Monday, 27 April 2009

An Amble Spring into Summer

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

William Shakespeare (Henry VIII. Act III, Scene I)

WE WHO NOW IN ENGLAND LIVE have had the coldest winter in a decade, and the snowiest in about twenty years. Even Amble by the Sea, which tends not to encourage winter precipitation to linger, had hard frosts, ice, hail and considerable snow settling for days at a time. Fortunately, Cailean discovered that he liked the snow, taking great bites of it and flinging it over his shoulders as he ploughed across the courtyard.

My mood this past winter has been upbeat, sometimes a bit too "high" with nights spent unable to sleep for the rush of adrenalin and thoughts. At extremes or not, the cold weather season has passed quickly, quickly by the hour and day, quickly by the week and month. The bare courtyard, sometimes under a fresh, white cover-all, hardly had time to pull my mood down this year.

For the previous two years the garden furniture was stored inside, making the space really bleak. This year the table and benches braved the weather (and came out looking just fine having had a coat of varnish in 2008) and there's something attractive about furniture out-of-doors out-of-season: it becomes a kind of artwork, a sculpture, buffeted and coated by the elements and coloured differently in the dim winter light.

One might play music to welcome the spring, melodies that rise and songs that soar. The bulbs, in the courtyard and all over Amble, planted who knows when and by whom, started pushing through when frosts remained a nightly reminder that the winter does tend to follow the calendar. Snowdrops and crocuses, followed by tulips and hyacinths and daffodils, such a madness of daffodils that even a Wordsworth (and certainly a Midas) could tire of so much gold. The bluebells are starting to flower now, and will be fulfilled in about a fortnight, by which time the trees above them will form a thick, green canopy. There will be bluebell woods for people to admire. We have a small but lovely one just down the hill at the entrance to the Amble Marina. There are other more-wild flowers: dandelions, thistles, daisies. There are mushrooms (or are they toadstools?).

In the sunshine, I'm now taking Cailean to the Marina and we lie on the grass and watch the world wander past. Boats in the Harbour, people and dogs walking along the edge of the River, boys playing cricket on the meadow, RAF bombers down from Scotland doing dummy runs on Amble, microlight aircraft and the occasional antique aeroplane, it might be a Spitfire. Birds land and scatter. There are robins darting in and out of the pine trees, and songbirds in the hedgerows. Our geese are passengers on the way to Iceland and Greenland and Canada's Hudson Bay. The seagulls, so many varieties, linger.

This year I decided to invest about £100 in planters, soil and seedlings. It does not cost a great deal to put on quite a show by my kitchen door. My neighbours put hanging baskets in the courtyard and the pots and planters there have perennials that have not failed in four years now. There will be roses in the summer, clematis vines and sweet peas will scramble up the walls. Birds are already coming to the hanging feeders and once the flowerbeds are thick with growth there will be blackbirds nesting. Apparently we have no cats, the blackbirds have set up home only a foot from the ground for several years.

In my planters I have geraniums, nasturtiums, carnations, pinks, azaleas, vine petunias and regular petunias, marigolds and pansies, asters, cornflowers and cosmos. I also have three blueberry bushes: sticks at the moment, but one year they may be fruitful. The catalogue pointed out that blueberry bushes have lovely foliage in the autumn.

Last week the swallows returned to Amble by the Sea. Not all of them, we'll have hundreds by mid-summer, but a pair have moved into the ruined garage behind the flat. Might they be a pair that nested there a year ago? We had three tenancies in 2008. The new arrivals ignored Cailean as we sat outside and watched. Cailean is not a bird-dog, today we had four mallard ducks touch down near the courtyard entrance and Cailean yawned. I found some bread for the ducks (and dozens of gulls and jackdaws that suddenly joined them) and they were not at all concerned at the small dog sniffing around.

I've got a deck chair and a chaise-lounge, and I've already had a few late afternoons baking in the sun. It's a long-term tan-plan at less than 20˚C, but in the courtyard when the wind is reasonable, one can redden up quite nicely in a few hours. I like to read in the sun. Cailean lounges as well, usually along my legs on the chaise. I drink coffee outside just now when it's not too hot (I look forward to days with iced-tea). Coffee tastes so much better out-of-doors.

This being England, I'm writing my report on sunshine, flowers and birds on a chilly, rainy morning. There's a stiff breeze coming off the North Sea. The four mallards have moved on, bird-wise: only some damp jackdaws are sitting on the garden walls. It will soon be time for rough winds to shake the darling buds of May. Cailean has gone back to bed; he's burrowed under the duvet. Dreaming of badgers and bunnies, perhaps.

There's something very pleasant about having a dozen or more planters ready for any burst of sunshine. I can shift into High Summer at a moment's notice. My courtyard is a place of refuge from the Swine Flu, AIG Corporate Monsters, Recession, Euro-Politics and Hooliganism. Let there be sun on the face and notes by Orpheus.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Cashing in on Your Attic

FIRST AMBASSADOR: Thus, then, in few.
Your highness, lately sending into France,
Did claim some certain dukedoms, in the right
Of your great predecessor, King Edward the Third.
In answer of which claim, the prince our master
Says that you savour too much of your youth,
And bids you be advised there's nought in France
That can be with a nimble galliard won;
You cannot revel into dukedoms there.
He therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit,
This tun of treasure; and, in lieu of this,
Desires you let the dukedoms that you claim
Hear no more of you. This the Dauphin speaks.
KING HENRY V: What treasure, uncle?
EXETER: Tennis-balls, my liege.
William Shakespeare (Henry V, Act I, Scene II)

I LIVE IN A GROUND FLOOR FLAT and have no attic, so any items that might be converted into cash some hungry day are pretty much within plain view. In fact, I don't even have built-in cupboards (what the Americans call closets); I make do with a gigantic wardrobe that fills my bedroom. This is so tall and deep that it takes a considerable effort to move and remove the suitcases and boxes I store on top of it. Inside, the wardrobe is spacious and I'm fortunate enough that I can admit that it is really quite full of clothing. If I get fearfully bored and lonely I can push through the coats and trousers and visit Mr Tumnus. He's a nice chap, reminds me of James McAvoy. It's a very English wardrobe.

We have a great many television programmes that involve items found in attics, loft spaces, cupboards, garages, storage units and enormous wardrobes being identified, valued, and sometimes sold at auction. The owners, on discovering that their old box is worth thousands always say: "Of course, it's a family heirloom; we'd never part with it." And then they make the arrangements to sell the treasured thing as soon as they can get out of the valuation room and grin silly and ecstatic grins. "We can be in the Seychelles for Christmas."

There are a number of game shows on the television here in which teams compete to buy items in bargain shops, in flea markets and at car boot sales, and then sell them on at auction or at another thrift sale. The items in these shows tend to be small potatoes in the antique market. Read, for that, junk. "This isn't just plastic … it's Bakelite."

I suppose the best-known programme, that has been running for three decades, would be Antiques Roadshow. The items valued on location, usually in grand country homes or castles, are not sold … Well, as mentioned, not right away. However, from time to time, the Roadshow does an update programme and one hears about some of the astonishing prices people got for the old painting from the cellar "We had no idea it was a Turner!" or the Jacobean crockery they'd kept hidden because it was so ugly, but great-auntie had passed it along on her deathbed. Native American and Inuit artefacts seem to do very well. "Uncle Bill brought it back from the USA in the 1850s, got it in exchange for something pointy."

A favourite programme of mine, mid-day viewing if I'm home, is Cash in the Attic. I got hooked on this show in Bermuda: Attic was aired on one of the cable channels I subscribed to. The host was, at first, usually Alistair Appleton, a most personable presenter with a plummy accent. When Alistair spoke of Art Nouveau with one of the regular experts, Paul or Jonty, called in to select and value items for sale at auction, one felt that he knew what he was talking about. A good accent in the auction business is everything. Alistair Appleton now presents a real estate programme; he finds homes in the country for city dwellers. He's a some-time actor and Buddhist, holds spiritual retreats and, is openly gay. My sister was crushed to hear that, she'd been having fantasies in the attic with Alistair. "Are you sure he's gay?" "It's on his web page."

On the subject of accents: Most of the people clearing their attics or buying up knick-knacks at French yard sales are ladies with shrieking accents that I file under "Fishwife", or "Monty Python Woman", and they are irritating in the extreme. One woman, madness in her eyes, was asked if the nasty bit of tat she'd brought in to be valued might be important to her. "Oh, yes," she screeched. "It's a family hair-loom." When asked how long it had been in her family, she said: "My mother got it at a flea market six years ago." I'd not make a very good presenter for this sort of show as I'd soon lecture people on pronunciation and good taste. "Talk slowly and softly, you silly old moo; we're not in Grimsby."

I've watched the American version of Antiques Roadshow, which pales against the UK version. American history is only a few decades old, hardly a lifetime. While I live with a castle built some 800 to 900 years ago outside the kitchen window, the best an American can hope for is a Sonic Burger Drive-In. American "Indian" items do well on the Roadshow there, photos of Sitting Bull, that sort of thing. American history is actually that of other peoples.

This morning a couple of women on Sun, Sea and Bargain Spotting bought up several hundred pounds (each) worth of rubbish on the Continent, getting pounds and euros confused, and brought back all their bits and pieces to a market in England where they sold the things for the best prices they could. The woman making the most money in the market would win a bowl. Neither woman had any sales sense, they'd been unable to barter back on the Continent and had considerably overpaid for what seemed to mostly be electrical fixtures (which had the incorrect fittings for British wiring), and their method was madness: Accept any offer. They didn't even ask for what they'd paid. At the end of the competition one woman had spent £350 in Europe and sold the items back in Britain for under £150, a loss of over £200. The winner lost only about £120. It's not just corporate bankers and insurance executives that haven't a clue.

Oscar Wilde said that a cynic was a person who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Oscar said that because it was his job to write cute, irritating lines for his players. Oscar would love to have written the story about the hair-loom bought six years ago at a flea market, though his characters never stooped so low that I recall. Lady Bracknell would never have uttered such a thing; she was anything but a fishwife.

The two oldest-looking things in my flat (besides my reflection in the bathroom mirror) are a teddy-bear and a frog, both dressed in rather eccentric clothes. Both were actually made in China and purchased (new) this year. New is the new old.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Shakespeare, Our Shakespeare

And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry: 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

William Shakespeare. Henry V Act III, Scene I

THIS COMING THURSDAY, 23 April 2009, some of us here on this royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, will be celebrating England's National Day, the Feast of Saint George, the one that slew the dragon.

Saint George may not have been English born (though some must say he was, by convenient legend, born in Coventry), but he is the patron saint of the English. You must not confuse the English with the British: the English are all British, but the British are not necessarily English (they might be Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish … and not happy to be called English at all).

The English are not the only people who consider Saint George their patron saint. If Greeks, Russians and Ethiopians also raise a glass to George on his day, and Portuguese and Lithuanians join in, don't be shocked. I would be surprised, perhaps pleasantly, to see men at football matches with their torsos painted with the red cross on a white background, the flag of Saint George, cheering on teams that are decidedly not English. I don't expect that to happen: The banner is most English.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE may have been born on Saint George's Day, 23 April 1564; he was christened on 26 April of that year. He did die on Saint George's Day, 1616. And we've all heard how little we know about this, the greatest writer in the English language. Did Shakespeare even exist? In fact, according to a delightful and readable book by Bill Bryson ("Shakespeare: The World as a Stage") there are quite a few signs that one William Shakespeare was born in 1564, and died in 1616, and did some remarkable things in between time. Very few so-called famous people of Shakespeare's means, of that time in England, left so many clues, so much evidence, besides the plays and sonnets normally attributed to him.

I first visited Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Shakespeare sites there when I was a young boy, one of those all-day coach trips with my Nan Eldridge. I've been a few times since, but I remember, from that first visit fifty years ago, Anne Hathaway's Cottage, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre seen from a distance. Not a few years later I read my first Shakespeare, "Henry V", in English classes. I failed my final exam, had to retake it six months later, which I did successfully, if only just. And I absolutely hated the whole Shakespeare business. What did Shakespeare have to do with the 1960s? The now?

Then, in 1968, I saw, several times, the Franco Zeffirelli film of "Romeo and Juliet", and loved what I was hearing and seeing. While Zeffirelli took some liberties with the dialogue, there was Shakespeare at the core. The film of that play starring Leonardo di Caprio decades later was less convincing, being set in latter-day "Verona Beach" somewhere in the USA, but one hopes it turned some young people on.

I've seen many films of Shakespeare's plays, and one built around his sonnets (Rupert Graves as the bisexual Bard in "A Waste of Shame"). I fell asleep in the Island Movie Theatre watching Olivier's "Othello", having just had a big dinner at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club with drinks and a few pills. I enjoyed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's take on "The Taming of the Shrew". Sir Ian McKellen's "Richard III" set in the 1930s was excellent, though I prefer period dramas to stay in their period as a rule. I've suffered through a few Hamlets, a play I just cannot like yet (I'm waiting for the condensed "Piglet"). I've seen a curious version of "Richard II" featuring a woman in the title role: The language of that play is exquisite, but I kept fretting over the gender casting. I have seen "A Midsummer Night's Dream" staged … outdoors … And "Timon of Athens" staged in a Globe-replica theatre in Cedar City, Utah. Both very uncomfortable experiences from a physical point of view.

Of course, I've seen "Shakespeare in Love" which I enjoyed the first time, if not the second. I've read Wilde's "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." and saw the episode of "Doctor Who" set in the Globe Theatre back in the day.

One worries that in order to make Shakespeare "easy" the language will be "modernized", which is to say "destroyed" and "lost". Already the Authorized Version of the King James Bible, in my lifetime, has become a rarity. For some reason, everything has to be "dumbed down", as the odd expression goes. So many rap lyrics.

What might be my favourite lines from Shakespeare? The "This England" from Richard II, of course, and these few from Romeo and Juliet, Juliet's father speaking as he examines her body:

Ha! Let me see her: out, alas! She's cold:
Her blood is settled, and her joints are stiff;
Life and these lips have long been separated:
Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

Dear God, but that's some writing! Did Shakespeare sweat over those for days, or just knock them out while trying to meet a deadline thinking 'This will have to do…', or wake in the night with that combination in his head?

Is it any wonder one recognises any representation of Shakespeare much as one knows Jesus Christ or Mickey Mouse when one sees them?

You may not be English, you may not be British, you may not think much of Saint George, you may not care for Western Civilization, but can you deny the poetry in those words? And knowing Shakespeare was so very English … might you celebrate, at least, his nativity on 23 April?

Raise a glass to William Shakespeare! And dragon pie for all! And good on old England!

Friday, 10 April 2009

How Green is Your Gethsemane?

Detail: Raising of Lazarus, Quidenham, Norfolk

WE'VE HAD A RAINY AFTERNOON here in Narnia, and Cailean is recovering (very well) from his leg injury, but still only having short walks, so I decided to watch some television. I don't watch the telly in the daytime very often unless there is some news story that demands attention (there might be a gay elephant in a Polish zoo, or PETA wanting the Pet Shop Boys to change their name to The Animal Rescue Shelter Boys, or the British Home Secretary being caught charging her husband's porn DVD rentals to the taxpayer) as the room tends to be too bright to comfortably watch the screen. However, on this grey-skied day the front room has been quite dark and I was able to get a nice, clear picture.

I switched the telly on and the between-programmes filler had a voice saying: "This being Good Friday, you'd expect to find a film featuring Jesus. We've got one…" And it was to be "The Greatest Story Ever Told", originally released in 1965.

I saw TGSET back in 1967. How is it that I recall that? Because it was the first movie I ever went to with a friend I met back in the late spring of 1967. And what did I remember about the film? That it was long, that Jesus had blue eyes (of course, and he always wrote in red ink, don't you know), and that the scene where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead was extraordinarily moving, even to a teenager.

Somehow, over the past 42 years since seeing TGSET in the Rosebank Theatre in Bermuda (curiously, the Rosebank site is now a bank, complete with financial worries in 2009); I've actually not seen the film apart from the briefest of glimpses when it has run on the television.

Today I decided to stay with Channel 4 for their Jesus Feature … a bit for Old Time's Sake, a bit out of complacency … and I pulled a rug over my feet (and over the top of Cailean, who prefers to sleep under covers) and set the BT Vision Box (this is a broadband feature I subscribe to) so that the film would be recorded if I wanted to pause it and take a toilet break.

TGSET begins with the production information one might expect at the end, and everyone (and his dog) was in this film. The dog barked when Lazarus was raised and Sal Mineo went running through his dusty desert neighbourhood crying out: "Jesus has raised the dead!" I imagine the credits rolled early on because the viewers, after three hours of the film itself, might not have stayed to see who the grips were.

A great deal has happened in what might be termed my Spiritual Life over the past forty years. I suppose the major event would have been my conversion to Mormonism in the early 1970s. More recently I have wandered off into Outer Darkness. I have read a great many books with a spiritual or religious message or content, I have taught Sunday school, preached sermons, given a few obituaries and presided at my mother's funeral. I've had highs and lows to the extreme. Sometimes, at night, this year, I wake up (or I've been awake, unable to get to sleep) and I've said aloud: "Father, are you there?"

One of the Mormon General Authorities told his personal story of feeling disconnected from God and how he asked that question: "Are you there, Father?" And his Father, his God, did respond. Mine hasn't. If he does, I trust it will be gently, perhaps in a dream, rather than having a prophetic angel beam down through my ceiling in laser-lights and scaring the Bejesus out of me.

As it is, I remain in a state of disconnection. Waiting. Sometimes posing the question. Perhaps hoping. And why should I be caring at all? I guess it is because I have unfinished business with dead family and friends. I'd rather like to see my mother again, my father too, and to have the seven dogs and one cat of my life running around my feet. If just for a few minutes. Is that odd? Unusual? Am I human after all?

I was surprised at how curiously constructed TGSET is. The scenes are like so many moving paintings hung next to each other in some dusty (well, sandy) gallery. Backdrops are peculiar, almost unnatural at times (and I have lived in the wilderness of the desert in Southwest Utah), and features are overstated. It's very artistic. There is some effort to stick to Bible dialogue, even to the King James Version which is the only one I subscribe to (if it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me), though the Pauline scriptures appeared as we neared the end, with Jesus preaching that Hope, Faith and Charity discourse which I think really does belong on Saint Paul's page.

John the Baptist performed a complete dunk. That pleased me from a Mormon point of view: I don't think people clambered down into the River Jordan (so deep and wide, alleluia) to get sprinkled. Baptism symbolises rebirth, and you've got to get right into it. If baptism is just a cross on the forehead or a splash of blessed water, why not just fill in a form on the Internet and get a certificate in the next post if you want a hard copy? Like those instant preacher certifications; start your own church. No. Get wet! Just like in TGSET.

The miracles (magic!) were understated in the film version, and that was probably a good idea before computer generated images. No throngs of angels overhead; no water into red, red wine; no bread and fishes for the masses; no mud in the eye for the blind man; no strolls on the Lake. The second most appealing miracle happens when someone touches Jesus' coat and cries out: "I'm healed!" We don't know what her problem was. Jesus just whispers: "Your faith made you whole." I don't think the Church of England, in which I was raised, really believes in Jesus' miracles (or in the Old Testament miracles and peculiar happenings with UFOs and the like) … preferring to just say that things happened in the spirit of a miracle. Perhaps the wine was there in the jugs all along, but nobody knew.

In TGSET, the Last Supper was laid out like the famous paintings. Do we really know that these folks sat along one side of a trestle table, not around something so as to be more intimate? There was no sign, in this film, of Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper, so Leonardo da Vinci's vision was ignored. Sorry about that, Dan Brown. At the Last Supper, bread was broken, wine was served. The Mormons performed a miracle with the water and the wine: Water is mandated at the Mormon sacrament, though they originally did use red, red wine. A word from the Prophet and it was changed to clear, clear water. Perhaps he feared the wrath of grapes; perhaps they just couldn't get enough of the good stuff.

Concerning Mary Magdalene: In TGSET Mary is cast as the prostitute. I think that if one carefully reads the gospels, there is no suggestion at all that Mary of Magdalene had been, or was, a prozzie. This unpleasant character flaw has become traditional (and convenient if you're looking for a name for laundries forcibly employing unwed mothers), as have many other Bible names, events and places. Can anyone give me the Bible verse which names the Three Kings? In fact, were there three of them?

To my delight, the raising of Lazarus was the highlight of the film almost 42 years after I was last much-moved by it. There's no hocus-pocus, no industrial light and magic, no secret prayer or handshake. Rather, Jesus in the entrance to Lazarus' tomb bidding the dead man to come forth, and then startled people in the crowd reacting when he does. And Sal Mineo running, running, running, the dog barking: "He has raised the dead!" I was very nearly overcome, and flung back to 1967. I'll probably telephone the friend I saw TGSET with back then with tonight and tell him all this.

I'm not sure that I believe the Bible to be a true history, or that the words are the unalterable word of God, or even that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The Old Testament is weirder than Harry Potter, but with more Mean Guys (starting with the LORD). Jesus is credited with any number of predictions and the only one that really holds up is that he came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. And some monk might have dreamt that up when there were Romans hacking at people outside his hut.

There is an extraordinary book by James E Talmage called "Jesus the Christ" (first published in 1915, still available from Deseret Press) that explains what the New Testament accounts of Jesus are about. The whys and wherefores. Apart from an opening chapter that mentions Mormon doctrinal belief that there is a Pre-Existence and that Jesus, an individual separate from God the Father, existed there (along with you and me), the book is very nearly Mormon-free. The events are discussed, the parables explained, the story is placed in context. It is one of the finest books I have ever read. (And very readable.)

Another afternoon that I trust I've not frittered away. My thoughts after watching TGSET include wondering if Judas was, in some way, the hero of the story. He is certainly the scapegoat (everyone blames the scapegoat, as one wit put it). Without Judas' "betrayal" there would have been no crucifixion, no resurrection, no atonement, no eternal life for you and me (assuming we believe). The poor man had that terrible job to do. Imagine the love he felt for his Master, so great that he could play the part he did. Peter was prevaricating and lying, but Judas spoke the truth: "This is the man!"

The life of Judas might be the second greatest story ever told.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Bed Rest ... Some Chance!

Cailean resting a sore limb and watching The Dog Whisperer on the telly

I DIDN'T TAKE MANY SICK-DAYS when I was at school. Truth be told, I preferred to be in class rather than at home. I was the child that tired of summer holidays first.

Of course, in my time we were allowed to catch measles, chicken pox and mumps, and I had the first two of those and had to stay at home for a week or ten days with the spots and blotches and fevers. And most of my schoolmates would be undergoing the same ordeal at about the same time, and it was no big deal. A pile of books to read and the radio (we had no daytime television) would keep me entertained.

My first really lengthy and serious illness turned up just before Christmas 1967. I was living with my aunt in the Medway Towns and became ill instantly. I'd been walking around London with a friend who'd just arrived to study nursing at University College Hospital and we'd had lunch and were heading towards Carnaby Street (it was the winter following the Summer of Love) and I suddenly felt feverish, confused, flushed. We turned around and headed back for the hotel near Marble Arch where my friend's mother was staying. She'd been a nurse herself and suggested I get myself home, something was coming on.

I took the Tube back to Victoria, and the train to Gillingham, and went to bed. I coughed and gasped and wheezed for four weeks, hardly able to get upright. Some Christmas! I only remember watching The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour fiasco of a film on the telly on, I think, Boxing Day. I was delirious enough to like it then, but have not cared for it since (except for the tunes, of course).

A doctor came and prescribed penicillin and hours later I took a turn for the worse. The doctor returned a few days later and diagnosed German measles as I was bloated, reddened and having trouble breathing. What he failed to appreciate was my allergic reaction to penicillin. I am, it turns out, so allergic to that mould that if I consume a little of the crust on a Brie cheese my blood pressure soars and I get dizzy and flushed. I did have bronchial pneumonia. Bed rest. And I missed the first three weeks of the spring term at college.

I have had a similar illness, severe bronchitis, three more times: Christmas 1979 in Salt Lake City; spring 1993, in Hurricane, Utah (I first thought it was hay-fever as the desert in the south-west blossomed abundantly that year); and then in the winter of 2007-2008 here in Northumberland. I was confined to bed through sheer weakness during those illnesses, but did have television (especially in 1993 when I'd watch the telly all night long, admiring the items for sale on QVC at three in the morning when products would be offbeat).

In 1977 I had glandular fever and was feverishly out of my head for over a month. It was quite a trip. I did lose 35 lbs which, fortunately, I could afford to. I missed over four weeks at my job (I was working for a supermarket I think).

This winter I had 36 hours down time with a streaming cold. It started suddenly one morning and stopped late the next day just as abruptly and completely. My family doctor in Amble had the same thing, but his turned up on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. I have had a bit of hay fever this spring. I'm not exactly sure what is causing it. I am allergic to avocado pollen, but there aren't many of those trees around!

That's my medical story as far as brief illnesses are concerned.

Last Saturday afternoon I took Cailean for his daily jaunt, around the town rather than by the River that day, and when we got back he went in his bed for his usual post-exercise nap. When he got up later I noticed he was limping, favouring his left rear leg. I picked him up and when I examined his foot (thinking perhaps he'd got a thorn in it) he was obviously in considerable discomfort.

I telephone the veterinarian's surgery, which is just a few doors down from the flat, and was directed to the main surgery in Alnwick, 10 miles away. I phoned and the person there took my name and number and said the on-call veterinarian would be phoning me shortly. And a minute later Simon, who has seen Cailean before for innoculations and check-ups, called. I explained the symptoms.

We decided not to do anything right then, as the surgery in Alnwick was shut, but that I'd call back if Cailean's condition got any worse and Simon would open the Animal Hospital.

Happens that Cailean was comfortable so long as he wasn't moving about. I wrapped him in a blanket and we watched the telly from the sofa. Every hour or so I carried him outside and let him pee, which was a clumsy affair as he squats, being a dachshund, and is not used to three-legged widdling, I had to hold up the drooping left hip.

Sunday morning Cailean was still limping, but it wasn't any worse, and I decided to call for an appointment with the vet for Monday morning, first thing.

This morning we walked over to the Amble surgery and Simon was on duty. He asked me if I wanted to hold the sharp end of Cailean while he manipulated his leg and hip, or would I prefer his veterinary nurse do it. I trust Cailean and stroked his nose and Simon did his worst. A few squeaks.

Simon has given us some anti-inflammatory tablets and Cailean had taken the first one by half-past nine, and two hours later he was dashing around the flat.

We're not to do any long walks, it's to be bed rest. On Wednesday we are to have a follow-up examination and if things aren't improving Simon will set up x-rays and more invasive tests for Thursday.

Cailean is now under the desk in his bed, fast asleep. He ate his breakfast and seemed to enjoy it (liver, broccoli and dry food mixed). In a minute we are going to the sofa again, I've got a pile of books to choose from and I can stroke a dog's nose while reading history.

Next time I'm feeling poorly, I think I'll ask about anti-inflammatories.

I'm missing the daily walk, but don't want to leave the boy alone too long.

THE BIGGER PICTURE: Simon weighed Cailean and he clocked in at 9.03 Kg, which is very nearly 20 lbs in old money. I knew Cailean was a bigger dog than my Aleks had been (Aleks topped out at 13 lbs, and was not as long or tall as Cailean). A bit overweight, we thought. So Cailean will have no liver and more kibbles and greens, and we'll both lay off the crisps.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The First Day of School, Before and Beyond

You put your right arm in
You put your right arm out
You put your right arm in
And you shake it all about

The Hokey Cokey

I CANNOT RECALL my neighbour's name. I've lived in one of the flats this old building has been converted into for some three years now, and only one of the other flats has changed hands. This neighbour, who I can see outside of my kitchen window (she's having a guilty cigarette), lives on the first floor and one over. She's not my noisy neighbour overhead, and has, in fact, complained about that noisy couple and that has helped control the din. And I cannot remember her first name. Curiously, I do know her surname.

The doorbell for my neighbours' flat is in a small porch next to my kitchen door, at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to two flats. Below the doorbell are the number of the flat and the surname of the occupants. And I can remember that name clearly. Is it because I have seen the written word that I recall it with ease? My neighbour's first name, which I greet her with when I see her, which is very infrequently, is the name she introduced herself as in our first spoken conversation years ago. Might it be that something written makes a bigger impression in the learning process in my case?

I can recall, in considerable detail, my first days of Kindergarten at Warwick Academy. That's back in January of 1955. I can still see the room, hear the voices, and even feel the excitement. It was not a frightening day for me; I'd been looking forward to it. No tears, all eyes and ears.

In fact, I can actually go back to schooldays before the first day of Kindergarten. When I turned four I was sent to Humpty Dumpty College. This had nothing to do with my shape, which was rather thin, and everything to do with nursery rhymes. The College was Bermuda 's first nursery school. A fairly small group of white boys and girls gathered at the home of Auntie Peggy each day and Peggy and her colleague Auntie Norma would teach us how to sing and dance (I did both badly, but with worrying enthusiasm, and loudly). When not clogging and clapping, I imagine we must have learned basic reading and writing because I could do both when I turned up at Warwick Academy 's Kindergarten, and that had a traumatic result in January 1955.

I remember a good deal about my graduation day at Humpty Dumpty College . Twins Sheilagh and Maureen MacCulloch and I were the College's first graduates, and it happens that we all went on to Warwick Academy and continued through all the forms there for the next eleven or twelve years. On graduation day the MacCulloch girls and I were dressed in black gowns and mortarboards and we stood on a window seat in a bay window, the dark curtains drawn behind us, and were feted briefly by our teachers for the benefit of family, friends and fellow pupils, and then handed our diplomas. At that point the three graduates had to chant the following verse together: "I am a graduate of Humpty Dumpty College … Of nursery rhymes I have full knowledge … And now I've been given my college degree … To help me progress with my A-B-C." I not only remember the rhyme and the gowns and the window ledge, but I recall seeing, as I stood between the twins, some sort of light and movement over to my left. I think the curtain in the bay window must have moved in the breeze and a brief moment of afternoon daylight had broken into the ceremony.

I'd looked forward to my first day of Kindergarten because the form mistress, Lucile Davis, was a family friend. When my grandparents first emigrated from England and ended up in Bermuda, of all places, they lived in very modest conditions in a neighbourhood one would not want to live in now, except perhaps for the scenic view of the North Channel off of Pembroke Parish. My grandparents returned to England , my grandfather thinking to make it big in the furniture business. It was the Great Depression and I imagine furniture was being used for fuel and not for much else, and the business went tits up. Eventually my grandparents returned to Bermuda and my grandfather worked for the British military in the NAAFI there, shortly before and during World War Two.

My grandparents, at that time, rented a cottage called "Lynden" from Lucile Davis out at Spanish Point, down the coast, in a better area, than their earlier dwelling. Lucile had inherited a fair bit of land from her adoptive mother (Lucile had been left on a doorstep in Florida as a newborn), a woman with the unpleasant name Roach who went quite mad. Lucile and her husband and their two children lived in the old Roach homestead, and cottages and a wooden bungalow were rented out. Happens that Lucile's husband frittered away the money and the property. I believe my father liked Lucile's husband, and he might have been the only one.

My father, sent to Bermuda with the Royal Navy during the War, had wound up working at the NAAFI for my grandfather, and subsequently met my mother, I'm the post-war result. When my parents married on 28 August 1947, Lucile Davis's daughter was my mother's flower girl. The favour was repaid twice. I was Lucile's son's page boy at his wedding in about 1954, and my sister was Lucile's daughter's flower girl a few years later. I'd been reluctant to be a page boy. In fact, I wasn't told about it until two days before the event when I was trotted off to a rehearsal. It was at night, past my bedtime, and even though in the Pembroke parish church in which my parents had married and where I was christened, the venue was not familiar as my parents had moved to the parish of Warwick when I was two or three. The day of Lucile's son's wedding I refused to take part, I wasn't in the mood. My father was annoyed, stood me on the toilet seat and dressed me in silly clothes, slicked down my wavy hair with water, then hauled me out to the green Morris Minor and off we went, with me steaming. Despite my fit of pique, the wedding went off very well, and several times, going down the nave of the church, I stood on the train of the bride, bringing the procession to a brief halt. It was not intentional as I recall, I just didn't move well to music and was under-rehearsed.

As young children, my sisters and I regularly visited Lucile Davis at her home (when old Mrs Roach was still alive, she'd have been locked in her room) on a weekend. My father would talk to Lucile's tipsy husband, and my mother would sit outside and look at the sea, the same view, almost, that she'd had as a child from Lynden, and Lucile would walk me and the older of my sisters out to visit her poultry. We liked the chickens well enough, but simply must see the turkey. And I only ever recall one turkey, of dubious temper, in its run. Was it a pet? Was it eaten for Christmas and then replaced with a young bird?

On that first day of Kindergarten, I knew my teacher, Lucile Davis, before we walked in the doors. I was not at all afraid, was most excited. And the room seemed spacious (I've seen it since and it was not large, and 20 or more children crammed into it must have been something of a health and safety nightmare) with doubles tables, two seats behind each, all facing the teacher's desk and a blackboard. On each table were two abacuses, one for each pupil. At the back of the room was a very large easel on which was a flip chart. The chart featured words and pictures, simple stuff of the "Run, Rover, Run" variety. There was also a piano and a box of raffia grass dyed in many bright colours. There was a small lobby for the classroom which featured coat hooks and benches, and there were child-size lavatories.

I was only in Kindergarten for a few weeks. I never had chance to weave a raffia basket. I recall singing a few hymns and songs, another teacher came in to play the piano, and we did dance the Hokey Cokey, but Humpty Dumpty College had taught me, and the MacCulloch girls, the lessons of Kindergarten. We could read and write quite well. We were sent to the next form, Transition, and I left Lucile Davis behind.

Not entirely behind. Lucile Davis was still very much a friend of my mother and grandparents, and lived to a good age, though her mind went near the end.

Back in Kindergarten, there was something I did not know that would have been taught to me and wasn't, and I am still completely ignorant as to the ways of the abacus. I have no idea how to use one. I believe one can do mathematical calculations with an abacus, but in Transition we learned by using our heads, not our fingers and some beads. When we started working out what were then useful sums … figuring out the money of the time … I'm not sure that an abacus was suitable for pounds, shillings and pence (and half-pennies and farthings), which may be the reason the abacuses did not appear in classrooms above Kindergarten. I used non-decimalised pounds until about 1970, and it was a nightmare.

Am I missing something not having mastered the abacus?

I've just this very second remembered my neighbour's Christian name. It's Allison. Now that I've written it down by way of my keyboard, I may find it easier to remember. Unfortunately, Allison has gone inside and I cannot pop my head out and call her by name and wish her a good afternoon.