Thursday, 26 November 2009

Jung Man

JOE ORTON LIKED TO LISTEN IN ON conversations that the participants thought private, if not private enough to whisper or conduct in secret. Orton would then delight his friends by relating his experiences at listening in. I used to think Orton might have embellished his stories, as peculiar as they could be. No longer. Even in the wilds of Northumberland, on our humble buses, I regularly hear the daftest things. Just today, two older ladies:

"My granddaughter is going to Karachi."
"Oh! Where they have white coats and black belts and go chop-chop?"
"No! That's Karate! She's going to Karachi in Pakistan.!"
"So, no black belts then?"

Before I even got on the bus, while in the classic English queue on the forecourt on a bitterly cold and windy afternoon, a very old lady with incredibly bushy white eyebrows, through which she had drawn a line in what appeared to be artists' charcoal, smiled from under what may have been a tea-cosy and faced me and said:

"This cold is so terrible. I can't seem to get warm today. And the wind ... When I was growing up we had an outside toilet and no bath-tub."

I tried not to look at her eyebrows, decided she looked like the housekeeper from "Father Ted" (Mrs Doyle) aged about 93, and figured the old dear craved psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, I must have looked too interested and the lady continued with her family history. Once on the bus, I managed to lose her ... Only to be rewarded for the patience I'd shown with the Karachi story.

You lose some ... You win some ...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Do Only Lost Children Have Secret Places?

The Cat Inn, Cheswick, Northumberland

DUKE VINCENTIO: Many that are not mad
Have, sure, more lack of reason. What would you say?

William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure. Act V, Scene I)

I LOVE THE BUS EXPERIENCE. I am never disappointed by the view: A frozen wind turbine that most Northumbrians might think a useless blot on the landscape is magic for me; I've been longing for windmills around the next corner for sixty years. And there is something truly fascinating about vehicles abandoned on the shoulder of the highway: What stories might they tell? Now and then there is a car so thoroughly crushed that one knows more than the headlights went out. I've rarely been disappointed by a street or highway sign: I miss The Great North Road, replaced by The A1. However, there's a peculiar sign that shines in the day and glows at night, between Warkworth and Alnmouth Village on the coastal route, that has an arrow pointing towards the North Sea and the words "Waterside Ho". Make up your own jokes.

On a chilly late November day, there's precious little as pleasant as the heating on a bus. I try to get my feet near the warm vents. With my sleeve I wipe a little of the condensation from my window so that any windmill or evidence of life or death is more clearly witnessed.

Yesterday I was on a minibus, one of those seventeen- or eighteen-seaters. We left Alnwick just before noon and headed north on that poorly renamed A1. Our destination was The Cat Inn near Haggerston Castle. The Cat Inn is near several places, if one were going to Berwick-upon-Tweed, it would be near that. The postal address is Cheswick, and it is near that, if out on the side of the main road, a little isolated. A beacon. A friend is the pub landlady. Marion and her partner, Paul, have only recently taken over The Cat. Make a note to stop there for a hot meal or a bevy, or both. It's all castles and coast up there, wild birds, seals, sheep and crops, and a couple of miles from the Scottish Borders: Go and see all that, and visit The Cat. You can stay overnight; Marion has rooms and does breakfasts.

A Pair of Tits

On the bus, as we rock-and-rolled in deluging rain and gale force winds, I listened in on an odd conversation. There is always an odd conversation somewhere on a bus if you but tune in … and I travel with some curious characters at times. One member of our group was discussing recent programmes on the television.

Now, I don't watch what is referred to as Reality TV because it tends to be too surreal. I do notice updates on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here! And The X-Factor on my computer, in the Yahoo! Headlines, and in the newspapers. I do read the papers. So I know, for example, that Katie Price, aka Jordan, ex-wife of Peter André, has quit the jungle after only a few days. She was paid many times more than the other contestants. And Great Britain discovered something, at last, about Katie Price: She's detestable. Nobody here actually likes the big-boobed woman after all. Katie refused to chomp down on a kangaroo's testicle (one newspaper suggested that that was a first for her as testicles go) and headed back home to spend all that money the sponsors over-paid her. Meanwhile, on X-Factor, the British public finally gave identical twins John and Edward (nicknamed Jedward) the push. I'd never seen or heard their act till after they'd gone. I felt I should have a listen when the regular news covered the story. I'll tell you, Jedward are as untalented as it gets: tone deaf and clumsy. Disney will buy them. They'll be a draw for a year, and then one can only hope they'll find some addiction or a career in the porn industry. If the Jedward twins had only been born conjoined, they'd be made for life. No such luck.

The lady on my bus kept muttering about some reality show she'd seen on the telly over the last weekend and how she'd hated every minute of it because "there were too many adverbs ..." She continued: "One after another ... adverb after adverb ... It made me quite mad ... I said to myself 'Fucking Nora, why am I watching this? All these adverbs.' ..."

I thought to myself: "She's utterly and completely (and unashamedly) off her nut. Undoubtedly, this woman is in need of medication. Absolutely crackers!" Finally, I decided: "I quite like her, even if there are not enough adjectives to describe her!" I resisted, of course, the temptation to whisper: "You want the noun ADVERT!" We sat at the same table for lunch, and it was quite jolly.

A Nice Shag

Marion told us about some recent guests she'd had at The Cat Inn. A couple turned up in the evening with only a shopping bag for luggage. The woman looked not so much like the common slapper as a lady of the night. She glowed with one of those fake orange tans, the kind that Katie Price thinks attractive. For some reason, the dodgy couple, revealing themselves as obnoxious, wanted the family room at The Cat, which has three beds. They tried to persuade Marion to lower the overnight tariff, and Marion responded by hiking it. One does not mess with Marion! The couple paid the new price and went upstairs. In no time, the clientele in the bar were treated to the clear sounds of loud and riotous sex as the overnighters had a very long shag. In the morning, after the guests had departed, Marion went to strip the bed. She discovered that the couple had used all three beds in the family room. Worse, the hooker's orange tan had come off on all the bed linens, and attempts to wash it out failed. One wonders if Katie Price rubs off that way. I wouldn't touch her with Peter's.

On the way home in the minibus, I sat in the same seat as I had on the way north, but I was, of course, looking out in the opposite direction. I spotted one of those windmills, the tall metal tower type, with a fan having many flat blades. The kind one sees in old western movies, with cattle gathered to drink water below it. When I was very young, my father used to take me and my sisters for a Sunday drive now and then, and we'd look for favourite things. Mine was a windmill, set back from the road, this in Bermuda. Formative experience.

Yes, you get a prize, an honorary title, if you noticed that Jedward has the same hairdo as the Shag.

Monday, 16 November 2009


Crabbed age and youth cannot live together:
Youth is full of pleasance, age is full of care;
Youth like summer morn, age like winter weather;
Youth like summer brave, age like winter bare.
Youth is full of sport, age's breath is short;
Youth is nimble, age is lame;
Youth is hot and bold, age is weak and cold;
Youth is wild, and age is tame.

William Shakespeare. Poem XII

THE OLDER OF MY TWO SISTERS sent me a birthday card last week. The cover read: "A child of the 60's is turning 60" and featured a rough picture of a hippie in tie-dye colours. Inside the card said: "Do you want to drop some antacid?" Karen followed that up with an email: "I just can't believe I have a brother who's 60…"

It seems just a few weeks since I turned 50. I was in Bermuda and two friends took me to dinner at an Indian restaurant. We shared the food, all seemed to enjoy it. I certainly did. However my friends had to stop their car on the way home and run behind a hedge. And that was ten years ago! I have been living back in England for a number of years, those friends are in exile in Mexico. My little dog Aleks died six years ago, Cailean is coming up for two. For all that, November 1999 seems like just last week.

This year I took three friends to dinner at the nearest better eatery, on a stormy night; "The worst storm of the year" according to the BBC. We reached the Sun Hotel safely; the rain started tipping down as we ordered drinks in the bar. When we moved on to the dining room for a candle-lit meal we could not fail to notice the wind pressing on the windows and the rain sweeping across the Coquet Estuary. A few hours later, we had to dash to the car and as we neared Amble the road was beginning to flood. The good news, none of us required an emergency stop in a field full of cold, wet sheep for a severe lower digestive complaint.

While we ate our considerable dinner (we forced ourselves, as one does, to have pudding) there was muzak playing. Just one artist, the hotel must have loaded all their Michael Bublé CDs into the sound system. They would not have known, but Bublé is my favourite performer these days. He's the Canadian crooner, and he's been in Britain promoting his new CD (it's called Crazy Love, and I highly recommend it). Turns out Bublé is a wonderful talk show guest, full of funny stories about his female fans (he gets pelted with knickers) and his family, travels, film work, and so on. He comes over a little bit light in the loafers, but that might just be because he's Canadian (Canada is the United States' gay neighbour, I've heard). No matter his television interview persona, Bublé has a reputation as a ladies' man.

Let's go back 55 years, to about 1955. That would be the year my father inherited an old record player and a stack of 78 rpm vinyl disks. The recordings were all of classical music, and neither of my parents listened to them. My father bought a few new recordings: Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt, Johnny Mathis and Peggy Lee, a year or two later, Teresa Brewer, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. My sisters and I were given a soundtrack to Lady and the Tramp. Somebody gave me a small disk of The Flight of the Bumblebee. Odd.

My father liked crooners. I detested them. I have never liked the early rock and roll of Presley and his generation. Music came roaring into my life with She loves you … Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! in 1964; and it has never let up. And in 2009 I'm suddenly a fan of Jamie Cullum and Harry Connick Jr, and I love to hear Michael Bublé belting out The best is yet to come and Come fly with me, let's fly away.

My father, and his records, had gone AWOL not long after 1955. In the 1960s I listened to all the pop music out of England, and to Motown music on the radio in Bermuda. I only recall one song of my generation that my father quite liked; it was Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones. He was not impressed by the flip side of the single which was Let's Spend the Night Together. I suppose my Dad liked the cellos in Ruby Tuesday. It's a good song (even nearly 45 years later). My father is long dead, Mick Jagger is a knight of the realm, and I'm suddenly retro.

I shall remember the party on my 60th birthday as the one with Michael Bublé and stormy weather providing the backdrop. Perhaps, in what will seem like a few weeks, I shall celebrate 70 years. Where? Will the mind and body cooperate? Will friends be alive to share the moment? Will my sister be saying: "I just can't believe I have a brother who is 70…"

What will the music be?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Losing Count

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
Holy Bible. St. Matthew 10:34

False Sphinx! false Sphinx! by reedy Styx old
Charon, leaning on his oar,
Waits for my coin. Go thou before, and leave
me to my crucifix,
Whose pallid burden, sick with pain, watches the
world with wearied eyes,
And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for
every soul in vain.
Oscar Wilde. The Sphinx

I'VE JUST RETURNED HOME after attending the Remembrance Day ceremony in Amble by the Sea. It was raining heavily early this morning, but had eased to a drizzle when I walked along to the Town Square. A considerable crowd seemed relieved when the sun broke through a few minutes before the two minutes silence and wreath-laying was to begin.

I didn't take Cailean with me, which turned out to be a wise move. We've had Guy Fawkes Day fireworks every night this past week and Cailean has been awfully upset by the flashes of light and explosions. At eleven, the clock in the tower in the Square did not sound, but a rocket was launched nearby and we all went very quiet. Two minutes later another rocket went up and the person leading the parade called for the Mayor to lay the first poppy wreath below the names carved into the memorial in the tower. I think Cailean would have barked.

During the First World War dachshunds in Britain were kicked, stoned and killed in the streets for being German. The Royal Family escaped that, a simple name change. Another dachshund story related by Robert K. Massie in the excellent book Dreadnought: During the Great War a member of the German High Command threw a party in his large country home. All the military leaders were invited; many came, though the Kaiser sent his regrets. Just as well, the host came down his grand staircase to greet the guests below dressed in a pink ballet dancer's tutu. His dachshunds were running rings around him. He stumbled, fell, and was quite dead (natural causes) by the time he reached the horrified crowd. Apparently it was not at all easy to get the plump corpse out of his tutu and into his military uniform so that things did not seem too peculiar when the body was to be collected.

During the brief silence this morning I did think of my grandfather's brother, James Arthur Lancaster, killed in the Pas de Calais on 2 September 1918. I also thought of my many close relatives who served in the armed forces (most in the Royal Navy) in the past 200 years and came home to their parents, wives, children, home to England. My cousin's son is an officer on a Royal Navy ship at this moment, and I thought of him out there in harm's way.

Noticing the young army cadets taking part in this morning's ceremony, I remembered being forcibly enrolled into our school Cadet Corps shortly before my fourteenth birthday. We had uniforms that were less comfortable than the ones the lads and lasses get to wear, as volunteers, these days. We had metal studs on our boots and when we stamped we made a great noise. Noise is good on parade, if not when you are marching towards your enemy. The parade today was dead quiet.

During the week there was a news story on the television showing British troops in Afghanistan preparing for Remembrance Day by erecting a very large wooden cross in their bleak desert encampment. It was a cross big enough to crucify a god on. And I was horrified!

I imagined Afghani folks, in their own country, coming by on foot, on horses, however they travel from village to village, and there's an enormous Christian cross on the skyline. I cannot imagine many Muslims all over the world seeing this on the television being too impressed to see that the spirit of the Crusades lives on.

We had Christian prayers in the Square in Amble today. I believe they were led by a Methodist preacher this year. We were remembering all our war dead (I suppose we are not to remember our dead enemies, even those who were Christians, at these times), but many non-Christians from the British Empire fought and died alongside those of us who might believe Christ walked on England's mountains green. Is it time to use a line from the play Sordid Lives: "Come down off that cross, buddy. We need the wood."?

There are a great many ghosts created on battlefields. At least seven of our boys died in Afghanistan this past week. One loses count.

Friday, 6 November 2009


Youth is wasted on the young.
Oscar Wilde

What's another word for a mother in Camden Town? Schoolgirl.
Frankie Boyle

I'M GLAD I'M NOT A PARENT. It was bad enough having parents that failed to meet the high standards that I believe all parents should meet. I should point out that I've honed my thoughts on parenting only recently as I see teenagers behaving and misbehaving. I am old enough to be their grandfather, suddenly I give a hoot.

I was not given any training by example when it comes to raising children. It took a rather long time, but I've forgiven my father and mother for their failures and failings. They should never have married, but I think I understand, now, the pressures that brought all that about. My parents were married in August 1947. I think they both were seeking some sort of stability; the War had just ended, they were in a foreign country, and, sadly, they'd not had the chance to play the field in the early 1940s.

My mother was advised not to have children because of some considerable health problems. No matter, she had three. She paid the price for that. I dare say my sisters and I are grateful. I know I am on my good days, and there are many of those.

By the time I was starting school, my mother was discovering the horrors of single-parenting. In the mid-1950s this was not a common thing, especially among white middle class folks living in Bermuda. The family, on both sides, back in England, could not understand how a husband and wife could possibly separate when there were children in the equation. My father once visited his grandfather Crow, taking along a lady friend instead of my mother. "Where is Mavis? Where is Mavis?" asked my great-grandfather, who just couldn't get his head around the misbehaviour of the young. My parents, at their wedding, had pledged "Till death us do part…" and for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health had been in the vows.

I'm "into" genealogy and family history, and have just about everybody I descend from, and many extras, for over two hundred years, and some lines go back to the time of Henry VIII, and some go back to the time of the Saxon kingdoms. In all of those families I come from, divorce was extremely rare, though the Normans certainly were not averse to messing around. Illegitimate children did turn up. I'm not sure that comparing family life these days to that in the Middle Ages (and earlier) would be a useful exercise.

My great-grandfather James Henry Proctor was illegitimate. His mother was Mary Ann Proctor and his father was John Clough. In 1869, if your parents were not married (to each other) you could not take your father's surname. Mary Ann and John did eventually marry and had several more children. So five of James Henry Proctor's younger siblings had the surname Clough; his older sister, also born on the wrong side of the blanket, was a Proctor. I don't know if the stigma of all this bothered James Henry, he was sent off to work in the mill at the age of nine because he was tall and could fool the bosses into thinking he was eleven. My great-grandfather married, had seven children, only one (my grandmother) surviving into old age. James Henry died young.

I know that some of my blood relatives were partial to drink. My great-grandmother Jessie Moon Crow preferred to drink whisky alone in her kitchen rather than make conversation with her family and guests in the front room. I've seen photos of the lady and she looked pretty rough, but she reached a good age. My great-grandfather Harry Lancaster would celebrate the weekend in the pubs below Harle Syke, and at least once he vomited out his dentures into the drop toilet in the family's small back yard. Plumbing was quite cooperative in those days and my great-grandmother was able to retrieve the false teeth the next morning when they had washed down to the filtering mechanism at the waterworks.

Last night, on BBC3, I watched The World's Strictest Parents. Now, normally I would not have even considered giving an hour of reading time up for that sort of thing, but the synopsis in the Radio Times guide read: "Unruly 17-year-olds Hannah Thorpe from Liverpool and James Gowing from Leicester are sent to live under the strict rules of a God-fearing Morman [sic] family in Utah." That's one of the very few times I've seen a spelling mistake in the Radio Times, and Mormons interest me as some of you will appreciate. I certainly witter on about them enough!

Hannah and James appeared to be the most obnoxious brats one could unearth in Britain. Both live on benefits and Hannah explained that by cutting back on what she spent on her illegitimate baby she could afford her drink, drugs and cigarettes. "What's the most common bird in Britain?" asked some wit. "The slapper." And binge-drinking, chain-smoking, vulgar, under-dressed Hannah is the poster child for all that is wrong with Britain's youth. James was harder to figure out. He seemed very nervous, came across as gay, though it was never mentioned. He applied a good deal of make-up each morning, and his clothing was as dodgy as Hannah's. Hannah talked Scouse, and James tried to sound like a black rapper, and I noticed his pancake make-up was an orange colour. James is the poster child for a generation that wasted its chance at a good education; he seemed more intelligent than he thought he was.

Off to Tooele, Utah went these two miserable little shits. I've been to Tooele, Utah and it's not exactly the Promised Land unless you are a God-fearing Mormon. They process toxic waste there (making the Hannah and James project logical somehow). The enormous Bingham Copper Mine is nearby, and that is actually worth the visit. But to live there? Not for me!

Of course, the whole point of Strictest Parents is the inevitable blow-up and confrontations between the hosts and their vile house-guests.

Strict, God-fearing Mormon families are pretty scary, but I approve of some, perhaps much, of what they are about when it comes to child-rearing. These were not just Mormons, but Americans and in ultra-conservative Utah. The Stars and Stripes flies in the yard, the family pledges allegiance to the flag and for what it stands each day, and I think they recited the Declaration of Independence. The mother home-schools her four children. The standard they live by is simply: "What would the Prophet do?"

The Mormon mother was shocked to hear that Hannah had a year-old daughter. I wondered what she'd have thought had she seen a picture of the little girl, who was very dark-skinned. Until 1978, Negro blood would keep you out of the Celestial Kingdom of Heaven.

Well, the worst of Britain, James and Hannah, ranted and raved and craved. They tried to run away, but Tooele is very nearly the end of the world. (In fact, it can be seen from there.)

For some reason, the guests were dolled up at the end, Hannah wearing a beauty queen's gown (the Mormons are mad for beauty contests) with a tiara, and James was found an ill-fitting suit, if not a tie, and they were spirited off to a reception in the State Capitol in Salt Lake City. There they were offered apple cider in flute glasses. Hallelujah! they thought. Cider! Of course, Utah cider is alcohol-free.

Hannah and James wept when the time came to go back to Britain. Back at home there were promises of a new start.

Both James and Hannah came from broken families, and I was not at all impressed with their mothers who simply indulged their impossible kids. Perhaps not so much indulging them as simply not bothering.

I'm afraid, in my fast-approaching old age, I think that children should not be permitted to have children. Abortions for very young mothers should be mandatory. There should be no benefits for schoolgirls who decide to take a pregnancy to term. I am very pro-marriage, but think it should be more difficult to get married. No benefits for unmarried partners. There is an ongoing case about a mother who arranged for one of her children to be kidnapped and then appealed for money and support (and got it). She was found out and is now in gaol, as are several associates. That unwed mother had seven children by five different men. I say she should be sterilized, and in light of her crime never allowed near children again. Unwed fathers in similar situations should get the same treatment. Cruelly, perhaps, I think all children should have to attend school until their 18th birthday, without exception.

Our Nanny State worries about three-legged races being too dangerous for our children, and the Three Little Pigs offending our Muslim population, and paedophiles behind every bush. How about really tackling the rot in British society? Let's make some extremely tough choices.