Friday, 30 January 2009


This will prove a brave kingdom to me,
where I shall have my music for nothing.
William Shakespeare (The Tempest, III ii)

DEAR GOD BUT I LOVE MUSIC. And I find it difficult to believe that there are people who might not like music much, or at all. Mind you, I can understand differing tastes in music. However, a person who has no time for music, turns it off, walks away, doesn't go there…

No such person? You never met my mother. I never saw my mother read anything other than the daily newspaper, and she was a bit fanatical about that. But she never read magazines, she never owned or borrowed a book in my lifetime (I was born when she was 23, she died aged 66), she didn't even look at picture books. Happily, she permitted me and my sisters any amount of reading matter.

My mother had dreadful eyesight. Her right eye was what one used to call lazy if she took her glasses off. Her vision was dreadful. I can only think that was what kept her from reading and, indeed, going to films and watching much television.

My mother stared into space much of the time, without a radio or a record playing music, or talk. No call-in radio, no hit parade, no golden oldies. Conversation was limited to a nightly call to her mother, my grandmother, who outlived her by 14 years, and that was a series of yeses and nos.

I know it had not always been like this. As a child my mother played piano, and I understand that she would rise at dawn to practise. In a box on a shelf, untouched, we once found stacks of rather advanced piano music, which she admitted had been hers. And confessed she could no longer find middle C on a piano. The music had simply (probably not so simply) just run out of her. My mother was not at all concerned when I asked if a musical friend of mine might have her sheet music. And so they went to him, my mother's over-neat signature in the upper right corner of each piece.

I bought my first record album before I had anything to play it on. I took the Beatles' "Please Please Me" album to friends' homes to play for a few months. When it became clear that the Beatles were not just a fad and that I'd be buying their next album, my mother found the money to buy a record player. Actually, she went with me to a store that sold them and wrote a cheque for £26. I remember that, the amount she paid, as it was rather a lot at the time and under our generally straitened circumstances.

Quickly, I started buying record albums and a few singles. I believe they'd all have been by white British pop stars for the first few years, till about 1967. Albums cost 31/6 (thirty one shillings and sixpence) which must have been equivalent to about $4.50. My mother showed no interest in my albums though she was still in her thirties, hardly over-the-hill.

I remember someone gave Mother a number of "Sing Along With Mitch" albums, second-hand but with song sheets intact. However, they were never, ever played. I liked the songs, still do, but not the Mitch Miller method of singing them as a chorus, it always sounded so false. Of course, it was concocted, the idea being that no matter how bad one's voice was, sung the Mitch way you could get away with it.

All the moments were filled with background music. If I went fishing from our dock (and I did at every fair-weather opportunity) I took my transistor radio. I grew up listening mainly to Motown music, which I really liked (still do) played on the Bermudian radio stations, and British pop late at night beamed out by stations on the Eastern Seaboard, especially WABC in New York City.

I upgraded the record player a few times, and eventually built up a sound system. I played my music very loud. Very. Stereo was not enough, I wanted to get every molecule in a room vibrating. If that was not possible, I'd wear a headset and turn up the volume on the inside.

Needless to say, I'm quite hard-of-hearing nowadays. Hell, I'm rather deaf to outside sound. When I watch the television I tend to use the captioning if possible, or I listen with a headset or just have to crank the sound up more than most would.

But, in my head, when there's no music playing on the stereo, radio, telly there's music playing. For forty years I've had loud music going day and night, all my waking hours at least. It's not the original familiar versions of popular songs. All is vocal, all done in the same voice (which is not mine, though, of course, it must be mine) which never goes off-key. At times in my life the soundtrack to my life has been so very loud that it interrupted my other activities. In the 1980s I used to medicate myself to try and get some quiet time. Sleep from a handful of pills does turn off the music, though nothing productive comes of it, it's a false sleep. I now have some supervised assistance, but the music plays on at a dull roar if I'm not careful.

If I'm listening to the radio or stereo, as I do whenever possible, the interior music is overwhelmed, but if I turn off the radio the other music can be heard. Curiously not the same tune, group or genre that I'd been listening to. I might have been listening to Hildegard von Bingen's "Caritas habundat in omnia" online and after the switch-off I appreciate I have "I'm forever blowing bubbles" running in tandem. Not the Mitch Miller version, by the way. My single-voice, which is male, by the way, even for songs made popular by female singers, in tune, rather boring.

My life's mission has been to seek out temptation. Sadly, I've shied away from a good deal of it when I've come across it. I seem to like approaching the flame better than the searing heat, the overwhelming, blinding light. Nevertheless, I have managed to not resist some temptations and I have tried to understand my inner music by the use of substances that, most likely, amplified and perhaps contributed to the experience, rather than to set it in its place to be examined.

I once listened, under an influence, over and over, to George Harrison's "Wonderwall Music" trying to appreciate what exactly music was, in relationship to the Universe, in relationship to a Creator. I'm not much on the gods these days, but if I look at the sky at night I hear the most remarkable things sometimes. Bolero? Mahler's Fifth? The Blue Danube? Have You Seen the Stars Tonight? Not necessarily. How about the Hokey Pokey? Yes.

The Hokey Pokey is the first song I remember singing out loud, at school, while trying to dance. I'm useless at dancing as I always have to deal with more than one rhythm going on in my head. I've fired many a rumba coach, I'll tell you.

I cannot ask my mother if she was listening to music in her silences. Perhaps she was replaying her piano exercises. Can she really have been locked in a complete silence? No music?

Or am I the really odd one simply (or not so) by having it?

On the stereo: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing "Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio" from Madame Butterfly.

In my head: "Lady Madonna" by the Beatles.

Listen to the music playing...

Friday, 23 January 2009

As Big as a Bread Bin, Perhaps

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
William Shakespeare (King Richard II, Act III, Scene II)

THERE IS A GOOD DEAL to be said for product placement. A seduction by the truth has just been brought home to me when I searched online for the quotation above from Shakespeare's Richard II. At the top of the screen was an advertisement for a national bakery chain. Could it have been linked to my search for the key word "bread"? Delicious, convenient, less expensive.

I'm not sure whether Shakespeare intentionally inserted the phrase "I live with bread like you" as a reminder that King Richard II, after his forced abdication and the accession of Henry IV, was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle where he was intentionally starved to death. His heart most likely gave out on 14 February 1400. Unhappy Valentine's Day.

The Forme of Cury, a collection of recipes, was the first English cookbook, and was compiled by King Richard's Master Cook. Richard surely must not have handled his dying very well. The King enjoyed a good meal. He might have envied his great-grandfather's fiery end. That would be Edward II.

But I digress, as always.

I live a few doors down from the only real bakery in Amble. There is another chain bakery outlet further down which has goods delivered each morning, brought in from who-knows-where. They have no aroma though. Lost somewhere on the motorway? Our minimart has bread and bakery items trucked in as well, for some reason most of these come from France. "Consumers please note this product may contain traces of frog and/or snail." Our nearest supermarket, ten miles inland, has fluffy white breads if you like that sort of thing. I don't. It's not even fit to chum fish or feed the jackdaws.

I like a locally baked (just this morning) (still warm from the oven) (fragrant) (soft) (crispy crust) (tasty) (whole wheat) (reasonably priced) loaf. I buy a small loaf twice a week, and have the counter girl slice it in medium slices, which are the thinnest (go figure) one can get nowadays. I pay £0.85 for a loaf. A large loaf to last seven days would work out less expensive, but I like the freshness of two smaller loaves, one on a Friday, one on a Tuesday.

My grandmother, the one who lived much of her life in Bermuda, bought a loaf of whole wheat bread, thicker slices than I prefer, once a week. Actually, because the Crow Lane Bakery was not close enough for Grandmother to walk to once she became truly elderly (she lived to be 104 and ate bread till the end), I was the bread-buyer. The Crow Lane Bakery was situated in the middle of a traffic nightmare and I hated trying to get to it by vehicle or on foot. However, I do understand my grandmother's dedication to the small-town bakery product.

Amble's Bread Bin Bakery is smaller than Bermuda's Crow Lane. The bread is better. Like the Crow Lane, there are other items: Sausage rolls, scones, pies, fairy cakes, fruit loaves, sandwiches, waters and fruit drinks and colas, honey, jams and marmalades, and gingerbread cookies, and more.

I sometimes get a sausage roll for lunch, or a prawn sandwich, and an orange drink. If I'm having company I'll buy some plain cake and a Victoria sponge. But I'm really a bread customer. The girls know what I'll be wanting, I think. I should ask for something completely different: Perhaps a tea cake for toasting. I don't have much time left to bamboozle them with that request, the building the Bread Bin is located in was sold to a developer last week, the new owners did not want the business, and the employees have just been told they will be out of work at the end of January.

I shall miss the counter staff, certainly, but it is the small town, right-out-of-the-oven whole wheat loaf on a Tuesday and Friday that I shall really miss. My Dad had a bread-making machine at the end of his too-short life (he'd have been my present age when he got it). If I could get the recipe for the Bread Bin's whole wheat loaf, and got a machine…

I wonder. I'm not very mechanical, but necessity being...

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


MY NEW PASSPORT was delivered by courier less than four days after I posted the application for a new one, and my almost-outdated passport, in our village Post Office-cum-Bookstore, to a processing centre in Peterborough.

Peterborough is some distance away, a few hours by fast train, an hour by air. I suppose, perhaps six hours in a van. I don't know how my application and the cheque for £72 got there, or how the British Passport - which has above United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the front cover two words which I despise: European Union - got back to me so very quickly.

When the courier, who was driving a white van, knocked at my door and handed the envelope to me I thought there must be some problem with my application. However, it was just a case of efficient service. Amazing what £72 can buy in January 2009 when a pound is worth but a groat.

I not only received my new passport, but one of the two photographs I had sent to Peterborough (as requested on the forms) was returned to me, along with a couple of pamphlets on travel and currency matters. As the only foreign currency I expect to encounter is that in Scotland, I popped the pamphlets in my file, along with my old passport.

Ten years ago, my passport photograph featured a white-haired gentleman that I still hardly recognise. Said old codger had, and has, a white moustache (a feature since he was about seventeen when The Beatles grew theirs in imitation of his - Sgt Pepper and all that Summer of Love business). I didn't wear my bifocals in the latest picture as the fellow showing me how to use the digital photo-booth in the village thought glasses might give off a reflection. So, steel-grey eyes under white brows. Damn, I'd look pretty tough except for the wattles.

Facially, I've not changed so much. I looked this bad a decade ago. And I remember getting that passport picture taken in 1999. I had it done in a little shop in Bermuda called Kit 'n Caboodle. What I didn't know on that day I had it done was that a couple of years later I would be the passport photographer in that shop. I spent two years in hell in Kit 'n' Caboodle taking passport photographs, making photocopies and selling newspapers and fags. Ugh!

I don't have much of a history, or paper trail, compared to some. Blogging is increasing the chances of someone noticing my effort to make a mark on the world. That's the sort of mark that many might treat much like shit on their shoes: They want to be rid of it before it marks something else and they are held to blame.

My new passport doesn't say much about me, not even if one could read the computer chip embedded in it. A quick visual inspection shows the same old face, my full name, my citizenship and place of birth. That's about it. And when the passport expires, which might not be when I do. If I were travelling, I suppose the chip would have some family and residential details when scanned. So would my right eye, if examined appropriately. I had that photo-scanned at an airport a few years ago; it must be in computer databases. I believe the patterns on a retina are unique. I had to remove my glasses to have that scan done, of course; otherwise there would be unique fingerprints in the computer databases too.

The only other documents I have that identify me quite legally are my birth certificate, which is filed somewhere safe in the flat (can't think just where, it's that safe) and my bus pass, which has the same picture as my passport, it happens. The photo-booth spat out four photos for £5.

I'm identified on records such as my utility bills, bank statements and cards, club memberships, medical records and Cailean's medical records, but not legally, I'm guessing. I couldn't claim an inheritance by showing Cailean's castration bill, or my Visa card. And no end of these blogs will enable me to travel overseas through a customs and immigration checkpoint. Google up Ross Eldridge won't win the Lottery.

I have a few hobbies: The latest and most consuming is genealogy. I work many hours each week on my Family Tree, and I have over 700 names that I'm fairly familiar with. Eldridge is the least of me. I am King, Witney, Crow, Moon, Proctor, Clough, Heys, Stockdale, Lancaster, Driver, Lee and Geldard, and more. Those are blood lines that flow in mine. If you prick me, am I not Hustwit and Sherwood and Conqueste as well? It's a fascinating thing to look into all this.

The folks, my folks, in my Family Tree, are faintly represented in the world: Census and BMD reports. The Mormons have many, many church and registrar records available for Family History buffs. The Mormons do their research to dig up names (not bodies) to have proxy baptisms for the dead. Kind of creepy if you are a Jew exterminated at Auschwitz to have a Utah housewife being dunked for you. One can find old telephone books, wills and legal documents, photographs and correspondence.

I've been looking at my grand-uncle James Arthur Lancaster's military papers, in particular his medical records. James Arthur, my grandfather William Lancaster's older brother, was 21 when he volunteered to fight in the First World War, and had his medical on 5 May, 1915. The medical was certified and he was signed on that same day by a Justice of the Peace, H.H. Heys, who may have been related if James Arthur had lived long enough to see his brother marry into the Heys family.

On 5 May, 1915, James Arthur Lancaster was 5' 5 ¼" tall, weighed 128 lbs, had a fully expanded chest of 35 ½" (the expansion being 3") and he was 21 years and 4 months old. He was right-handed. He was, up until that moment (and had been from the age of eleven) a weaver in the Queen Street Mill. He was a member of the Church of England.

In May of 1918, James Arthur Lancaster was hospitalised near the battlefield, twice for diarrhoea, and was also treated for scabies. I've looked up scabies: They are mites that burrow in between one's fingers and toes, in armpits and groins, in the cleft in the buttocks. They are easily passed by direct person-to-person contact, or from surfaces, and are still commonly found. Well, one hopes James Arthur got his from a hooker, but it was probably a dirty towel. (Same thing, you might say.)

2 September, 1918, poor young James was killed in action, all of 24 years old. That was not recorded on a new certificate, just scribbled onto an old form. I guess paper was scarce with all the trees going to prop up the trenches.

I found out more about my grand-uncle's proportions, in some ways, than you could easily find out about me. I'll confess here that I'm taller and heavier than he was, and wear a 42" jacket if you want to send me one. I'm partial to tweeds and corduroys.

Should one go looking for one's kindred dead? Mormons are told they must, for they cannot be saved without them. My excuse is just as selfish: I'm looking for myself.

My next passport, due in 2019, might feature in its embedded device a family tree back to Adam, every document of any importance that ever featured me, the contents of this blog, and several photograph albums.

Of course, I might be dead in 2019 as the average age of members of my family hardly extends to 70, and I sneezed several times this afternoon. No telling what I'll look like next go around. I might be in an urn. Some great-nephew of mine might be wondering what to do with my dust.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

WINDOWS XPL 2155 (For David Turnbull)

Living is easy with eyes closed
misunderstanding all you see.
It's getting hard to be someone
but it all works out.
It doesn't matter much to me.
The Beatles (Strawberry Fields Forever)

HIS FATHER WAS A REINSURANCE ACCOUNTANT: He knew this for a fact. The memory file said so. He could open the file any time he wanted to. His Family. And his mother worked in a second-hand bookstore. His Family. Two brothers, both lawyers. A sister sold fragrances in a little shop somewhere exotic with lots of sunshine. A grandmother had lived to be over a hundred years old. Another grandmother died when she was quite young. It was all in the file. Along with photographs and film footage. There was Dad boarding the morning commuter train to go into the City, briefcase-cum-laptop at hand. Mum drives home from the station. He knew she collected her husband at 5.45 each evening. Met the train back from the City.

All this information at his fingertips, and yet it seemed so like a dream. It was not real, no matter how certain it was. It had fuzzy edges, somehow. No matter how perfectly aligned, designed and defined the pictures were.

Christopher Heap took a breath. A deep breath. There was a rush of cold air onto his face. This made his eyes water briefly.

With his right index finger, Christopher depressed a switch, the same switch he always felt for when the pictures came, and his chair back moved more upright and he was able to look directly ahead.

The train, the station, Dad, Mum, none of them were in the picture now. Christopher was looking at a clear night sky, towards the north. Always the north. Ursa Major ahead and about forty-five degrees above the horizon, and Polaris just there. Always. A comforting feeling. Familiarity breeds contentment.

The young man was lying in a field, his back against a bale of loose hay, and the air was cold. He appreciated his warm clothes. Cold air on his face. He pressed his switch. And it was morning.

As suddenly as sudden can be, while still seeming real, the sky was lavender and gold, and dark trees grew paler green on the edge of Christopher's field of view. The switch. In the conservatory now, cold toast in a rack on a tray directly in front of Christopher's chair. He pressed his switch and became more upright. The trees on the ridgeline were partially obscuring a row of houses. Just like the house he knew he was in. Must be in. The morning sun caught panes of glass here and there. Stars in the daytime sky. All just ahead. Stars.

Christopher reached for his toast. On the tray a small white plate with a blue line around the outer edge, and five pats of butter, all perfectly formed, two centimetres square. Always. A small silver knife. It must be real silver. Heavy in his hand. An "H" engraved in the handle of the knife near the top. He buttered one of the five slices of whole wheat toast. The jar of Ruby Grapefruit Marmalade was there too, a silver spoon with the "H" cut into it rested gently inside the jar. Christopher spooned a little of the fruity mix onto his first piece of toast. The taste, he thought, was divine. That was the word that came to mind. Food of the Gods. Might he be a god?

Christopher Heap finished his last slice of whole wheat toast and wiped his fingers, slightly sticky, on a linen napkin on the tray. Then he pressed the switch in the right arm of his chair and the chair back relaxed and he gently assumed the position that he would sleep in. The switch. Sudden night. Speed, a sensation of great speed. The pinpoint stars in the sky became elongated strings of light, flowing past and behind the young man. He became comet-like in the darkness.

Warm air flowed over Christopher's naked body. It seemed to relax him even more than he had been, and his was a life of total relaxation. He closed his eyes. Depressed his switch.

The sphere hurtled across space with Christopher asleep at the switch. He'd wake up again in five years' time. Toast and Ruby Grapefruit Marmalade. Cold air and warm air. Memories of Dad pushing his way through a group to get on the train. Mum waving goodbye from the platform. Smiles.

But what in the world is reinsurance? What are books?

Christopher's memories were the stuff of dreams: A manufactured fiction. A blend of shapes that fit. Beyond his control. Still, they existed. They were as surely part of him as his switch was the main part of Christopher's life and work.

The new version man. Physically fit. Skin that cleans itself. Hair that grows just a little then rests. The years pass and the young man remains young. There is no degeneration, no need for regeneration. Not at that speed. Christopher Heap is genetically modified for his trip to the stars.

Christopher is not alone out there. Many young men have been pulsed at speeds approaching that of light energy, in spheres, in every direction, aimed away from the planet we call Earth. Men were chosen, not women, because the human species must not be corrupted should the travellers make contact with other beings.

Christopher does not know all that. He does not need to know. Such things could worry a young man every five years when he wakes for toast and watches a pale sunrise.

Christopher does not know that in the year 2155 the population on the Earth had so dwindled due to built-in corrections in the human genetic code: Shorter life-spans, but more accessible minds, fewer successful conceptions, but healthier children, innate ability combined with an unusual dexterity so that machines became truly the works of artisans, as well as works of art.

It was time to go abroad. To show off a little. The human species needed to breed with other species. It would not be proper to welcome an interbreeding with the fine young women on the Earth should visitors arrive. Women were sterilised at birth. It was the young men that had to pulse out from the Earth and streak across the darkness to distant stars, distant planets spinning around stars, distant lands on distant planets.

Christopher Heap took a breath. A deep breath. Another five years had passed. He shouldn't be worrying, but he was. While he was eating his toast, he was wondering what in the world reinsurance is, and what books might be. What he was, exactly, didn't concern him at all.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Promises, Promises (Hay Among the Lovestacks)

The bloom that promiseth a mighty fruit.
William Shakespeare (King John, Act II, Scene I)

, no doubt, one could live off the berries, roots and fruit growing by the footpaths in this part of England, if one could dodge the henchmen of the Dukes of Northumberland. Dukes who seem to have owned (and still do) vast acreage attached to an inherited family title. There are things to pick and eat, to this day, in our hedgerows, in their due season. If one fancies meat, there were, and are, plenty of bunnies, and pheasants leap out of the fields into the paths of oncoming traffic, foot or motor. I've even had a red squirrel commit suicide under the wheels of the vehicle I was travelling in. Can one dine on Emily Wilding?

Given our chilly climate in Northumbria, Scotland just a few miles to the north of me this afternoon, a line that has moved over the centuries, I imagine that the secret of successful dining and surviving before TESCO came along included putting on several layers of insulation: Leathers and furs for the outside, fats within the body. The Duke's venison. Some long-haired highland cattle. A woolly ewe. An anxious lamb. Whatever one could nick.

As a very young boy, I was always amazed to find apples, plums, greengages and pears ripe for the picking when I went walking in the orchards of Kent with my cousins. We didn't pick them, of course, much as I longed to, for they belonged to some farmer or other. I have picked and eaten fruit directly from the tree since then, ignoring the word of the Lord a few times, paying heed to the Snake. The fruit tasted no better than the packaged variety, perhaps tarnished by guilt. Do you suppose that Eve, after her bite (and did she have but one nibble, or chow down on a bushel basket of fruit?) went directly to Adam and said: "Husband, these are truly champion … There's nothing like them! I tell you, these are to die for!" And Adam replied, reaching for a plump specimen, "Wife, that was Elohim's point. We're going to take up wearing clogs, and then pop them."

In Bermuda, I recall trying the then-ubiquitous Surinam cherries and loquats when they were fruiting. I disliked the raw flesh of those two then, and still do. However, the cherries make a wonderful jam, and loquat chutney is delicious. I believe the prickly pears one could find in Bermuda near the shoreline could be eaten, though I'm not exactly sure how one might prepare them. Other than those, roadside vegetation wasn't particularly palatable.

Our garden in Bermuda was rather barren. My mother had the opposite of a green thumb. This affliction extended to her cooking: I don't recall a single tasty vegetable (or meat) dish prepared in our home. Everything was average, plain, boring. We could have, assuming the earth, moon and stars had been differently aligned at my mother's nativity, grown various fruit and vegetables in abundance in our back garden as there was some red soil there. Our front garden grew only rocks and a Poinciana tree that clung to them. We tried to grow beans. Can one go wrong with a few beans? Well, yes. Carrots and potatoes also came a cropper. Tomatoes, that most delicious fruit to my mind, simply withered at the surface.

We had banana trees in the garden and most rarely a small bunch would appear. This when my mother's brother had a banana patch next door to us so successful, so bounteous, that he sold the bunches to the Friendly Store supermarket. Occasionally we'd be given a hand. My uncle also had orange, tangerine and pink grapefruit trees in his orchard. I'd gather up some of the windfalls for fresh orange juice or broiled grapefruit. We took most of these to my grandparents.

My father's mother, my Nan Eldridge, did have the green thumb. Green fingers, if that is possible. I don't ever recall Nan buying food other than bread, biscuits, orange squash, a rare bottle of sherry, and the dreaded roasted chicken. Nan's chickens were dreaded because she could make one last for a fortnight or longer, even without benefit of a freezer or even a refrigerator. In Nan's Garden of Eden, it could be a taste of the chicken that might make one surely die, or surely have a case of the trots. If one wanted meat with a meal at Nan's, the only safe way to have it was to purchase it on the way there and serve it up. Tell her that last month's chicken will keep …

My Nan grew vegetables, rhubarb, tomatoes, currants, vines and flowers. Anything she had a mind to grow, she did very well, thank you. I wonder if her parents had that gift. I saw my great-grandfather Crow's terribly overgrown garden in Uxbridge as a boy, when he was months from dying of old, old age, and, looking back, appreciate that it must have been quite wonderful in its day.

I have had a little experience of gathering in crops, though I do not look back on most of it fondly. In southern Utah the Mormon Church had farms that grew, at least where I was living, peaches and apricots. When the fruit was a-growing, it would have to be thinned out. If a branch was too overloaded, some proportion of the fruit would be plucked off and flung to the ground. And then harvest time would come along. One would wear a brown sack strapped so that it opened on one's chest. Up a ladder and the ripe fruit would be picked and dropped into the sack, which would get pretty heavy pretty quickly. I'm not much for heavy, or ladders, and I certainly was put off by the warnings to watch the long grass below the trees as there were rattlesnakes. Every Eden has them. That's what Eden is: A snake's den.

A little over a year ago, I went gathering apples here in Northumberland. Most were windfalls, but a few were pulled down from the lower branches. I wasn't going up a ladder at my age. No way. No burlap sacks round the neck, just plastic bins on the grass. The fruit was eventually used to make a winter's worth of filling for apple and blackcurrant pies and crumbles at Alnwick Day Services.

I did make my own apple and blackcurrant crumble this winter. Apples from friends a few streets over, blackcurrants from a hedge on the street across from me. And, this morning, I noticed the first few flowers on the blackberry bushes. No telling if they will survive the frosts, snow even, that are still likely (for it is only mid-January), but Nature is moving in her gentle way, seeking the sun, the warmth.

Will there be fruit in the hedgerows in 2009? Will the fields produce the tatties we love up here? And the parsnips and turnips? Will there be wheat, rye and barley at the right time? Will the lilies of the field and the daffodils around Warkworth Castle outshine Solomon once again? There is the promise of all that. We must prepare ourselves to actually receive the benefits of these promises. Even the gifts of the hedgerows must be sought out, gathered in, and prepared for the table; they do not drop onto our plates like a micro-waved packaged-dinner from Sainsbury's.

In a few days there will be a new President of the United States of America. Some years ago I first saw Barack Obama on the telly giving a speech at a Democratic Party Convention and I had an understanding, sure as anything, that he would be the next President, odd as it seemed. I told a friend about that and he pointed out that a black man could never become President. America's not like that.

Apparently, fortunately, after all, America is like that. There is not a black man, to be truly accurate, only hours from taking charge of what the Americans at least think of as the most important nation on Earth, for Barack Obama is biracial. I think that's terrific. He also has a background culture that is both western Christianity and Islamic. That's terrific. The new President will be quite a bit younger than I am, and a good deal smarter. That's not a bad thing. But can he pick up apples? I bet he can. Can he share them out so that the hungry receive what they need, and the over-fed be put on a ration? Let's hope so. Warehouses of rotting apples we don't need.

Barack Obama is a man laden with promises. No doubt he has made some, perhaps many, which we do not know about yet. Unlike Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Barack Obama's had to be bought at a huge price and must be paid for.

One wishes Obama well. One wants to love America. It has been most unpleasant simply hating the American Government, especially the President and his Cabinet, for the eight years of George W. Bush. There was nothing to like about Dubya: His never-ending slip-ups and inability to make common sense of issues, or to portray himself as a man of good character and wisdom belittled a decade of Americans. It was embarrassing to watch him fumbling. He even made our Tony Blair and Gordon Brown look sharp.

If George W. Bush let a generation of Americans (and, frankly, the Free World which he'd like to think himself Leader of) down, it seems to me that the American people, and all of us out here must make sure we don't let President Barack Obama down.

So many of us feel good about this man, so let's treat him well, and make it happen.

Just a few flowers in the hedges. And spring is coming

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Busted: A Transport of Delight

Oh, they used to laugh at me
When I refused to ride
On all those double-decker buses
All because there was no driver on the top.
Sung by Joni Mitchell (Twisted)

I HAVE NEVER lived as close to a bus stop as I do at present. The 518 linking Newcastle and Alnwick (pronounced Ann-ick) runs past my front door, as does the 420 that travels back and forth between Ashington and Alnwick. The actual bus stops are a matter of short yards away.

The 518 tends to take the coastal road to the north of Amble, turning inland at Alnmouth (pronounced Alan-muth) Station. You can link with the trains, in theory. I've tried it. It's still a theory. To the south of Amble, the 518 swings slightly inland to Morpeth, and down to Newcastle's Haymarket Station. It's a fairly picturesque ride in summer, especially from the upper deck. Summer, in 2008, was two days in August, so book early as seats are limited. The views are far less picturesque on the other days of the year as the mud has usually risen half-way up the side of all the buses.

Alnwick Station is a miserable spot. It is sheltered only from the worst of the north wind, but open on three sides. There are a very few iron benches guaranteed to wreck your spine. They are constructed to make sleep on them pretty much impossible, which makes me wonder if Alnwick has a homeless problem. There are people wandering abroad? Keep 'em wandering! The station in Newcastle's Haymarket is rather old and charming, and enclosed. No doubt it will be pulled down one day and something hideous and uncomfortable vomited up in its place. If that happens, perhaps Alnwick could purchase Newcastle's bricks and stones and rebuild that station up the country. Visitors to the Alnwick Gardens and Alnwick Castle (Harry Potter's 'Hogwarts' interiors were filmed there) would love a reconstruction. God knows, Americans have bought up old castles and chateaus and (famously) London Bridge to grace the deprived New World.

Bus stops in between the towns range from simple poles with acrylic covered panels showing a timetable attached, to basic steel-and-glass shelters, to brick cubbies. I get on and off at a sort of non-existent stop at Hawkhill Farm somewhere between Alnmouth and Alnwick. One must walk up to the driver in time to ask him to stop "by that gate" if on the bus. If waiting at Hawkhill for the bus, one must step out onto the highway and flap about a bit to draw the driver's attention. And pray you get it in good time!

The 420 buses only come to the coast in Amble, and tend to stop at every odd spot on country lanes. This means that in bad weather they may well be sloshing about on rough roads. Shilbottle can be a bit dodgy. The locals in Shilbottle with a sense of humour take magic marker pens to the Shilbottle signs and cross that first l to make a t. Shitbottle.

The 420 from Amble to Alnwick takes about 35 minutes, the 518 does its route in 30 minutes. Roughly. There might be an injured badger to navigate around on the 420's country lanes, or a language difficulty with boarding Japanese tourists in Alnmouth Village on the 518. Badgers are easier.

One can take one's wheelchair, one's dog, or one's luggage on the buses at no extra charge. The newer buses feature wide double-doors and the ability to lower the floor to the level of the pavement. In theory. A wide aisle and a designated place for one wheelchair are available on these buses.

The 518 and 420 routes feature double-decker buses for the most part, in shades of aqua with advertising on panels, until recently. I have spotted several red London-style buses. All since a rather fun Christmas party, actually. So, I think I've seen red buses recently. Don't take my word for it. There are sometimes single-decker buses on the 420, usually, it seems, when more space is required; and those buses must be a real bother for people with walking difficulties as they are high off the ground, perhaps three steps up.

I carry Cailean on my lap on the bus. He's a small enough pup. He usually puts his nose in any gaps between seats to study the other passengers. With his friendly nature, he's not really a problem. Any fuss is a good one.

The passengers can be of any age, but tend to be OAPs shortly after nine o'clock in the morning when they can ride for free. OAPs are Old Age Pensioners: people over 60 with a bus pass. These OAP passengers have been nicknamed "The Twirlies" because they ask, if it is only just nine in the morning, when flashing their pass to the driver: "Am I twirly?" Schoolchildren have specially designated 423 buses on the 420 route, and ride the regular 518s. One should plan to avoid those buses when the children are travelling. Children rarely give up their seats these days, it seems. They do, at least, tend to sit upstairs. Noisily.

I very much enjoy riding the buses here. I'd like to sit upstairs all the time, but it is awkward, if Cailean is with me, manoeuvring up the twisting steps to the top deck, even if I carry him. It's a shame, as we'd both enjoy the view.

One could populate a novel with characters from the buses, and fill pages and pages of dialogue with overheard conversations. I do make notes at times. Always (I tell you) carry a notepad and pen with you if you write as much as a letter to Nana once a year: buses are a gift horse.

I particularly like the older folks, the seedy ones. The few left who are older than I am. Plastic Macs, the little old ladies bent low with osteoporosis and a week's shopping in string bags, knitted woollen hats over wisps of white hair, thick stockings and sensible shoes. In America these women would be redheads and wouldn't be on the bus, but driving this year's Cadillac. And men, not so bent, just shortened by life's loads (and in Northumbria that could well mean coal), in well-worn overcoats, flat caps, nicotine-stained fingers and bad breath. Stinking of beer and smoke, no matter the hour.

On the very oldest of buses there are seats facing each other at the front. One rather wibbly-wobbly gentleman wearing a tweed jacket with some sort of military pin in the lapel clambered aboard the bus and sat in the seat facing me. I was facing the front of the bus. No, he did not face me when he sat down, but kneeled on his seat, holding onto its back, and off we went, his feet banging my knees. Get the picture? Some people simply must face the direction a train is travelling (and I am one of them) and that obviously extended to buses for this chappie.

An overheard conversation to end this piece. Two old ladies with bits of shopping from the Co-op discussing the son of one of them, a fellow who, apparently, was as daft as a brush.

"Well, Hilda, I opened the door and walked in on him."
"You don't say, Vera?"
"I do. And there he was, stark naked, and in the act."
"Just like that?"
"Yes. Quite a shock, I'll tell you."
"Well, what did you say?"
"I said, 'Horace, get out of here this minute, I have a bus to catch!'"
"And did he, Vera?"
"Oh, yes. Right away."
"What did he think he was doing … doing that?"
"I don't know Hilda. Who takes a bath on a weekday?"

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Jan gets Smaller and Smaller ... Then Disappears Completely

If the song's not broke
why bother to fix it?
Don't mix it up
with some
hard-assed jive.
You don't want to mess
(like all the rest)
with a good thing!

It's karaoke
and curry night at the
Wellwood Arms Inn:
hard-assed jive.
The place comes alive.
(Opened at five.)
It's a great thing!

Girls smoking in the
doorway, boys are passing
a joint around,
then some
hard-assed jive
drags them back inside.
(Gone with the tide.)
That's a good thing!

There's a punter drunk
outside my flat tonight.
But it's alright:
just some
hard-assed jive
got the boy that way.
(And he won't stay.)
Though he can sing!

Might just sing along
with that kid for a laugh.
A melody,
but no
hard-assed jive.
Morning's coming fast
(the night has passed).
The lark will sing!

If the song's not broke
You've no need to fix it.
Don't mix it up
with some
hard-assed jive.
You don't want to mess
(but do your best)
with a good thing!

Ross Eldridge (Hard-assed Jive)

"WHY AMBLE BY THE SEA?" people ask me regularly. And the answer is not the flippant "Why not?" even though it might be somewhat correct to respond that way.

When asked what attracted me to this seaside town, I can only truthfully say that I turned up here late one morning to pick up some brochures on local attractions from the Tourism Offices on the Amble Town Square and one thing after another fell into place. By mid-afternoon I had a partially furnished flat, a list of what I might be needing (not much) and a date to move in. I must admit, in my mind that day, I measured the flat for a small dog. Two years on, I got him.

And that came back to me this afternoon as I walked from my home to purchase some goat's milk from the Co-op, which is really a minimart, a corner store, smaller than the 7-Elevens one sees in the United States of America. It is early January on the North Sea coast of England, about 35 miles south of the Scottish Borders. If one swam due west, one would … assuming one did not freeze to death … end up at the entrance to the Baltic Sea. Mind that freighter coming from Russia with coals for Newcastle!

With January comes the frigid weather: And we've had a blast from the Arctic this week. Rivers, lakes and puddles are freezing over, the fountains in Trafalgar Square are frozen (I'd like to see that), snow in places. Very small ponies near me are wearing blankets and I wondered if the horse-blanket folks make them that size only by special request, not routinely. Might these ponies be the descendants of the pit ponies?

This afternoon I was bundled against the cold, six layers above the waist. Protect the chest, the throat: I don't want the bronchitis that seemed as if it would kill me off a year ago (in milder weather). I waddled down my street and joined a half-dozen or so other penguins wandering, bobbing along really, and headed towards the minimart on the pavement on my (north) side of the street. There were no people coming towards me. On the other side of the street was one lady, walking in the same direction that I was, so all I saw were the backs of people.

I recognised the lady on the other side of the street, even from the back, even though she was layered and over-coated, wearing a woollen cap, and her movements mostly masked by the extra clothing. It might have been her carrier bag, but more likely it was the foot of her maxi-skirt showing below her coat. A lovely printed fabric in many colours, tending to the darker shades, the sort of patterns that the hippies were wearing 40 years ago. It was Jan from the Tourist Information Office.

Three years ago my father's youngest brother drove my aunt and me into Amble prior to a jaunt up the coast to do some sight-seeing. We found the Tourist Information Office easily: Amble is such a small place, with only one main street a narrow block in from the water. The building housing Tourist Information looks quite new (half of the building is a public toilet), and is bright and colourful inside: postcards, pamphlets, books, films, souvenirs, and a live television feed to a bird sanctuary on an offshore island. And there was a lady at a desk three years ago.

I always buy postcards, and headed straight for those. Then I got chatting with the lady at the desk as she totted up my cards and other small purchases. My accent gave me away as someone not exactly from around here. I could have passed as a local if I'd spoken with a Scottish burr, or in the Newcastle Geordie dialect, or Pitmatic, but I sound foreign. In any case, the lady had not heard my accent recently (it was out of season, tourist-wise, and her office was rather quiet) and that usually requires an explanation. Yes, I don't really sound American. Could it be Canadian? The lady had relatives in Canada.

I had been wondering about renting a flat somewhere in this part of the world, which I'd fallen in love with. I'd been staying at The Angler's Rest Inn in Sheepwash, Northumberland, I asked the lady at the Tourist Information about the possibilities of finding bed-sit (efficiency) apartments, furnished, in this area. She immediately telephoned the town's real estate agency. Yes. Yes. I will. Yes, Bye now. I could walk two blocks and the real estate folks would be glad to chat with me.

Before I left, I did introduce myself, and the Tourism lady was Jan… with rather modest flower-power 1960s clothes.

At the Agency, they happened to have an available, vacant flat, furnished, just up the street (in Amble, everything is just along the street, it is that small). They could call the owner, and did. Yes. Yes, I will. Ta-ra! To me: Paul will meet you there.

Ten minutes later my landlord was showing me around this flat. My first thought was that it was too big. The kitchen is nearly twenty foot square, which is daunting. However, the rent was right and the location was fine. I shook my new landlord's hand. The deal was done.

It was Jan's back that I saw on the far side of the street yesterday. I pop into the Tourism Office now and then to buy local gifts to send to family and friends, so I see Jan from time to time there. But she also plays the organ at the Roman Catholic chapel next to my flat and I sometimes see her up this way. Of the many Amble friends I have now, she is the first.

Jan was walking away from me faster than I was, for I was daydreaming a little. I thought how short Jan is, though it might have been the many coats she was wearing, making her look nearly as wide as she was tall. As she approached the corner across from the Co-op, she seemed so small that she would not have been able to see over garden walls. Then she turned right at Olive's Tea Room. I reached the junction in a few seconds, but no sign of Jan. Had she become so small that she'd disappeared?

I remembered the lines from Alice in Wonderland:

"The White Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge."

That's the way Amble by the Sea can be. Small ponies and short people, and friends popping up and then seeming to vanish. Yes, I saw Jan again today. If we fall down rabbit-holes, we somehow reappear quite safe and sound, usually smiling, even under cold, grey skies.

I love this part of England's green and pleasant land.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Gods in Ruins

Standing on the bare ground,
my head bathed by the blithe air,
and uplifted into infinite space,
all mean egotism vanishes.
I become a transparent eye-ball;
I am nothing; I see all;
the currents of the Universal Being
circulate through me;
I am part or particle of God.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature)

Better than a thousand hollow words
Is one word that brings peace.
Better than a thousand hollow verses
Is one verse that brings peace.
Better than a hundred hollow lines
Is one line of the law, bringing peace.
Gautama Buddha (The Dhammapada)

IT WAS OSCAR WILDE who wrote: In polite society, one does not talk about politics or religion. Of course Oscar made a name for himself doing just that, though he really succeeded by pointing out the petty foibles of mankind and by making light of them. Well, almost. A Woman of No Importance is seriously funny.

I'm no Oscar Wilde, and I should probably thank the gods for that. I wouldn't mind being a manic depressive William Blake or Virginia Woolf.

William Blake wrote about religion, of course, inasmuch as it is generally associated with God. It is probably fairer to say of Blake that he lived, wrote and created his pictures under the close influence of gods and angels and the Ancient of Days. Blake, apparently, felt that these otherworldly creatures were sending him messages that he felt compelled to pass along.

I once read that the farthest that William Blake ever travelled from the home in which he was born on 28 November 1757 (in Golden Square, Soho, London) was 59 miles. And one might argue that one who remained so close to home should refrain from commenting on national issues, much less international issues, even less on issues spanning the Cosmos. In 1757, I'm guessing a journey of 59 miles, if one had a horse-drawn vehicle and didn't meet a highwayman (Dick Turpin was, at least, dead by the time Blake was born), took a few days. One would overnight at some country inn with none of the charm we associate with such places in 2009.

In September 2008, one gentleman, Yves Rossy, from the Continent, crossed the English Channel, with some sort of jet-propelled wing strapped to his back, in a matter of minutes. Not as fast as Hitler's Doodlebugs, but someone will be working on a way to ride a rocket as I sit here typing, one can be assured.

Blake, of course, saw Chariots of Fire. Here's a mathematical problem for anyone interested in such things: If it takes Apollo about twelve hours to cross the sky in his chariot of fire, at the Equator, at mid-summer, what sort of speed are we talking? What horsepower? Even a non-mathematician such as I can appreciate that one must know at what height above the Earth (and must know the Earth is a sphere) the chariot is flying. Religions have depended on such facts and figures. Men have been excommunicated, men have died, good men, for suggesting the inexpedient.

It is remarkable that Popes, after consulting with their gods, have made pronouncements on things they really should not have, given that, quite often, they are proved incorrect within a fairly short time. Ask Nicolaus Copernicus! Copernicus was not the first heliocentric theorist, and his work lead to enlightenment, but he was denounced by the representatives of the One True God as being not only subversive, but immoral, and in opposition to Holy Scripture. Whew!

An issue that bothers some people, perhaps many, in particular in North America, is gay marriage. I should start this paragraph by mentioning that I am a proponent of family life, of a father and mother of different sexes, married wherever they might choose in some sort of legally binding ceremony. If children come along, I believe the best way to raise a child is in a two-parent heterosexual home. I think, I believe at least, that Nature is compelling on this matter. I do not have a stack of books, reports and statistics on biology, but it seems to me that we've evolved (yes, I believe in Evolution!) into what we've called, since 1947, the nuclear family unit. Actually, we may have been nuclear long before we had the bomb.

I do not think there should be a gay marriage option: a pair of husbands, or a pair of wives. I understand, from the very few articles I have come across, that approximately 90% of the population in the civilized world, at least, is pretty much heterosexual (straight), and I like the idea that this clearly natural order is respected. A homosexual world wouldn't last more than the current generation.

If the gay or lesbian couple cries: We only want what the straights have! I have to ask why marriage? If a man is born missing a limb and has a prosthesis attached, it is still artificial, and can be removed at the end of the day.

Pope Benedict XVI, the successor to the popes that parented the Inquisition and burned idolaters and unbelievers at the stake, and successor, I might add, to several popes who have apologised for disbelieving Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Copernicus back in the day, has recently said that homosexuality is a problem that must be dealt with, much like saving the rain forests from destruction. Benedict said that behaviour beyond traditional heterosexual relations was a destruction of God's work.

The pithy response goes: You don't play the game … Don't make the rules!

The Mormons jumped on the bandwagon - perhaps they provided the bandwagon - regarding Proposition 8 in the recent Californian elections. Together with the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon leadership advised their membership to vote for Proposition 8, an amendment to the California State Constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriages.

One might recall that the foreigners who settled in America did so to escape unjust kings and religious persecution, even state religions.

Three things:

The Mormons make no secret (for a church full of secrets until recently with the advent of the Internet and whistleblowers) of their belief that the Roman Catholic Church is the Great Whore of Babylon. So it is most odd to find the Mormons and the Catholics in the same bed, even if it is on such a heterosexual matter.

The Mormon Church leaders, from their pulpits (I cannot speak for the Catholics), encouraged their flock to not only vote for Proposition 8, but to contribute financially to making it happen. To help buy the Election? I believe in the separation of politics and religion, except in an essay such as this one I'm writing, as I take a chance in polite society.

The Mormon leaders, from Joseph Smith onwards, have called for Mormon political power outside of the chapel walls. The traditional Christians of the Middle Ages had their Crusades. The Taliban are those seeking religious knowledge, but even they have corrupted this to become those seeking religious and political power. Could the peculiar garments of all be cut from the same cloth?

Nearly $75 million was spent by groups in favour and in opposition to Proposition 8. How many hungry, dehydrated children could be helped with that sort of money?

I believe this whole business should have been resolved as a matter-of-conscience vote. And the result not predicated on how many souls could be bought and sold.

Proposition 8 was passed, just, and it is now against constitutional law in California for same-sex couples to be married in the way heterosexual couples might be. And, when all is said and done, this is the result I believe in, but it should never have been, I believe, a matter for the churches. How many voters for and against actually attend church, actually pay their tithes and offerings?

The pronouncements by the Mormons and the Catholic hierarchy could only serve to divide people. The Pope's suggestion that homosexuality must be tackled, corrected, is very nearly an incitement to violence, isn't it? Pitch a brick at a fag. The Pope, speaking for God, said it was okay! The Mormons used to attach electrodes to the genitals of gay members of their church willing (or unwilling, perhaps fathers and mothers forced it on their sons) to be cured, and then showed them homoerotic pictures. Zap! Has Elder Boyd K. Packer apologised for that yet?

What next?

Gay rights. If homosexual and lesbian couples cannot have a marriage ceremony, with all that that entails, then they should be able to make some sort of very serious and legally binding commitment. A coupling, if you will. Gay rights: Freedom from oppression simple because of a preference they, apparently, are born with. Gay rights: The ability to be so much a part of society that eyebrows (much less swords) are not raised.

And, before I go, a request to some of my gay friends: Rethink these Gay Pride parades. They seem to be awfully vulgar by intent. It cannot do the cause any good. You hardly look like people who could raise a child who - nine times out of ten - has been born to turn out straight.

Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested: A man is a god in ruins. I think we can return to a more divine state if we just think things through before they get out of control, and note that over the centuries so many unalterable pronouncements have had to be retracted.

One word: LOVE

'Nuff said!

Friday, 2 January 2009

Walking On the Edge of Eternity

Tidal Pools, Amble, 1 January 2009

Coquet Island, from Amble, 1 January 2009

Amble Pier, 1 January 2009

Harbour Entrance Light, Amble, 1 January 2009

Amble by the Sea, 1 January 2009

So here hath been dawning
Another blue day;
Think, wilt thou let it
Slip useless away?

Out of Eternity
This new day is born;
Into Eternity,
At night will return.

Behold it aforetime
No eye ever did;
So soon it for ever
From all eyes is hid.

Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881

OUR SCHOOL HAD A SONG AND A PRAYER. The song was in Latin, and something of a rip-off of a common school and university song in Great Britain and on the Continent about the brevity of life, best known by its first line Gaudeamus igitur, meaning Therefore let us rejoice… It's also a drinking song in Europe, especially popular in the pubs in Vatican City where the national language is still Latin. I made that bit up. But it is a drinking song. The European first verse goes:

Gaudeamus igitur
Juvenes dum sumus.
Post jucundam juventutem
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus.

This translates as:

Let us rejoice therefore
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After the troubles of old age
The earth will have us.

Warwick Academy, in Bermuda, poached the first two lines and then inserted two verses about bears (the school crest featured one chained to a stump, the better to be baited), and rising up and flourishing, and Quo Non Ascendam (the school motto: To what heights might I not ascend?). Included from the original full version was Vivat academia, which speaks for itself. Omitted in the Warwick Academy song was Vivat omnes virgines (wisely, it would have been a lost cause). We did not sing Post molestam senectutem because, don't you think, it looks as if it might mean After being molested by old teachers.

And we roared out the School Song on those relatively few occasions on which we had to sing it. I'm guessing if there were 550 pupils at the school in about 1965, perhaps ten knew what the Latin words meant in English. I cannot say I did. I didn't even know what the translation meant when I came across it. But we roared, we let rip.

The only other song we really put our all into was Jerusalem, with lyrics by William Blake. That most English of hymns: Think the WI, think Jam and Jerusalem. And I cannot imagine, in our tremendous effort, our near or actual shouting, we had a clue about what Blake was trying to convey. Blake had gods and angels all around him, much as Yorkshire men have ferrets in their trousers… A way of life.

A shame that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetry has not been made into hymns or school songs as he rests somewhere between the divine and the rodent, don't you think? If Andrew Lloyd Webber is looking for a subject for a new musical, how about Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Solos for seabirds, shanty songs, aria for an albatross. Fire and ice. It could be fabulous.

Back to Warwick Academy (and I hope I never go back, never set foot there again!) I must tell you that I was recently discussing accents with an old friend from schooldays, over the telephone, seven hours across the divide. Perhaps I shouldn't name him, so let's just call him Richard. Now, Richard is an actor and a drama and English teacher, and he speaks well, and not as American as some, I suppose because he spent much of his childhood in Bermuda and he has learned how to project his voice, how to make himself heard. My accent is a mess. I use the English expressions and words, but the squawk that I emit is, at best, some sort of Canadian version. However, I'm fairly good at making myself understood: It is a reasonably clear voice. Hell, I sat in on enough of Richard's 10th Grade drama classes; I should know how to deliver a few lines.

And Richard mentioned the rehearsals we had to go through at Warwick Academy prior to any events featuring the School Song and School Prayer. He, too, recalled the loud, almost joyous, alehouse rock we put into Gaudeamus Igitur, but then said to me: "Remember Miss Devlin and the School Prayer and gra-aw-aw-awnt?" And I did.

Miss Devlin, I believe, was responsible for the music for the School Song and for the Prayer. Reggie Frewin might have fiddled the Latin. Miss Devlin was a peculiar woman, always wore a full length grey fur coat (in Bermuda!) and dark glasses. She spoke with an English drawl; she was very Jam and Jerusalem, even with the Irish moniker. Reggie Frewin was an English fellow, a first cousin of Winston Churchill, all rather proper. But if Miss Devlin could be said to have a broomstick up her jumper, Reggie was often loose as a goose. He was well eccentric.

Miss Patricia Devlin wanted the School Prayer chanted as if by boys at Eton, Harrow or Rugby, and not by the scholarship boys there, god-damn it! If the Prayer had a name, I don't remember it. I think of it as Look with Favour (or Cook with Flavour) - the first three words of the thing. I don't recall much more of it. Let's have a go:

Look with favour
We pray thee, Oh, Lord,
Upon this our school.
(Yadda Yadda Yadda)
And grant…

And one must not sing grant the way Ulysses S Grant probably said his surname. One must not, must never, ever, sing like an American. One must elongate the word grant into at least four syllables: gra-aw-aw-awnt. And so we would overdo Miss Devlin's instructions, chew the scenery, until she'd stop playing the piano, stand up and throw a fit. Her fur coat would have fallen off the piano bench at that moment, if you wondered.

Reggie Frewin died some years ago. So far as I know, Pat Devlin is still around, though she must be awfully ancient by now. I think of her as a menopausal old trout fifty years ago! Seems to me that Miss Devlin was transferred from the music department at Warwick Academy (a school for the better class of white children) to a primary school that was, even after racial segregation ended, pretty much entirely black Bermudian so far as pupils went. How the hell did she adjust? I imagine not a great deal of Latin was sung at that primary school, but the Bermudian accents. Gad!

It's now 2009, and I have to write January, which can be a bugger to spell if I'm drowsy (often!) and I'm wondering if the world can get much messier. Of course it can, but many of us know that it will improve eventually. (William Blake: Without contraries is no progression.) Some people have the means to get through some lean years, and there are tens of millions who will simply starve to death or murder one another. I'm not sure whether the poster child for famine gets time, or has the capacity, to wonder where his next meal is coming from. The wondering is throttled by the pain in his gut.

Yesterday, New Year's Day 2009, I went walking along the coast to the south of Amble by the Sea with young Cailean. I had wakened early and we were en route at sunrise, and I took a few photos of the dawn, the sky over the North Sea. A clear, cold and perfect sort of day.

And, in my head, I sang one of the hymns we sang at Warwick Academy: So Here Hath Been Dawning, which features the words of Thomas Carlyle. This hymn has a lovely melody, and in my head I hear no wrong notes.

Cailean sniffed about, his first New Year's, and I wondered if it is wrong to feel so bloody happy when others are not. Hell, let's sing:

Gaudeamus igitur!

Happy New Year! To a Latin beat!