Thursday, 30 July 2009

One Year On (and On and On)

"Attention," a voice began to call, and it was as though an oboe had suddenly become articulate. "Attention," it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. "Attention."
Aldous Huxley (Island)

EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO I decided to have a go at a blog. It seemed pointless to be half-hearted about it, I decided to post something at least once a week. The business of producing a thousand words (or more, or less) had been mine about ten years ago when I persuaded the editor of Bermuda's weekend newspaper, The Mid-Ocean News, to run a column that I'd turn in on Tuesday, to be published on Friday. I was allowed to tackle whatever subject came to mind (and I did), but it was soon clear that my theme was to be "I remember back in…"

And, so, I revisited my childhood, my schooldays, my travels, books I'd read as a young adult, and films that made an impression when I was growing up. I had another quirk regarding my weekly foray into the past: I would write about two (and, rarely, more) different things, and, somehow, resolve them at the very end so that some notable connection between them was made clear. Perhaps a book I was given as a toddler created a situation that occurred when I was thirty.

I did get into the psychological aspects of my life (and those of others) having been in therapy since I was 22. After a few decades on the couch one becomes a would-be expert as it is the only way to retain one's sanity.

My editor encouraged me to touch on subjects that might be a little controversial. He was delighted when I mentioned once, in conversation, that I had personal experience of the dodgy accounting at American International Group. And that before AIG went tits up. I trotted out a few stories about the people I worked with at AIG, treating them fairly kindly, I did not point out that the place ran on alcohol and cigarettes. I also recalled, in the Mid-Ocean's pages, that the quarterly bottom line was decided on some time before all the numbers had been collated and consolidated. I don't suppose anyone outside of the AIG High Command believed me.

A year ago, when I filled out the forms for Barking Mad in Amble by the Sea, I had intentions of being right up to date. I would not be thinking back too far, but would tackle current events, a weekly diary. And time is always a curious thing, and old became new, and AIG went down the tubes. I can write about it and be right up-to-date with my distant memories. I'm blessed with a very good memory, by the way. This is remarkable bearing in mind all the drugs I've taken in over 40 years, and all that therapy. I can recall, exactly, my first hours at American International in late October 1968. I am poring over profit and loss statement forms that someone has jotted figures into in pencil. All the words, all the numbers, mean nothing to me. I am to check that everything adds up correctly. I do not have an adding machine; I am to do it in my head. And I do. I have to make special marks below the columns I've checked, and, in my memory, I make them now.

In the past few months not only AIG has come around again. I have also been moved by the weekly (often daily) reports of deaths of "our boys" fighting wars overseas for, I believe, no good reasons. A week or so ago the American news presenter Walter Cronkite died. I recall, painfully, Cronkite's nightly reports on the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So many GIs had died, but so many more of the Viet Cong. Accounting, profit and loss reports, interest and bonus, war is a business. The bloody preservation of all we hold sacred makes my skin crawl in 2009 as I watch the hearses crawling down the main street in Wootton Bassett so conveniently on my television in the middle of the afternoon, as it happens. Live, we watch the dead.

In the past month I have invested in a number of books and DVDs that are not necessarily new releases. Perhaps there comes a time when one cannot really enjoy every new film, every book off every press. When I was 20 I would buy several dozen books at once: I had all the time in the world to read them, and more besides, which I'd buy the next Saturday. I suppose I am fairly well-read. But, this summer, I have felt a great urge to revisit some "old friends". Many of them. I don't feel that I have an endless summer to read and watch, but if they are here in the flat, I can open covers and boxes and enjoy an hour or so with DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf or Aldous Huxley. I can watch a Joe Orton screenplay, or the mini-series version of Sons and Lovers. The Merchant-Ivory films of the 1980s (of stories I read a decade or more earlier) are not just moving wallpaper in my front room. I'm going to look in on Glenda Jackson in Sunday Bloody Sunday. I recall exactly sitting in the Leicester Square Odeon in 1971 watching that film for the first time and being rather stunned. I came out of the film into the London light wanting more … of the Soave sia il vento from Cosi fan tutte, the repeating theme music of that film. It was, and is still, exquisite.

I have Aldous Huxley's Island on my coffee table. To be honest, I'm rarely without it, but I tend to give my copies away. The way one once might have passed on a copy of the Book of Mormon with the whisper: "This will change your life." Just so you know, Island changed me more than the Mormon scriptures.

Island opens with a chanting mynah bird saying: "Attention! Attention! Here and now, boys! Here and now!" And that is better than good advice. When I first read Island back in the late 1960s, the here and now was mostly brand new, I had fewer than twenty years of memories to clutter up the immediate. More than forty years on, it is difficult to ignore the past as it seems to always be present. So, I invite it to the get-together. When I talk to an old friend on the phone (and my friends are getting old, despite their continued loveliness) I talk to the boy or girl, as well as the person who remembers me (or perhaps does not recall me so well) in my salad days.

When we discuss a recent production of Henry V, I am also in my Fifth Form English Literature class (which I failed, by the way), whispering: "If we are marked to die …"

I'm rather enjoying being quite a complex person, bubbling over with memories good and not-so. It is all experience. If I did not pay attention then, perhaps there will be time to give it my attention again in the here and now. Tune in. Stay tuned.
Don't drop out this go round.

Monday, 20 July 2009

2001: Quite the Odyssey

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.
I'm half-crazy …
HAL 9000

I FIRST SAW THE FILM 2001: A Space Odyssey in July 1968 in a specially adapted cinema in Soho, London. It might have been on Greek Street, I remember seeing the street sign and thinking: "The offices of Private Eye must be here somewhere." I was a big fan of the Eye. I wasn't really a fan of science fiction, however. Happened that my mother was visiting me and we spent several weeks in London, staying in a B&B not far from Marble Arch, a school friend of mine joining us most days.

My mother had come across a remarkable package deal for accommodation, transport and entertainment in and around London. I think she had a book of vouchers which we exchanged at ticket booths and box offices. We visited Hampton Court, the Tower of London, galleries and museums, went to many films, saw some live theatre, and did some organised tours in the capital. My mother had visited most of the tourist attractions when she was a girl, and I had seen them too, but it was great fun having a shared experience. My school friend took us on a few expeditions that she had come across that were not listed in all the guidebooks. We traipsed through old graveyards at midnight, wandered in cellars below Charing Cross, and examined public loos with some historical interest.

2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed in Super Panavision 70, and certain cinemas that had specially adapted, deeply-curved screens, advertised it as a Cinerama experience. We saw it in Cinerama, and had seats in the front row of the balcony and benefited from that. It really was quite different. For someone who had seen most films in his lifetime on a diminutive screen in a tiny movie theatre in Bermuda, this was pretty far out. Not that the cinema in Soho was that large, but it was well-equipped with the latest gadgetry for 1968.

I'd watched the Flash Gordon serial films on a Saturday morning at the Island Theatre in Bermuda and a very few creature features, along with Jules Verne stories, at the Island Theatre and Playhouse, Rosebank and Little Theatre in Bermuda. Nothing like 2001 though for a science-fiction story.

In 1968 my mother and I and my friend had seen Yellow Submarine at a cinema at Oxford Circus just before seeing 2001. Yellow Submarine was something rather different for someone brought up on Loony Tunes. I didn't know much about 2001: A Space Odyssey except that the reviewers didn't much care for it. I'd never heard of Arthur C Clarke or Stanley Kubrick. I had studied evolution in Biology and had heard that the film did depict, in some way, the evolution of man. I've since thought that might not be exactly true.

It was a fairly long film, broken by at least one intermission for ice-cream. Were the reels changed during those intermissions? I think I must have watched it in stunned silence, perhaps thinking "Whoaaaaaaa!" when Dave Bowman flew into the Star Gate. In Yellow Submarine the sequence with "It's Only a Northern Song" had a similar effect. When we left the cinema we were not sure about the film, what it meant.

I went and bought a copy of Clarke's book and I think I understood 2001 a bit better.

Over the last 41 years since July 1968 I have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey many, many times. I have seen it in cinemas and on the television. One does not always have the opportunity to see a particular film at a movie theatre over and over, year after year. Except for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have seen the RHPS at a theatre more times than I've seen 2001 at one, but I can easily recall seeing 2001 on the big screen six times. One of the more interesting theatres was the Olympus Starship on the eastern benches of the Salt Lake Valley in Utah in 1980: The theatre was built so as to give the impression that the viewers were in a space ship, and there were lasers and holograms along with Jefferson Starship's "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?" before the main feature.

How many times have I seen 2001 on the television? It's one of those films I always tune in to if I see it listed, or stay with if I come across it while channel surfing. I have seen it three times since I got Cailean a year ago.

Cailean watches the television set intently and gets quite excited at dogs and when there are strange noises. He will bounce around and bark. 2001 really gets him going, from the moment the apes appear (dog-like, but I think the screeching gets Cailean yapping back). However, it is the beeping and buzzing and whirring that worries him the most. When HAL shuts down the life-maintenance systems of the crew members in deep-sleep Cailean goes quite mad. The colours in the Star Gate turn both Cailean and me on.

We watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again yesterday, a perfect activity for a Sunday afternoon. Cailean barked, I noticed things I had not picked up on during earlier screenings (the towels in the bathroom in the Louis XVI rooms in the last scenes). Of course, I got thinking. We are well past the year 2001 and we are not travelling to Jupiter in search of monoliths emitting signals (we haven't been as far as the moon in over three decades). Those black monoliths are sentry boxes placed by an advanced civilization. Yes? To keep an eye on how the Universe develops. Or did gods place them here and there? When Dave Bowman becomes the Star Child, is he reincarnated? Are the monoliths active or passive?

I hope I never figure it all out. I'd like to keep on tripping.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Sound and The Silence

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves;
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

W.H. Auden (Funeral Blues)

I SUPPOSE IT MIGHT BE SAID that I come from a military family. My Grandfather Eldridge and his sons were in the Royal Navy, as were great and great-great uncles and distant cousins now long dead of natural causes. My cousin's son is an officer on a Royal Navy ship on active duty at the present time. My Grandfather Lancaster's older brother was killed in the Pas de Calais in September 1918, just weeks before the Great War ended so inconclusively. My Grandmother Lancaster's brother, Frederick Proctor, was drafted into the Royal Navy during that First World War even though his only experience of the sea had been the view from the promenade at Blackpool. Frederick went AWOL, but then changed his mind and returned to his unit. I don't know what became of him.

My Great-Grandfather Eldridge's brother, John, in the Royal Army, was shipped out to Bermuda in about 1880, where he married a very young local girl called Ada Thomas. They returned to Britain and I am actually in touch with one of their descendants. My Great-Grandfather Thomas Christopher Eldridge, John's brother, spent ten years in the Royal Navy and I have seen his military records and noted that he'd spent a little time in the brig in some exotic port. I wonder if it was the local rum that did him in.

Of course, I can go a great deal further back and tell you about my 20th Great-Grandfather Ralph, Earl of Stafford, who was appointed Seneschal of Aquitaine and a founding member of the Knights of the Garter by King Edward III for his prowess and success in the battlefields of France and Scotland.

My 19th Great-Grandfather in another line was Guy de Beauchamp, 10th Earl of Warwick, who distinguished himself fighting for King Edward I. He fell out with King Edward II over the King's favourite, Piers Gaveston, and together with the Earl of Lancaster abducted Gaveston and had him executed.

There's a goodly amount of blood on the swords, axes and hands of some of my ancestors. Quite a few of them died in battle and, for all I know, I've walked through their dust in historical sites.

Back in the Middle Ages there were wars of succession and conquest, and the Crusades. I have titled forebears who fought and died in the Holy Land. It was one way to guarantee a ticket to Heaven and Eternal Life.

"He died for us, and now we're off to die for Him." They might have believed that, but I don't believe in Him or all that dying in order to live. It was nonsense in the First Millennium and it's rubbish in the Third.

I've seen two funeral corteges on the television in the past fortnight. The first, which I caught only in the news summaries after it happened, was that of pop star (he thought he was a King, silly boy) Michael Jackson in Los Angeles. Jackson's gold-plated bronze casket made the trip to his memorial service under police escort down those awful highways which seemed to have been emptied of regular traffic for the big occasion. Now, I didn't much care for Michael Jackson's music, but I quite liked his 1980s videos for the dancing. Oddly, perhaps, I like his duet "Scream" with his sister, Janet, which seemed honest somehow. Someone has noted that the whiter Michael Jackson became, the worse his dancing got. At the memorial service the pop star was eulogised in such glowing terms that I felt he must have been other than human if it was all true. No ordinary man … Michael Jackson's brain didn't attend the service, he went as the Scarecrow from The Wiz, and I wonder if it is right to make such a fuss over a body that wasn't all there. It was creepy, kids!

The memorial service for Michael Jackson has been described as a "Nuremberg Rally made out of sugar." A noted blogger pointed out that, in honour of the King of Pop, the Reverend Al Sharpton rewrote history and said that Jackson's "We Are the World" had come before "Live Aid", and it had not. Many will point out that Sharpton wouldn't know the truth if it bit him on the butt. I find it not surprising that a man of God would alter the truth to suit an occasion. Another commentator thought it all an epitaph for the Pepsi Generation. Didn't Michael Jackson give little boys wine in Coca Cola tins and call it Jesus Juice? The King of Soda Pop, that's how I choose to remember him: fizzy for a while, then quite flat.

Yesterday I watched the eight hearses carrying the bodies of eight British soldiers, all under the age of 30, passing through the little village of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire. These lads, three of whom were only 18 years of age, were killed in action in Afghanistan a few days ago. The last 80 soldiers returning to England's green and pleasant land in coffins draped with the Union Flag have been driven slowly through Wootton Bassett, from a nearby airfield on the way to autopsies at a hospital in Oxfordshire. Up until yesterday there might have been one, two or a very few hearses and the procession made a stop at the War Memorial in the village's main street for a minute's silence. The local shopkeepers and businessmen and pedestrians have been coming out for the passing by in greater and greater numbers.

Yesterday, with so many of our lads flag-draped in their boxes (might they be made of English oak?) making the trip, thousands of viewers turned out, coming not only from the vicinity, but from many parts of Britain. The press was there. The live cameras were running. I watched it happening from the comfort and discomfort of my front room on the telly. The crowds were said to be eight-deep, but I counted and it was more than that. I saw a lot of young people weeping and hugging each other, it was the old-timers in the crowd who remained stoic in the face of all that sadness. Old-timers under their sunglasses.

I may belong to a military family, but the closest I have come to the art of war was a spell in the Cadet Corps when I was at grammar school. I hated the experience. I did take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Crécy in a school history class, which was interesting because my direct ancestor, the Earl of Stafford, was a commander in the English army at Crécy.

The war in Afghanistan is, I'm afraid, a black hole. It can only suck men and machines in and spit them out, ruined, and destroyed. The War on Terror is a religious war; it is the same war that gave us the Crusades and the reaction to them. Jerusalem may be the navel of the world, but it is the centre of all evil as well as the focus of religious experience. I'm afraid the Christian Right and the Jewish State are just forms of Talibanism. Our Taliban is better than yours.

Alexander the Great went to the part of the world we call Afghanistan and named a city there after him, something he liked to do. Then he left. Good on him. Kandahar remains on the Afghani map. It must really bug the local folk. The wounds are deep and old.

We in England and America don't really want fuzzy-wuzzy Islamist things in our towns and villages, not if we're being honest. Why in the world do our leaders and churchmen think we need to convert the world to Western Democracy? To the Pepsi Generation? To MacDonald's? To Starbucks? To Michael Jackson's music?

I felt a great sadness watching the line of hearses make its way through Wootton Bassett yesterday on my television. The crowds were so extensive this time, and the number of long, black vehicles so large that they did not pause at the War Memorial for a minute's silence for the first time. The memorial, like so many, many others in Britain (and around the world) is engraved "Lest We Forget".

I think they should have made that stop, taken the minute, taken the chance that more hearts would break. Some things one really should not forget.

Friday, 10 July 2009

I Say! You Don't Say! Say What?

Dirty Bertie Lawrence

KATHERINE: Comment appelez-vous le pied et la robe?
ALICE: Le foot, madame, et le coun.
KATHERINE: Le foot et le coun! O Seigneur Dieu! Ce sont les mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d'honneur d'user.
William Shakespeare (Henry V. Act 3, Scene 4)

THE LPA, the Little People of America, want the word midget to have the same status as the word nigger. So, the m-word and the n-word. Now, I know for a fact that there are people of extremely small stature outside of the United States of America, for we have at least three people in Amble by the Sea with achondroplasia. I am not sure whether they are related, I have seen the young female chasing the young male through the streets, yelling abuse, which suggests some sort of loving relationship, and there is an older gentleman. Achondroplasia is a form of dwarfism, and Amble's little people might prefer to be d-words.

The former midgets of America, dwarves and simply short folks can be little if they wish. However, in ten years' time, some bright, if diminutive, spark is going to take umbrage at the word little, as it belittles, and the issue will have to be debated again.

I've noticed that homosexuals, who now usually prefer to be thought of as gay, often don't mind being thought of as queer in 2009. Thirty or forty years ago that was offensive. Mind you, if you call someone who is either not homosexual, or who is in the closet, gay, queer, a poof, he is going to really find that objectionable. Watch the labels!

My father, who just didn't like people of colour, had an olive complexion and he was a compulsive sun-bather and, especially as he aged, was as dark as an Egyptian mummy. I once had somebody telephone me, after my father's death, to ask if my father's father (my grandfather) might have been a black man from Jamaica. I knew my pale, fair grandfather and had to disappoint my nosy caller.

Considering I spent a good deal of my life in Bermuda (I was born there), I do not write about it here all that often. I've been trying to write about the present and future as much as possible, and Bermuda has gone down the tubes in the past few years. I will tell you that there is dictatorial rule there. When the Progressive Labour Party championed One Man One Vote, I was naïve enough not to anticipate that it would be one man, Dr Ewart Brown, the Leader as he likes to be called, and that his vote is the only one that would matter. Dr Brown has a faithful henchman, Minister David Burch, the former commanding officer of the Bermuda Regiment. They have a radio station. Burch, famously, refers to people of colour that do not belong to the PLP, that associate with the few remaining white politicians in Bermuda, as house niggers. He uses that expression in speeches on the radio. And when he uses it, it's quite okay. If I spoke in public in Bermuda and referred to David Burch as a gay nigger (I've heard he is homosexual, but this may be based only on the fact that after he retired from the Regiment he grew his hair long and started wearing hoop earrings) I'd soon feel the wrath of the ruling class.

Are words and language divisible? Can certain people lay claim to certain words, and use and abuse them at will, while other people are denied the opportunity?

I say allow Hitler his Mein Kampf, at least we know where he was coming from. We'd certainly praise the struggle of a Nelson Mandela or an Elie Wiesel. The most dangerous book ever compiled is the Holy Bible.

When I was a boy, in Bermuda, the local Negroes, a word I cannot use there now, were called Coloured, a word I cannot use there now. Then they followed the lead of the Americans and became Black. From time to time, some voice from the Babel chirps up, usually in Bermuda's daily newspaper, requesting that the paper and all people stop using the word black negatively. No black sheep, no black as night, no black-hearted soul, no black-out or blackmail, perhaps no in the black for accounts.

When I worked for a few years in the hell that was Kit n Caboodle, a Bermuda convenience store that also had a passport photo service, many of my customers of colour, who almost certainly thought of themselves as black, complained that they looked, in their passport pictures, too dark, as black as Jamaicans. Which was not a good thing. Go figure.

Pity the gay, black midget.

When I was at school, we read Shakespeare's Henry V in an abridged format. Our Literature teacher, Frank "Buck" Rogers, suggested we go to the Main Library in town and look at a copy of the play to locate what was missing from the school edition. Shakespeare's audiences liked a bit of smut and were pretty smart if they picked up on the puns in the English lesson that Alice gives to Princess Katherine in Act 3, Scene 4. Asked what the English was for pied and robe, Katherine is told foot and coun. Foot is a pun on the French word for fuck, and coun (gown mispronounced by Alice) is the French for cunt.

My Spell-Check tells me that the word cunt does not exist. Perhaps the people at MS Word could read DH Lawrence. Lawrence did not invent the word cunt, he simply recognised the obvious, that it existed.

The brilliant film Atonement has a plot that evolves from the use of the word cunt in a short letter. The word is not spoken aloud in the film that I noticed, but one sees it on a page as the typewriter keys go down. The word is electric, it is more than that. Nuclear, perhaps.

We read a little of William Chaucer in our school Literature lessons, but it was our Chemistry master, Billy Hanlon, who read us The Miller's Tale in a concise modern translation. It was hilarious, of course. The same year that I'd felt a bit uncomfortable studying the British in India and putting the city of Lahore on our map, I nearly convulsed with laughter at the Miller's story of a bare bottom being kissed and the kisser receiving a fart in return.

A few months ago, Britain suddenly had an attack of the prudes. A few thousand viewers, out of many million, decided that the use of certain language and certain situations should not be financed by the television tax levied on households that gives us the advertisement-free BBC programming. Suddenly everything was stifled; presenters and guests alike squirmed during live presentations. The many other channels carried on as usual. No censorship, though there is an unwritten agreement to keep nudity and strong (a term that amuses me) language for the evening viewers. Blue Peter ain't what you might think! We do have life drawing classes at midday on Channel 4.

This week, however, there is a break in the nonsense that has clouded good judgement at the BBC. After the watershed, nine o'clock at night, the real world has returned. On Torchwood the gay characters can be gay: Captain Jack cradles his lover, the dying Ianto, and kisses him. And on the new series of Mock the Week, team members have been told they might not use the word fuck as a noun, according to panellist Frankie Boyle (who may be joking), but can use it as an adjective. So, last night, when Frankie had to improvise something that would not be heard in a Star Trek movie, he said: "'Why are you looking so sad, Captain Picard?' 'Because I'm a Shakespearian actor, and here I am having a conversation with the fucking King of the Worm People.'" You have to admit, the fucking helped make this joke a new classic.

Perhaps I have offended? Just words on a page. Get over it. Little People of America, you seem more concerned with a letterhead life than a real one.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Game! Set! Champion!

Waterville, Bermuda

WIMBLEDON FORTNIGHT 2009 closed with a bang. Early in the afternoon I'd walked Cailean down by the River with a friend. We came across a fairly-well-organised badminton tournament on the meadows: bright and happy people not at all concerned by the dark clouds building on the horizon. It certainly looked like fun.

Exactly 40 years ago, I first did my first house- and dog-sit at a very old home in Bermuda called Waterville for some family friends. I was working at the early incarnation of AIG, learning how to fiddle the books, and our friend, MEM, named for her initials, and her husband, Mike, were off to the Azores to look at some property and wanted someone to feed their golden retriever his fish and cabbage (he was on a diet) and to walk him a couple of times a day. MEM was my partner-in-crime at AIG. Brandy was a lovely dog, he'd appeared at MEM's door, a stray, and attempts to locate his owners had not succeeded. Mike and MEM had a cat, Charlie Marmalade, who died not long after they adopted Brandy. Charlie was buried in a pet cemetery in the grounds of Waterville.

Waterville had been built in the 1700s. The upper floor had been a home and the ground floor was warehouse space. It backs onto the Harbour. The house had been one of the homes of the Trimingham Family. The Triminghams had an emporium in Bermuda, quite a famous place with high-quality goods, until a few years ago when the business went broke. The Front Street shop has been pulled down and an office block has been built there.

Back in 1969, Miss Elsie Gosling, the retired Head Librarian, whose mother had been a Trimingham, lived on the upper floor of Waterville surrounded by family portraits and memories. The ground floor was divided into a large apartment where MEM and Mike lived (where the American author James Thurber had stayed regularly at one time) and an office of the Bermuda National Trust. The National Trust had taken over the property. When Elsie Gosling passed on the Trust moved into the upper floor, and they are there at the present time. I don't know what happened to Elsie's family pictures.

In the grounds of Waterville, back in the 1800s, a lawn tennis court had been laid out. The court was still there in 1969, though it was no longer used as such. The turf in Bermuda is locally called crab grass and it is rough and thick. I don't play tennis, but I imagine it is nowhere near as easy a surface as the grass courts at Wimbledon.

While I don't play tennis, and never have (I was briefly tempted to learn when the new AIG building in Bermuda featured tennis courts next to the parking lot out back), I decided to buy the equipment to play badminton. With friends I would set up the badminton net on the old tennis court lawn at Waterville. We'd knock a shuttlecock about in the evening and on a weekend if I wasn't working overtime. I had sufficient hand-eye coordination 40 years ago to make a bit of a game of it. Frankly, more fun was the challenge of keeping the shuttlecock in the air as long as possible.

I continued my house- and pet-sits at Waterville for many years, until MEM and Mike retired and left Bermuda. Not for their property in the Azores, they went to British Columbia. Brandy followed Charlie Marmalade to the Waterville pet cemetery (their markers are still there, behind a pagoda in the gardens). I'd spent summers and Christmases at Waterville with Brandy and was, at times, joined by friends. James Thurber's ghost never visited.

Former tennis court, Waterville, Bermuda

Over a decade ago the National Trust decided that the grass tennis court at Waterville would be better utilised as a rose garden and it was planted out and a sculpture placed at its centre point. A huge tamarind tree that had shaded the southern end of the tennis court for over a hundred years collapsed and was cut down, for ever changing the appearance of the property.

Pagoda, Waterville, Bermuda

I was last in the Waterville gardens about five years ago, walking with a friend, and we ate sandwiches in the pagoda and I told him a bit about Brandy and Charlie Marmalade (he'd been a ginger tomcat, did you guess that?) and we pushed through the somewhat overgrown rose garden. My friend was somewhat amazed to hear that I'd laid in the shade under a very tall and broad tree there once upon a time. A tree-shaded tennis court!

We've all been hoping Britain's Andy Murray would win Wimbledon this year, but he got knocked out in the semi-finals by Andy Roddick, who went on to play Roger Federer in a splendid final yesterday. After Murray's win I noticed that on one television report he was no longer referred to as British, but as the Scot.

Roger Federer and Andy Roddick really battled for the win and the event and result is history. Federer is now the greatest champion of all time with 15 Grand Slam victories, I'm glad he won.

Just after I watched the presentation of the cup on the telly, and the post-game interviews, there was a distant rumble outside the flat, then heavy rain on the windows. I picked Cailean up and headed to the back door. As we watched the rain pouring down in the courtyard there was a sudden incredibly bright flash and almost-immediate thunder. The world shuddered.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Death of a Star

Mollie Sugden as Mrs Slocombe

John Inman's Mr Humphries and Mollie Sugden as Mrs Slocombe

I FIRST EXPERIENCED TELEVISION in 1958. For many years the single channel available in Bermuda aired tapes, usually from the American CBS Network, on a delay basis of, I think, a week. The CBS Evening News, however, was flown to Bermuda on tape and broadcast the night after it aired in the USA.

Television only aired from about five o'clock in the evening till midnight at the latest. There was a locally produced programme that went out live called Junior Club. Children, just a very few of them, joined host Bob Harbin, a magician in the studio and were encouraged to look enthusiastic as Uncle Bob did his magic. A peculiar machine had to be tweaked by one lucky child to permit taped cartoons to be run for the viewers. It was very simple, very white. My sister and I went along once. Later a black presenter, Auntie Nell, expanded the format. The magic had gone, I think Uncle Bob left the Island.

The Bermuda Evening News was read by Wilf Davidson, a Canadian. I think everybody knew Wilf was as gay as pink ink, and liked his vodka. He was known to frequent the Horse and Buggy bar where he'd chat up sailors. On a Saturday night the television station pulled out all the stops and ran a late movie that Wilf Davidson would host from an armchair. The advertiser was a local liquor merchant and Wilf would sip Smirnoff Vodka in front of his fake fireplace in commercial breaks through the featured film, getting more and more inebriated. At the end of the film Wilf would give a brief overview of the day's news and the latest weather report. Famously, one night that I did see for myself, the very squiffy Wilf predicted dizzle and frog for the overnight weather forecast. He realised his mistake and went into a fit of drunken giggles. I suppose he wobbled out of the studio and rode his Vespa Scooter to the Horse and Buggy before the rains came.

Wilf eventually hosted an early evening interview show called Date before Dinner with Jane Bainbridge. I went on that programme once to chat about a magazine I was involved with. Wilf left Bermuda and returned to Canada, and died many years ago. Jane Bainbridge left Bermuda too, but did not return to her native England. She died in the USA just last month.

When I lived in the UK in the 1960s I finally got to watch some real television, though I recall that many of the popular programmes were imports from the American networks, particularly the westerns like Rawhide and Bonanza and animated shows like The Flintstones.

In the early 1970s a BBC situation comedy classic was launched. Are You Being Served? probably needs no introduction anywhere in the world as of 2009. A cast of odd characters work in a rather dusty and inefficient and outdated department store called Grace Brothers. I dare say viewers of the original series and the endless reruns that continue to this day around the globe will have their favourite characters and episodes. Camp Mr Humphries in menswear, who usually was able to chirp "I'm free" when asked if he was busy, was played by John Inman who died in March 2007. Sexy Miss Brahms was played by Wendy Richard. Ms Richard went on to do almost 20 years in Eastenders as the not very sexy Pauline Fowler. She died in February of this year, 2009.

My favourite employee in the Grace Brothers ladies' department was Mrs Slocombe. Actress Mollie Sugden was Mrs Slocombe, and always will be, with a different colour hairdo each week and her worries about her pussy. Mrs Slocombe was bossy, pompous and ridiculous and I'm not sure that even a run-down establishment like Grace Brothers would have kept anyone like her on staff. Mind you, who would dare fire her?

I suppose someone a good deal younger than I am, in search of a degree, might write a thesis comparing Mollie Sugden's Mrs Slocombe to Lucille Ball's incarnations over in the USA. Lucy (which is not to say the actress) was shallow and usually clueless. Mrs Slocombe put on airs and graces and had opinions about everything. One doesn't recall Lucy having anything important to say. But both characters would get into bizarre situations (thanks to the writers) that stretched belief. Of course, Lucy could not say anything suggestive and the British viewers demanded that of Mrs Slocombe.

If John Inman's Mr Humphries was as camp as a row of pup tents (Inman was gay, for all I know he may have walked that way easily), Mollie Sugden's Mrs Slocombe must be a gay icon. People do dress up as Mrs Slocombe, and if you have a pastel-coloured wig, why not? I'm not much for drag, but the best Mrs Slocombes are male. She was that kind of character.

Mollie Sugden died yesterday, 1 July 2009, after a long illness. She was 86. Mrs Slocombe and her pussy will live a good deal longer.