Monday, 25 May 2009

WHEN PROTONS COLLIDE - Politics, Religion & Bombs

Knowledge rains down and floods the Earth like a Bermuda hurricane;
wisdom grows deep below the surface like stalactites in crystal caverns,
perhaps an inch added every ten thousand years,
and that incredibly fragile.

YESTERDAY WAS SUNNY very nearly to a fault. I don't like to get sweaty and my around-the-town jaunt with Cailean got me moist (and not in a nice way). Odd to have a holiday weekend in Britain with bright, warm sunshine, though Amble by the Sea is more temperate and cooperative than most of the Isles.

Did I lie out in the sun by the River yesterday, Cailean on his long-lead sniffing at the air while I listened to the noises in my head? Actually, no. I'd taped the film Pearl Harbour on Saturday night and decided to put my feet up on the sofa and spend three hours in 1941. I'd rather expected a remake of Tora! Tora! Tora! And was relieved that it wasn't as that's a hard film to beat. Pearl Harbour is an action film in the Jerry Bruckheimer tradition: two handsome flyboys fall for the same pretty nurse and single-handedly take on the Japanese air force on 7 December 1941 when every other aeroplane is destroyed or grounded. They also bomb Tokyo for good measure a few months later. One boy comes back in a box, but the pretty nurse is expecting his baby. The other boy marries the girl, adopts the baby, names him Danny after his father, and takes him for a spin in a crop-duster. Life goes on.

As I watched the film, I wondered what in the world the Japanese were thinking in 1941. They'd been making simply horrible decisions about their role in the world for some years before that (Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking should be compulsory reading). I wondered if it was religion that prompted the Japanese to take such a dim view of peace, love and life. The sort of religion that says you must lose your life in order to gain it. Like Christianity. Like Islam. Like Dictatorship.

The Japanese revered their Emperor as a god. Perhaps some still worship his descendants. The writer Yukio Mishima denounced Hirohito for renouncing his divinity at the end of the Second World War. Did Mishima consider Hirohito no longer a god? Can one turn off godhood so easily? It seems to me that even fallen gods should turn up somewhere and face the music and not claim to be retired from all that and spending their time reading foreshortened poetry.

I would have hanged Hirohito, god or not. The Western Powers turned hundreds of thousands to dust at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the god kept his haloed crown and his head to set it on. And for all we know, Hirohito's family and friends still called him God at the dinner table.

I'm not much on religion these days. In fact, I'm nothing on religion these days. I was Sunday-Schooled in the Church of England; my first book (which I still have) which I received on my third birthday was a child's hymnbook from Canterbury Cathedral. At Warwick Academy I had Religious Knowledge classes until I was about fifteen years old. We sang hymns and chanted prayers every morning until I left that school at the age of seventeen. By then I had joined the social set that went to Sunday services and youth group events at the Anglican parish church. Had I a clue about God? Looking back, I think not.

I was excited by Mormonism because it promised family togetherness. Whether it has ever delivered on that promise, I'm not sure. Most of the Mormons I know have struggled at best. But that's good they claim. You have a rubbish life and then a splendid hereafter. Lose your life to gain it.

I am asked, now and then, how I managed to believe that Joseph Smith stuck a seer stone in his hat, then put it over his face and translated the golden plates. In such a posture, he wouldn't have seen any golden plates lying around. I didn't know about this, actually, back in the day. I thought he wore fancy spectacles, the Urim and Thummim, clear stones set in silver bows and sat at a table flipping golden pages pretty easily, reading the translated text to Oliver Cowdery and others. Nothing as easy as that. Pull down the hat.

Joseph Smith taught that our God (the Christian one at least) had been a man once upon a time and had moved on up, as it were, having been an obedient and successful man. Joseph also taught that a plurality of gods created the Universe and that there are gods responsible for other worlds besides ours. Many houses, many mansions, many tenants, and quite a few landlords. The Bible can be interpreted to agree with this. The Bible can be fiddled with to justify anything, and is.

The Bible, probably all bibles, is foremost a political text. Laws listed by a ruling class to perpetuate itself. Eat this, don't eat that. Don't go there. Make war, not love. Men are not ruled by a god but by men. Or men who claim to be gods. As Oscar Wilde said: The worst sort of tyranny is that of the weak over the strong.

[I watched several programmes on Himalayan places and customs this past week. I rather enjoy the prayer flags in the high places, scattering good wishes over the world. One commentator explained Buddhism and reincarnation a little and summarised by saying that all life is transitory. Everything is transitory. Things are moving along. That fits in with the Big Bang Theory. This is what I believe in just now. Life, everything, flows. As a bonus, life overflows after death into another life, perhaps lesser, perhaps greater, perhaps much the same. My dust may raise poppies; my spirit may raise a bug that climbs a poppy stalk.]

There was talk in the news this week about the Hum. The background noise so many of us hear when we stop shuffling our feet and rest our tongues. Someone said it sounds like a fridge. The Hum is not new; there was a Hum in Bristol in 1979. However, one wonders if there was a Hum 200 years ago. Perhaps lovers, lunatics and poets only heard the voices of the gods?

In North Korea today a nuclear or atomic test of some sort has been triggered deep underground. Everybody is having a bit of a fit about it. North Korea seems like a most unhappy place. Any place where happiness is mandated must be unhappy. What in the world, or above or below it, does North Korea want with an atomic bomb? Why do hungry nations spend their resources on munitions? What do North Koreans believe? Is Kim Jong-il considered to be some sort of god? Do the people of North Korea have a bible of some sort? A little red or green book? Is it acceptable for thousands of children to be hungry while dozens smile at some computer screen showing troughs and a sudden peak and the world picks up a new hum from six miles below North Korea?

Why do I think that Kim Jong-il sees the stars in the sky as so many blemishes on his preferred black universe?

Is North Korea, I'm wondering, in about the same place that Japan was in the 1930s?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

On Being Raised (As I Was) With Penguins

Knowing I loved my books, he furnish'd me
from mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act I, Scene II)

I WAS HAVING LUNCH with one of my cousins at Barter Books up in Alnwick yesterday and he happened to mention that his son had recently had the opportunity to see a great many penguins in their natural habitat far, far south of here. I felt a little envious for I was, in a way, raised by penguins. Not many hundreds of thousands of them on an icy beach, of course. But more than a few times a Penguin or two accompanied me to Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda, more frequently to our family's dock on the northern shore of Warwick Parish there.

When we were very young, my sisters and I would be taken to the Aquarium in Bermuda by our father. This was one of those separated (and eventually divorced) parents' situations. Father could have us on a Sunday if he wanted to, and if we wanted to be had. As Sundays on the road with our father meant being away from our friends, there was certainly good reason to call it off from time to time. However, many, many dozens of Sundays in the late 1950s and early 1960s might be spent lunching in a greasy hamburger bar somewhere (no desserts, too expensive) followed by a drive over to Flatts Village and the Bermuda Aquarium.

The Bermuda Aquarium was not (and is not) particularly incredible as aquariums go, the biggest draw being a black spider monkey (not a fish, not an arachnid, but a scruffy, skinny monkey of South American lineage) which would take the peanuts we offered through the bars and leap about shrieking in delight, and then have a bit of a wank (as primates will no matter the blushes they create).

Between the fish tanks and the spider monkey was a small pool with a wooden and canvas umbrella arrangement above it. In that pool, and on a few rocks and diving platforms around it, lived (at the most, as I recall) four penguins. They were small, rather shabby penguins and not particularly friendly. There was nothing one could throw to them by way of food as an enticement to do tricks. Wealthier folks would try and bounce big British pennies off their heads (turtles came in for the same treatment and were an easier target), but we had spent our pennies on peanuts for the filthy little monkey round the corner. I recall the penguin population shrinking to two. It was quite pathetic. And then there were none. The monkey made an exit as well. Last I was at the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo, as it is now styled, the penguin tank had become home to a few small seals, and the place where once a monkey ranged was a hollow with a dusty alligator in it.

Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, is one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Britain. Hundreds of thousands of books ranging from rare and expensive first editions to recent best sellers. One can buy books (and it's hard to not find the ones you're looking for with so many titles) or sell them. Not exactly sell, but barter them in exchange for purchases at the time or in the future.

The bookstore is housed in a former railway station, with the arched roof and layout so familiar to those of us who travel by rail here. There are a number of rooms and areas devoted to particular subjects. There's a restaurant (I recommend the cheese toasties and a pot of Earl Grey) and a bank of computers in case one wants to compute. A valuation service is provided daily. Dogs are welcome. There are huge murals. Couches, chairs and tables are available if you want to rest (you'll most likely need to as hours can pass). Old railway stations being what they are, there are coal fires to sit by for warmth. And non-gender-specific (unisex) lavatories, which seems European somehow. There's a children's area too, always a plus if you haven't got a caged monkey or penguins.

But Barter Books does have Penguins. Penguin Books. Thousands of them.

Penguin Books was founded in 1935 with the promise of inexpensive books for everybody and anybody. The price of a pack of cigarettes, I believe was standard, say 6d. That was six old pence. I remember buying Penguin Books for about 1/6 (one shilling and sixpence), but I don't hark back as far as 1935. When I was paying 1/6, I would guess a pack of ciggies was about that much as well. I no longer smoke and honestly have no idea how much cigarettes cost now, but a pack would be over £5, I'm sure. A new Penguin paperback of a classic novel could be less, most of the second hand copies at Barter Books cost about £3.

When I was in my early teens my father remarried for the first time. Beryl, my first step-mother, who I really liked immediately because she had more books than anybody I'd ever known besides the public library, may have brought most of her book collection to Bermuda (from England) when she came out on a teaching contract as she had many, many dozens of the original 6d Penguin paperbacks. Orange and white covers for general fiction, green and white for crime, dark blue and white for biographies, and Beryl even had some of the rarer purple and white covered essays.

While I was looking through Beryl's history books, Penguin was fighting the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity case (which it won). Not many years later I was buying my own Penguins, all of DH Lawrence's writings, including the four Lady Chatterley's, as well as all the modern classics (I was partial to Huxley, Mann, Orwell, Woolf and Gide and can still recall my shelves filled with everything I could buy from those writers).

I would go to rummage sales and second hand bookstores in Bermuda and one couldn't go wrong looking for Penguins. The spines on so many of my books were bright orange. Like real, feathered penguins, the thousands of Penguin publications are as individual and different, and each has its own call and is recognised immediately and exactly, even in a huge crowd, despite the similar outfitting.

In Barter Books yesterday I noticed that their very old 6d version Penguins are on display at the ends of rows in their alphabetical fiction section. I recognised titles that I've had in my time, plays by George Bernard Shaw, and Erewhon by Samuel Butler, and many titles by DH Lawrence (before Chatterley). I looked inside one book and it had, in ink, the name of the original owner and the date 1935, and a college address. A charming discovery.

If I were on an ice sheet with a million penguins and could take a few home with me, I think one might appreciate that any two would most likely be fine given the colony. In Barter Books yesterday, with hundreds of thousands of titles in something of a blur, and having only scratched the surface in my favourite sections, I came out with a couple of books that will, I'm sure, be winners. One is not a Penguin, but a large pictorial biography of Lewis Carroll (I went down a great many rabbit holes when I was younger and I'm still partial to Alice and mushrooms).

So far as I can recall, I've never binned a book that I've owned and wanted to dispose of. When I have uprooted myself from time to time and couldn't afford to take all my books, the ones left behind would go to second hand bookstores and rummage sales. I do that reluctantly, though there may be something selfish about withholding a book one has read (and might not read again or refer to) from a second hand bookstore.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Berwick falls to the Dachs

Mount you, my lord; towards Berwick post amain:
Edward and Richard, like a brace of greyhounds
Having the fearful flying hare in sight,
With fiery eyes sparkling for very wrath,
And bloody steel grasp'd in their ireful hands,
Are at our backs; and therefore hence amain.

William Shakespeare (Henry VI Part III. Act II, Scene V)

WE'VE HAD A VISITOR FROM AFAR. Family, actually, my mother's long-lost first cousin from Lancashire, by way of Canada. Just for a few days, staying at the Harbour Guest House and Tearooms (that certainly sounds English, eh?) here in Amble by the Sea. Jack gave the Harbour Guest House a big thumbs-up. I did not see his room, but I walk past the place with Cailean a few times a week on that particular loop around the town, and it's in a great location just yards from the water as well as the Town Square. I noted that after Jack had finished the full English breakfast provided at the guest house, which he said was terrific, he was too full for lunch. So, I shall recommend it for my visitors who aren't up to camping in my flat.

Early on Wednesday last I got Cailean into his harness and we three boarded the 518 bus for Alnwick at ten o'clock, arriving a half-hour later. There we joined the 501 bus for Berwick-upon-Tweed. This is the slower service snaking north along the coast and diverting into any number of small seaside villages (all of which feature a castle or ruin or something rather quaint). The scenic route takes two hours, and it is worth it for the professional sightseer or journeyman with the time to spare and an eye for beauty.

One sees Alnwick Castle, the strange and bleak ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, the looming Bamburgh Castle, and distant Lindisfarne on Holy Island.

With early summer well under way this year, the countryside was green with trees and meadows and some crops, the rape fields are bright yellow just now. Our travelling day was grey (and windy) overhead. The North Sea was the colour of steel. In the open it was chilly.

The bus driver was something of a joker, taking the mickey out of two foreign ladies who had managed to flag down the bus from the wrong side of the road. We could not make heads or tails of their accented speech, the broken English as much of a mystery as the original tongue they spoke to each other. It was not a Latin language or German or Dutch. I wondered if it might be Finnish. Not that I've ever heard a Finnish person speak, but I knew an Estonian many years ago.

Then about a dozen ditzy women realised that they'd neglected to ring the bell to stop the bus at their destination, about a mile further on. They called out and walked down the bus and asked the driver what they should do. What they meant, I think, was: "Driver, what will you do?" The driver dodged that one and said: "Ladies, it's only a pleasant quarter-hour's walk back. You'll work up an appetite." The next bus in the opposite direction was not due any time soon, and he actually couldn't turn his bus around if he felt inclined to as we were on a narrow country road. The ladies bubbled out onto the roadside and we rolled on.

Cailean had drawn a good deal of attention, as he tends to do, ever since we began the day's jaunt. One group on the bus, about seven or eight youngish people with what I believe we now must say "learning difficulties", went mad for the pup, and he lapped it all up. Cailean looked over the tops of our seat, forward and back, as well as down the aisle, and between the seat backs. Nothing cuter than a dachshund's snout appearing between the seats of a bus! No barking, lots of waggy-tail.

I'd not been in Berwick-upon-Tweed before, just driving past on the way to and from Edinburgh. Berwick is famous for being the only bit of England north of the Tweed, which the Scots consider Scotland. Apparently, Berwick has changed hands between the Scots and the English some 13 times. The bus schedule says that Berwick is still at war with Russia in the Crimea. This is a folk tale, an error, and the odd situation that Berwick was separate from the rest of Great Britain was fixed centuries ago (see The Wales and Berwick Act, 1746). Berwick and Russia are not - repeat not - still at war over the Crimea since the 1850s. Perhaps the bus company should note this. Let's not promote ignorance, no matter how quaint.

We rolled across a newer bridge ... the northbound lane of the older bridge being closed to traffic, the other bridge to the west, a magnificent many-arched affair, is a railway bridge ... above the Tweed and into Golden Square. It was very nearly one o'clock and I was hungry, even if Jack was still happily digesting his full English breakfast. (Just so you know: bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding, beans, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, toast and tea or coffee.) A hotel just off Golden Square had an inviting menu and the bartender said that while Cailean couldn't dine inside unless he was a guide dog (I must certify him as such!) the hotel had a lovely walled garden with dining facilities. We walked through a passageway and sat under grey skies, alas, but surrounded by flowers. Jack was coughing and wheezing, and as he'd just come from Canada, one was thinking "Mexican Swine Flu"? I was having a time with hay fever from birch pollen that afternoon. Still, I murdered a pasta lunch; Jack managed a bit of spicy carrot soup.

We then walked around the old town, down to the River, and up onto the fortifications. At times we were below and then far above the bridges.

Everywhere we went we met people with dogs. And Cailean was being particularly quiet (too tired to bark out with all the climbing about), but very grateful for greetings, and he was inundated with them. Dozens of people stopped us to ask after Cailean. Boy or girl? Cailean is neutered, but his todger is still there, for Pete's sake! How old? One year and two months. What kind of dog is he exactly? A dachshund. A sausage dog. A dash-hound. The last added because that's how they pronounce dachshund in Northumberland. How many people said: "Oh! I could just take him home with me. He's lovely!"

Trekking and the meet-and-greet having about done the three of us in, we headed back to Golden Square and sat on a bench by an ice-cream wagon. It was too chilly for ice-cream, to be honest. The bus home, the directly routed 505, taking half as long as the trip up, was very nearly due. A gentleman with what might be called those "learning difficulties" (or "eccentricities" if he'd been rich or posh) ... he was clearly mad as a box of frogs … did a bizarre jig for Cailean. Has the reader ever seen the episode of Seinfeld featuring Elaine's peculiar dance (and the slice of the Duke of Windsor's wedding cake, if I recall correctly)? This really weird jigging gentleman struck poses with limbs outstretched, balanced on one leg and then the other and he cried out to Cailean: "Hell-oo! Hell-oo!" over and over. And he wouldn't stop the dance, not for pedestrians and certainly not for my horrified stare. Cailean is a sweet-natured soul, and he ignored the dancing fool, which scored points with the crowd that had gathered around our bench. A bus was never more a sight for sore eyes than that 505 rolling into Golden Square.

Golden Square, by the way, is neither Golden nor Square. I didn't ask.

We were back in Alnwick at about four o'clock, and home in Amble an hour after that on the 420 bus. About five hours on buses that day, two hours hiking around Berwick. For those who enjoy the view from the bus, this is no hardship.

I'm thinking I might go up to Berwick again, with just Cailean, on the direct route, and spend more time looking down the back alleyways of old Berwick. Crazy dancers aside, it's a lovely town and it fell to Cailean's charms immediately.

Friday, 8 May 2009

A Tumble in the Hay

Bhaktivedanta Manor

Deities at Four-Fifteen

AS YOU CAN SEE, this is a picture of Krishna and Radha, and I’m not exactly sure what their relationship is, or was, or will be. Nothing changes you quite like Godhood. I bought their postcards in a gift shop in Bhaktivedanta Manor House. These certainly are colourful and feature extravagantly dressed people. If you but squint your eyes and stare at the picture, it almost looks like some LSD vision, if not so personally emotional. It's even stranger to stare at it in person.

The Gods, or siblings, or rather close friends, are light-brown-skinned, and they use rather a lot of makeup. It is the clothing that I like. I’m too old now—and too short and fat—to wear anything fancier than corduroy trousers and a Harris Tweed jacket, and the odd Liberty of London tie if I must. That said, in the late 1960s I fancied being more colourful than the few flower-patterned shirts I could afford to buy on Carnaby Street. For good or evil, I couldn’t save up enough to buy myself raw silk jackets, in bright colours, that buttoned with golden frogs. Baggy white trousers with huge belts and buckles. Pale blue slippers. I once prayed for a fur coat having seen they were “in” with the Beautiful People. “A fur, just like you wear, dear God.” In 1967, the “Summer of Love”, I had a vision of myself that I cannot now revisit comfortably. As all those who take a look back more than twenty years say: “What was I thinking?”

I visited London for a week, in the hottest weather on the books, in June of 2006, and it was perfect for trekking around the city on foot, and to go out by car looking for the countryside. It’s there somewhere, if you can just get past the new housing estates and old neighbourhoods. I saw a sign that read: “Suburbs next 50 Miles.” No, of course not.

So, onto the highways and byways of old England. My friends, Nalini and Shekhar, had asked me if I wanted to “See the God Revealed” as the traffic had been so congested that we couldn’t travel far and hope to be back in Wembley Park before dark, even with the long twilight. We’d been wandering around the ring roads of north and west London. I recalled some from more than thirty years in the past. I had no idea what I might be getting myself into. God revealed?

We arrived at two large gateposts, with plaques reading “Bhaktivedanta Manor” and “Hare Krishna Temple”. Inside the gates, past neatly clipped hedgerows, finely boxed hedges, greenhouses, and brilliant flower beds, was an enormous Tudor manor house, white with black beams, at least three storeys, outbuildings, and with leaded windows big enough for a church, some with stained glass. God’s summer house, perhaps? He might kick off the shoes and stretch out on the lawn, sipping a cold beverage. What would God drink? Nectar? Mead? The first and last of the wine? "Just pour me some water, I'll do the rest..." And we parked with many dozens of cars in a designated field. It would be muddy in the rain, but was brick hard in the summer of 2006.

“You’ve been in a Mormon temple a few times,” I told myself. “It just cannot be weirder than that.” And I too took off my sandals, putting them at the edge of the many outside the main door, wondering aloud: “If I find a nicer pair of shoes when I come out, can I trade up?” My joke was not appreciated. Too Church of England, perhaps.

The late George Harrison of the Beatles had presented the Manor to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Movement back in 1973. In June 2006, I wandered about the Temple, with lots of other pilgrims; they turned out to be worshippers, waiting for the God to turn up. I was one of very few whites in the building that afternoon; half a dozen others were dressed in the saffron dhotis we’ve all seen in public places. I tried to sense George there. He wrote and sang: “All I have is yours, all you see is mine.” This was quite a donation, quite a gift.

Most of the adult visitors were people my age or older, of Indian heritage, and beautifully and modestly dressed with sudden touches of colour. With them, grandchildren perhaps: Youngsters so unlike ours. These neatly-dressed little ones walked slowly, did not call out or poke at things, and must have had some appreciation for the more sacred things in the Temple. No golden frogs on the visitors. Would the God have them when he was unveiled? It was to be at four-fifteen. On time!

All the doors, throughout the house, on three floors, were closed. What you needed to do—were encouraged to do—was to open them as you reached them. A gentle push sufficed. You pulled the doors to as you passed through, and all closed gently, none locking. I examined a huge bathtub. It was very nearly the size of the baptismal fonts in the basements of Mormon temples.

I was given two small dishes of rice when I returned to the ground floor. One was plain, the other spiced with ginger root. No knives, forks or spoons. Use your fingers. Paper towels.

As four o’clock approached, I joined Nalini and Shekhar and many others in a large hall that had no furniture. One end of the hall had a closed curtain from side to side and ceiling to floor. At the other end of the room sat a life-size—I thought it was a live person at first—figure. Nalini told me he was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. That is a fine name. He had founded the Movement. The statue was surrounded with flowers and clothed almost as oddly as I’d wanted to be back in the 1960s. People—except for me—kneeled and bowed to the statue, some lay flat out on the floor in front of it. I also saw adults lowering themselves flat on the floor at the feet of young children. Perhaps, in sympathy, to remind the children that nothing ages quite like youth: “You could be our age in the blink of Krishna’s eye.”

All the people—adults and children—moved slowly. People smiled and nodded, but did not reach for your elbow to hurry you along to where they thought you should be. There was no running about. Even with four-fifteen closing in.

Nothing seemed too weird. Even the chanting was pleasing to a degree. In the room with us—I include the Swami—there were a couple of white men in one corner, wearing the priestly robes you see Krishna people wearing in airports. One man thumped a drum and the other worked a squeeze-box. Here, in this Temple, these two priests were quite unattractive. They are creepy out in the world too, I think. What is that all about? I believe it is because I find their pallid, shaved heads and doughy bodies repulsive, rather than their Consciousness. Tanned and brown-skinned monks in saffron dhotis are wonderfully attractive. These acolytes in Watford would look so much better with a Mystic Tan. And, I thought wickedly, after a hearty meal at a Mongolian Barbecue. Clearly, I had much to learn.

Then, my hosts’ bowing over, we joined dozens of others sat on individual bottom-sized flat mats, on the floor facing—curiously—the closed curtain, and they chanted. As people lowered themselves, they picked up the Mantra.

There I was: Sat on a mat in a dimly-lit hall with about fifty people singing “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Krishna Krishna”. To think I was—for over thirty years—severely limited by panic disorder. And then we watched the God unveiled at 4.15pm. Why 4.15pm? The curtains were opened by two more shaved, robed men after a little bell rang somewhere. Is my mobile phone switched off? The Divine One had been behind the curtains all along: Or was he wheeled in from the wings? Actually, this Krishna was a sort of conjoined entity: They were very attractive if you like that sort of thing. They were life-sized, unlike Christian Gods, and very colourful, and draped beautifully with flowers as they sat at their altar.

This Godly altar held candles, incense, flowers, dishes of food, and drink placed before and around Krishna and his partner. Offerings over, there followed a thorough scrubbing of the floor within the holy place and then a careful dusting and polishing of the images took place. I wondered why the God’s place was so carefully cleansed after receiving gifts from his people. I’ll write 250 words on that the next time I stay after school.

Chanting! Chanting! I’m thinking of the line in “Absolutely Fabulous” when Eddie tells her concerned Guru over the telephone: “I’m chanting as we speak.” Before the ceremony wrapped up, a large, wooden chest—that just didn’t fit in with the general decor—was placed on the floor where Krishna’s floor became ours. People went—on their knees and backsides—to the chest and slipped money into the slot in it. Mostly coins. Krishna would prefer the rustle of five and ten pound notes, I’m certain; the Church of England does. But clinking coins sounded good at a ceremony that was orchestrated with bells and other plucked or thumped instruments. Another draped man—they seemed to be getting paler the nearer they were to Krishna—waved a very large feather, perhaps that of an ostrich, to encourage the burning incense. To get the scented smoke up Krishna’s noses. Hare! Hare!

Quite suddenly a bell rang somewhere, reminding Krishna—I suppose—that he had another appointment. So, abruptly, the curtains were pulled to. Getting to my feet was not easy, the mat slipping about, and then fine dust on the floor, and only the flat wall to claw at. I ached all over.

Having withheld my coins and five pound notes from the temptation of the ugly wooden chest, I headed outside, and noted my own sandals were the nicest in the heap, so I put them on again. I was thus able to afford some postcards and a string of love-beads and a mango milk-shake at the “Hare Krishna Temple Store and Café.” I bought sodas and biscuits for Nalini and Shekhar. I’m wearing the beads today, so many years later. I cannot figure out how to release the clasp. A bit like some branches of Christianity.

Leaving the Café, we walked through greenhouses and past above-ground pools with water lilies in them, and little golden fish chasing bubbles and sparks. You could reach out to a lotus blossom without falling over and into a ground level pond. We could see the parked cars in the distance, but went through wooden gates towards the posted “Temple Farm”. Enormous cattle, water buffalo, gave us the eye from a field very nearly crowded with enormous multi-coloured wagons. Nalini explained—poor thing had been explaining before we ever left Wembley Park—that at times the oxen would be hitched to the wagons, which were then considered “chariots” and the teams raced about. I recalled the charioteers in “Ben-Hur” and laughed somewhere behind my Foster Grants. I couldn’t imagine it here, and they had no postcard showing bus-size wagons drawn by burly bulls. How fast could that be? Do they smack their oxen to hurry them along?

The very large building had a sign reading “Temple Barn”, and as we walked in, we were asked to wash our hands. That’s not a bad idea; for over an hour I’d been pushing myself about on my mat on the floor of Krishna’s audience room, trying to get my legs under me bearable, and some feeling back in my lower body. I was dusty.

And there were no cows in the barn after all that. It was milking time in another building, somewhere sterilised. This barn looked as pristine a place one might have. We found a ramp that went up to an elevated platform, higher than the barn floor, about six feet. Up I went. Outside a gate on the platform was a shining steel bin filled with exquisite fresh, unblemished fruit and vegetables. Behind a stall door, lying on fresh hay, were two calves: Quite young and almost golden, coats brushed clean, no flies, no bits of straw, eyes enormous and brown almost as if they were wearing make-up. No manure in the stall, and only a sweet fragrance. A picture of total serenity. One calf was called Krishna, a common name at the Manor, and I cannot be sure the other was Radha, it might have been Vishnu, you know how the mind works. Their mothers must have been in the milking shed.

I crouched on my aching legs to reach in and touch the calf nearest me, who might have been Krishna, or the other one. I didn’t recall ever having touched a live cow. This one didn’t look as if it would bite me. I gave the creature’s ear a nice massage and did the same routine that works for dogs, cats, swans, budgies, lions and tigers, and everything else, including Lotus Europa sports cars. Singing:

Hello Baby! Hello Baby!
I would like to stroke your muzzle!
Come on Baby! Come on Baby!
You’re such a beautiful Baby!

Someone below called out: “Would you like some very fresh ice-cream?” Of course I would, as a chaser after the mango milkshake. I pushed down on my legs and made to stand up. That didn’t happen: I felt dizzy—I do that often with my dodgy blood pressure—and went sailing off into space.

My knapsack came up behind my head and upper back when I reached the concrete floor below the platform, protecting my head from a direct blow. Some loose, clean hay softened the fall of the rest of me. The barn was so immaculate that not even a straw was out of place and in need of refreshment. Does Krishna actually keep a look-out for his followers and visitors? If he does: “Thank you, Sir.”

We then had the very fresh ice-cream, again mango flavoured. I was but a little shaken by my fall. As I hit the ground I’d thought: “This will make a good story.”

Monday, 4 May 2009

A Murder to Dream For

Will you meet me in the Mendips?
We'll walk, climb and abseil
And look for Bronze Age artefacts
Where the barrows never fail.

Mendips' Cheddar's gorgeous.
I'm not speaking of the cheeses
For every hole holds promises
And every furrow pleases.

Meet me in the Mendips,
Down by Weston-super-Mare,
No threat Frome, Shepton Mallet,
And a Bath awaits us there.

Please meet me in the Mendips
Land of silver and of lead;
We'll take Midsomer Norton
And turn it on its head.

Away now to the Mendips
They'll never find us out;
Hid in the Rock of Ages
When the coppers are about.

Meet me in the Mendips
I long for Cowslip Green
And the temperate hills of Butcombe
And places still unseen.

Please, please now to the Mendips
This plea is not a joke.
I'm wanted by the Amble police!
Yours sincerely, Rodney Stoke.

WHAT A CARRY-ON, what a goings-on, what a brouhaha! This is a Bank Holiday weekend and I intended sleeping in, taking Cailean for a short walk in the rain, or a long one in the sun, and then reading (The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, a fine book set in Utah in places where I have lived, and often in buildings I am more than a little familiar with), and finally having chicken and rice for a late lunch while Cailean had some meat boiled off the latest bones that turned up in a bag hooked on our kitchen door's handle.

Just to explain Cailean's fare: Ever since I got the pup, bags of meat, usually on great chunks of bone, have turned up regularly in plastic bags (as I told the Police, the bags have nearly always been recycled - a good thing - from the corner market) at the back door. Perhaps three times out of several dozens, the meat has been uncooked, just slivers of flesh on the bone. A few times there has been only the meat, cooked, barbecued usually under the dome in the courtyard. I only tasted the meat, the cooked meat, once when I was concerned that it might be saturated with some sort of sauce that could play havoc with Cailean's digestion. The meat, which looked and tasted like pork, did not so much as have salt or pepper on it. It was plain, cooked meat.

Cailean is a friendly little dog and he delights in the neighbours, who all seem to like him. Even the postman sometimes brings a biscuit for Cailean if there is nothing for me in the red Royal Mail pushcart.

Recently, the veterinarian read me the Riot Act about plump dachshunds (while indicating Cailean!) and we are now observing a diet of mostly adult light dry dog food.

When the latest bag of flesh and bones turned up at the door two evenings ago (Rodney never knocks, he just leaves the bag for us to find, treasure at our leisure), I boiled the bones, for the meat had not been cooked. These bones were rather large and protruded even from my largest cooking pot, meaning I had to turn them over from time to time. The boiled meat went to Cailean; the bare bones went back in Rodney's already-recycled bag, and then that was tossed into my dustbin outside the courtyard. Looked like pork, though I've never figured out the bones on any of these treats. I took advanced level biology at school, but the only skeleton I ever really examined was that of a toad. We poisoned Bermuda toads (which were poisonous themselves) and then boiled them until their flesh fell off, then picked out the bones to reassemble. Whatever the meat that Rodney had been bringing over, it was not toad or frog.

A little about my neighbour then: I have lived in this flat, one of six carved out of a very old building, for three years. When I moved in, only one other flat was empty, and that remained vacant, next to mine on the ground floor, for six months. I was not aware of any movement or furniture in or out of the neighbouring flat, but on the next New Year's Eve, minutes after Midnight, there was a rapping at my kitchen door. This was before I got Cailean, and I answered the knock alone, half-asleep. Standing in the light, for my motion detector had illuminated the corner of the courtyard, was a man in his late middle years, grey stubbled hair, t-shirt and jeans and trainers, tattoos on his muscular arms. The stranger was holding a bottle of Scotch whisky.

In a very Scottish accent, the unexpected visitor, who was not even shivering in the cold, asked if I'd like to welcome the New Year in with him. I don't drink, especially not Scotch, and declined. It was a rude decline, I fear. I closed my door and the man with the bottle must have wandered home or to another door with a light on. Only days later did I see the man again, going into the flat next to mine. It was my new neighbour, Rodney Stoke.

Rodney, as I explained to the Police in my statement, never seemed to have visitors except for a teenaged lad, mid-teens, a few long-holiday weekends. As Rodney has no vehicle that I'm aware of, I guessed the boy might be his son, possibly his grandson, and had come to Amble (perhaps from Scotland?) on the train. The boy would have last visited about a year ago, around the time I got Cailean as a puppy. I know the boy did meet Cailean once. Cailean being Cailean, they got on famously.

It has seemed curious to me that a man, my neighbour, Rodney, who lived alone and did not ever seem to have visitors other than the boy, that rarely, and none at all for about ten months, found it necessary to cook such large quantities of meat. Why even have barbecues for one? Well one and the apparent leftovers for Cailean. And why such large joints of meat along with the ribs?

As I mentioned, this is a Bank Holiday weekend and I will admit that I did sleep after the alarm went off at 6.45am. Another hour. And then I woke, half-awoke, and sat up and was amazed at the goings-on. Police everywhere outside, yellow crime scene (do not cross this line) tape around my neighbour's kitchen door and back porch. I sneaked Cailean out for a quick pee, and we were stopped by a tall policeman as we padded back towards our door. Might he have a word with me? Of course. I did not think to offer him coffee as we sat in my front room, I was hardly awake.

The constable asked me about my neighbour, Rodney Stoke, and I admitted I knew very little about him. Just friends by way of Cailean. I have no idea where (or if) Rodney works. As he sometimes has no lights showing in his flat for a few weeks a month, I wondered if he worked shifts somewhere, perhaps on an oil or gas rig in the North Sea. I do see him smoking outside the Dock Inn (where a notice Tranny Night 17 April is still posted, weeks after the fact) from time to time when I'm walking Cailean, though I've never seen him outside here at the flats, not even having a fag like some of the other neighbours do. I thought he must be permitted to smoke in his flat.

The policeman asked me about the domed barbecue in the courtyard. I said it was Rodney's, he'd had it since last summer. Oddly, the next question involved any strange smells. I said that our drains ponged a bit from time to time out in the courtyard. I would put lye in the one with an opening nearest my door which helped control the odours. Questioned about visitors Rodney might have had, I only knew about the boy, and that a year back, and little about him for that matter. We were not officially introduced.

Hours later, when only the yellow tape in the breeze remained, I was outside with Cailean trying to decide on a long or short walk, and bumped into another neighbour from the flats. I asked her about the crime scene, and what had happened to Rodney. Was he alright? She said that she'd learned that Rodney had vanished last night, just hours before the local Police had arrived to interview him on a criminal matter involving a missing person. The Police had found Rodney's flat pretty much empty except for the landlord's furnishings and a few plastic bags from the corner market. And there had been a note, some sort of letter in Rodney's handwriting, left on the kitchen table. Pinned there, actually, by a very sharp carving knife.

All very mysterious, curious. Rather upsetting as one has come to like the quiet life and this was one day I wanted to sleep in and then put my feet up. Now this Rodney thing.

Happens that it was about then that I did wake up at last. Walked through to the kitchen and drew the curtains. No sign of life or death outside. No yellow tape. No coppers. No missing person. No bag of meat. (I'd last had a bag of meat a few nights ago and the chap next door, whose name is nothing like Rodney Stoke, doesn't seem to bring them more than once a fortnight, when he's in town.) Not even a jackdaw coughing. A dream then?

What a carry-on!