Thursday, 29 October 2009

Moon and Moan over Amble

"You've been scaring people … and now I'm going to scare you! Boo!"
Mrs. F. Zuill. Headmistress, Bermuda High School for Girls.

THE HIGH STREET BECOMES THE WYND and straight ahead is the graveyard. Overhead there's a waxing moon. Mists come in off the North Sea. Bare trees claw at the sky. A dog barks somewhere under the moon, and Cailean responds loudly, but pulls on the leash to go back inside our flat.

We are having unusually mild weather; it was actually snowing last year in late October. However, the weatherman on the BBC has been suggesting that Saturday night, Halloween, will be a wash-out, with gale force winds and heavy rain, sweeping across from the west. Whether it will be as bad this side of the Pennines as in Cumbria and the Western Isles remains to be seen.

The Halloween items appeared in the Co-op at the top of Queen Street over a month ago. They've almost vanished two days before the big- or non-event. No telling if they sold or not. Who can afford sweeties at Amble prices? The costumes one might want and get would be better bought at ASDA, down in Ashington. Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse masks. A nice change from Bin Laden beards and Abu Hamza hooks, if somewhat scarier.

I have a little story that I've been meaning to use, and I believe I'll inject it here. A fortnight ago, on a Saturday, I was watching James Martin's cookery programme on the telly and there was suddenly a loud knock at my kitchen door. Cailean knows the various knocks of my neighbours, friends and family members, and Cailean was not happy with this one. Clearly he didn't recognise it. I went to the door and opened it. Grouped in front of me were five females. There was an older lady with inappropriate (I thought, for her age) long, blonde hair, she might have been 70. There were two middle-aged women who looked like each other, and like the older woman, right down to the long, blonde hair. Then, to complete the hand, there was a pair of what must surely have been identical twins, perhaps twelve-years-old, daughters of one of the middle-aged women. Long, blonde hair. All were dressed unfortunately in jeans and sweaters and hoodies, everything pale blue, grey or off-white. The women were pale, wore no make-up that seemed obvious, and were not what I'd call attractive.

The oldest woman responded to my "Hello there…" by saying "Good morning! Isn't the world a terrible place?" and shoving a Watchtower pamphlet at me. "Wait a minute!" I replied, "I don't want this…" I shoved it back, and started to close the door. The woman, I described her as a 'vile cow' to a friend a bit later, stuck her foot in the door. I pushed. "I'm just not interested!" "Don't you want to hear what Jehovah has promised?" "No." I pushed the door harder and the woman's foot slid out. Slam!

I returned to James Martin and his guest, Jo Brand. Jo would have known how to deal with my callers. I got thinking; I should have told the old woman that I was a registered sex-offender, and if she didn't mind that, could she send the little girls in, I could do Jehovah's business with them.

I've not had any Halloween callers in the last three years. There are no children living near me, and I don't put a pumpkin in the window, or leave the lights on. I very much doubt that I could get anything scarier than the Gang of Five that turned up early wandering in my neighbourhood.

A week from now, we'll have Guy Fawkes Day, the Fifth of November, Bonfire Night. We've had rain for that each year that I've been in Amble, and the fireworks and bonfires have been set off whenever there was a break in the bad weather. Last year, Cailean's first Guy Fawkes, the pup was scared by the explosions and flashes in the sky. Aleks was also scared of fireworks. You'll know that we burn images of Guy Fawkes to celebrate his failed attempt to massacre James I and the Government in 1605, though Fawkes was actually hanged, drawn and quartered. That might be too gruesome to re-enact.

And then Christmas is looming. The rather restrained public illuminations are up here in Amble already, but will not be switched on for another month. We have strands of lights very simply strung above Queen Street. Queen Street is our shopping district. A very few shops (butcher, greengrocer, baker, fishmonger, post office, minimart, four take-outs), most of which close early in the winter and roll ugly metal shutters down to protect their windows and doors from the yobs. The Christmas lights sparkle over a couple of pizza take-aways. I'd spend the lighting budget on doing something in the Town Square, which is left in the dark. It doesn't have to be a laser-light show. It doesn't have to be religious or denominational. Perhaps just save those unused sky rockets and damp squibs that we couldn't get off on the Fifth of November for Christmas Eve.

Many years ago, some friends of mine who attended the Bermuda High School for Girls told me that they'd been jumping out and terrifying the youngsters at the school. And why not? Then, one day, a couple of my friends walked past a doorway and the Headmistress, Mrs Frances Zuill, leapt out at them, explained herself, and yelled "Boo!" An Amy Winehouse face mask, tattoos and titties would have been a nice touch, but Amy hadn't been born then. We could but dream.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Children of the Nightclubs

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.

William Shakespeare (Hamlet. Act II, Scene II)

I WENT TO THE ACE OF CLUBS ONLY ONCE. I can only think that I went for the live music: A rock band played at one end of the room. At the opposite end was the bar, which stood some distance from the wall behind it. Instead of the usual behind-the-bar accoutrements being displayed on that back wall, they were under the top of the bar and to the sides. The back wall was stained and scratched, and I soon realised just why. When a bottle had been emptied, the bartender flung it at the back wall where it shattered and the shards fell on the floor. A few glasses went that way as well, courtesy of the patrons.

Of course, in the nightclub at the Carlton Beach Hotel in Bermuda at this time limbo dancers entertained the drinkers by ducking under flaming poles, and some of the entertainers danced on broken glass. Nothing thrills drunken tourists quite like natives performing dangerous routines. I cannot say that I found the act at all compelling, and would, in any case, have been deep in conversation, solving the world's troubles. Of course, I cannot recall those discussions, but I imagine the Vietnam War got a mention. I was usually with shaggy Americans.

The Carlton Beach changed its name to the Sonesta Beach. I once left the nightclub at the Sonesta and walked directly out to an Easter Morning sunrise service on a rocky outcrop in its grounds. I was last at that hotel in 1978, New Year's Eve, and reluctantly joined a conga line. That night I was with most of the off-duty members of the Canadian Armed Forces Base in Bermuda. That seems awfully strange now. The last time I saw the friend who'd invited me, we were in the nightclub at the Grotto Bay Hotel, which was situated in an underground cavern, with dripping stalactites. You had to cover your glass, obviously!

I liked the short-lived Guinea Discotheque on Burnaby Street. Deafening music and packed in like sardines. One went up a narrow staircase to reach the place, and I can only think it was an incredible fire- and health-hazard. The Guinea was so small, crowded and loud that it felt as if one was inside a stereo system. I only went a few times, and don't think that disco ruined my hearing. I am quite deaf now, but it is from fifty years of loud music. Now I have to have my music (and the telly) loud to hear it at all.

I do not remember whether the nightclub at the Hamilton Princess Hotel in Bermuda had a name, but just outside the door was the Colony Bar where we'd indulge in a ritual before heading into the club itself. The bartender, who I want to call Cedric, would pour us each a shot glass of Gosling's Black Seal Rum. This rum is, as far as I'm concerned, as noxious as those Night Nurse tonics, and then some. Have you ever sucked up some petrol when you were going to drain some from a friend's moped when your tank had run dry? Vile. We'd not drink the stuff. Once Cedric had gone back behind the bar (we always sat at a table) we'd set the shot glass on fire. The rum would flame up beautifully, and then, suddenly, when the rum ran dry, the glass would shatter. We drank Bacardi and Coke with more respect.

One night we had a visiting pen-pal of a friend in tow. She, foolishly, drank her shot of Black Seal. Shortly afterwards she ran to the toilets in the hotel lobby, but did not make it. She vomited up black juices and her dinner, down her white touristy evening frock, all over the lobby carpets, and on into the toilet.

In the early 1970s there were basement clubs in London. You'd knock at the door, a panel would slide across, and you'd be let in. I'm not sure why we were let in, but it may have just been a case of knowing the place was there. The pubs would often have a club atmosphere with a rock band. I recall eating dinner below glass blocks in the pavement above a club while a singer covered every song on Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water album.

In 1979 a friend took me to a nightclub in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We'd been out to dinner in a hotel; the restaurant was on the ground floor. After we'd eaten, we took the lift up to the roof where there was a swimming pool, and sat there for a while, waiting till the clubs opened. Suddenly a couple of policeman burst into the otherwise-empty pool area and told us that an escaped criminal had run into the hotel and had taken a lift upstairs. Just where, they were not sure. My friend and I figured that a truly desperate person might head for the roof for a last stand. We pressed the button for the lift and hoped it would arrive empty. It did. We headed across the street to what turned out to be a gay discotheque. That was a first for me. I was so freaked out that I didn't pay all that much attention, and wish I had as I've not been in an exclusively gay discotheque since. The music was classic: It was raining men, people's bells were being rung, and they survived. Or perhaps not, this was before AIDS.

A couple of years ago I went to a club called Blue Juice. This had a large contingent of gays, but, frankly, the straights were looking pretty gay too. Blokes that looked like steelworkers and stevedores were hanging all over Goths and Emos and transvestites. The music was Madonna, the entire club was filled with the smoke from dry ice, and films were being projected on the walls. I felt very old, though Madonna is not ten years younger than I am.

Last night I stepped outside with Cailean when I'd heard the rain ease up. It was about eleven o'clock. Out onto the High Street (I'm an Exile on High Street) and there was no sign of life. The Wellwood Arms nearby, which had been featuring live bands until two months ago, has closed down. The Zecca Ristorante, which opened recently, stops serving at 9.30. And that's the High Street in Amble at night. To be fair, there's a dental office open in the daytime. The rest, last night, was a row of darkened windows and bleeding reflections of our few streetlights in the puddles and damp air.

There's a pizza take-out further down on Queen Street. They will deliver to your home if the order is over £5 and charge you a quid for bringing it round. I don't think they can be terribly busy as I can always have a pizza delivered in 20 minutes. They close at midnight.

To think one of my duties at AIG was to organise the Christmas Party each year I was there. This was held in the daytime (it was a luncheon) but always in a darkened nightclub at a hotel. Perhaps my boss realised I'd come to work from time to time still a bit tipsy, and tired, having left a nightclub three or four hours before. If you can do that, you can sort out drink-tickets for a pack of alcoholic accountants and hard-drinking underwriters. Now, I watch the telly till the wee hours, read and read and read, and when I go out in the night it is to walk Cailean to a cobbled area twenty feet from my door where he likes to pee. Then we run back inside to warm up again.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Of Contrition, and Other Prayers

Christus, Mormon Visitors' Center, Salt Lake City

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act V. Scene I)

SHE WAS ALREADY ON THE BUS when it reached Amble, where I got on board for the ride to Hawkhill on Monday morning. There were few empty seats on the lower deck and I had to sit near the back, just across the aisle from the very elderly lady holding a fair number of small pamphlets and bits of folded paper. I took it all in, fortunately having left home wearing the appropriate bifocal glasses.

Across the top of a printed page that the aged lady was holding in both hands, I could read the large type.


I couldn't read the words below the title, but could tell they were laid out somewhat in the form of a poem. I thought it might well be some sort of prayer. The giveaway was noticing that the old woman was whispering as she read, perhaps just mouthing the words, I couldn't actually hear her over the noises of the bus and its passengers.

I wondered what an ancient person, she looked old enough to be Miss Marples's mother, was doing so fervently praying for forgiveness of sins on a bus on a Monday morning in Northumberland. Had she been out whoring all weekend? Had she broken her ASBO? Was she on her way to score some smack?

Who knows? Perhaps this little, old lady did something terrible as a young girl and has been regretting it ever since, unable to forgive herself and forget. Unable to believe that her God might have given her the all clear.

Apparently, Roman Catholics say this prayer when they confess their sins. The Church of England has a version. One might be old enough to have prayed this in Latin. The lady on the bus did not turn her page for the twenty or so minutes that I sat across from her, and she kept moving her lips. She must have been repeating the prayer. Had she been told to do this as an act of contrition? A piss-up on the Sunday, confession at sunrise on the Monday, pray it off till Noon.

The lady didn't look like a drunk. Mind you, I have known, and do know, some ancient folks who will suck on a bottle for comfort, and they don't all look the part. It can be confusing, I know one biddy who sails with no fewer than three sheets to the wind and one can tell immediately what she is up to, but she looks and acts extraordinarily like my mother (who died 17 years ago), and my mother never took a drink stronger than Tetley's Tea. Revisiting my mother in my mind, she sometimes appeared to be not only loopy, but looped.

"Oh! For fuck's sake..." I thought to myself. "Someone fervently muttering prayers on public transport. She's a suicide bomber!"

I do not recall being instructed in the ways and means of prayer as a very small child, though my first books were religious (sent out to Bermuda by relatives in England who were concerned with me having been born into a Heathen environment, blacks meaning cannibals rather than carnivals in their minds in the early 1950s). I remember I had one story, with a picture, about a little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, just like me, who was dying. The little boy's parents told him he was going to meet Jesus, but the child was having none of that. This was hard on his parents, of course. The little boy died alone one night in his bedroom, and when his parents found him in the morning he was half-upright, reaching skywards. His parents were happy as clams because they knew he was reaching out to Jesus at that last moment of his life. I'm not sure that was a very nice story to send me when I was six- or seven-years-old. The adventures of Biggles would have been more appropriate, surely. Not surprising then that I've spent much of my life being a sad bastard instead of a flying ace.

I spent twelve years in primary and secondary schools and I believe we had some sort of morning assembly every day except during examinations when the Hall was being used for those. Our assemblies were of a religious nature, Church of England. We sang Church of England hymns, chanted its refrains and prayed its prayers. There must have been Catholics and Methodists present, I know of Presbyterians, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. I do not recall any obviously Jewish pupils, but I think we might have had some amongst the Americans. No matter what we were outside the gates, at Warwick Academy we practised the Anglican Faith. I've remembered many of these prayers and hymns for more than forty years since my last assembly in the Purvis Hall at Warwick Academy. If you repeat something enough, and twelve years is enough, God knows, it begins to stick with you.

Jesus said:
I am among you as he that serveth
Whosoever would be chiefest
Shall be servant of all
I have called you friends
You are my friends if you do
Whatsoever I command you

We had that one on Tuesday mornings. It is, when I reread it here, a bit confusing. When does one's servant start commanding and get away with it? On Tuesdays, apparently. And when that little boy died and Jesus came to collect him, to grasp his outstretched arms, did Jesus speak in this sort of Double Dutch?

We kept on muttering our set prayers for more than a decade, but in the last two or three years the Headmaster introduced audience participation. After the many Amens, somebody might play a guitar; there might be a bit of a poem or a short reading about some great event (British and white, of course); or a mini-biography of some Great Man. I don't think we ever acknowledged any Great Woman. Sorry, Mrs Pankhurst. Everything was written down and read. If somebody played a guitar, there was no singing with it. Too risky. You wouldn't want Bob Dylan's influence.

I attended the Church of England, St Paul's in Paget, for a number of years. The hymns were our school hymns, the Communion Service used the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, both of which were co-opted at school. The language was beautiful.

Then I became a Mormon. The Mormons use the KJV, thank the many gods who were once men, and the other LDS scriptures are also (curiously) phrased rather like the language of the KJV. I'm not sure that the folks in Illinois spoke that way in the early 1840s, but God was dictating the books and He does.

There are only a very few set prayers in Mormonism. The Sacramental Prayers must, repeat must, be said word-for-word as on the printed card. The Baptismal Prayer has to be word perfect. And prayers in the secret Temple ceremonies are proscribed. However, if Sister Smith is asked to give an opening prayer, an invocation, at a Sunday service, she can say anything she wants. The brethren on the platform will trust her to start with "Our Heavenly Father" and close with "In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen." The middle is inspiration; a grocery list. Most of the time it is bland enough and not offensive to God or man. I've never been shocked, though I've been bored silly when too many minutes pass.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith prayed, as a young teenager, on the subject of which of the many churches in the neighbourhood was the right one, as every church, every preacher, had a different take. And those were just the Christian sects; I don't think the boy was exposed to many Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Animists, Muslims and the like. That would have really done his head in.

Well, as every Utah schoolboy knows, Joseph Smith was visited by God the Father, Jesus Christ and various angels. He had one angel, Moroni, beaming down through the ceiling of his bedroom. (Did that boy in my book have Jesus descend through the overhead light fixture, or emerge from Narnia in the back of the wardrobe?) You have to be careful when you pray: you might just get a response that will leave you mental.

I spent over twenty-five years praying LDS fairly-free-form prayers. They were conversations with finite entities at first, and then became, if you'll excuse my language, poetry imagined crossing the Infinite to whatever might pick it up on the radar. I may have been praying to Fairy-Winged Frog People on a watery planet in 1995. So long as they don't reach out and touch me!

A few Sundays ago, a friend invited me to a Church of England Sunday Family Communion Service here in Amble. I was curious and figured I could wake in time and stay awake. I went along; I even wore a coat and tie.

Things change. The Vicar was a lady, and a very nice one at that, I had a chat with her after the service, not mentioning Dawn French's show on the telly. The assistants, bar one, were all female. All elderly, I might add, except for the organist who was young and rather attractive, and married to the one young man, also attractive, in the choir. The congregation was pretty grey. So it goes. The hymns were printed on sheets in a small loose-leaf binder, the service on loose pages. Perhaps the fat hymnbooks we used back in the day are too heavy for the OAPs? I knew none of the hymns at St Cuthbert's, they were mostly copyrighted in the 1970s, many written by women. The service, including quotations from the Bible, was in what I suppose is Modern English. A bit like Art, people don't want Constable's Hay Wain above their fireplace in 2009; they want something by Damien Hirst, or worse. I hardly recognised The Lord's Prayer. The Nicene Creed was no longer a prose-poem. I'm surprised that "Amen!" hasn't been replaced with "Yeah, Baby!"

At one point we were all instructed to share a greeting of peace, or some such, with our neighbours in the pews. "However," said the Vicar, "with the Swine Flu epidemic we won't actually touch each other." I'm still wondering what that is about!

I come back after thirty-five years and everything I loved about the Church of England service that I'd missed in Mormonism and my Post-Mormonism has gone. Has become, I suppose, a bit LDS!

Have the Roman Catholics modernized to this extent? I'm not going over there, but I'm curious. Was the lady on the bus puzzling over Latin, or the English I grew up with, or was she wondering what the hell the people writing the scriptures in 2009 are on about?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Time - The Greatest Thief of All

Thomas Eldridge. My 5th Great-Grand-Uncle
All Saints' Church, Lubenham, Leicestershire

Few things are more deceptive than memories.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind)

NOT MANY DAYS AGO, the 29 September to be exact, I noticed the date, the number 29, and there was a tintinnabulation, one that I had, apparently, missed the day before. On that day before, Monday 28 September, I had almost certainly come across the date, that number, 28. I'd have seen it on my computer screen. It was at the top of the Monday pages in the Radio Times. (I check for listings of interesting television programmes every morning as I drink my coffee, and circle them in blue ink; I never forget to do this.) On the television itself, I would have seen the date: 28 September.

I do not doubt that I saw 28 September 2009 any number of times last Monday. So what? My mother died on 28 September 1992, and this was the first year that I did not think of her passing when I saw the day and month. Seventeen years to forget? Or was it just seventeen years to not remember?

On Tuesday 29 September I thought: "Good grief! Yesterday was the anniversary of my mother's death. I missed it."

Perhaps if I lived in Bermuda where she is buried, I would have planned a visit to her grave days or weeks beforehand. Some day when she came to mind and I'd have remembered those last hot days of the summer of 1992 which my mother spent in the hospice as the cancers crawled through her body and, at about three o'clock in the afternoon on 28 September, reached her fingertips. They turned dark purple as I held onto them in the hour before she stopped breathing.

I remember that remarkably well.

The only sound, a loud gasp, from the older of my mother's brothers, also in the room. Not forgotten.

I actually have not a single photograph of my mother in my possession now. However, I can picture her in quite a few photographs that I grew up with, taken in her infancy and through the sixty-something years she lived. As I sit here, I cannot see her in my mind from general times in her life, as a person unposed, because her life, as it affected me, was a photographic plate exposed for about forty-two years (my age when she died). Except for that final moment. I can see her just dead on the bed. Eyes wide open. Back arched slightly. Her hair had been shampooed and cut by a hairdresser friend the day before (the friend refused to accept a fee for that) and my mother looked quite tidy, which was unusual for her.

James King. My 3rd Great-Grandfather
Whaddon, Buckinghamshire

I got to thinking about remembering the dead. One of my hobbies is genealogy and I know the names and some details of over 1,500 of my family members who have passed on. Because my mother's family, not too many generations back, emerges from titled lines, I have information on some of my ancestors that is in the history books. I can even visit rather ancient places where they lived, and died. Some are represented in carvings on their tombs. Quite posh, really.

My mother is in a whitewashed vault in St John's Churchyard in Pembroke, Bermuda. There is no obelisk or cross. Her name is engraved on a plaque attached to the end of the slab atop the vault. Mavis Eldridge 1926-1992.

My father is also buried in Bermuda. I'm not exactly sure of the day he died, but it was in the spring of 1996. His third wife had him buried in a shared grave, but had his name and dates engraved on a headstone. The stonemason got the dates wrong, had him born ten years after he actually was. I believe that was corrected. He is buried in St Paul's Churchyard in Paget, Bermuda. My father's second wife died in the 1980s, but I cannot recall the year, much less the date. She was buried in a parish grave, unmarked. Happens she is also in St Paul's Churchyard, but she was no longer married to my father when she died. The church building itself is between them.

I can conjure up the image of my father from certain occasions, and generally. Is this because I saw him so infrequently in my life, in his lifetime? And I can also picture his second wife, who I liked a great deal.

My various parents (and grandparents) turn up in my dreams and, sometimes, they remain in ghost form around me for a short while. Not so as to be unpleasant or unwelcome.

We've had several television programmes (here in Britain) this past fortnight on the subject of death. Documentaries on our attitudes towards death and dying over the centuries were particularly interesting.

I did not know that cremation has only really been a going concern in the UK for about 120 years, and that acceptance by some of the major churches, like the Church of England, is quite recent. Most dead folks here are cremated now. People still seem to look forward to a funeral service of some sort. Funeral homes now do most of the work. My great-grandparents would have been laid out in their coffins in the front room at home. Family and neighbours would have washed and dressed the body.

My mother's people from the 1800s onward, our closer relatives, Lancasters, Proctors, Cloughs, Heys, are buried in Haggate Cemetery in Briercliffe, Lancashire, and in Colne, Lancashire. I have seen some of their graves. My father's family can be found in Fulham, London after the 1850s. Before that, for at least a hundred years, our Eldridges were living and dying in Lubenham, Leicestershire, some rating stones in All Saints' Churchyard. The King family, my father's side again, were in Whaddon, Buckinghamshire. My father's parents are buried in Kent. He had a brother who died in Australia.

It is clearly becoming increasingly difficult to pop around to the graves of family members when the anniversaries of their deaths (and Easter Sunday) come around. I'm looking forward to being cremated, with no funeral service, and scattered off in the wild somewhere easily forgotten by a stranger.

Will anyone think of me when the anniversary date rolls around? I'm not sure that I give a hoot. I'd much rather somebody thought of me while I was alive to enjoy it. (I'm hoping for kind thoughts! Perhaps a postcard.)