in the State Capitol in Salt Lake City. There they were offered apple cider in flute glasses. Hallelujah! they thought. Cider! Of course, Utah cider is alcohol-free.

Hannah and James wept when the time came to go back to Britain. Back at home there were promises of a new start.

Both James and Hannah came from broken families, and I was not at all impressed with their mothers who simply indulged their impossible kids. Perhaps not so much indulging them as simply not bothering.

I'm afraid, in my fast-approaching old age, I think that children should not be permitted to have children. Abortions for very young mothers should be mandatory. There should be no benefits for schoolgirls who decide to take a pregnancy to term. I am very pro-marriage, but think it should be more difficult to get married. No benefits for unmarried partners. There is an ongoing case about a mother who arranged for one of her children to be kidnapped and then appealed for money and support (and got it). She was found out and is now in gaol, as are several associates. That unwed mother had seven children by five different men. I say she should be sterilized, and in light of her crime never allowed near children again. Unwed fathers in similar situations should get the same treatment. Cruelly, perhaps, I think all children should have to attend school until their 18th birthday, without exception.

Our Nanny State worries about three-legged races being too dangerous for our children, and the Three Little Pigs offending our Muslim population, and paedophiles behind every bush. How about really tackling the rot in British society? Let's make some extremely tough choices.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Moon and Moan over Amble

"You've been scaring people … and now I'm going to scare you! Boo!"
Mrs. F. Zuill. Headmistress, Bermuda High School for Girls.

THE HIGH STREET BECOMES THE WYND and straight ahead is the graveyard. Overhead there's a waxing moon. Mists come in off the North Sea. Bare trees claw at the sky. A dog barks somewhere under the moon, and Cailean responds loudly, but pulls on the leash to go back inside our flat.

We are having unusually mild weather; it was actually snowing last year in late October. However, the weatherman on the BBC has been suggesting that Saturday night, Halloween, will be a wash-out, with gale force winds and heavy rain, sweeping across from the west. Whether it will be as bad this side of the Pennines as in Cumbria and the Western Isles remains to be seen.

The Halloween items appeared in the Co-op at the top of Queen Street over a month ago. They've almost vanished two days before the big- or non-event. No telling if they sold or not. Who can afford sweeties at Amble prices? The costumes one might want and get would be better bought at ASDA, down in Ashington. Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse masks. A nice change from Bin Laden beards and Abu Hamza hooks, if somewhat scarier.

I have a little story that I've been meaning to use, and I believe I'll inject it here. A fortnight ago, on a Saturday, I was watching James Martin's cookery programme on the telly and there was suddenly a loud knock at my kitchen door. Cailean knows the various knocks of my neighbours, friends and family members, and Cailean was not happy with this one. Clearly he didn't recognise it. I went to the door and opened it. Grouped in front of me were five females. There was an older lady with inappropriate (I thought, for her age) long, blonde hair, she might have been 70. There were two middle-aged women who looked like each other, and like the older woman, right down to the long, blonde hair. Then, to complete the hand, there was a pair of what must surely have been identical twins, perhaps twelve-years-old, daughters of one of the middle-aged women. Long, blonde hair. All were dressed unfortunately in jeans and sweaters and hoodies, everything pale blue, grey or off-white. The women were pale, wore no make-up that seemed obvious, and were not what I'd call attractive.

The oldest woman responded to my "Hello there…" by saying "Good morning! Isn't the world a terrible place?" and shoving a Watchtower pamphlet at me. "Wait a minute!" I replied, "I don't want this…" I shoved it back, and started to close the door. The woman, I described her as a 'vile cow' to a friend a bit later, stuck her foot in the door. I pushed. "I'm just not interested!" "Don't you want to hear what Jehovah has promised?" "No." I pushed the door harder and the woman's foot slid out. Slam!

I returned to James Martin and his guest, Jo Brand. Jo would have known how to deal with my callers. I got thinking; I should have told the old woman that I was a registered sex-offender, and if she didn't mind that, could she send the little girls in, I could do Jehovah's business with them.

I've not had any Halloween callers in the last three years. There are no children living near me, and I don't put a pumpkin in the window, or leave the lights on. I very much doubt that I could get anything scarier than the Gang of Five that turned up early wandering in my neighbourhood.

A week from now, we'll have Guy Fawkes Day, the Fifth of November, Bonfire Night. We've had rain for that each year that I've been in Amble, and the fireworks and bonfires have been set off whenever there was a break in the bad weather. Last year, Cailean's first Guy Fawkes, the pup was scared by the explosions and flashes in the sky. Aleks was also scared of fireworks. You'll know that we burn images of Guy Fawkes to celebrate his failed attempt to massacre James I and the Government in 1605, though Fawkes was actually hanged, drawn and quartered. That might be too gruesome to re-enact.

And then Christmas is looming. The rather restrained public illuminations are up here in Amble already, but will not be switched on for another month. We have strands of lights very simply strung above Queen Street. Queen Street is our shopping district. A very few shops (butcher, greengrocer, baker, fishmonger, post office, minimart, four take-outs), most of which close early in the winter and roll ugly metal shutters down to protect their windows and doors from the yobs. The Christmas lights sparkle over a couple of pizza take-aways. I'd spend the lighting budget on doing something in the Town Square, which is left in the dark. It doesn't have to be a laser-light show. It doesn't have to be religious or denominational. Perhaps just save those unused sky rockets and damp squibs that we couldn't get off on the Fifth of November for Christmas Eve.

Many years ago, some friends of mine who attended the Bermuda High School for Girls told me that they'd been jumping out and terrifying the youngsters at the school. And why not? Then, one day, a couple of my friends walked past a doorway and the Headmistress, Mrs Frances Zuill, leapt out at them, explained herself, and yelled "Boo!" An Amy Winehouse face mask, tattoos and titties would have been a nice touch, but Amy hadn't been born then. We could but dream.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Children of the Nightclubs

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.

William Shakespeare (Hamlet. Act II, Scene II)

I WENT TO THE ACE OF CLUBS ONLY ONCE. I can only think that I went for the live music: A rock band played at one end of the room. At the opposite end was the bar, which stood some distance from the wall behind it. Instead of the usual behind-the-bar accoutrements being displayed on that back wall, they were under the top of the bar and to the sides. The back wall was stained and scratched, and I soon realised just why. When a bottle had been emptied, the bartender flung it at the back wall where it shattered and the shards fell on the floor. A few glasses went that way as well, courtesy of the patrons.

Of course, in the nightclub at the Carlton Beach Hotel in Bermuda at this time limbo dancers entertained the drinkers by ducking under flaming poles, and some of the entertainers danced on broken glass. Nothing thrills drunken tourists quite like natives performing dangerous routines. I cannot say that I found the act at all compelling, and would, in any case, have been deep in conversation, solving the world's troubles. Of course, I cannot recall those discussions, but I imagine the Vietnam War got a mention. I was usually with shaggy Americans.

The Carlton Beach changed its name to the Sonesta Beach. I once left the nightclub at the Sonesta and walked directly out to an Easter Morning sunrise service on a rocky outcrop in its grounds. I was last at that hotel in 1978, New Year's Eve, and reluctantly joined a conga line. That night I was with most of the off-duty members of the Canadian Armed Forces Base in Bermuda. That seems awfully strange now. The last time I saw the friend who'd invited me, we were in the nightclub at the Grotto Bay Hotel, which was situated in an underground cavern, with dripping stalactites. You had to cover your glass, obviously!

I liked the short-lived Guinea Discotheque on Burnaby Street. Deafening music and packed in like sardines. One went up a narrow staircase to reach the place, and I can only think it was an incredible fire- and health-hazard. The Guinea was so small, crowded and loud that it felt as if one was inside a stereo system. I only went a few times, and don't think that disco ruined my hearing. I am quite deaf now, but it is from fifty years of loud music. Now I have to have my music (and the telly) loud to hear it at all.

I do not remember whether the nightclub at the Hamilton Princess Hotel in Bermuda had a name, but just outside the door was the Colony Bar where we'd indulge in a ritual before heading into the club itself. The bartender, who I want to call Cedric, would pour us each a shot glass of Gosling's Black Seal Rum. This rum is, as far as I'm concerned, as noxious as those Night Nurse tonics, and then some. Have you ever sucked up some petrol when you were going to drain some from a friend's moped when your tank had run dry? Vile. We'd not drink the stuff. Once Cedric had gone back behind the bar (we always sat at a table) we'd set the shot glass on fire. The rum would flame up beautifully, and then, suddenly, when the rum ran dry, the glass would shatter. We drank Bacardi and Coke with more respect.

One night we had a visiting pen-pal of a friend in tow. She, foolishly, drank her shot of Black Seal. Shortly afterwards she ran to the toilets in the hotel lobby, but did not make it. She vomited up black juices and her dinner, down her white touristy evening frock, all over the lobby carpets, and on into the toilet.

In the early 1970s there were basement clubs in London. You'd knock at the door, a panel would slide across, and you'd be let in. I'm not sure why we were let in, but it may have just been a case of knowing the place was there. The pubs would often have a club atmosphere with a rock band. I recall eating dinner below glass blocks in the pavement above a club while a singer covered every song on Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water album.

In 1979 a friend took me to a nightclub in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We'd been out to dinner in a hotel; the restaurant was on the ground floor. After we'd eaten, we took the lift up to the roof where there was a swimming pool, and sat there for a while, waiting till the clubs opened. Suddenly a couple of policeman burst into the otherwise-empty pool area and told us that an escaped criminal had run into the hotel and had taken a lift upstairs. Just where, they were not sure. My friend and I figured that a truly desperate person might head for the roof for a last stand. We pressed the button for the lift and hoped it would arrive empty. It did. We headed across the street to what turned out to be a gay discotheque. That was a first for me. I was so freaked out that I didn't pay all that much attention, and wish I had as I've not been in an exclusively gay discotheque since. The music was classic: It was raining men, people's bells were being rung, and they survived. Or perhaps not, this was before AIDS.

A couple of years ago I went to a club called Blue Juice. This had a large contingent of gays, but, frankly, the straights were looking pretty gay too. Blokes that looked like steelworkers and stevedores were hanging all over Goths and Emos and transvestites. The music was Madonna, the entire club was filled with the smoke from dry ice, and films were being projected on the walls. I felt very old, though Madonna is not ten years younger than I am.

Last night I stepped outside with Cailean when I'd heard the rain ease up. It was about eleven o'clock. Out onto the High Street (I'm an Exile on High Street) and there was no sign of life. The Wellwood Arms nearby, which had been featuring live bands until two months ago, has closed down. The Zecca Ristorante, which opened recently, stops serving at 9.30. And that's the High Street in Amble at night. To be fair, there's a dental office open in the daytime. The rest, last night, was a row of darkened windows and bleeding reflections of our few streetlights in the puddles and damp air.

There's a pizza take-out further down on Queen Street. They will deliver to your home if the order is over £5 and charge you a quid for bringing it round. I don't think they can be terribly busy as I can always have a pizza delivered in 20 minutes. They close at midnight.

To think one of my duties at AIG was to organise the Christmas Party each year I was there. This was held in the daytime (it was a luncheon) but always in a darkened nightclub at a hotel. Perhaps my boss realised I'd come to work from time to time still a bit tipsy, and tired, having left a nightclub three or four hours before. If you can do that, you can sort out drink-tickets for a pack of alcoholic accountants and hard-drinking underwriters. Now, I watch the telly till the wee hours, read and read and read, and when I go out in the night it is to walk Cailean to a cobbled area twenty feet from my door where he likes to pee. Then we run back inside to warm up again.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Of Contrition, and Other Prayers

Christus, Mormon Visitors' Center, Salt Lake City

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act V. Scene I)

SHE WAS ALREADY ON THE BUS when it reached Amble, where I got on board for the ride to Hawkhill on Monday morning. There were few empty seats on the lower deck and I had to sit near the back, just across the aisle from the very elderly lady holding a fair number of small pamphlets and bits of folded paper. I took it all in, fortunately having left home wearing the appropriate bifocal glasses.

Across the top of a printed page that the aged lady was holding in both hands, I could read the large type.


I couldn't read the words below the title, but could tell they were laid out somewhat in the form of a poem. I thought it might well be some sort of prayer. The giveaway was noticing that the old woman was whispering as she read, perhaps just mouthing the words, I couldn't actually hear her over the noises of the bus and its passengers.

I wondered what an ancient person, she looked old enough to be Miss Marples's mother, was doing so fervently praying for forgiveness of sins on a bus on a Monday morning in Northumberland. Had she been out whoring all weekend? Had she broken her ASBO? Was she on her way to score some smack?

Who knows? Perhaps this little, old lady did something terrible as a young girl and has been regretting it ever since, unable to forgive herself and forget. Unable to believe that her God might have given her the all clear.

Apparently, Roman Catholics say this prayer when they confess their sins. The Church of England has a version. One might be old enough to have prayed this in Latin. The lady on the bus did not turn her page for the twenty or so minutes that I sat across from her, and she kept moving her lips. She must have been repeating the prayer. Had she been told to do this as an act of contrition? A piss-up on the Sunday, confession at sunrise on the Monday, pray it off till Noon.

The lady didn't look like a drunk. Mind you, I have known, and do know, some ancient folks who will suck on a bottle for comfort, and they don't all look the part. It can be confusing, I know one biddy who sails with no fewer than three sheets to the wind and one can tell immediately what she is up to, but she looks and acts extraordinarily like my mother (who died 17 years ago), and my mother never took a drink stronger than Tetley's Tea. Revisiting my mother in my mind, she sometimes appeared to be not only loopy, but looped.

"Oh! For fuck's sake..." I thought to myself. "Someone fervently muttering prayers on public transport. She's a suicide bomber!"

I do not recall being instructed in the ways and means of prayer as a very small child, though my first books were religious (sent out to Bermuda by relatives in England who were concerned with me having been born into a Heathen environment, blacks meaning cannibals rather than carnivals in their minds in the early 1950s). I remember I had one story, with a picture, about a little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, just like me, who was dying. The little boy's parents told him he was going to meet Jesus, but the child was having none of that. This was hard on his parents, of course. The little boy died alone one night in his bedroom, and when his parents found him in the morning he was half-upright, reaching skywards. His parents were happy as clams because they knew he was reaching out to Jesus at that last moment of his life. I'm not sure that was a very nice story to send me when I was six- or seven-years-old. The adventures of Biggles would have been more appropriate, surely. Not surprising then that I've spent much of my life being a sad bastard instead of a flying ace.

I spent twelve years in primary and secondary schools and I believe we had some sort of morning assembly every day except during examinations when the Hall was being used for those. Our assemblies were of a religious nature, Church of England. We sang Church of England hymns, chanted its refrains and prayed its prayers. There must have been Catholics and Methodists present, I know of Presbyterians, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. I do not recall any obviously Jewish pupils, but I think we might have had some amongst the Americans. No matter what we were outside the gates, at Warwick Academy we practised the Anglican Faith. I've remembered many of these prayers and hymns for more than forty years since my last assembly in the Purvis Hall at Warwick Academy. If you repeat something enough, and twelve years is enough, God knows, it begins to stick with you.

Jesus said:
I am among you as he that serveth
Whosoever would be chiefest
Shall be servant of all
I have called you friends
You are my friends if you do
Whatsoever I command you

We had that one on Tuesday mornings. It is, when I reread it here, a bit confusing. When does one's servant start commanding and get away with it? On Tuesdays, apparently. And when that little boy died and Jesus came to collect him, to grasp his outstretched arms, did Jesus speak in this sort of Double Dutch?

We kept on muttering our set prayers for more than a decade, but in the last two or three years the Headmaster introduced audience participation. After the many Amens, somebody might play a guitar; there might be a bit of a poem or a short reading about some great event (British and white, of course); or a mini-biography of some Great Man. I don't think we ever acknowledged any Great Woman. Sorry, Mrs Pankhurst. Everything was written down and read. If somebody played a guitar, there was no singing with it. Too risky. You wouldn't want Bob Dylan's influence.

I attended the Church of England, St Paul's in Paget, for a number of years. The hymns were our school hymns, the Communion Service used the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, both of which were co-opted at school. The language was beautiful.

Then I became a Mormon. The Mormons use the KJV, thank the many gods who were once men, and the other LDS scriptures are also (curiously) phrased rather like the language of the KJV. I'm not sure that the folks in Illinois spoke that way in the early 1840s, but God was dictating the books and He does.

There are only a very few set prayers in Mormonism. The Sacramental Prayers must, repeat must, be said word-for-word as on the printed card. The Baptismal Prayer has to be word perfect. And prayers in the secret Temple ceremonies are proscribed. However, if Sister Smith is asked to give an opening prayer, an invocation, at a Sunday service, she can say anything she wants. The brethren on the platform will trust her to start with "Our Heavenly Father" and close with "In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen." The middle is inspiration; a grocery list. Most of the time it is bland enough and not offensive to God or man. I've never been shocked, though I've been bored silly when too many minutes pass.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith prayed, as a young teenager, on the subject of which of the many churches in the neighbourhood was the right one, as every church, every preacher, had a different take. And those were just the Christian sects; I don't think the boy was exposed to many Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Animists, Muslims and the like. That would have really done his head in.

Well, as every Utah schoolboy knows, Joseph Smith was visited by God the Father, Jesus Christ and various angels. He had one angel, Moroni, beaming down through the ceiling of his bedroom. (Did that boy in my book have Jesus descend through the overhead light fixture, or emerge from Narnia in the back of the wardrobe?) You have to be careful when you pray: you might just get a response that will leave you mental.

I spent over twenty-five years praying LDS fairly-free-form prayers. They were conversations with finite entities at first, and then became, if you'll excuse my language, poetry imagined crossing the Infinite to whatever might pick it up on the radar. I may have been praying to Fairy-Winged Frog People on a watery planet in 1995. So long as they don't reach out and touch me!

A few Sundays ago, a friend invited me to a Church of England Sunday Family Communion Service here in Amble. I was curious and figured I could wake in time and stay awake. I went along; I even wore a coat and tie.

Things change. The Vicar was a lady, and a very nice one at that, I had a chat with her after the service, not mentioning Dawn French's show on the telly. The assistants, bar one, were all female. All elderly, I might add, except for the organist who was young and rather attractive, and married to the one young man, also attractive, in the choir. The congregation was pretty grey. So it goes. The hymns were printed on sheets in a small loose-leaf binder, the service on loose pages. Perhaps the fat hymnbooks we used back in the day are too heavy for the OAPs? I knew none of the hymns at St Cuthbert's, they were mostly copyrighted in the 1970s, many written by women. The service, including quotations from the Bible, was in what I suppose is Modern English. A bit like Art, people don't want Constable's Hay Wain above their fireplace in 2009; they want something by Damien Hirst, or worse. I hardly recognised The Lord's Prayer. The Nicene Creed was no longer a prose-poem. I'm surprised that "Amen!" hasn't been replaced with "Yeah, Baby!"

At one point we were all instructed to share a greeting of peace, or some such, with our neighbours in the pews. "However," said the Vicar, "with the Swine Flu epidemic we won't actually touch each other." I'm still wondering what that is about!

I come back after thirty-five years and everything I loved about the Church of England service that I'd missed in Mormonism and my Post-Mormonism has gone. Has become, I suppose, a bit LDS!

Have the Roman Catholics modernized to this extent? I'm not going over there, but I'm curious. Was the lady on the bus puzzling over Latin, or the English I grew up with, or was she wondering what the hell the people writing the scriptures in 2009 are on about?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Time - The Greatest Thief of All

Thomas Eldridge. My 5th Great-Grand-Uncle
All Saints' Church, Lubenham, Leicestershire

Few things are more deceptive than memories.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind)

NOT MANY DAYS AGO, the 29 September to be exact, I noticed the date, the number 29, and there was a tintinnabulation, one that I had, apparently, missed the day before. On that day before, Monday 28 September, I had almost certainly come across the date, that number, 28. I'd have seen it on my computer screen. It was at the top of the Monday pages in the Radio Times. (I check for listings of interesting television programmes every morning as I drink my coffee, and circle them in blue ink; I never forget to do this.) On the television itself, I would have seen the date: 28 September.

I do not doubt that I saw 28 September 2009 any number of times last Monday. So what? My mother died on 28 September 1992, and this was the first year that I did not think of her passing when I saw the day and month. Seventeen years to forget? Or was it just seventeen years to not remember?

On Tuesday 29 September I thought: "Good grief! Yesterday was the anniversary of my mother's death. I missed it."

Perhaps if I lived in Bermuda where she is buried, I would have planned a visit to her grave days or weeks beforehand. Some day when she came to mind and I'd have remembered those last hot days of the summer of 1992 which my mother spent in the hospice as the cancers crawled through her body and, at about three o'clock in the afternoon on 28 September, reached her fingertips. They turned dark purple as I held onto them in the hour before she stopped breathing.

I remember that remarkably well.

The only sound, a loud gasp, from the older of my mother's brothers, also in the room. Not forgotten.

I actually have not a single photograph of my mother in my possession now. However, I can picture her in quite a few photographs that I grew up with, taken in her infancy and through the sixty-something years she lived. As I sit here, I cannot see her in my mind from general times in her life, as a person unposed, because her life, as it affected me, was a photographic plate exposed for about forty-two years (my age when she died). Except for that final moment. I can see her just dead on the bed. Eyes wide open. Back arched slightly. Her hair had been shampooed and cut by a hairdresser friend the day before (the friend refused to accept a fee for that) and my mother looked quite tidy, which was unusual for her.

James King. My 3rd Great-Grandfather
Whaddon, Buckinghamshire

I got to thinking about remembering the dead. One of my hobbies is genealogy and I know the names and some details of over 1,500 of my family members who have passed on. Because my mother's family, not too many generations back, emerges from titled lines, I have information on some of my ancestors that is in the history books. I can even visit rather ancient places where they lived, and died. Some are represented in carvings on their tombs. Quite posh, really.

My mother is in a whitewashed vault in St John's Churchyard in Pembroke, Bermuda. There is no obelisk or cross. Her name is engraved on a plaque attached to the end of the slab atop the vault. Mavis Eldridge 1926-1992.

My father is also buried in Bermuda. I'm not exactly sure of the day he died, but it was in the spring of 1996. His third wife had him buried in a shared grave, but had his name and dates engraved on a headstone. The stonemason got the dates wrong, had him born ten years after he actually was. I believe that was corrected. He is buried in St Paul's Churchyard in Paget, Bermuda. My father's second wife died in the 1980s, but I cannot recall the year, much less the date. She was buried in a parish grave, unmarked. Happens she is also in St Paul's Churchyard, but she was no longer married to my father when she died. The church building itself is between them.

I can conjure up the image of my father from certain occasions, and generally. Is this because I saw him so infrequently in my life, in his lifetime? And I can also picture his second wife, who I liked a great deal.

My various parents (and grandparents) turn up in my dreams and, sometimes, they remain in ghost form around me for a short while. Not so as to be unpleasant or unwelcome.

We've had several television programmes (here in Britain) this past fortnight on the subject of death. Documentaries on our attitudes towards death and dying over the centuries were particularly interesting.

I did not know that cremation has only really been a going concern in the UK for about 120 years, and that acceptance by some of the major churches, like the Church of England, is quite recent. Most dead folks here are cremated now. People still seem to look forward to a funeral service of some sort. Funeral homes now do most of the work. My great-grandparents would have been laid out in their coffins in the front room at home. Family and neighbours would have washed and dressed the body.

My mother's people from the 1800s onward, our closer relatives, Lancasters, Proctors, Cloughs, Heys, are buried in Haggate Cemetery in Briercliffe, Lancashire, and in Colne, Lancashire. I have seen some of their graves. My father's family can be found in Fulham, London after the 1850s. Before that, for at least a hundred years, our Eldridges were living and dying in Lubenham, Leicestershire, some rating stones in All Saints' Churchyard. The King family, my father's side again, were in Whaddon, Buckinghamshire. My father's parents are buried in Kent. He had a brother who died in Australia.

It is clearly becoming increasingly difficult to pop around to the graves of family members when the anniversaries of their deaths (and Easter Sunday) come around. I'm looking forward to being cremated, with no funeral service, and scattered off in the wild somewhere easily forgotten by a stranger.

Will anyone think of me when the anniversary date rolls around? I'm not sure that I give a hoot. I'd much rather somebody thought of me while I was alive to enjoy it. (I'm hoping for kind thoughts! Perhaps a postcard.)