Sunday, 30 August 2009

A Last Grasp at Summer

Great North Bike Ride approaching Amble

GNBR cyclists crossing Braid to Amble

GNBR cyclists come up into Amble

GNBR cyclists in a jam, Amble's Queen Street

WELL BEFORE THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS ENDED, I was ready to head back to school, always a new form and new challenges. That was fifty years ago and I'm not so brave, and I have so many summers behind me, and precious few to look forward to, even if I live well beyond my parents' allotted life spans. One could get quite depressed over this sort of thing.

This is the August Bank Holiday weekend, and it has generally been a fair-weather time, though, looking out my kitchen window in late afternoon on the Sunday, the sky is leaden. My neighbour just loaded up the clotheslines in the courtyard with a couple of baskets of laundry. That seems to be inviting the rain, indeed, daring it. I dashed over to the minimart for some milk and a Lotto ticket earlier than usual, taking no chances. The forecaster on the BBC says it will be unusually warm tonight (though not compared to some places I have lived, we're going to be about 55˚F) and muggy. The forecasters don't use the word muggy too often. England is famous for its rain, but it's rarely oppressively damp. Muggy. The map shows great blobs of blue, for moisture, moving across the Isles from west to east tomorrow. We may reach 60˚F.

Amble had a pretty brilliant spring and early summer. May and June were quite warm and very sunny. I got a rather awful sunburn this year, and still have a bit of a tan after a rainy July and a so-so August. I think Amble was not unusual in its weather this year. Of course, Cornwall tends to be warmer and sunnier (why else the tourists and second homes?) and Wales is squishy with rain. Scotland seems to have drier areas, and it can be quite warm there in summer, but one has to deal with the midges. I'd rather freeze in the dark, thanks.

My flowers bloomed early and withered a month ago. The blackberries in the hedgerows have just about finished. I did get some for my cereal. We had some high winds in Amble earlier this week and more than a few leaves were loosened. Last year there was a day and a howling gale and autumn happened in hours rather than weeks. Autumn of 2007 had been glorious and golden. One wonders what the next few weeks might bring. Will our greenery be reduced to sticks and odd berries? Last year Cailean, only six months old, discovered the joy of burrowing into heaps and layers of leaves on the pavements and lawns. By November he was ploughing into his first snow.

I've just received a copy of the Alnwick Playhouse's schedule for the autumn and winter, at least through January 2010. A good deal of Christmas fare. It's not easy feeling in the Christmas mood on the penultimate day of August. Two months from now, I'll be in better shape for that, I imagine. I'm going to see a Fleetwood Mac tribute in mid-September with some mates, and will probably be wearing a sweater with my jacket, but it takes an overcoat to get me fancying Silver Bells and Pantomimes.

Today, in the northeast, we've had The Great North Bike Ride. This is a 54 mile bicycle ride (not a race) from Seahouses, a coastal village north of Amble, down the coast road to Tynemouth Priory. The cyclists pass through Amble, entering the town on the Coastal Path, crossing the Braid by the Marina, going over the narrow walkway bridge across the Gut, a little stream, then through the town's narrow streets and off to the south to the next town.

The cyclists waved as Cailean and I watched them on the loose gravel along the River Coquet, I took a few photographs.

The regular Sunday open air market was on today, and a fair in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. We have an RNLI station here in Amble. There were simulated rescues in the Harbour involving people, boats and a helicopter, and activities, games and the like at the back of the beach. I passed on this, though I could see the helicopter as I live close to the Harbour.

Our main drag, Queen Street, and the Town Square, were packed with pedestrians and vehicles, including cyclists, today. Unfortunately, not all our shops opened for the day and there were unattractive shutters rolled down. A more tourist-conscious town council might have tried to get everything open and sparkling. Amble never quite makes it as a picture postcard.

And at the end of the day the helicopter will fly away, the cyclists will be near Newcastle, the day-trippers will have moved on, and the visitors staying at our caravan and camping sites will be planning their voyages back to less exciting places inland tomorrow. Schools will soon resume classes.

At the beginning of August, Selfridges's famed emporium on Oxford Street in London opened its Christmas shop. What the hell? I thought. They have artificial trees, ornaments and lights, and other decorations on sale so early because, they say, the many tourists are interested, and the pound is favourable to folks from overseas with stronger currencies.

Then, a fortnight ago, the city of Rochdale in Lancashire put up its public Christmas decorations. When people said they thought four months might be a bit too early, Rochdale said it was putting up decorations for all the faiths that celebrate something between now and the year-end. And it's cheaper to get the whole lot up together when the earliest festivals begin. I'm sorry, but I don't want to see Santa Clauses and Snowmen on the utility poles in mid-August.

In another town, shops that sell Christmas greeting cards were warned that if they put out their stock before the first of November, their shops would be vandalised. Their letterboxes would be super-glued shut. Sounds reasonable enough to me, but I'm not going to damage the local Oxfam which has its cards inside when illuminated snowflakes are decorating Rochdale's shopping district. And I don't believe Selfridges is making a bomb selling white, glittering reindeer to Americans and Saudis right now, no matter what they'd have us believe.

I have been buying books for the winter. Most are second-hand from Barter Books in Alnwick. And I have some DVDs to watch and re-watch. I've bought a new tweed jacket to replace the one I've had over twenty years which had become rather worn and, to be honest, difficult to button up. My overcoat will last another year, and I have warm-weather accessories. Cailean's two overcoats are almost "as new."

I had best finish this up, Cailean wants to nip outside for a pee, and I should have a cup of tea and some biscuits. I turn into my father at this time of day.

Summer's lease hath, indeed, too short a date.

Monday, 24 August 2009

America: Glittering Towers & Dead Flowers

Friends tellin' me that maybe I need
Some psychiatric help
Yeah they're always so quick to tell you
Just how to get on with it
But I look into the mirror
And all I see is age, fear
And agony.

If I could just remember what it was like
When I was younger
Before all the joy and happiness
Was replaced with hunger
Now all I've got to show for the seeds that didn't grow
Is agony.

Eels (Agony)

I BELIEVE I FIRST WENT TO AMERICA in 1969 or 1970. I had to take several large envelopes containing typed copies of the financial statements of the company that eventually became American International Group from the Bermuda office where I was working to the offices of the company that was our largest shareholder, C.V. Starr, in New York City. The financial results were not produced on a particularly timely basis as the company was then a private concern and not beholden to SEC regulations and a large shareholder base. More than three months would pass after any reporting period before we'd finish consolidating the international operations and type the statements. These statements, an original and nine carbon copies, would be distributed to the company executives. Maurice R. Greenberg, the Chairman, in NYC, would get the original copy, Ernest E. Stempel, the President, in the Bermuda office, would get the first copy. As the carbon copies became less distinct, the recipients were of diminishing importance.

I was given a day's notice that I'd been chosen to take, by hand, the statements to Mr Greenberg and the C.V. Starr executives in their offices at 102 Maiden Lane. I think the trip must have been rushed as the company car took me to the Bermuda Airport at some speed and I went straight over to the departure gate and boarded my flight, clutching my envelopes. Two hours later I was at JFK feeling very much the foreigner. I got myself a yellow taxi cab and was taken to Central Park South and checked into the rather old hotel our company's lesser employees were housed in. I was on a floor which seemed like a long way up.

My reservation at the Barbizon Plaza had been for a single room. However, I'd privately arranged to meet a friend in New York City who would stay with me for my three days in town, then fly back to Bermuda with me. I changed the room to a double and charged the difference to the company. They never queried this. The next day my friend travelled over to Maiden Lane with me to deliver my envelopes; we were given a private tour of Greenberg's office as he was not in town. Then we went to see a risqué movie in Times Square. When in New York City…

As a schoolboy, ten or more years before, I had been warned, as all the male pupils were, never to sport a crew-cut or American-style haircut. Later, I was threatened with expulsion for having a Beatles' haircut. So it goes. If we used American spellings or expressions in our English classes we were automatically failed. We did have a few American pupils at Warwick Academy and I imagine they had a difficult time reinventing themselves to gain passing marks. Coming from an English family, it was normal for me to churn out the right stuff.

We had American friends as young children; all were from military families stationed at the US Air Force Base or Naval Operating Base. The neighbourhood in which I grew up had a number of homes let to the US Coast Guard, the folks next door were Americans. White, of course. The Bermudian children were always welcomed in the homes of their American neighbours, and we would be bundled in station wagons and taken to Horseshoe Bay for barbeques and beach parties. The Americans never seemed short of food, and a variety of it, and they looked a good deal healthier than we did.

Our American neighbours, the Coast Guard families, left in the early 1960s. I did write to one friend, Gayle Easter, for a few years, her family was relocated to the US Gulf Coast and then Rhode Island as I recall. My last contact with Gayle was in about 1974, she was working at the Doubleday publishing house in New York City. Where might she be now?

By the 1970s I had made other American friends outside the US military, I am still as close as can be to a few of them. These were friends I shared books, art, films and travel with, all rather international in outlook. They are in this blog, in some fashion, most of the time. In my mind, always.

I had American relatives as a child. My grandmother's cousin, Mrs. George Hill, who we called "Auntie Lily", had left Lancashire for New York back in the 1920s. Lily had red hair, was deaf as a post, and visited Bermuda from time to time. She lived on Staten Island and had two sons, Donald and Jack Hill. Lily's granddaughter came to Bermuda at least once, a bit of a hippie-chick. Where might they be, if they are alive?

In 1974 I joined that most American of religions, the Mormons. I travelled to Utah for the first time in 1978. I found, looking in the phone books, Lancashire surnames. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young sent many missionaries to England, in particular to the north-west, and the Lancashire folks took the ships from Liverpool to the USA and crossed the Continent, many on foot, eventually turning up in Utah Territory. My grandmother told me that when she and her siblings were small, in the very early 1900s, if they misbehaved their mother would threaten them: "The Mormons will come and take you away!" They took me 70 years later. So it goes.

I'd studied the American War of Independence at Warwick Academy, and wasn't particularly excited by it. I do recall that when the War was won and the American Founding Fathers were sorting things out, they offered to make George Washington their King. Washington declined, bless him. How things might have been different! Did he consider the fact that he had no son when he said he thought not?

George Washington's family comes from the north of England and the family's coat of arms, with its stars and stripes, was adapted for the American flag. I suppose that was a nod to the General that he was comfortable with. Thomas Jefferson used a coat of arms that he may well not have been entitled to. There are more than a few Americans in 2009 looking for their coats of arms, titles, tartans, castles and manor houses, and links to the British Royal Family, an entry in Debrett's. One might buy a peerage on E-Bay if one has the dosh. Do they want to be like us?

When many, most, people hear my accent they start to say: "Oh! Are you Amer…?" And by then I'm looking over the top of my glasses and flashing the message: "I dare you…" with my beady eyes. And the person offers: "Canadian?" hurriedly. Years of watching American television in Bermuda are responsible for my Amer… I mean Canadian… accent. I believe I still write in UK English, and I use English words and expressions. Why should I care?

I care because I'm no huge fan of America. From the get-go the Founding Fathers seemed to radiate a superiority (never mind Jefferson's hypocritical blathering about equality!) over their fellow citizens, friends and foes. The Electoral College was conceived as a way of keeping the riff-raff out. Their heirs seem little better. The phrase "We know better than you do what is good for you…" might be carved over the doors into the Congress. The current dictatorial Leader in Bermuda was a US Citizen until it was pointed out he could not also swear allegiance to the Crown as a member of Bermuda's Parliament. Nevertheless, he rules as an American president might. No matter how close equality seems, it is always wrenched away by those in power. There is little peace in the American system, there never has been, all is confrontational.

The Woodstock generation now bears arms because it is a right. Why not show Jesus carrying a gun? You know he would. Well, you follow him, act for him, so your teenagers get your guns from the locked cabinet using the obvious key and jump in a beat-up Ford and drive to the high school.

Wait just a minute! You say. We are a Christian people, we follow a God of mercy and compassion and love who says to all: Come unto me!

Do I have hope for the Obama Administration? Not a whole lot.

A few days ago the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, granted convicted Libyan terrorist Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, responsible, it is said, for the Lockerbie airline bombing twenty-one years ago, an early release from his life sentence because al-Megrahi has terminal cancer. An action based on compassion and mercy. The American Government threw a fit before and after the release. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured the Scottish Government not to release the terrorist, and now that it has happened the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, has blasted both Scotland and the United Kingdom Government. American citizens are being urged by some to boycott British and Scottish goods as a protest. Cancel the kilt, forget the Lairdship.

Back on 11 June of this year, a CIA aeroplane brought four Chinese Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they had been held for seven years as terrorists, after being captured in Afghanistan, to Bermuda under cover of darkness. Only Bermuda's autocratic Leader, Dr. Ewart Brown, and his unelected henchman Colonel David Burch knew about the Uighurs' transfer. Burch was on the aeroplane. The Chinese say that these Uighurs are members of an Islamist separatist movement that is listed by the United Nations as a terrorist organization. The USA apparently thought they were terrorists; why else hide them away at Gitmo for all those years? Why not invite them to Disneyland if they were pukka?

The British Governor in Bermuda, the British Embassy in Washington DC, the British Government in London, had been told nothing of the Uighur deal. One knows that the Americans are aware of the Bermuda Constitution which states that Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory, cannot discuss foreign policy matters with other governments without the British being involved. Obama and Clinton praised Bermuda for its compassion in taking in the Uighurs, ignored British protests, and said that America was a safer place with the Uighurs in Bermuda (they would not be permitted to travel to the USA, where they are not wanted). To this day, the Americans are stalling on giving the British authorities information on the four Uighurs dumped in Bermuda. Of course, the British have been left dealing with an angry Chinese Government. The Uighurs have no passports, the Bermudian Government doesn't issue passports that are non-British.

Where are the Americans? Praising Bermuda's compassionate acceptance (albeit illegally manufactured by Obama, Clinton and the CIA and FBI) of dodgy Uighurs that the Americans dare not permit on US soil. And criticizing the Scottish and British for the compassionate release of a dodgy Libyan who has a few months, apparently, left to live. Last week the new American Consul General in Bermuda, Ms. Grace Shelton, when asked if the Uighurs might be taken to the USA and resettled in a Uighur community near Washington DC said: "I think they are working and doing well here in Bermuda. We are satisfied with that." How dare she be so patronizing!

Should the Uighurs have been spirited into Bermuda by the CIA? No! Should al-Megrahi have been released early? No! His case was on appeal, I think that process should have been completed before any release was considered. Should the Libyans have thrown such a party for al-Megrahi on his return? No! Three wrongs don't make a right.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Word Tripper

My men like satyrs grazing on the lawns
Shall with their goat-feet dance an antic hay.
Sometimes a lovely boy in Dian's shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring.

Christopher Marlowe. (Edward II. Act I, Scene I)

I HAVE REOCCURRING DREAMS. Rather, I have dreams in which I am visited by a childhood friend who I last saw in person in August of 1970. And in August of 1970 we had been out of touch for some years, at least five, as Bryan had moved away from Bermuda, as had I for a time, each in opposite directions. But that August, thirty-nine years ago this week, Bryan celebrated his twenty-first birthday, and came to Bermuda to throw a party on his parents' lawn. I was invited; I would not be twenty-one till November, Bryan was a few months older than I was. We had started kindergarten together, became fast friends, and, small as we were, those being different times, we thought nothing of walking the beaches and climbing over the dunes along Bermuda's South Shore.

The party was quite a big one, a huge ring of chairs under a Poinciana tree, a barbecue and tables with food nearer the house.

Bryan was by then working for a Canadian airline. He would actually be on board an aeroplane that made a crash landing a few years later and was badly injured. In 1970 many of Bryan's colleagues at the airline had flown in to Bermuda for his party. Other guests were family and school friends. We were a pretty lively group. Bryan looked young; he was young, only twenty-one. I never saw him again, not in person, and he was dead less than fifteen years later. He has been dead twenty-five years. AIDS.

And in my reoccurring dreams, Bryan walks through, still twenty-one, never speaking, though we recognise each other, and he always continues, alone, moving away, till I am watching only his back. He passed through the other night and I remembered it when I woke. Still twenty-one, bright and happy. He has no marks from the aeroplane crash of his later twenties, no marks of the disease that killed him when he was about thirty-four. I know of these injuries, these marks and scars, but I do not place them on his body as I dream; he is, rather, always in his prime. Perhaps Bryan's visits have nothing to do with what I am, what I do, but are honest representations. Night tripper.

When I read, which is nearly always in the daytime, if not always in the daylight hours (precious few of them in the winter up here), I usually recline on my sofa with Cailean alongside me. If I look over the top of the book I am reading I am facing one of the two windows in my front room, I'm facing the south. Outside the window, clearly visible if it's daylight, is a row of terraced houses, two storeys high. In the winter the sun is so low in the sky to the south that for months no direct sunlight reaches my flat, my windows, my courtyard, the sun is behind the opposite terrace. At the moment the sun scoots above the roofline and there is still a pool of light on my carpet for part of the day. Cailean will sometimes give up the sofa and stretch out in the sunshine. It cannot be particularly warm, but it's the thought that counts.

We had a rather splendid start to summer this year, and then July returned to form and we were in wettest ever days. August has struggled, a fair bit of rain to keep the locals and visitors on the hop. But most days have featured some bright sun, especially in early morning and late afternoon. Midday is dodgy. It is just after noon as I write this and we have light rain and completely cloudy skies, but I dried laundry outside earlier.

If I am reading on the sofa and the light dims outside as the clouds move in, I switch on a brass standing lamp behind me. A low setting with an energy-efficient, eco-friendly bulb. I can still see the terrace across the street through my window, though the colours and shadows change wonderfully as the light changes. The rough stones seem to age as they darken, and the terrace becomes more massive somehow, as if it was some great dam holding back the sunny weather to the south.

The other day we had an unusually heavy rainstorm. Not that English drizzle, but a deluge equal to some I have seen in Bermuda. We can get flash-flooding in such downpours. I happened to be on the sofa reading, and the changing light outside distracted me for a moment. I looked out and up and the rain pouring down the slate roof of the opposite terrace, towards me, had, in the light, become a molten thing. Together the rain and the slick slates had gained such volume and depth that it was as if a silvery mirror-like substance was rolling down the roof and overflowing from the gutters along the edge.

The building itself was approaching blackness, the chimneys thrusting towards a steely sky, and rain in the air above the road between my flat and the terrace. More rain ran down my window glass. The world was melting!

I remembered Aldous Huxley writing about solids flowing in The Doors of Perception. Huxley, of course, used mescaline and LSD to bring that on. I peered through those same doors. But on an August afternoon in 2009 the flow came without preparation, without warning. One just had to be aware, to look up. Day tripper.

I had a most curious dream the other night, unlike any that I've had before. It was brief, startling, and beautiful and I woke and wrote a little about it in case I might forget some detail. It happens that it is still incredibly clear.

In my dream I received a hand-written book, a kind of diary, with original painted illustrations. The book arrived in the post with no letter or explanation. The diary was not complete; rather it was a portion well into the period it was covering. Each page was numbered, the letters C/F and a number in sequence, which I understood to mean carried forward and the new page number. The handwriting was not familiar, and it was written in cramped longhand in gold-coloured ink. In the dream I puzzled over page C/F 2181 and wondered if a relative might have written the book.

Inside the front cover of the book was a book-plate showing a picture of a Buddha, and the words Uncle Eldridge. No first names.

That was interesting enough, but the dream ended with me skipping through the book's pages till I came across a painting of an aerial view of an island covered in palm trees, exquisite white-sand beaches meeting blue, blue seas. And as I looked at the picture of the island I realised that it had come to life, I was actually above the place, and brilliantly-coloured birds were flying up out of the palm trees below me.

And I can still relive that rather lovely dreamscape just by thinking about it. I first saw it as a night tripper, and now I'm day tripping there.

I love words; I always hope that one day I might attach several to one another and get something outstanding. In the meantime, I enjoy being somewhat overcome by what I read, perhaps a little afraid of the hold words can have on me. I actually weep at some of the words I read, they are so damn real, powerful.

Aren't Marlowe's lines, quoted above, extraordinary? He gave them to Piers Gaveston in Edward II. They tell us nearly all we need to know about Gaveston, and then some. Marlowe did not tell us how tall Gaveston was, or whether he wore a beard, and what colour his hair was. Instead he gave us Gaveston's dream. These words might even tell us something about Marlowe himself, a dream within a dream. All I could think, first reading them, was: Dear God!

Word tripper.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Through the Future Darkly

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.

Pete Seeger.

LAST NIGHT, 15 AUGUST 2009, I sat down to watch the three-plus-hours-long film commemorating the Woodstock Festival of 1969, forty years to the day later. I was almost 20 in August 1969. I was a college drop-out, working at columns of figures in an unpleasant office housing the forerunner to American International Group. I had quite long hair, a moustache, and tended to dress rather well. I thought I looked good in dark suits, pin-striped shirts, and polka-dotted silk ties. I only cheated with my shoes, using squeeze-bottle liquid shoe-polish rather than cream and brushes. I think it was laziness to use liquid shoe-polish; forty years on I rather enjoy the exercise and effort, the ceremony, of applying dense cream and then working on my shoes with brushes to bring up a deep shine.

As the Woodstock Festival was happening (it was a happening) in New York State on 15, 16 and 17 August 1969, we heard regular reports on the radio and television that updated what might have been the world on the trickle of music fans, hippies, American boys and girls, that became a rush. Max Yasgur's farm filled up and overflowed. The organizers had told the local authorities that 50,000 might turn up, and then it seemed that close to 200,000 would rock and roll in. Reports finally settled on 500,000, though tripping hippies could be heard to say, like, man, there are a million. One over-optimistic performer announced that there would be one-and-a-half-million by tomorrow.

In 2009 we'd have the ability to look down from spy satellites at a concert site and could pretty much count heads.

Looking at the film Woodstock last night, I was reminded that I was not at all a hippie back in the late 1960s. I never bought into the fashion, I liked British mod music, the last thing on earth I wanted to do was to listen to American music in the mud. The girls in the film look (as they did) rather plain, complexions like bread dough, unhealthy, with drab-locks haircuts they might have done themselves while not quite sober. Earth-people? Mud-people? Ugly. The boys look only slightly healthier, but they all look alike with over-long hair with no real style and scruffy beards. The unsteady girls might have cut the boys' hair too. A real problem arising from communal living: art suffers.

What happened to all those young men? Were they drafted? Sent to Vietnam? Or are some still living in Canada? Are their grandsons occupying Iraq? As far as the Vietnam War was concerned, I was on the side of the American hippies, the Peace Movement. My father wasn't, at the time, with worrying about the domino effect and the whole world becoming Communist.

Watching the film, I rather enjoyed some of the performances, which had excellent sound recording, if dodgy visual work. I got goose-flesh when Richie Havens opened with Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child. However, I thought The Who were weak, and Roger Daltrey's ridiculous rawhide string-vest is as horrible today as it was in the day. I liked Jefferson Airplane, but not Grace Slick's explosively permed hair. What were you thinking, Gracie? Exploring your African heritage? Jimi Hendrix, with Grace Slick's hair and Roger Daltrey's vest, pulled them off, and played himself into the history books as the greatest rock guitarist in history. Hendrix had The Star-Spangled Banner flow into Purple Haze. And Jimi was dead a year later at the age of 27; he has been dead for more years than he lived. Janis Joplin, also at Woodstock, outlived Jimi by a few weeks, dying aged 27 on 4 October 1970.

In 2009 the male and female performers would be wearing make-up (as might the concert goers of all persuasions). I like that for people on stage, it allows one to better see their features. The Woodstock artists looked as if they'd wandered out of the crowd and onto the platform.

Forty years on, just this weekend, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who I detest as much as I despised LBJ and Richard Nixon, has said that we must respect the memory of our Afghanistan War dead (we passed the 200 mark this weekend) by fighting on and winning the War. One of his generals said, within the last fortnight, British troops could be in Afghanistan another forty years. Who goes to war for forty years? Come on … It is absolute nonsense.

Gordon Brown has only one eye. I think the glass one is the one he uses to study reality. He is no hero in the tradition of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

One of Gordon Brown's supporters wrote in our local newspaper a week ago, in response to a letter calling for the British to get out of Afghanistan and stop feeding our boys into the war (which is to say death) machine. The Brown supporter said that if we did not defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda, one country after another would fall to Al Qaeda (India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Northern Africa, etc), closing in on Britain and America. The domino theory again. In forty years' time I will be dead; I won't be celebrating 80 years since Woodstock. Will the British military still be in Afghanistan supporting a regime there that everybody knows is corrupt? When does an occupation lasting decades become colonization?

Would it not be better to tackle the reasons for the hostility felt towards America and Britain and most of the EU by Islamic peoples? Oh, Gordon Brown might say, it is only a fringe element, extremists. Then, I will say, give me a dozen Muslims in the whole world who are happy with Israel and its treatment of the Palestianians. Fix the problems, heal the wounds, make peace attractive at last. I honestly don't think we can mandate peace with armaments and misguided loyalties and Crusades.

The so-called Western Democracies, so long as they are pouring billions and trillions of pounds and dollars into fighting canny tribesmen with a miniscule budget and a knack for making Improvised Explosive Devices, are depriving those they claim to be saving of health insurance and services, educational opportunities, advances in science and technology, and the arts. In Britain and the USA there are potholes in the roads that look like those one might see in a war zone. Bridges are crumbling. The ocean is washing away the coast for want of barriers. Highways are unimproved and deaths result. Millions live in sub-standard housing. Millions are hungry. Is that our lot for the next forty years, Mr Brown, Mr Obama? Who is it that is winning the War?

Long time passing. Long time coming.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


The Twa Corbies

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the thither say,
'Whar sall we gang and dine the day?'

'In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens the he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.

'His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's ta'en another mate
Sae we may mak our dinner sweet.

'Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonnie blue een:
Wi' ae lock o' his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.

'Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
O'er his white banes, when they ae bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.'

(Traditional Verse)

I GENERALLY KNOW THE SUBJECT FIRST, and then, before I start writing down my thoughts on it, I try to think of some quotation that might somehow work with the piece.

I knew I was going to have a look at gang culture, particularly in Bermuda as it is now an unavoidable and deadly problem on that tiny Atlantic archipelago. There have been a number of shootings and knifings, including drive-by shootings, Bermuda style, from cycles. Pedestrians have been caught up in the random gunfire. Public events such as sports games (even cricket!) bring out the gangs, often armed with machetes. You will see a young man walking oddly because he has a machete or club suspended inside the leg of his trousers. He'll tell you it's for his personal protection.

I had several quotations from members of gangs in Bermuda that had been published, accurately, I trust, in the daily newspaper there a few days ago. However, I wanted some other quotation to head up the page as the gang interviews are, I think, going to slot into my narrative and will be scrutinized and commented on there. All that is going on in my head right now, as I sit here.

In 1964 and 1965 I was taking my GCE "O" Level courses in about 8 subjects, one of which was English Literature. The Lit course included Shakespeare's great Henry V; a dreadful novel called The Gun by CS Forester; and some poetry. I believe the longest poem was Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge, which I rather enjoyed, despite my age (15). I listened to that same poem read on the BBC recently and it was quite wonderful. We read some Chaucer, though our real exposure to The Canterbury Tales came from our Chemistry master, who took time off from making explosive substances (he may have been re-growing his eyebrows and bangs). There were other poems, most of them short, none by women. And we also read the traditional song The Twa Corbies. We were told this translated as The Two Crows, and that's all that got into my mind in the mid-Sixties that I was then aware of. The Twa Corbies verses were in, it seemed to me then, a language too foreign, too peculiar, to devote my precious time to. After all, I had The Rolling Stones on vinyl records, real poetry: I live in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of my block, and I sit at home looking out the window imagining the world has stopped. Then in flies a guy who's all dressed up just like a Union Jack, and says I've won five pounds if I have his kind of detergent pack. That was poetry for this poor boy.

Then, a few days ago, as I rolled the word gang around in what's left of my mind, the line 'Whar sall we gang and dine the day? floated to the surface after 45 years. Dear God! Gang as in get together, group.

I hunted down a copy of The Twa Corbies and read it, in all its strangeness. And understood every word. I'm almost certain that I'm not recalling some translation I might have been given in 1965. Rather, after four and a half decades of steady reading, of experiencing life, of meeting people, of travelling and conversing with friends and strangers, and possibly with living in a part of Britain where some very old dialects are still spoken, I have, in 2009, the tools (a mental seer stone, perhaps) to translate and comprehend these rather dodgy lines. What's more, I can visualize the scene, and even wonder a little at it. I am not entirely a positivist.

The two crows have observed a knight, newly killed, perhaps in battle, whose body and soul have been abandoned by his hawk, dog and wife. The crows decide to pick out the knight's blue eyes, a nice meal, and to use his blond hair to line a nest with. And at the end of the day, even if some may miss the knight, none will know where he went, whether he is alive or dead, and the wind (and weather) will blow for ever over his whitened bones.

A grim story. Questions: Why was the knight killed, was it for a good cause? Why did his lady, hawk and hound, who knew where his body was, not bury it or take it home? Had anybody else cared enough to look for him after the battle? Or was it murder? A ride-by slaying? Crows, of course, seek out carrion. We would not expect the poet to have robins delivering these lines. But was there a conscious effort to have dark birds and a pale corpse? Was that somehow more evil, more discomfiting, and better for the poetry business? The knight lives an ordered life, and the crows are birds that take advantage of a situation. Crows just wait around for something else to do the work, dirty and clean. The Patrician and the Lumpenproletariat.

Quite a bit to think on.

Here's something a gang member in Bermuda said:

"Let's be real. Yes, some of us sell drugs. Yes, some of us fight, either for ourselves or for our boys. We have each others' backs. We have to because no one else does.
"Look in the papers, maybe three jobs out of the entire employment section are for Bermudians and spouses of Bermudians only, and they are bottom jobs. Housekeeping, janitors, bus drivers, truck loaders, those are the jobs our Government holds for us. They let foreigners come in and take everything.
"Our boys are dying slowly. For most of them hard-core academics are not appealing, and they drop out of school. So when you're like me — a 16-year-old black Bermudian male, with no education, no trade or skills and no money — you figure out you can make $1,000 a day selling drugs.
"What do you think is going to happen? What do you think these boys are going to do? It's called common sense and politicians are so busy making laws to bind us that they forget to use it."

Let's see, these gang members don't want to indulge in hard-core academics, but they complain that the better jobs go to others, to foreigners. They are non-starters. There's something else you should know: in Bermuda too many younger black males tend to be losers, and black females tend to be the breadwinners and to do quite well. I taught night school a few years ago in Bermuda and my students were nearly all black women, and intelligent and hard-working women at that. There were no black males in any of my classes. I saw no young black males going to other classrooms, except to an African drumming course.

And why should a 16-year-old be fully educated, settled into a trade? He is just beginning! He is hardly mature. He can hardly negotiate. Is this gang member so naive that he expects everything to be handed to him in his mid-teen years? But he can make $1,000 a day selling drugs. I've never sold drugs; I don't know how easy it is exactly. I've watched people doing it. Drugs are hidden, and not really hidden, just off the street in a box or bin or under something. Clients know where to get drugs and come along openly. That's the thing, out in the open one is less suspect. The dealer takes the money, steps around the bus shelter (I used to see this in Bermuda next to a pharmacy, which I thought interesting), picks up a packet of something, returns to the street, and hands it over, and the vehicle moves on. This was going on across the street from me here in Amble; the drugs were in a bin used to store emergency road grit. Hardly clever. In Bermuda the dealers were young black males, boys really. My neighbour in Amble was white trash, and female. She carried one of her babies out to the street with her. Her hours of business were late night till dawn, and she was a noisy dealer.

From the Bermuda newspaper:

A 19-year-old said: "There's just no coming up. Everything we do is a problem; it's bad, it's wrong. Now we're going to get locked up for chilling with friends from the neighbourhood? What else do they want us to do?"
His 22-year-old cousin spoke up and added: "Government spends billions of dollars every year building new hotels and buildings, buying more buses and ferries, and planning expensive tourism ventures.
"They are never concerned with the happiness and satisfaction of their own people especially the youth. Besides a bar, movies and bowling, which all get extremely boring after the first 50 times, what else is there for us to do? Nothing! So we sit off out the road and chill, now that's illegal too?"

This sort of thinking really bugs me. The Bermuda Government doesn't spend anything (much less billions) building hotels. In fact, hotels are not being built in Bermuda as the tourist industry has slumped there and the international recession has strangled the money supply. Hotels would be built by investors. The entire annual budget for the Bermuda Government would not exceed a billion dollars. But this young man, somehow, believes something else and acts on it, no matter how ridiculous it is.

And I'm appalled that these young men can find nothing to do in Bermuda. They may be stuck there, in gang demesnes of a few square miles, which they've delineated themselves. This seems to me to be some sort of tribalism. It is a fact of life in Jamaica as well, and there are Jamaican gangs in Bermuda. They may not be able to leave Bermuda because the USA will not admit people with drug and other criminal convictions. But what is it about life in 2009 that is so boring?

In 1965 I had so much to do that I couldn't keep up with it. These were not activities that cost me any money, as I had little of it. Certainly not the equivalent of $1,000 a day from sitting on a wall selling twists.

I used to read second-hand books bought at thrift shops, I spent time (not money) at the Library. The Bermuda Library is so under-used now that it is frequently closed for long periods. I did go to movies, the inexpensive shows. I went to the beach, I went for walks, and I fished. I listened to the radio. I painted (pictures, not terribly well, but I enjoyed the effort). I studied history, biographies, and travel books. I went to quite a few parties and dances; I loved live music (and still do). We played cards, Scrabble, checkers, chess and dominoes. I mowed lawns and washed dishes to raise the money to buy my own choice of clothes and record albums. I house-sat and pet-sat. I used to row a boat for the pleasure of it.

And I did travel, saving up for the few weeks. Making sure I was not limiting myself to a few streets in Bermuda by having some sort of police record. I visited places that were, if possible, free or very reasonably priced.

Can a young black lad not find anything to read about, any architecture or art to study in a book or to see in person? Can he not sit down for two hours two nights a week to do some creative writing (or some other subject) in a classroom format, subsidized by the Government? Is all art, are all buildings, and are all books … white? Of course not.

There was a gang incident in the UK this week. A gang, of just two, it turned out, chased after someone, a youngster like themselves, and used a live python as a weapon. They allowed it to bite the unlucky lad. It was, apparently, racially motivated. There are many gangs in Britain; most are, they say, formed as a reaction to a perceived white threat. Racism is vile. That said, most gang violence is between groups of non-whites, in Britain and definitely in Bermuda. Membership in a gang is not so much for protection, but to put oneself in the line of fire.

However, I think the point is that a great many young people are just too bone-idle to take advantage of all that life does offer. They don't want to join a class, or pick up a pen or book. They don't want to learn the names of the stars and the constellations. In fact, they don't even want to look up. Or within. They'd rather smoke dope. Isn't that it? Just stop existing.

Who is to blame? Often, I fear, fathers just like them. Fathers who smoked dope, and still do. Fathers who thought life cheap because there is a reset button on video games that seems to fix any brutality and murder. All that dope and violence and gangrene sets in.

And, in Bermuda, black society and family life tends to be matriarchal. There are few male schoolteachers. Complete familes are rare. Instead of mum and dad you have granny and aunties. And, I'm afraid, pudgy Saturday and Sunday pastors. And they are often too busy attending funerals to attend to the living.

The Bermuda Government has announced plans to ban gang membership, to make it illegal. I'm not sure that this is possible as these youngsters don't carry membership cards, don't wear an identifying badge or crest. According to the Bermuda Police, the gang members are known, but surely the courts must have evidence. Not-so-secret handshakes or public salutes, signatures. Perhaps sitting on walls will be banned. Might the lads not move to park benches, and have every right to sit on them?

Meanwhile, these lads prosper by selling drugs to ... dare I say it? ... all those affluent and educated people, many will be white, who somehow don't get caught using or possessing illegal substances. The professionals, the people we look up to, not the rock and roll suicides.

The bones of a dead black man are also white. The wind will blow over them, when they are lost, for ever.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Summer Hols - Picture Postcards

River Coquet towards Warkworth Castle, from Amble

Launch Party on the River Coquet, Amble

Cailean surveys Amble Harbour at Low Tide

Amble Marina

Riverside Scenery, Amble

You sunburnt sicklemen, of August weary,
Come hither from the furrow and be merry:
Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on
And these fresh nymphs encounter every one
In country footing.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest, Act IV, Scene I)

I THINK IT IS SAFE TO SAY that I have always had a sense of summer holidays in the month of August. I've never been south of the Equator, which would have changed all that.

When I was a boy, in Bermuda, the month of August would be spent at our dock on the Warwick (north) shoreline swimming, fishing and listening to a transistor radio, usually with friends and neighbours my age who were also out of school for the best part of two months. Our dock faced Darrell's Island, which had been an airport. The remnants of the offices and hangers remained there until some time in the early 1970s as I recall. The aeroplanes had been seaplanes, by the way, landing on the water between our dock and Darrell's Island. In the 1950s US Coast Guard seaplanes landed on that stretch of water, but taxied to the US Naval Operating Base on the Southampton shoreline, a mile or so away. Sometimes a silvery blimp would wander past, not too far overhead. At night manta rays would splash in the sea, and mosquitoes would seek bare arms, legs and necks. Noel Coward lived a few hundred yards away, and that meant nothing to us.

Some summers were spent overseas visiting the family back in England. I preferred all that, trading blimps and mosquitoes for swallows and bats. My Nan Eldridge, then younger than I am now, would take me on day trips to castles, stately homes, museums and gothic cathedrals. Some days would be spent at the seaside, pebble beaches in the south of England, or in Morecombe and Blackpool, with my mother's family members, where afternoon and evening entertainment might be theatrical (I squirmed to see Black and White Minstrels), cinematic (Cleopatra seemed like a very long movie for a child), or equestrian (donkeys on the sands).

By the summer of 1967 I was amusing myself wandering about London. The Summer of Love. I recall the drug addicts sprawled all over the island in Piccadilly Circus in the rain. I sang the Rolling Stones' song We Love You in my head and Kenneth Halliwell beat Joe Orton to death with a hammer, and then took an overdose. That was 9 August, 1967. Seems like yesterday. We love you, we do. And I bought rather colourful clothing in Carnaby Street, wishing I dare dress like Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I did grow my hair and the moustache I still have over forty years later. The hair and I parted company about 25 years ago.

When working in Bermuda I would have the month of August off and did rent an apartment in London a couple of summers. Those were partying holidays and I returned exhausted.

I started visiting the USA in the later 1970s. From 1992 through 1995 I lived in the USA, in the Rocky Mountains and in the Utah desert. An August holiday entertainment might be found in Las Vegas. I did not gamble, but I was just telling a friend last night that I'd seen jousting at the Excalibur Hotel.

In 2006 I spent just over a week in London, staying at a B&B that was being renovated. I stayed for free, sort of. I'd met the owner in Northumberland and did a deal. I'd take her out to dinner each evening and entertain her with dazzling conversation while I stayed at her B&B, which was in quite a shambles with its reconstruction. That was a hot summer and I amused myself with visits to famous tourist spots, dressed down in shorts and sandals, trying to keep comfortable. I spent one day at the Bhaktivedanta Manor Temple of the Krishna Consciousness Society, a good deal of it cross-legged on a dusty floor listening to chanting and waiting for the God to be unveiled. Not exactly Motown music on a dock in Bermuda, but not half bad.

The summers of 2007 and 2008 were awfully cold and rainy, at least in the British Isles. Both years we had less than 4 or 5 days of mostly-sunshine. I went to quite a few films and to other indoor activities with the folks at Alnwick Day Services. In 2008, I had the new puppy, Cailean, and rain or shine he needed walking. Mostly rain.

Last winter was a cold one in Northumberland, and we all hoped for a hot summer in 2009. And May and June this year were splendid! July, however, was often horrid. A friend from Bermuda went with me to Alnwick Castle last Saturday, in deluging rain, not a promising 1st of August. Today is 6 August and we are back in summer-mode.

Yesterday I took my camera with me as I did the River Coquet walk with Cailean. Pictures should be above. If you double-click on a picture it should open up to fill the screen, then you can count the blades of grass and ripples on the River. My postcards from my summer hols of August 2009.

The year is rolling along. August may be the best chance of summer, but in just a few weeks the days really will be closing in and the chilly rains and wind will bring down the last of the roses and kick off the autumn leaves. I have prepared myself somewhat, buying a stack of books on sale. They should keep me going till year's end. Romantic poets and travelogues.

This afternoon is a brilliantly sunny one. I'm going to the Pier with Cailean. There will be children on the beach, watched over by older family members. Dogs will chase after sticks and run about with seaweed and dead things in their mouths. Overdressed pensioners will adjust their cloth caps and the old ladies will pull their skirts as far above their knees as they dare. It's like that here just now. And I've heard RAF bombers doing practice runs outside the Harbour already today. They are not seaplanes or blimps, but they are extraordinarily beautiful to me somehow, above the sparkling waves, when they are far from Afghanistan.