Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Writers With the First Name John

In the beginning was the Word.
Saint John

THE NOTED AMERICAN AUTHOR John Updike died recently, and I've come across no end of glowing tributes. I've paused during those that I've started to read because I especially recall not enjoying Updike's work at all during the 1960s through 1990s when I was reading a good deal of American fiction. I just didn't care about Rabbit; he was not someone I gave a hoot about. Is that wrong?

I seemed to read many novels by American writers with the first name John. I disliked Updike, and I despised John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy" with a passion. I'd hated "The Sot-Weed Factor" as well, though I rather liked the titles and had both books by John Barth on my shelves. I borrowed Updikes.

Fortunately for authors called John, I really did enjoy the work of a number of others without reservation.

I struggled through John Gardner's "Sunlight Dialogues" but just loved "October Light" and if I still read fiction I'd be tempted to read that one again, if only for the apples in the attic.

John Irving bowled me over with "The World According to Garp" because I'd never read anything quite like it. I've read all of Irving's books that I've been able to get my hands on, and there's a lot of Garp in all of them. Probably a lot of Irving, rather than Garp. Transsexuals, bears, European pensiones, wrestling, giants and dwarves. My favourite book by John Irving is "A Son of the Circus" which is, perhaps, more unlike the others. I had to reread that one. American novels tend to run to many pages, which may or may not be connected to the USA having many trees on hand (or in Canada) to chop down for paper, and "A Son of the Circus" was long, but not long enough for me.

John Cheever was something of a guilty pleasure. I think Cheever was unpleasant and troubled, not least because of a difficult upbringing and marriage and his homosexuality. He was an alcoholic and terminated the therapy that might have eased his life (but might have dimmed his writing). He also had a male Mormon lover in Utah, which is remarkable. It's not a bad thing, is it, to enjoy the work of someone who is far more fucked-up than you are?

The brilliant John Nichols with his "New Mexico Trilogy" made my young adulthood a much better time. It's a shame that the film "The Milagro Beanfield War" couldn't begin to capture the magic of the first in the series of stories. To this day, whenever I see a small prop aeroplane overhead I picture a buzzard flying into the blades. That scene in "Nirvana Blues" is one of the funniest things I have ever come across in words.

Just so you know, I read John Steinbeck, and adored every word. When he wrote of the turtle meat twitching in "The Log from the Sea of Cortez" I first laughed and then my skin crawled and I never fancied eating turtle soup again, and I grew up liking it. We'd had Steinbeck read to us in school.

I did read non-Johns. I even read the massive novels of the likes of Stephen King (at first, "The Shining" scared the daylights out of me) and, different enough, Norman Mailer because Mailer sent copies to my grandmother and she didn't want to read them, but thought somebody in the family should. I liked "Ancient Evenings" and hated "Harlot's Ghost". I quite enjoyed everything that Truman Capote published, though I never much cared for the likes of him. Somebody said that dying young was the best career move Capote ever made. Yes, probably.

I think Bret Easton Ellis is something of a genius; you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at "American Psycho". William Styron is a must-read, particularly if you know anything about depression. I'll confess I read the early Anne Rice "Vampire Chronicles" and loved them. I became jaded when Tom Cruise was so badly cast as the Vampire Lestat in "Interview with the Vampire", feeling Rice had lost control somehow. Money over matter.

These days I rarely touch fiction, except for the visual. However, I write down lines that I hear on the television that appeal to me and read them over and over. The other night I watched "Being Human" on BBC-3, which is a drama about a tormented spirit, a vampire and a werewolf that share a flat in Bristol, and noted: "Our former lovers linger within us like ghosts…" and thought that it was not only true, but remarkably well-phrased. At my age, I don't have time for 1,700 page novels.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Rock of Ages Revisited

IN MY DREAMS I revisit my schooldays, my years in one office I worked in (the first, American International Group), the house I grew up in, a friend's kitchen, many friends and family going back forty, fifty, sixty years (I can say that almost).

My trips back were generally most pleasant until quite recently. I now find myself unable to balance accounts at AIG, unable to puzzle out theorems at Warwick Academy and plodding through the snow at the Medway College of Technology, my mother's house crumbles around me as I wander through it and I can usually see the sky from the living room (looking up through the holes in the ceiling). Much to my relief, I can spend time in my friend's kitchen and still enjoy the company, the food and the atmosphere, but those kitchen dreams are not as frequent as they once were.

Some things, some places, do not figure in my dreams. I have never dreamt of being in therapy, or of any of the connected events to forty years of having my brain washed regularly (and subsequently being unable to do anything with it). I rarely dream of my travels, of living in the desert (which I did, after all, for three years). I do not dream of the dogs I've had over my lifetime. I rarely dream of my sisters and brothers as children, though I am often a child in my dreams.

I do not dream of music or musical groups, dances or radio and television programming featuring music, despite having a musical soundtrack running in my head that has been so loud and so intrusive over the years since it started (when I was about twenty) that I've required medication to control it. One would really expect the madman's music to turn up in the hours one sleeps, but it is in my dream time that I get a break from it and can engage in conversation instead, and hear (oh, dear) voices.

In the 1960s I lived for the radio, the record player, the concerts and live bands at dances. This was before the music truly invaded my being. A night out started in silent anticipation, there were a few hours of loud music, and I could come home and think about the experience logically and recall any (or no) music at will.

However, I do not dream of all this music, of the 1960s, of the Savages, the Fringe, the Silvertones, those Bermuda groups; dances at Warwick Academy, St Paul's, St Mark's, the Guinea Discotheque, the Ace of Clubs; school parties (we had a few pretty wild ones); I do not dream of being on the panel of Jukebox Jury on the radio in Bermuda; I don't dream of wild, drunken, drugged parties on New Year's Eves (or of smoking dope and listening to Jefferson Airplane).

Curiously, my exposure to live music during the past three years has been more frequent, but I've found myself revisiting the groups from back in the day. In the past couple of months I have seen several tribute groups in concert. The Cavern Beatles portrayed the Fab Four in their early years (which were not the years I most preferred, to be honest, apart from "In My life"). I also saw a rather good tribute to Marc Bolan and T-Rex, the 1970s glam-rockers. I'd not liked the music in the 1970s; I had religion in the Seventies, poor me.

And a few nights ago I saw a group celebrating the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen. I kind of missed the 1980s, being rather medicated. What I remember of Queen: I hated Freddie Mercury, he repulsed me, but a few of Queen's songs were excellent. I particularly liked "Radio Ga-Ga" (story of my life, really). I was disappointed to find the tribute featured a singer dressing and acting like Freddie Mercury, and an aged guitarist wearing a bad Brian May wig. (I suppose the real Brian May is aged too, but this bloke on stage at the Alnwick Playhouse was seedy in the extreme). I couldn't really bring myself to look at either of those players, so listened and watched the keyboardist.

The show opened with the theatre being filled with smoke from dry ice, and a light show. Later there were live fireworks, which was a bit off-putting (where is the fire door?) The songs were familiar, but I soon realised that I didn't know the lyrics of a single one of them, not even Radio Ga-Ga (which may explain why it's the story of my life, nobody knows my lyrics…)

There were about 15 of us in our group attending the concert; apart from the staff accompanying us, I think we were all at least a tad tamped down for the evening, don't want to get too excited. The general audience in the Playhouse was over the hill. Not a whole lot of dancing in the aisles, but Zimmer frames were rattled, arthritic joints cracked and hips snapped. I had a sudden thought, borrowed from something Groucho Marx famously said: "I wouldn't want to go to a concert aimed at people like me…"

I'm off to see a tribute to the ska music of the 1980s in March, and a Pink Floyd cover band in May. I'll be under the influence of drugs, of course. Don't want me wandering off. The Village Idiot's night out.

In my dreams I fly? No longer. I just add columns of numbers. It's the economic crisis in my head.

Friday, 13 February 2009


I WOKE TO MORE MUMBLING than usual this morning. I've been falling asleep with the radio on recently and it doesn't seem to bother Cailean, so I've allowed it to continue. There's something very pleasant about drifting off to sleep to music, or a book at bedtime, without fretting over switching the radio off at some last moment.

There's a temporary female presenter on the Radio 2 early morning show, her name is Sarah and she doesn't seem to be young. Normally it would be Sir Terry Wogan who is definitely not young. In any event, this Sarah is taking requests for show tunes. I wish I could recall what today's featured song was, I can only recall it was sung by Jimmy Durante. It was pleasant, cheerful.

At seven o'clock I was still in bed, waiting to hear the news headlines and the brief run through of the front page stories in the daily newspapers. Sarah tried, again, to pronounce paraskevidekatriaphobia … a word meaning fear of Friday the thirteenth. Today is one of those days.

And the headlines:

A commuter plane has crashed into a house in Buffalo, New York, with 49 deaths. Remarkable that only one person on the ground was killed. And I thought to myself, again, that I'm glad my travelling days are done with.

A regulatory body is investigating the financial services products division of AIG in the UK. I tried to figure out just how worthless my AIG shares would be now if I still had them. A bit like the currency of Zimbabwe.

A thirteen-years-old boy has had a child with a fifteen-years-old girl; the boy was just twelve when he did the deed. The commentator on the radio had the benefit of a photograph of the proud father. "He looks young for his age…" I wondered if the child might be guilty of rape. The baby and its young mother are living with the mother's mother on a council estate somewhere. What a world, babies having babies and scrawny Madonna flashing her crotch in music videos at fifty and bidding for babies in fifth world countries with other celebrities. Ugh!

A Dutch politician with a name somewhat more muddling than paraskevidekatriaphobia tried to visit England yesterday to present a seventeen-minute film he has made, to be aired in the House of Lords of all places. The film, apparently, is anti-Islamic. The Lowlander believes that the Koran should be outlawed as terrorist material. He may be right. The Old and New Testaments should go on the dung-heap too, if that is the case. The point of the Dutchman's odyssey was to toy with our freedom of speech laws. He was put on the next flight back to Holland. So much for freedom of speech in Britain. Does MI5 read my blog?

Prince Harry has to go on a course to brush up on his social skills because he made some sort of racist remark years ago. Harry called a fellow soldier a Paki, meaning, I think, the other soldier was of Pakistani heritage. Poor Harry: His heritage, parentage, is a never-ending source of comic comment. Yet nobody leans on the comedians when Harry is the butt of jokes that must be hurtful. I'm a little torn on this matter, not really believing in the Royal Family business. Prince Philip notably referred to some oriental folks as slitty-eyed some years ago, but has not had to do a refresher course in polite speaking.

Cailean started getting restless about then, and out into the snow we had to go, me in my Bermuda shorts and t-shirt. A fashionista would have a field day.

We had several inches of unexpected snow on Thursday, yesterday, causing the usual chaos. I'd walked Cailean early in the day, though it was snowing before we got home. Cailean made a snowman of sorts for the first time with very little help. I made a fist-sized snowball which Cailean then rolled about with his nose, and it grew and grew until he couldn't push it further, larger than a football. Cailean loves the snow.

Today, after my news headlines and the coffee that gets me going, I padded along the street for a few groceries. There's not a cloud in the sky and the temperature is finally above freezing. The snow is melting in the sunlight. The rooftops facing the south have water coming down over the guttering as the heaped snow is melting so rapidly. I was quite spattered with water by the time I reached the butcher's shop. There was something most pleasant about it. The icy water might have been the trickle of sweat on one's neck on a hot summer day.

I cannot be one hundred percent sure, but this feels like the thaw … at last. All will be spring from now on.

Friday the thirteenth … Lucky for some.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


His lord answered and said unto him,
Thou wicked and slothful servant,
Thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not,
And gather where I have not strawed:
Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money
To the exchangers, and then at my coming
I should have received my own with usury.
Take therefore the talent from him,
And give it unto him which hath ten talents.
For unto every one that hath shall be given,
And he shall have abundance:
But from him that hath not shall be taken
Even that which he hath.
St Matthew 25: 26-29

I HAVE JUST BEEN WATCHING a few former banking executives in fine suits answering questions at the House of Commons. This quizzing is a committee of enquiry into the collapse of the banking system in 2008, a system that is still swaying and subsiding, despite a vast input of public taxpayers' funding to prop it up. The Members of Parliament can invite these bankers over for a chat because the Government is suddenly very involved in banking matters. You knew that.

The four former bankers all apologized without reservation for the huge losses their banks made for depositors and shareholders. At least one banker pointed out that he'd personally lost money on his investments as well. He'd held shares in his bank. I imagine, companies being what they are, that some of those shares were part and parcel of bonuses for a job … well … done, even if, as we now know, it was not done well.

The bankers have said they are sorry, and that they obviously made some mistakes, but so far as I can tell not one of these gentlemen has said what exactly the mistakes were. Bad investments. Certainly. But isn't the problem that force that drives a banker to invest in risky ventures? Wasn't the mistake simply succumbing to greed, avarice, lust? Wanting too much. More than you can cram into your mouth at once.

The accountants at any big business answer to the senior executives, who answer to the Board of Directors. In theory, the Directors answer to the Shareholders, but … in my experience (and I'd best write from my experience) … the Directors of the company worked for each other. They tended to own or control large blocks of shares and the rise in each man's personal worth (perhaps I should say wealth, for worth suggests value and that was not always present) was important.

The small shareholder received his small reward; the tycoon had an extra glass of Bolly.

When quarterly pamphlets were posted from my employer I was usually roped into stuffing envelopes and sorting the items by country. I worked for a huge international firm that operated in 130 countries and probably had small shareholders in many, or even most, of those. I only ever received one complaint. A pamphlet had been posted to the President's wife, she held shares too, and there was something visual about the envelope or pamphlet inside, a smudge, the address label crooked. Something silly. She raised hell. The President raised hell. I didn't give a hoot.

The President's wife did not complain about the numbers in that quarterly report, for they were a given. The company's directors pretty much promised a 15 to 20 percent rise in profits, year on year. We even created five-year forecasts of straight-line graph results. Like the flight of a jumbo jet taking off from Bermuda's airport, up over the fence at the end of Kindley Field and off into the clouds. That was the bottom line.

How can you do that? In our case, we fiddled reserves, salting away tens of millions of dollars against a bad day during the good times: A bit like Joseph in Egypt, saving in the years when the harvests were good against the years of famine. Only we did it with pencils and green accounting pads.

Creative accounting
also included remarkable transactions to maintain the consolidated US Dollar equivalent value of real estate in foreign countries. The theory being: The US Dollar equivalent value was something that could only hold or increase, never decline. Never mind real property values on an island on the Pacific Rim. God help us if property values might ever plummet.

There were other tricks of the trade, like moving chunks of bad business to the books of one subsidiary where taxation might be a factor from a subsidiary that had not a great deal of worry from the taxman. All done on a multi-columned sheet in Head Office, really. A multi-national can do that sort of thing.

I didn't work for a bank, though the insurance giant I did work for owned a few banks. It seems that becoming international makes the longing for regular, almost boring, growth even more important.

What might one suggest? Perhaps one should grow potatoes and sell them in the fine weather, but save some, hold them back from the shop floor each day, and at the end of the growing season you'd have many bags of potatoes in the cellar which you could bring up in the hard months and sell for a somewhat inflated profit owing to the demand for out-of-season vegetables. It makes sense, it really does.

Or should one be somehow up-to-date with one's accounting and sell the potatoes when they come from the field, but have a different, timely, crop grown for sale in the next accounting period? Tomatoes, perhaps? And in case either crop should have a dodgy quarter, grow parsnips and broccoli and sprouts, a few extras as reinsurance? Should one do that? And it might be a good idea to get a few hens, a goat, no two, cows, sheep, hog futures. Get somebody else's critters on spec. It makes sense.

Suddenly you've got so much in the pot that you're banking a fortune. In your own bank. You bought one when you needed that security.

I'm sounding like a capitalist, and I suppose I am. However, I feel one must not seek the sort of success I've suggested just to make some enormous bonus out of all proportion to the day-to-day lives of the people that matter. Why should bonuses be necessary at all? A good day's pay for a good day's work. Surely?

Offices may have denim days, but the suits still have those suits from the great fashion houses and the kid at the photocopy machine is threadbare. Sad bastard doesn't even have a tie.

What would you do given the state of the world's economy?

Plant some tatties!

Thursday, 5 February 2009


ANOTHER DACHSHUND SPOTTED in Amble by the Sea this morning. Not a spotted dachshund, though they come in that flavour now (Aleks was dappled). This was an older, long-haired, black and tan, miniature dachshund, a bit smaller than Cailean.

I grinned a knowing grin at the older lady walking her dog. They were both wearing well-padded overcoats. Dachshund people don't need secret handshakes. We are known by our silly grins.

Alas! I did not have Cailean with me as I was going to get some food at the minimart and dogs must be tied to the rail outside (where water is provided). I couldn't bring myself to tie Cailean out on the street, he's too darn cute. And he'd go off with anyone quite happily, I believe.

Cailean has met young Marcus and Humphrey, both black and tans, smooth-haired, like Cailean, though both a wee bit smaller so far. Cailean is eleven months old, Marcus is not quite six months, Humphrey is just a month or so younger than my boy. Fortunately, no secret paw-shakes are required when Cailean meets another dachshund. A not-so-secret tail-shake suffices, and all the sniffing.

The only other dogs that have it in for Cailean seem to be really small and fluffy, though one pit-bull-like creature lunged at him once, scaring poor Cailean and me, and amusing the young hoodlum holding the pit-bull's lead so carelessly. Cailean does insist on barking a greeting when a dog is approached. Just a simple: "Hail, fellow! Well met!" Most of the recipients of this short message do not reply, perhaps finding the whole business of a lowly sausage dog making any sound at all a bit too improbable.

There's one fellow, crippled with something that requires two mismatched crutches, who walks two dogs that he had adopted, both of whom are as crippled and raggedy as he is. Because this fellow takes such a long while to do the River Coquet walk each day, we tend to pass him at some stage. His dogs are lovely, old characters; Cailean ignores them and frets at their person's sticks. The fellow has tried holding both crutches in one hand and leaning over to pat Cailean's head, and Cailean moves in cautiously, but it is such a risky balancing act I think we could all end up in a heap on the frozen ground.

Amble might be renamed Scooterville. You've never seen so many mobility scooters and electric wheelchairs. Of course, part of this is the nature of the town: it's a retirement community in large part, and any younger people avoid the few shops and go off to ASDA (that's what Wal-Mart trades as in the UK) a dozen or so miles away.

One of my favourite episodes of Seinfeld had George on a mobility scooter being pursued by someone else on one, at slow speed, made more ridiculous because the plot involved George pretending to be crippled in some way and being found out. He could easily have jumped off his scooter and made a run for it. Here in Amble the scooters seem to be a newer model than George's clunker, these purr along at real speed.

One or two people will take their scooters onto the street, and can make fair time there. However, most use the pavement. This would be fine, except the need for speed has not been diminished. One lady with a bad wig flies about, the wig usually coming somewhat detached and hanging off one ear. Anyone on the pavement must leap for safety. [If you are counting, I may have offended the crippled, ladies, the old and the bald, and that clique that insists on believing a bad wig is not so bad, in other words, I've rubbed Elton John the wrong way. Now, ça va sans dire, I've insulted gays too.]

I have never ridden a mobility scooter, and I've not even sat in a wheelchair. I have piloted a dodgem at the funfair a half-dozen times (hardly good practice) and once drove a go-cart as a boy, other than that I've been on foot or on roller skates. I'm a designated passenger.

Okay, I have Cailean on the street, greeter of man and dog, and I have a morning in Scooterville. Can I bring them together?

Happened just yesterday, it was bitterly cold, but the snow was to the south of us and inland, so Cailean and I dressed up in our winter clothes (the boy in his tartan wrap) and walked to the Town Square. There we sat, huddled together for warmth while I caught my breath. I've not had a cigarette in 28 years and I still gasp and wheeze, let that be a lesson to you smart-arses who think you'll live for ever. (Another subject, but I will mention that I am far more sensitive to cigarette smoke now than I was when I smoked two packs a day. I'm a canary in a coalmine, it seems.)

After our huddle, we headed up Queen Street towards home. And along comes one of the smaller-model electric scooters, with a very petite, elderly lady on it. In front of her handlebars was a basket with a few groceries in it, and a little teddy-bear wired to the outside.

I stepped aside and said: "Good morning!" and the lady said: "Hello there! And is that a dash-hound?" In his tartan overcoat, Cailean could pass as a piece of Scottish furniture. "Yes, this is Cailean," I replied. "Boy or girl?" "Neutered boy, eleven months." "He's lovely…"

Now, Cailean is as wary of mobility scooters as I am, but he put his front legs on the platform at the lady's feet, then lifted, very awkwardly in his coat, one paw, and cocked his head on the side.

"I could take you home! I really could!" This is why I don't lash him up to the hitching post outside the minimart. "He'd go with you, apparently," I offered, though not offering.

So we talked dogs. The lady had had one when she lived in her own home. Now she was crippled, had a small flat. I'd adopted my posh accent persona, which can be hard work, but I managed to keep from sounding Canadian and spoiling the mood. I was the English gentleman of an age walking his little German dog with the old Gaelic name. I'm white-bearded at the moment and might even look distinguished in a King George V sort of way.

Cailean did the waggy-tail, adorable and butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth act, and I chatted till we were all feeling rather chilled. Then I said: "Awfully sorry I can't let Cailean go home with you, but he has work to do at mine." And we smiled and the lady whirred away at some speed.

At home, Cailean curled up on a blanket on the sofa and almost closed his eyes. I told you he had work to do.

Monday, 2 February 2009

February Flowers

A DAY SUCH AS THIS ONE is all promises: The promise of warmth, of sunlight, of shoots breaking through the crusted soil, of spring's blooms and a withering heat on a summer's day. There is promise of picnics by the River, drives in the countryside and long lunches on the patios outside public houses and inns. Promises include exhausting walks along the beaches. Just another quarter hour. Just to those tidal pools. Cailean will enjoy a few minutes more. Just a very few more. I promise.

In my neighbourhood, the banked earth around the keep of Warkworth Castle must soon by covered in daffodils fit for a romantic poet. The cherry and plum and apple trees will be fragrant with blossoms, and then will be weighted down with fruit. Vines will rise and twine. Flowers will droop and drip; floral flames will attract moths and butterflies. There will be nuts and tight berries. Fruit will burst and blaze like phoenixes, attracting flies.

We shall be asked to cut back on our water usage, the reservoirs will run low. Foreigners (never ourselves) will smell less than fragrant in the heat. Shirts will come off and legs will be bared and naturally tanned. There will be concerts in the parks, and cricket games on the greens. Fishermen will sit for hours by the water, near weeping willows, while dragonflies dart back and forth across the infinity of summer, hurrying to breed in their allotted and most brief lifespan. Dandelions and thistles will cast off their seeds on fluffy parachutes.

All is promised: A new baby dribbling and great-grandfather in his deckchair with a bead of sweat on his forehead. Keep them out of the direct sunlight, Suzie.

All is promised: Church fêtes and village galas. Vicars on a mission. A new set of bells.

Trips to the seaside, Welsh mountains and Aviemore. Donkey rides on the sands. Rowboats on the Serpentine. Slot machines on the best pier in Britain, wherever that might be. Rock festivals at Weston-Super-Mare and the Isle of Wight.

Newborn lambs and fattened lambs and lamb chops. Lettuces and tomatoes straight from the garden. Tea in the conservatory. Earl Grey or Orange Pekoe? I have both.

So much promise, one is quite overwhelmed.

And it is snowing this February afternoon over much of Great Britain. The roads are in chaos, the trains are not running, the Tube has ground to a halt, Heathrow has no flights until at least this evening.

I have a small wicker pot of golden narcissus bulbs and they've chosen to bloom this week. Their promise has been kept. The first, fresh, home grown flowers of the year. On the windowsill above the radiator, spring came early. Mine for just £4.50.

Outside the window, beyond the net curtains there's swirling snow. Great, big flakes this time, very wet. Here by the sea the snow doesn't lie long, it is soon slush. Inland is another matter. The Cheviots will be small Alps for a small season.

Yes, all is promised. The Poet: Miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go. The year is just beginning. One cannot sleep with promises to keep. Promises to keep.
How many miles?

Aren't we there yet, Mummy?