Thursday, 30 December 2010

Living the Life I Lead

Well, I was happy here at home
I got everything I need.
Happy being on my own
Just living the life I lead.
Well suddenly it dawned on me
That this was not my life.
So I just phoned the airline girl
And said: “Get me on flight number 505.
Get me on flight number 505.”
The Rolling Stones (Flight 505)

YESTERDAY A FRIEND WROTE TO ME (put your hands up, Richard) suggesting (with bleak January not so many hours away) I start my autobiography (to write it, not read it, for it has remained hidden from you and me). If that were not enough, I might also begin a novel. January could be awfully busy.

One has come across the remark: "Each of us has a book within us." I don’t believe that, not for a moment, and the proof is in the pudding (as they say). How many novels by driven (if uninspired) writers are clearly over-egged? One could spend January making a list.

Allow me to confess (sorry, Richard) that I do not have a storybook in me, not at either end. Novels should be, I’m thinking, new somehow. The novels that do haunt my mind are those that I have read, and they retain their novelty years, indeed decades, after I have read them. The Waves belongs to Virginia Woolf, and water carried her away, but not her words; Island is the optimistic child of Aldous Huxley (that novel altered my life in 1967, everything changed as I read the last paragraph); The Magic Mountain came on loan from Thomas Mann, a trip to the snow and the consumptive death there; André Gide’s Fruits of the Earth has nourished me without being diminished; DH Lawrence gave me (and you) Women in Love and he stands in the room watching me when I read it, or think of it, a bloodied handkerchief at his lips.

I have come across would-be novelists, wordsmiths, who seem to write to a formula. (The oddest goal was to write an entire novel of 50,000 words in the calendar month of November just gone. I wondered whether there might be a 20,000 word short story of some brilliance, or a 90,000 word oeuvre that was sidelined in the cause of high speed bad art.) I do understand the need to write, the need dictated by the necessities of life (food and electricity), having written a newspaper column and also having played at being an art critic some years back. In the more distant past, I tended to write the bulk of our grammar school newspaper (Quid Novi) that I edited; bulk being a good word to describe my contribution (ballast would work as an appropriate word too).

Not all writers can be dismissed on the basis of their writing schedules. One hears of noted, successful authors who go to the office (as it were) at a certain time each day. I believe Roald Dahl would head for a shed at the bottom of his garden and put in his hours. Virginia Woolf wanted a room to herself where she could stand at an elevated desktop. I hope those that shut a door behind them and in their secret (the Mormons would say sacred) chamber weave wonders do not force the pen or pencil across an unwilling page, or type for the comfort of the clattering keys; I hope that the Roald Dahls have heard a voice (and only when it wanted to be heard, not when its source was having its bottom pinched).

When we remember we are all mad,
the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)

There are writers who come by their gifts in ways that everyday boys and girls might not wish to share. I have read the words, the beautiful words, words tending to degrees of genius, that are the silver linings to lives (some wit noted that every silver lining has a dark cloud) that most of us would attempt to run away from (or to escape by way of spirits and substances and transcendental obfuscations). These are not writers with a word-quota (1,666 a day in November, damnit), but with a struggle for being, and are wrestling with all the angels that life can fling down on them. These are the creators of words, chapters, stories, poems, plays that nearly break my heart (perhaps they really do break my heart, nothing nearly at all) when I see their flesh and blood sacrificed represented on the page (and no God to stay the knife).

No (Richard), I shall not write a novel, starting in January. A biography then? In my case, if I could conjure up the words of my life, they would be delivered in the mouths of so many ghosts. I try to live my live in the present day (Buddha said we should not dwell in the past or think of the future), however, my ghost-writers would be hard to avoid if I was looking at my personal story from “In the beginning...” My Mother, dead over 18 years, might materialise as I sit at my desk (or on the sofa, or when I’m struggling to sleep), reminding me, as I see her eyes wide and lost under her glasses, that there is madness in me; my Father, who passed away in early 1996 could pop up (wearing the naff smoking jacket, cravat and smoking a pipe that made him an embarrassment for me) with the details of my conception and nativity (thank Christ!); my much-loved Nan Eldridge, taken by the cancer almost 35 years ago, may suddenly pour me a tiny glass of sherry, ask if I have a spare tab, and relate the family history that her father told her in 1910. (I know people who see and hear visions; one thinks himself a simple psychic as he deals daily with very real dead people. A psychiatrist would have a longer name, difficult to spell, more difficult to understand, for the would-be psychic. I think all apparitions are real, even if one might put a hand through one’s late brother to reach a glass of spirits at the bar.)

Life is something to do when you can't get to sleep.
Fran Lebowitz (1951-)

In my writing, the blog entries and the smart-arsed remarks on Twitter, I do try to stay close to the now, even if I’m here and there. I worry that the real current life is no better revealed than in our shopping lists (I needed cranberry juice yesterday, and Brie cheese, and this, in algebraic form, actually tells me a great deal about my life on Wednesday, 29 December, 2010). “There’s more to life!” (than my diet lemonade and lettuce). How many writers, real and hack, have said that? But it is true. Pushing through the old ghosts, my life is rolling along in the books I am reading. I usually read three or four books, not at the very same time, but I pick up the story that best suits my mood in the hour and might best stimulate my mind. Yesterday I was in Germany in 1943, the British and Americans were dropping bombs, and ragged Jews were struggling on foot to take showers at Dachau; today I was on board the Pequod in search of that most famous of whales (the little children would say: “Free Willy?” And I would say: “Dick! Moby Dick!”).

My ghosts appear (I suppose I’m looking like an Ebenezer Scrooge now) and remind me that the males of a generation of my family, known to me personally, fought the Germans in World War Two (I ask them if they feel comfortable with Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the annihilation of Dresden, for I do not from the supposed security of 65 years). And my Great-Auntie Maud, in her wonderful Lancashire accent brings back to me the memory of clambering aboard a nineteenth century sailing ship on the front at Morecambe when I was very young, and the ship, built for a movie, was called “Moby Dick”. (If it had been named Pequod the average tourist walking along the promenade would most likely not have made a connection, would not have found the three pence for the ticket to climb up the steep gangplank.)

Last night I read a number of poems that a friend has written over recent years. I immediately realised that many had a subtle musical underpinning. There was beat, there was movement, there were highs and lows, and all done with words. I’d love to write poetry. Virginia Woolf told her nephew, and others, that things did not become real until one wrote them down. She suggested poetry. Looking back on my life, there are many musical songs (poems, if you like) that mark the path on which I have travelled. (Not with breadcrumbs, the birds have not misled me.) The Beatles turned me on.

My family members tend not to be long-lived, and good physical health seems to avoid us like the plague. My parents died young. One of my real passions is genealogy (combining my love of family traits, family connections, culture and history itself) and so often one sees Father and Mother having ten or more children, and six die. Several times they try to hold on to a daughter named (for example) Mary, and each one withers within a year or two. (I’d have been superstitious and would not have used the names of the dead over and over; the next Mary would be Eliza instead or Hermione.)

Looking at my family tree (which is actually better described as a fairly large computer file on over 1,800 relatives going back a thousand years in some lines), I wonder at the lives cut short by disease, accident, poverty and over-work. My great-grandfather James Henry Proctor was sent to work in the mill at age nine because he was a tall child and could fool the mill owners into thinking he was eleven, and he was dead before he was 50. One morning, early, my great-grandmother, Sarah, called down the stairs to her daughter: “Elsie, bring some brandy, your Daddy is dying.” The brandy was not to attempt to resuscitate James Henry, or to alleviate his pain and fear of the dying he was busy with; the brandy was for my great-grandmother. Happened that Elsie became my grandmother and lived to be 104, more than twice her father's age at death.

There is a great deal of artistic ability in both sides of my family, I have several cousins who paint, makes films, act, design and photograph in ways that I’d love to. (Perhaps my spell as an art critic was my attempt to stand with them?) But how many brilliant painters (or writers, or musicians) in my family have died young (usually without having had families of their own)?

Life is precious. To be a bit strange (I am permitted that, because I’m quite mad, as the Cheshire Cat would say: "We are all mad here!") one is something of a bivalve mollusc, an oyster. One might be rather rough on the outside (or at least feel that way), yet be smooth, iridescent, exquisite inside, and some have a pearl, the result of dealing with a tiny parasite, some have pearls forced upon them. Some pearls are beautiful, many are not so judged, but the oysters have all dealt with the irritant within their shells, amidst their soft tissues.

And another ghost whispers something that I’d quite misplaced (not forgotten, obviously, because here it is) for a lifetime: My two sisters had matching clothes for special occasions, like Easter Sunday church services, dresses with uncomfortable crinolines to make them stand out nearly like ballerinas’ tutus. Little straw bonnets. And pearl necklaces that were not complete, but were added to on occasion. Certainly the clothes were soon outgrown, perhaps given away to a relative or a thrift shop, but where did the pearls go? The oysters’ hard work.

Well, I sat right there in my seat.
Well, feeling like a king.
With the whole world right at my feet.
“Of course I'll have a drink!”
Well, suddenly I saw
That we never ever would arrive.
He put the plane down in the sea.
The end of flight number 505.
The end of flight number 505.
The Rolling Stones (Flight 505)

Oscar Wilde said, perhaps a little cruelly, but he did almost everything for a laugh and cruelty is a common cause of laughter: “Youth is wasted on the young.” Looking at that, I can say that it is only now, when I’m getting on in years, that I can see all the good things of my (often difficult, troubled) youth. And when one looks back, one’s youth is always just behind us. My youth was last night. I was wonderfully youthful. I intend enjoying my youth tonight, and will hope that it seems delightful when I struggle awake on the (most likely) bone-chilling morning of the last day of 2010 ... tomorrow. My alarm is set for 6.30am.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Purple Lights & Prophets' Promises

God depends on us. It is through us that God is achieved.
André Gide (1869-1951)

A YEAR AGO I MADE FUN of the public Christmas decorations in the village, in particular the lights on our main street which were outshone by the sign at Euro-Pizza; the parade to mark the holiday season also seemed unusual to me with its escort of heavy motorcycles and Alice in Wonderland theme.

It was too cold and chucking rain on the night of this year’s parade and I stayed inside. Our community newspaper reports that a good crowd turned out to watch a Cinderella-themed trek down Queen Street, again with the motorcycles, and drummers. Santa Claus (as we now must refer to Father Christmas) was in Amble’s new ice-cream parlour at the far end of Queen Street, an encouragement to the children to ignore the ghastly weather, struggle down to Spurreli’s, and place their gift orders with the Bearded One. Ho! Ho! Ho!

We are having a brutal winter up here in God’s Country again this year, and it has been looking a lot like Christmas for over a month. Not exactly like Christmas in the mountains above Salt Lake City (I’ve been there, done that, several times) where vast quantities of snow, dense fog and mind-numbing temperatures are handled fairly easily. Here in our frozen north, everything tends to grind to a halt as the first flurries begin. I think that Northumberland could do with some free enterprise when it comes to ploughing the snow from the side roads (it’s all narrow country lanes up here) and car parks. In Salt Lake City, people with trucks and tractors would attach ploughing devices and head off to make a few dollars. I went with a friend to clear some parking areas at Mormon chapels in SLC, and experienced the worst motion sickness I’ve had before or since; but there are people who enjoy that sensation (the same people who enjoy Disneyland’s rides, I think).

There’s a tree, barren of leaves, but well-lit by silvery fairy lights just outside my front door and twenty-five yards over to the right. It’s rather attractive, and I do not know if it is a public display or provided by the householder next to the tree, but it greets everyone coming into Amble from the north, from Warkworth. There’s a bench below the tree and I suppose a hardy soul could sit there and enjoy the glitter overhead. Well, there’s a foot of snow on the bench, so a very hardy soul with thick trousers.

The overhead lights on Queen Street are new this year, and are purple. Small, purple and plentiful. I have been walking Cailean after dark (which is not that late in the afternoon just now, think three o’clock) to the Town Square at the bottom of the street, with the world somehow transformed by the bluish colours above. Other lights are attached to the first floor outside walls on Queen Street, in most cases above shop-fronts. Several of our shops have lovely displays in their windows which can still be seen at about 3.30pm as the businesses are open. Shutters tend to come down at five and the village world is less beautiful.

Our pavements are not always clear of ice, and the snow on the road gradually gets filthy and shifted up onto the pavement’s edges, narrowing any pathways. One must walk most carefully. I plod along hardly lifting my feet. Cailean, in his dark blue or tartan overcoat pads along quickly on short dachshund legs. By the time we get home he’s shivering and his underside is very grubby. I’m cold as well, no matter how many layers I’ve dressed in, and even my sturdy shoes are soggy and need to go by the fire. For all that, we are enjoying our walks in the purple world.

When I went to get my fibre-optic Christmas tree out of the cupboard in the back porch a week ago I found it below no end of boxes, bags and bits of furniture. That cupboard is a catch-all. So I decided to empty the cupboard, remove the tree in its box, and then restack things neatly. And I did all that, in a little over an hour. There’s no heating in the back porch and it was not exactly pleasant work. My cupboard is now as tidy as one could get, the tree in its box is still in there, on top of everything; I was so tired that I couldn’t be arsed to take it out and assemble it. I’ve settled with arranging my greeting cards around the fireplace in the front room. Perfectly happy with that, I am.

There is a tall brass standing lamp with a very large pink shade in my front room. It looks like something I imagine a Victorian whorehouse might feature. This is conjecture; I’ve not been in a Victorian whorehouse. But one sees films. With the lamp lit the room glows pink. The electric fire is disguised as a coal oven, and that gleams nicely. With the greeting cards along the hearth, on the mantelpiece and around a large mirror, the room is very seasonal. If my curtains are open, there’s usually snow flying around outside and icicles hanging about. Yes, it works rather well.

I have put up some lights. This meant that I had to stand on the one chair with a flat, fairly hard seat; not something I like doing as I do not enjoy heights, ladders, wobbling and reaching. Two days ago my overhead light fixture in the bathroom suddenly made a popping noise, and one of its three bulbs went dark. A few hours later a second bulb blew. Now my bathroom is in the centre of the flat, and there is no window to the outside. There are no electrical outlets; one could not even take in a small lamp in an emergency. It is always like midnight in there! In the past I’ve only been able to get the particular bulbs from a shop up in Alnwick, so I was wondering how I’d manage that in the ice and snow. However, I was plodding past a little shop in Amble that sells electrical goods (radios, hair-dryers, clocks and TVs) and thought to go in. The shopkeeper now has light bulbs and (Hallelujah!) had the very kind I needed. A secular prayer answered?

I headed home with my bulbs (I bought extras, the darn things seem to burn out every six months) and got out my chair. A few unsteady minutes later my lights were up and the bathroom was well-lit once more. No peeing or shaving in the dark!

Yesterday the electricity went off all over the village. The snow was falling heavily and the roads had not been ploughed or gritted, and few cars had even tried to navigate them. Coast Guard, fire and hospital ambulance vehicles crawled past the flat, a helicopter was overhead somewhere, sirens going off. Despite the falling snow and cold, suddenly the street outside was heaving with people on foot heading down the hill after the emergency crews. Hours later the lights came on again, but I have not been able to discover what the brouhaha was all about.

For some, this is a most holy season. I grew up singing carols and Christmas hymns at grammar school and in church. We usually had a tree in the living room, and we had dodgy lights on it; if one burned out, they all switched off. Which was the bad bulb? An hour to try every last one.

Christmas Eve was reserved for a family meal. The turkey tended to be dry and for some reason we had nasty tinned Danish hams. A sherry trifle (without the sherry) was usually served for dessert. When I was in my mid- to late-teens I used to attend a candle-lit service at St Paul’s (Church of England) with friends at midnight on Christmas Eve, usually fortified with eggnog. Gifts were opened early on Christmas Day. We always had a tin of Quality Street chocolates. Christmas Day meant The Queen's Speech on the telly. Boxing Day meant more visiting with family.

I hardly think of Christmas in a Christian context now. I’m not really alone in that. I’m fairly sure not one of my greeting cards has featured a Nativity scene this year. I have had several dogs wearing Santa hats, which Cailean appreciates.

I think there’s no Christian church or sect that holds strictly to the belief that 25 December is the actual day on which its Jesus was born. The Mormons, I think, say it’s on their magical 6 April. If one believes the Bible (and I cannot say I do now) the indications are that Jesus was born in the spring.

It would be nice to mark the season as a time of peace. The birth of the Prince of Peace if you wish; though the Bible has him saying (prophetically, accurately) that he was not bringing peace, but a sword. Looking at today’s headlines, we seem further from peace than ever. The bright lights might well be explosions in the East.

Here’s a lovely bit of Shakespeare (Richard II, Act II, Scene IV):

The bay-trees in our country are all wither'd
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change;
Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap,
The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,
The other to enjoy by rage and war:
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

Shakespeare seems to have sad tidings, little comfort and joy. Despite that, the words he uses are exquisite. Little purple lights above a cold, dark street.

What to do? Back to André Gide:

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Today, at the Demonstration ...

DUKE OF AUMERLE: Where is the duke my father with his power?

KING RICHARD II: No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?

William Shakespeare (Richard II. Act III, Scene II)

WE HAVE HAD SOMETHING OF AN UPRISING here in England as students faced with university fees increasing threefold have painted banners, hitch-hiked, rented buses and otherwise found transportation to the main cities. London, of course, has been at the top of every protestor’s list; in particular the area of London, Westminster, near the Houses of Parliament.

A few weeks ago rioting students smashed their way into the headquarters of the Conservative Party. Watching the television coverage (Today’s riot will be shown from early afternoon until the evening, with little or no commercial interruption...) it seems to me that glass doors and windows can be smashed, demolished, breached rather easily. There seem to be a good many scruffy lads in hoodies and balaclavas taking to the streets with tins of spray paint, rather than fountain pens and artists' HB pencils, and the means to make hand-sized missiles from larger blocks, and to create flaming torches, which can be pitched at the overwhelmed lines of police. Some of these “students” have managed to get interviewed on the major television networks, out on the battle lines. Curiously, some speak little English, and rather than challenge the Government on its Education policy, they’ve ranted about the Middle East and Afghanistan. I cannot imagine this sort of behaviour being tolerated in the USA. Let’s not import anarchists!

Last week’s pitched battle in Parliament Square featured a good deal of damage. Winston Churchill’s statue in the Square was defaced. Up in Whitehall the Cenotaph was also desecrated; one of the thugs has been arrested and charged and he turns out to be the son of one of our more famous rock musicians. His eloquent apology, so heartfelt and beautifully phrased that I imagine the finest (most expensive) lawyers wrote it, was issued within a day. He claimed not to know what the Cenotaph was. As every city, town and village has a war memorial, and the Cenotaph in Whitehall is the focus of national attention every year in November (so just a few weeks ago), I find it remarkable that a university student could be so blissfully ignorant concerning its identity and purpose. During last week’s goings-on, the national Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square was attacked, and attempts made to set it on fire. Then Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, were set on in their car on the way to the theatre. Mobsters yelled: “Off with their heads!” The Prince has armed escorts, but no shots were fired. I imagine that sort of restraint would not be found in many cities of the world. Put President Obama’s children in a car in Washington DC and have dozens of thugs smash at it, and poke through the window, and spray paint about ... I’d not expect a royal wave. Security would take out the perpetrators.

Now, I sympathise to some extent with our university students, but the fees they are going to have to pony up are far less than those that students in, say, America do. I’m interested in scholarship opportunities. I’d rather see working class, but intelligent and determined boys and girls in our great universities than rich kids with parents who sit on the boards of our corporations who are in Oxbridge to party and punt and poke fun of the lower orders in footlights productions. The best, and not necessarily the wealthiest, should rise to the top.

I am in favour of peaceful protests. I know the temptation to play to the television cameras is overwhelming, and the youngsters probably feel strongly about the War in Afghanistan (Britain is broke, we hear day after day, yet we can pour money into a losing battle for a distant land with little but sand, scrub and opium poppies to offer us), but let’s talk about what the day’s banner is highlighting. I’d go to an anti-war rally and march under that banner. I cannot multi-task so well, the banner could get too large.

As our economic crisis and the increasing cuts in government funded programmes, and huge job losses, are felt, I expect the workers will join the demonstrations. We may be seeing only the beginning of a long, hard winter. Seems to me that if people dislike our governing parties, the Coalition of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats, we should be getting rid of them at the ballot box, starting in the villages and towns, and then the counties and if parliamentary seats can be freed up for new elections by disenchanted electorates, that’s fine.

So, that’s a picture-postcard of Britain as Christmas 2010 approaches on icy feet. And I wondered what quotation I might use. One always associates King Richard II with a disenchanted populace. Richard II was born in 1367, became King at the age of about 10, and had to deal with the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when he was just a lad of 14. I dare say, as do the historians, Richard had a fair bit of help in putting down the Revolt. He actually gave in to many of the demands of the peasants and their noble supporters, but a few years later he got his revenge on everyone he could. Richard II was the first of our kings (and hardly the last) to be convinced that he was King by the Grace of God. He had a bit of a superiority complex.

Richard’s peasants were up in arms over three sets of Poll Taxes imposed to fund unsuccessful overseas wars (in Europe). Richard married the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, King of Bohemia, and started sending considerable amounts of money, raised by taxes, to his father-in-law’s causes in Europe. An EU of the 1380s, if you like.

Of course, if you’ve read your Shakespeare (and Richard II is a popular live production as it has some glorious speeches) you will know that in 1399 King Richard was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke who declared himself King Henry IV, as one does. Richard, who had been something of a gourmet, who was fond of new and interesting foodstuffs, expanded the Palace kitchens and even commissioned a cookbook, was, after his abdication, a bit of an embarrassment and a focus for enemies of the new King Henry IV, and was gaoled and starved to death. Dead in 1400 at the age of 33. He did not lose his head. He eventually was buried in Westminster Abbey with his wife. They’d never had children.

If you are demonstrating in Parliament Square, you should notice Westminster Abbey over to one side. I suggest you go in the Abbey at the end of the day, you may be able to go inside for free (even more likely if you can persuade the doorkeepers that you’re going to attend evensong). Get yourself a guide and find the tomb of King Richard II. Pop round to Poets’ Corner too, and look up at the monument to William Shakespeare, who oversees all, and appreciate that it is probably Shakespeare who we should thank for our perceptions of King Richard II and the difficulties he had with his subjects, both high and low born.

Shakespeare worked hard, came from a fairly humble family but worked at his schooling. He phrased his opinions in words that we hug to our breasts 400 years later. He rose to the top.

Go to the demonstration, speak well (and learn how to do that, it can be done at home and at the public library), and deserve our support and respect. Represent us well.

At the end of the day, when night is darkest, we will all be gone. Our marks on the earth will dissolve and fade. Perhaps a few words will linger on for a thousand years (The Holy Bible and Valley of the Dolls come to mind). The best we can do, should do, is to teach those coming up after us to be an ensample, to create history from our footfalls.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ice, with Tequila

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?
William Shakespeare (Richard II, Act I, Scene III)

LAST NIGHT I WAS SAT in the bar at a luxurious hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was warm outside; I was protected against the heat by air-conditioning, behind glass doors. I knew I was in Santa Fe by the view, adobe buildings everywhere, including the upscale one where I sipped some sweet cocktail.

I’m just getting over a bit of a bladder infection, and got up and made my way to the WC (they seem to be called Restrooms in the USA) to relieve myself. When I’d done peeing and washed my hands, I wandered over to a window and pushed aside the curtains. It was quite dark, though I could make out the shape of the terrace across the street in the dim street light on the corner. Snow was blowing along the street, from east to west, as it had been for about eight days. Looking down and out, my window ledge was under a foot of snow (still) and the pavement was shimmering with crushed snow and ice.

Hardly Santa Fe in August.

I’d not been drinking some sticky, warming concoction in a bar. There was a mug by my bed with the remains of some hot cocoa (now long cold). I grabbed the mug and padded out in my bare feet to the kitchen, stepped into the back porch (no insulation on its roof, it is colder than Main Street in Park City, Utah, in January), reached into the cupboard that contains the controls for the boiler, and flipped a couple of switches. Back into the kitchen. I ran hot water, nearly boiling, into the kitchen sink, and rinsed my mug. That done, I filled the mug with milk and put it in the microwave for exactly 3.50 minutes. That gets it just boiling.

While the milk heats in the microwave, I hitch Cailean up to his harness and lead and push him out the front door. The back door (pictured this morning) is now blocked by snow. Cailean takes two or three tiny dachshund steps, squats, and widdles and runs back inside. Just as I put the small measure of Cailean’s breakfast into his bowl, the microwave makes its five loud binging sounds. I add an artificial sweetener tablet and a spoonful of coffee to the boiling milk. Then we go back to bed till seven, by which time the flat will have warmed up.

I get up and have a shower at seven o’clock. Cailean stays under the duvet on the bed until sometime after ten if we are home for the day. For the past eight or nine snow-days, we’ve been very much at home. I usually get a text or telephone call early in the morning from someone checking to see if I’m okay if I'm not collected to go out at the usual 8.00am.

I don’t eat breakfast if I’m at home. If I go out for the morning, or for the day, I will get something to eat while away from Cailean. He’s on a diet and if I have a meal in front of him (never mind he’s had his weighed-out portion of Adult Diet Lite Chow) he gets awfully anxious and whines a good deal. This spoils my enjoyment of my bit of toast, or bowl of cereal.

I’m writing about the days at home today, rather than my days out, as my longest journey has been to the pet shop. That same morning I got a haircut. Five aging men waiting for the one barber to clip her way through us. Waiting in the tiny barbershop. It was lovely and warm, almost steamy, and one could watch the telly or the snow blowing into the doorway at the bank across the street. The bank has been unable to open as the required number of staff for security purposes cannot get to town with the roads impassable. The girl in the barbershop lives only doors away, and was content to manage without her colleagues.

Our minimart has been getting food in irregularly, and each arrival prompts panic-buying. At times there’s no dairy or meat, no vegetables, but plenty of Cheerios boxed cereals and Kleenex tissues. Rather eager participation in the Lotto; I dare say people are thinking their first million will buy a house in the Seychelles.

I plodded along to the minimart this morning and managed to get fresh strawberries, freshly-made soup, pasta filled with buffalo mozzarella and salad greens. I also bagged two cartons of 1% milk from a dairy down in Yorkshire. Usually I get my milk from a Scottish concern, which is closer than Yorkshire, but right now one gets what one can. Yes, I got a Lotto ticket. If I win the £12,000,000 tomorrow, I’m not going to the Seychelles or anywhere overseas. However, I might pack a bag for myself and Cailean and have a week or two in a posh hotel ordering the fun beverages one might get in Santa Fe. “A tequila anything, if you please, with a wee umbrella. And a dish of pistachio nuts. Rawhide bone for my companion.”

I may well see snow from my hotel window. Unlike by flat, I dare say I could request that the heating be on before I wake up. No wandering in the near-dark to get the boiler fired up. And surely, for all the money I’d have from my Lotto win, there would be a place outside for Cailean to toilet that did not involve jostling with polar bears.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Images and Ideals

It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

A FEW YEARS AFTER MY FATHER VANISHED I dragged one of our dining room chairs into my mother’s bedroom, placed it in the doorway of her cupboard, climbed onto it, stretched out my arms, and pulled several items down from a shelf that had been well out of reach until that moment. I’d have been, perhaps, seven or eight.

In a box was a very large fishing reel. I don’t recall my father, or my mother, ever fishing. I’ve never seen photographs of them with rods and reels on boats or on the coastline. There was no line on the reel, and there was nothing else that might have some connection to the sport.

In another box was my father’s hand-gun. I recognized it, I recalled Dad shooting lizards on one occasion. Lizards on our bougainvilleas. The large, bright green Warwick lizards did no harm, and probably ate bugs that we’d be glad to see the back of. Why did he shoot them?

On the shelf in the top of the cupboard were also large, white sheets of paper. Artists’ paper. I pushed the fishing reel and the gun back onto the shelf and pulled the rolled-up pages out. I knew that my father had painted watercolours of landscapes, and sometimes cartoonish characters. These pictures had been given away as gifts. My father had also painted a large mural on one wall of my sisters’ bedroom. This depicted Snow White and I believe it owed a good deal to the Disney organization. For some reason the mural was short-lived, painted over. Looking back, it occurs to me that I’d have loved a mural related to my favourite book “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” in my small box-room.

The sheets of paper, when unrolled, revealed studies of female nudes. Somewhat more astonishing than the gun and fishing reel I’d rejected. I have some memory of these paintings, which depicted a sort of idealised woman, nobody I knew (or that anybody knew). Rather, a somewhat animated depiction of the perfected human form. The sort of cartoon females one might find in Playboy Magazine, though I did not appreciate this when I was seven years of age.

I was interested in painting. However, I was not permitted to use my father’s many tubes of watercolour paints which he kept in a drawer in the kitchen. I was given a box of Lake District coloured pencils, the sort that one could dip in water and get interesting results.

For some reason, some years later, my father abandoned original art and became a fanatic follower of the “Paint by Number” school. I remember the unpleasant smell of the oils to this day. One or two large Paint by Number pictures were framed and hung in the house where Dad lived with his second family. I believe they disappeared as he moved on to his third family. Towards the end of his life, my father collected paintings by one of my cousins, a professional artist. That cousin still paints, and lives not far from me. He has a portrait of my father (his uncle) hanging in his Northumberland home.

When I was young, my father would take photographs of me and my two sisters. We’d all be under ten, pudgy kids, out for a Sunday half-day with the usually absent parent. Dad had a theory about photographs: one must never look at the camera, but off into the distance so that the picture was always a side-view. It was also important that we formed a line, by height (so, by age). If possible the picture of the three children had some sort of setting that framed them. For example, a moon-gate or a wide doorway. In one home that Dad rented there was a very large fireplace, and one might be posed so as to be below the mantelpiece and within the sides, sat on the hearth itself.

Dad took slides rather than print photographs. We’d have shows from time to time using his carousel-type projector. I heard just the other day that my youngest brother has got his hands on what I believe are these slides from the 1950s and 1960s. He’s working at getting them into his computer, so I’m rather hoping to look at them soon, after forty years.

I took art classes at Warwick Academy. In fact, we all did until we were about thirteen. After that, one had to choose between a science and art & religion. Both art and religion. Art might have been fun, but the attached religion was off-putting. I went for Chemistry. In the art classes I had before the switch to the lab, we used cheap powder paints which we mixed in the aluminium foil trays from TV Dinners. Our art mistress, apparently, survived on Swanson’s rather unpleasant heat and serve meals. My father also ate these when he was between wives. Frankly, the art mistress was no better at her artwork than at food preparation.

At home, I collected the “Betta Builda” plastic blocks with a passion. If I could find the shilling, I’d buy another small box of blocks, windows, roof tiles. One might construct buildings suitable for a toy train system. I longed for a train, but never got one. However, I had a great many blocks, enough to build more than little railway stations and cottages. I was building churches and then cathedrals, offices, shops and museums and galleries. And here’s something curious: Almost fifty years later I dream of my Betta Builda blocks, my buildings. I still, some nights, snap so many bricks together and create places to house my imaginary people. I still don’t have a train, not even in my dreams.

Along with the plastic homes and villages, I assembled models from kits. Usually aeroplanes (of course, I had a “Spitfire”) and sailing ships (of course, HMS Victory).

At the Medway College of Technology I studied engineering drawing, and passed the course. I never took that any further.

In my late teens I had a go at painting again. In fact, I took part in a group show. I wasn’t too good at creating pleasant pictures and had the good sense to abandon this. Years later I had a go at being an art critic for a newspaper. I know what I like, and simply rated things on my personal scales. Now I have a go at photography. I have Photoshop installed in my computer this winter and hope to learn how to use it.

I have met another Eldridge Family artist recently, a cousin’s son, who is an animator, who makes films using puppets. This lad looks so like my father at that age (early 20s) that I was quite taken aback.

I keep paints and artist’s brushes in the flat. Now and then I dab a bit of watercolour or acrylic in a book. I'd love to have my Betta Builda blocks back from my dreams. One of my sisters dumped the originals, and the toy company that made them sold out to Lego (which was an inferior system, in my opinion). In truth, I prefer to build, sketch and colour with words.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Burning Issues

Last Post

Nothing goes by luck in composition. It allows of no tricks.
The best you can write will be the best you are.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I RECENTLY AWOKE in the wee hours with an unusual dream playing out in my mind; so curious a vision that, weeks later, I can still see portions of it, and it is no less vivid.

As I slept, I was sat at an old, manual typewriter. I recognized the bulky model; it was a Royal that would date back to the years shortly after World War Two. It was my father’s machine that he used when he worked as secretary-treasurer of the Co-op in Bermuda in the evenings, from home.

Some background. When my father finished his stint in the Royal Navy he decided to stay in Bermuda, rather than to return to his family in the United Kingdom. He worked for a time for the British government in the Colonial Secretariat in Bermuda’s awfully small capital, the City of Hamilton. I can remember, in the early 1950s, my mother starching my father’s white shirts and shorts. He wore Bermuda shorts and knee-socks, which was something of a mistake for somebody with legs best described as scrawny. I recall Dad working at the Department of Agriculture, in its offices in the Botanical Gardens. Then he moved on to the Bank of N.T. Butterfield, where he remained for over thirty years.

I should point out that when I was quite young, and my two sisters even younger, our father left the nest. My parents did not have a great deal, some of our furniture had been home-built with wood from, and I’m guessing, packing cases. My bed, and some of our chests of drawers had come, second-hand, from Bermuda’s Hospital where my mother’s father worked in Stores. Our bed linen was also courtesy of the Hospital. We had metal furniture painted with lead-based, hospital-white, glossy enamel. If the furniture was scratched or bumped one could smell the lead. If that was not unpleasant enough, my mother believed everything could be controlled with Flit. This was a vile-smelling insecticide that might have been directed at the abundant flies, roaches and mosquitoes. I remember an act of considerable cruelty when my mother would aim the Flit pump at the spaniel to get it to emerge from under an armchair (where it was probably hiding from the stench of the kerosene stove). My mother never could figure out why her canaries (she always had two, both males as the females do not sing, one in the kitchen and one in the dining room) were so short-lived. I could tell her years later that canaries were carried into mines as a warning against poisonous gasses. At the age of 65 my mother died a horrible death of cancer that was diagnosed only in its last stages; she might have had it for years. I could tell her years later about the cancer deaths that come decades after exposure to radiation (think Hiroshima) or asbestos (in buildings and boilers) or from toxic metals and paints and sprays. I could tell her, but she popped her clogs almost twenty years ago.

If my father left behind the poisonous hospital furnishings, he took with him his chain-smoking habit. I never saw him free of a cigarette. I used to have panic attacks when he’d be driving us in the car, steering with his knees while using both hands to strike a match to light another fag. This before electric lighters in the car’s dashboard. Used matches and cigarette butts went out the window; the ash-tray was tiny. Sometimes the still-burning butt would fly in again through the rear window.

My father was never a heavy drinker to the best of my knowledge. I don’t ever recall him being incapacitated by drink in any way. I’d be naive to think he never got off his face with one of his lady friends, but I don’t think he drank at home alone. He may have been a sad bastard at times, but not through alcohol.

My father’s second wife, who I liked a great deal, who was always kind to me even if she’d correct my diction and grammar (I appreciate that now), introduced us to classical music and good food. She was an excellent cook (my mother couldn’t boil a cabbage, though she tried often enough) and was always amused when I’d persuade Dad to treat me to a banana split at the Parakeet, an eatery in Bermuda that was a few clicks nicer than the Sea Venture Cafe, though hardly the epitome of fine dining. My step-mother was raised near Liverpool in the years between the wars and complicated ice-cream desserts were not to be had there and then. When I ordered a banana split, I had it with “the works”. My step-mother has been dead over twenty-five years; she died young, in her fifties. My step-mother drank herself out of her career as an extraordinarily gifted history teacher, and then to death; not over-night, I must point out, but I rarely saw her sober in the twenty-something years she was part of my family.

When my father died, aged seventy, which is a fair age for the Eldridge male (I know this from my family history studies), there was an autopsy as his death was sudden and unexpected. The results of this medical examination revealed that my father had been in dreadful health, his body was failing fast. Two aneurysms killed him on the day, but unhealthy living had taken its toll. The chain-smoking. For all I know, my mother’s dreadful cooking and the deadly paints and sprays that surrounded us when I was a child did their worst.

Three of my grandparents died of cancer. In my mother’s family, sixty was an exceptional age. With one exception, my mother’s mother lived until she was 104, and she died of extreme old age past the time of enjoying the business of living. She’d tell me she wanted to die, had just had enough. Working in a cotton mill at age eleven, and my grandfather’s lead-based paint must have toughened her up somehow. My grandfather chain-smoked and died of cancer, their home was always full of fumes.

My father’s father died of lung cancer. I remember him struggling to breathe, to talk, to walk very far. He did not smoke, so far as I know, when he was dying (and knew he was dying). My Nan died of cancer of the gut, I believe. When I was in my teens my Nan and I would play shove ha-penny or cribbage and she’d have one of my cigarettes, and she’d pour me a glass of sherry, or port, from one of her bottles.

I was a chain-smoker from the age of seventeen, smoking until I was thirty-one, with six months here and there when I’d quit half-heartedly. When I go to the doctor now for my annual physical my past as a smoker is reviewed, even though I’ve not smoked in thirty years. A month ago I applied for an insurance policy and the interviewer pestered me about my smoking. For me, it is important that I’ve not given in to the constant temptation to light up a cigarette for three decades. It is an achievement. The insurance contract notes only that I’ve not smoked in the last twelve months.

The man at the insurance company asked me how many units of alcohol I drink a day. I told him I probably had three small glasses of wine a year, and hadn’t really had a regular drink in thirty-five years. “But,” the insurance man said, “I need to know how many units that would be in, say, a week.” I got defensive and said that in volume it was about nothing. “But you do drink. So I need to know the unit.” I finally told him to put down one unit, whatever that is, a week. His form did not allow for less. I told the man I’d worked in the insurance industry for AIG and also for the Hartford Insurance Group and thought his forms with my inaccurate information were not quite fair to his employer or to me. I guess I could start drinking, but I honestly don’t much care for the stuff and only sip something perhaps three times a year when someone or something is being toasted and a drink has been placed in front of me without me necessarily asking for it.

Over the years I have taken substances that do awfully bizarre things to the mind, if not so much to the body if we’re talking wobbly legs and waving arms. I do not know if these drugs can damage one’s organs to the extent of shortening one’s life substantially. Obviously, I put my life at risk riding a scooter when tripping on this or that psychedelic. And it seems extraordinary to me that I didn’t let myself float away on LSD. I have taken some drugs in quantities that certainly put my life at risk at the time. If I’d died the coroner would probably have decided I’d accidentally topped myself. The man from the insurance company who quizzed me recently had few questions relating to drugs. I was asked if my blood pressure was normal and I said I took a particular medication which kept it steady, and I had it checked routinely. I gave him the required information about my other medical treatments, some of which are quite heavy duty. He was less concerned than I am. At the end of the insurance quiz he asked if I’d attempted to kill or harm myself in the past year. I told him that never in my life had I tried to end it all.

Back to my dream a fortnight ago. I was sat at my father’s old black Royal typewriter as I did as a child. In fact, I have used a typewriter starting with that one since I was not much over five years old. I’ve had both manual and electric machines. For the past fifteen years I’ve used a computer. I do hand-write notes on scratch pads I leave around the flat (buy mushrooms, look up meaning of the word novella, phone sister, book dinner at the Widdrington Inn), but when I do write, I use a keyboard. And I was sat at a small table in the middle of a sparsely-furnished room, the typewriter filling most of the table-top, and I was not typing, but looking intently at the old machine which had a sheet of paper in the rollers. Suddenly it burst into flames. Not small flames, but a raging fire. I reached through the flames and (not being harmed) picked up the typewriter and carried it across the room and placed it outside a door on a patio that I did not recognise any more than the room I was in. The machine continued to burn, without being consumed, out on the ground. I closed the door and walked across the room with its now-empty table, past that, and as I went through another door I woke up.

I’ve come across two projects that are affecting other people in the month of November. A number of men are growing moustaches this month, and are being sponsored financially for doing so. The muzzies can come off in December. I’ve had a moustache since I left school. I’m not messing with it, but when I make some donation to charity next, I’ll think “whiskers” as I sign the cheque, or drop the coin in the box.

Another group is taking part in a writing project. The idea is to roll out a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, in thirty days and no more. By definition of most people in the publishing industry, 50,000 words is the lowest limit of a novel. A novella would be 20,000 to 50,000 words, a novel 50,000 to 110,000. Apparently most publishers would not be interested in less than 70,000 words for a first novel. If you manage something over 110,000 words it might be called an epic (or anything by Stephen King).

In grammar school we wrote essay answers, we had no multiple-choice questions. In English we wrote compositions, a few hundred words on The Lawnmower or Life in My Town. We also might be given a 300 word section from some well-known book and we’d have to write a précis of it, perhaps 175 words.

In another life I wrote a newspaper column for a weekend publication, and that ran to about 2,000 words a time. I generally left that till the last moment.

For several years I’ve had this Barking Mad Blog. The entries run from 1,500 to 2,500 words; I’m not sure why. Perhaps I fancy a cup of tea after 2,000 words and the writing mood dissipates quickly. I never know my subject matter till the last word has been typed, and then I might think: “So that’s it...” This means I understand my meaning, and I’ve finished the damn thing. If I were writing a tale of some kind, 2,500 words would be in the short story category.

Now and then, over the years, I’ve written something that bothered somebody. When I was very young I think it was an effort to be a smart-arse. I’m no longer young and it seems to me that there are burning issues that I might tackle. Health, family life and personal history seem important to me now. I am also looking at politics and religion (Wilde said that one should not mention these in polite society) because I’m seeing some real problems in both of these. If my father was a Conservative because he thought he ought to be, despite a working class background, I tend to Socialism despite a fairly privileged upbringing. Perhaps I am a Champagne Socialist (though hardly a unit a week). Regarding religion, I imagine some think I go on and on about Mormonism too much. This is because what I was taught nearly forty years ago has been recently shown to be a lot of old cobblers. The missionaries didn’t know they were telling fibs and doctored doctrine, and when I held positions in the Mormon Church I had no idea either. A bit of a crusade to wage there, though it is interesting intellectually. How to fool millions of people for almost two hundred years.

Was my dream of a burning typewriter a warning of what might happen if I write on? Sitting down to write, starting, somehow, a fire? I’ve not blogged since I had that dream. Now I’m back. Will the typewriter be on my dream-desk tonight?

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Hungry Years Revisited

I stand upon the shore of a wide sea
Whose unknown depths profound I soon must cross
When the last sand of life runs out for me.
The clouds have fled. I look back on my life
And find it brighter than I was aware.
David H. Smith (The Parting)

THE SEA VENTURE was a greasy spoon on the Harbour Road in Warwick, Bermuda, next to the Darrell’s Wharf ferry stop, and within walking distance of Warwick Academy where I was taking my GCE “O” Levels.

I never really mastered the art of studying for examinations; if I attended a class and took notes, that was it. I would not reread my notes or do further research from other sources, even if requested and required. I did not take schoolwork home. What I heard and remembered, and what lodged in my mind during the short time it took to summarise the lesson’s points in a few words, was all that I took into the hall or gymnasium where we sat in rows to write about Biology, or History, or Physics, or Chemistry. In fact, I sat eight “O” Level examinations and passed six, and only just managed those by the smallest margin. A year later I picked up the two GCEs I had failed at first: French and English.

Looking back forty-five years, I recall very little about the subjects, the information I was tackling so badly then. I do manage to revisit the classrooms, the looks of my fellow pupils, the teachers, and the layout of the rooms, the dust and the boredom. Right now I can picture my situation in every one of the forms I spent a school year in, and I sometimes dream of what might be thought the best years of my life, spent in grey trousers and a blazer in the winter, and khaki shorts and knee-socks in the warmer weather months. I would be hard-pressed to tell you much about Pythagoras’s Theorem now. In a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Every schoolboy knows that, and that Henry VIII died in 1547. I must have been able to demonstrate that theorem in 1965, in a concise manner. One could not waffle about such things and get away with it.

I could tell anyone trapped by my words in 2010 (one would hope enthralled, dazzled by my genius) a fair bit about the Sea Venture restaurant on Harbour Road. Basically a hamburger joint, it began as a long, narrow room next to a shorter narrow room occupied by Betty’s Beauty Salon. The Sea Venture eventually nudged Betty out of the building and put a few tables where the accoutrements of the hairdressing business had been. The main room at the Sea Venture featured a long counter and one sat on uncomfortable stools there facing the Harbour. However, there were no windows, one looked around cake-stands at the grill and cupboards which housed the tools of the eatery business, and, I suppose, the comestibles that did not need refrigeration. There were three two-seater tables on the road side and one could look out at the passing traffic, but as I rarely went alone or with just one other person, we tended to sit at the counter or in the annexed room.

As a little boy, I’d been taken to the Sea Venture with my sisters on Sunday outings with my father. At home the only meats I recall having were chicken drumsticks, and minced beef made into a pie with onions and potatoes. We might have fish fingers on a Friday. My mother was a most unaccomplished cook. One of my sisters, to this day, tells me she believes our mother prepared nice food. That sister has inherited our mother’s and grandmother’s inabilities in the kitchen and I cannot eat the food she prepares. She can turn anything into sticks and sawdust. My father had not stayed with my mother longer than it took him to get residency status in Bermuda. Perhaps, if she had been able to prepare fine dinners he might have stayed longer. I imagine her bouts of insanity would have scared him off in time. My father never took us to the lodging house he might have been living in (I wonder if he was untidy, or ashamed at his situation) and, so, to the Sea Venture for a hamburger and a Coca Cola. We got to know the original owners of the restaurant, the DeCosta family, quite well.

The hamburgers at the Sea Venture were very good, juicy and not over-cooked, if not very large. One could not get a double burger in one bun, it was not on the menu, and Manny DeCosta would happily sell you two burgers on two buns, but he’d not fool with nature. The French fries, as they were listed in the menu, being what at home we called chips, were delicious and one lathered them with tomato ketchup from a plastic squeeze bottle. One could squeeze mayonnaise and mustard on the burger or hot dog one might order. Coca Cola or a milkshake to drink. They had pies and cakes for dessert, which could be served à la mode. If my father could be persuaded to part with another shilling, I’d have blueberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. That did not happen very often.

Curiously, I managed to be awfully thin into my teen years, despite the burgers and fries and milkshakes. In fact, I was concerned that I was too scrawny and rowed a boat to try and build myself up. The exercise made no difference. I was introduced to steak, pork and beans covered in brown sugar, asparagus, and yams covered in marshmallows, and lavish desserts in the bountiful kitchen of friends, in my last year at Warwick Academy. I started to gain a little weight. I gained something more important: access to books, wonderful books, many, many books. That triggered a passion for reading that has not relented to this day. I often find myself skipping meals because I’m deep into a book. I can write while eating, but I cannot read and manipulate a knife and fork.

Manny DeCosta had sold the Sea Venture during my last year at Warwick Academy; the new owner, Carlos, another Portuguese fellow (we called them Gees, which is probably offensive), hiked the prices. With schoolmates skipping classes or at the end of lesson time I’d pop into the restaurant for French fries and a Coke. Burgers were too costly. I did find another burger joint across the Harbour in Hamilton. The Hawaiian Room had fishnets pinned to the ceiling, and nautical decor. Pretty ghastly, come to think of it. But I could rustle up the price of their Hawaiian Burger (it had a pineapple ring atop the beef patty) and a butterscotch sundae.

During my teens I was mowing lawns and washing dishes for a few pounds a week. Out of those few blue notes I managed to buy a long-playing record album for 31/6 (just over one-and-a-half pounds) and the odd shirt or pair of trousers. Odd, indeed. I was attracted to shirts with floral prints, low-slung denim jeans, suede waistcoats and outrageous flowered ties. I was growing my hair and starting the moustache that I have to this day.

As a child, in England, I’d sometimes go to Wimpy Bars. The little Wimpy burgers were the size of those at the Sea Venture, but, I thought, tasteless by comparison. At the Sea Venture one could ask for all sorts of add-ons: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and get French fries with endless reserves of ketchup. In Bermuda there is an expression: “Don’t get foolish with the mayonnaise!” which means, I think, don’t go overboard with it. But it was a joke as everyone wanted as much mayonnaise as possible, and on anything.

I spent the summer holidays of 1971 in London, sub-letting an apartment in Earl’s Court. The apartment had an unpleasant and very small kitchen with a meter than was coin-operated. I made only coffee there. In Earl’s Court, near the subway entrance, was a new eatery called The Hungry Years. The frontage was striking: Embedded in the window glass somehow was a life-size picture of a bread-line from the 1930s. The sort of thing one associates more with North America than the UK, The Grapes of Wrath. I was drawn inside and found wood-panelled walls, a dark and quite large room. The Hungry Years served hamburgers. One could order the burgers by quarter-pound increments. One might have a quarter-pound patty (before cooking) on a roll, or a half-pound of meat. If you wanted a pound of beef, you could have it. The burgers were delicious and one could specify cooking time. Behind the bread-line on the windows the clientele stuffed themselves to the gills with what was probably more beef than was healthy.

I’d discovered McDonald’s hamburgers in the USA in 1970, and they were good. I eventually became a fan of the “Quarter Pounder with Cheese”. The burgers at The Hungry Years were better.

And in 1971, at the age of 21, I had my first anxiety attacks while in London. I never knew when I might be rendered immobile, there seemed no logic to it. One day I’d be racing around the English countryside in a friend’s roadster, or I’d be partying happily at a club till all hours, and then I’d try to step out for a morning paper and find myself vomiting on the pavement in a state of collapse. A year later the bad days had taken over, I had no good days.

As I finished school and blundered about in the accounting world, I felt compelled to search for the real meaning in life. For some reason, I thought psychedelics were that door to understanding everything. I wanted to know. I had to know. God might be anywhere. After my panic disorder set in, I looked to religion. A missionary posed the questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And these are good questions. Looking back, I think I’d have done well to ask other questions less sweeping, and might have built up my knowledge a little here, a little there, like GCE subjects, rather than accepting something branded The Word of God. However, I had some hunger for knowledge; if not the good sense to figure out what constitutes knowledge at the end of the day. I went for the biggest burger on the menu.

Some years later I was unwell to the point of being homeless. Not exactly without a roof over my head, except when I lost the plot completely, but in sheltered accommodation. That can be worse than sleeping on the beach or in a park or graveyard. I know. Some days and nights I just walked till I dropped. I ate mainly at a Salvation Army soup kitchen. The meals were nearly always spaghetti with three meatballs, and a reconstituted fruit drink. Only one meal a day. On Friday nights a wagon might bring soup and bread around the back streets. Always pea soup. On a Sunday night the Salvation Army kitchen was closed and a meal could be had at the Seventh-Day Adventist church hall. Always vegetables, no meat, sometimes a little pasta. I lost so much weight (over 50 lbs) that people did not recognise me. At the Seventh-Day Adventist hall the volunteers called me “Pops”. I was the only white person there, and must have looked beyond my years. I was not happy with my nickname.

I could afford to lose some weight, and I’m not sure that my hungry year did me much physical harm. Perhaps everyone should have a gap year like that? Looking back, I appreciate that my mind was well-stimulated by my difficult days.

Today I bring to the table experiences that I believe most of us have not enjoyed, or suffered. The big man cannot understand the hunger of the small man, though he might know the hunger of pure greed. To get bigger. Not just in matters of diet and physical size, but in philosophical matters, in business, in politics, in religion.

Happens I no longer eat meat. I won’t be looking for a better burger. I don’t smoke, haven’t for 30 years, but still dream I’m smoking and do crave a cigarette. And when I smell beef pies fresh from the oven at the Amble Butcher, or when the fragrance (the perfume!) of a bacon butty comes from Jasper’s Cafe, I find myself drooling. Like Pavlov’s dog. We all remember Pavlov’s dog, don’t we? Every schoolboy.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Life & Death in the Eclectic Choir

You are the music while the music lasts.
T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

I WONDER WHAT the first music I would have heard was. My father had a large wireless and he had it set to the BBC, and we were not to fiddle with the dials. Of course, we did give the various knobs a twirl and feigned innocence (untrue) and ignorance (quite true) while Dad had to try and get a clear signal again.

We did get to listen to radio programming from the United States: Jack Benny; George Burns & Gracie Allen; Amos & Andy. I’m not sure that I understood the humour, but the laughter was contagious. Gracie - playing the dimmest bulb – was once asked if her nursemaid had dropped her on her head as a baby. “Oh, no,” replied Gracie, “we could not afford a nursemaid. My mother had to do it.” The audience in the studio somewhere in America laughed, and I laughed in Bermuda. This was something I could identify with.

When I was four years of age I was sent to Humpty Dumpty College, the first pre-school in Bermuda. My father was teaching me how to read and write (I recall copying the word umbrella over and over below a picture of one that I’d made) and how to do basic geometry (drawing tangents and arcs). So far as I know, we did not have reading and writing lessons at Humpty Dumpty; we had stories read to us, which one would prefer, of course. What we did do, I know from looking at my report cards that survived so many decades in my father’s private papers, is sing and dance.

One’s nursery school teachers were not expected to tear into their pupils’ lack of ability, there was enough child psychology in the air even all those years ago, but Auntie Peggy and Auntie Norma had managed to note that I was not really cut out for a career on the stage. My dancing, even as simple a routine as the Hokey Cokey, was a struggle. I guess I’d put my left foot in ... and lose it. The kindest comment on my singing went something like this: “Ross does not manage to sing in tune, but he can sing very loudly.” That might qualify me for a career in religion or politics.

When I moved onwards and upwards to Kindergarten at Warwick Academy we began the day singing Church of England hymns; the simple ones at first such as “All Things Bright and Beautiful” but we were too soon muddling our way though “Holy, Holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty.” Christmas and Easter meant carols and anthems that one heard on the radio and played by the Salvation Army brass band on a street corner.

My father liked Broadway show tunes. Another five years of therapy for me! We had “South Pacific” and “Carousel” and “Carmen Jones” among the pile of classical records below a record player a relative had passed down to us when they upgraded to a Hi-Fi. The classical records came with the old record player, they were 78’s. I used to play Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and concertos, knowing not a thing about the composer except that his music set something off in me. (I know a great deal about the man now, and find I listen to his ballet music and “Eugene Onegin” rather than the melancholy work.)

We began more formal, and compulsory, music classes at Warwick Academy when I was, perhaps, eight-years-old. We had to sing scales, boys and girls together, all sopranos, while Miss Patricia Devlin pointed at charts with a ruler. Miss Devlin wore a full-length grey fur coat and dark glasses, and her hair was shaggy and spiky all at once. We were taught how to read music. Perhaps some were, I never, ever made sense of it. A sheet of music, to me, might as well be Greek. Except that I’d recognise some Greek letters and nothing at all among the notes and signatures that made up “music”.

When I was twelve, I joined Miss Devlin’s choir to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” for a special Easter assembly. The choir was made up of boy and girl sopranos, altos, tenors and a few basses. I was still singing soprano. Perhaps “singing” does not best describe what I was doing; I was emitting some noises in the soprano register. My voice, moreover, was breaking. Our choir had one instruction from Miss Devlin: “Sing in tune, in your key.” We had a second commandment from the Headmaster: “Sing as loudly as you can.” I managed the latter.

Despite my complete lack of musical talent (I had been unable to play three notes in the right order on a descant recorder) I was actually invited to join the boys’ choir at the Anglican Cathedral. I attended one rehearsal, singing in my loud and cracked voice, and, at the end of the hour, was to be measured for my choir robes. I’d not thought of that when I let myself be co-opted into the Cathedral choir’s ranks. I told the choir master that I needed to pop downstairs to use the toilet first. I kept on going, all the way to the bus stop.

One might think I’d steer clear of choirs after that brief moment of horror, but twenty years later, in Salt Lake City, Utah, I signed up for the Christmas performance at a Mormon church with a musical friend. Not, I should point out, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I was making bass-like noises by then and we sang several Christmas songs, carols, which I did not know. I recall a little of one that began: “Dream! Dream! Dream! Dream! I can hear the falling snow!” A more psychedelic lyric (at church) I’ve not come across yet. My friend did not sing in the Christmas service, he went overseas for the holidays. As I could not read the music we were provided with, I had to memorise my bass line. I was unready and unsteady and did not sing at all loudly. “Dream! Dream! Dream! Dream! You cannot hear me, but my lips are moving!”

I have tried to pick out a few notes on the guitar and on the piano. I am remarkably inept. Whatever portion of the brain controls musical ability is not firing at all in my mine. Could I have been dropped on my head by my nursemaid as a baby? Well, my Mother would have had to do it. Not that unlikely, she was a grand mal epileptic.

One might think that I’d have spent my life steering clear of the musical mysteries, but it has been rather the opposite. I am something of a fanatic when it comes to music. I have it playing in my head at my every waking moment. I believe this began around the time I first indulged in mind-altering drugs. After a little LSD my life switched to the Key of E (for Ecstasy). In order to control the songs (most have words) I play music on whatever device is at hand. I listen to the radio (the BBC’s 6Music is my preferred station) and watch and listen to concerts, festivals and performances on the telly. This does not, cannot, fill my ears enough.

I have an iPod Touch and an iPod Classic. I ran out of space on the former. I’m approaching 350 albums on the Classic and could listen to it non-stop for a fortnight and then some before having to begin again.

My iPod Classic certainly has a variety of music for me to match up to any mood (or to create another mood if the current one is disagreeable). I started with the complete box-set of The Beatles, digitally remastered and released about a year ago. Then I begged, bought and borrowed many albums from my 1960s experience. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Dave Clark Five, Jefferson Airplane, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Donovan, George Harrison (my favourite Beatle), the Motown artists, and so on. From the 1970s there’s Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, David Bowie, T-Rex, Pink Floyd, some of the disco divas, and many more. Lots from the 1980s and 1990s: I like The Cure, Madonna, George Michael, The Go-Gos, The B-52s, Our Lady Peace, Beck, A-Ha, Erasure, Holly Johnson, The Verve, Blur, it goes on and on. The Kaiser Chiefs and Scissor Sisters do the trick as well. So can Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Guillemots, Green Day and Darren Hayes.

On my iPod one will also find Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Fauré, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. There’s Billie Holiday and Liza Minnelli. There’s The Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun” and there’s Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”. There must be a colliery brass band in the mix, and a few hymns.

Do I sing along to all this music? Very rarely. I have neighbours and friends I’d rather not annoy. I like to use the iPod if I’m on the train (I listen to Podcasts too, while on the move) and also (curiously) when I’m reading at bedtime.

I’ve been listening to a shuffled mix of all my Rolling Stones songs while typing this. I’ve not sung out a single note. I have been tapping my feet, though no telling whether it is in time. I could be lost in the Hokey Cokey.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Refuge of the Rails

Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown.
Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine,
to them, alas! we return.
E.M Forster

WHEN I WIN THE LOTTO, I’ve said I would buy an enormous country house. If I did go up to town I’d stay, I think, in a hotel: my usual suite at the Dorchester in Mayfair. I’d not be paying penthouse prices as I am not too fond of floors above, say, the third or fourth. Fairly easy to escape from on foot in an emergency and near the kitchens if one had a hot meal delivered to one's rooms.

Town and country sorted, then. And another thing, while I’m so incredibly well off: I’d like my own private train. My train, which would have several carriages as I intend to be quite comfortable, featuring a few sleeping compartments, a private bathroom (another for guests), a lounge and an office-cum-library. A connected carriage would have staff quarters and a kitchen, and storage. I think this fantasy comes courtesy of Sir Winston Churchill who, I have heard, tootled around the country in his private railway carriage during World War Two. I understand he would dictate letters as he soaked in his bathtub. On occasion, when the train happened to be in a station when he woke in the morning, Churchill would alight and, wearing his dressing gown, look for the newspapers. To be honest, my valet would be doing that for me; I’d feel a right Charlie making my way to W.H. Smith’s in a state of dishabille.

I have been a fan, a fanatic, when it comes to trains from the first moment I rode on one. I was a little boy with my mother’s father and father’s mother, off the coach in the BOAC Terminal in Victoria, London. We walked, with our modest luggage, along to Victoria Station, and bought tickets from someone behind a wicket. Single, child, to Gillingham. The train was not at all elegant, or attractive, and it was crowded. Back in the day the corridor was along one side of the carriages, very narrow, and small compartments branched off that, each seating six fairly comfortably (three facing three). One could slide a door closed and feel quite private. You’ve seen the old movies: the man reading a newspaper, others are smoking, two girls giggling. This is Third Class: the newspaper is a tabloid, the Daily Mirror. You want The Times? Walk along to First Class. Was there a Second Class?

Ninety minutes later I’d rattled into a state of wonder: the things to see inside the train, the actual physical motion and noise as we clattered to the south and east of London, the landscape outside the window which still featured crumbled buildings and craters left over from the War. Absolute magic. British Rail.

As a teenager I enjoyed days off to London by myself on the train. Getting there and back was almost as much fun as the gallery, museum, great church or film I’d see. In the city I’d travel on the Underground. To this day I cannot figure out the London bus system, but can nip about happily on the Tube.

I recall my first trip on a train with a steam locomotive; I was not yet a teenager and felt that it was quite okay to be totally over the moon at the experience. That was in Kent, on the Isle of Sheppey. Years later I took a night-time ride on a steam-driven train in the Rocky Mountains. The Heber Creeper took passengers on a trip from the little town of Heber through the Heber Valley to Bridal Veils Falls, and back again on the same track. The adventure I signed up for with friends was to last three hours, and we were advised to take picnics, and warned that the train (with its open carriages) would be attacked by a band of marauding Indians, who would be driven off by Cowboys called to rescue us, all on horseback. Alas, our train broke down in the middle of nowhere, without hostile savages or a life-saving posse for comfort. We sat in the dark (and surprising cold, never mind it was summer) for several hours. It was after midnight when we got home.

This summer I have taken two steam train trips, one in Yorkshire and the other in Cumbria: all the rattling, the smoke and the smuts from the engine, worn upholstery and weathered woodwork. Fabulous! My private train, however, will not be drawn by a steam locomotive, and my decor will be fabulous in a different way: well-posh.

This past Monday I was off to the Lake District on a tiny cross-country train that pretty much followed Hadrian’s Wall across the north. The wee Northern Express was more like two buses in tandem riding the rails than a grown-up train. The voyage out went off almost on time, a twenty-minute delay. Coming back at night the East Coast train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, which I had to meet in Newcastle, was well over an hour late. Newcastle Station was bitterly cold with no enclosed waiting room on our platform. The loudspeaker messages in the Geordie dialect and echoing in the very nearly empty station made little sense to me. I had to keep walking to study a digital display screen. The delay was due to “security issues” on the train to the south of us. We shivered and thought “bombs” as one does these days. The Geordie voice repeated regularly his mantra about left packages in the station. They might be bombs. Don't leave any, and don't touch any. Robots will remove and detonate them.

The train eventually arrived and I noted there were not many passengers on it, few got off, only ten, perhaps, got on board. How many people simply go searching for other options? We set off at speed and then, ten minutes later, stopped dead in a dark place. So dark that I’m not sure whether we were surrounded by farmland, woodland or suburbs. We sat there in complete silence for ten minutes, and then a most apologetic voice explained that a train ahead of us, on our rail, had triggered some sort of mechanism which blocked the forward progress of all the trains behind it. Silence. Then a Scottish voice told us he was bringing tea and sandwiches (for a price) from coach B through to coach H, then he was done for the night. For the people up from London, already stuck on board for nearing five hours, one would have thought they’d offer them a free sarnie and soda. Nope.

Ten minutes more and the train began its travels again, remarkably slowly. I wasn’t sure we were moving as distant points of light seemed fixed, even though the carriage seemed to be throbbing a bit.

I had missed two buses that I could have connected with at my station, so I had to call for a taxi. My little dog had been home alone the entire day, and I’d expected to be back before the dead of night set in. Cailean had been in a dark kitchen. The welcome I got was incredible. Some dogs, fed up, might have thought to bite an ankle, but Cailean wagged his tail and ran about like a rat on crack.

Cailean, of course, will travel with me on my train. We might just stop where Cailean’s bladder dictates, rather than where the trains usually pause. Back to Churchill: Besides being somewhat well-known for his train, Churchill had what he called his “black dog” which was his name for the difficult, down periods in what I think we would now call Manic Depressive Illness, or Bipolar Disorder. I have a black dog, and the black dog. And a dream, a fantasy, of a refuge on the rails.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Enter the Whirlwind

Change your opinions,
Keep to your principles;
Change your leaves,
Keep intact your roots.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

I WORE A SWEATER YESTERDAY, as well as my corduroy jacket, and did not feel over-warm. The ghastly metal seat in the Alnwick Bus Station was really rather cold on my backside; I shall soon have to get my winter trousers down from the suitcases atop my wardrobe where I store them for the two or three months that pass for summer up here.

Yesterday’s slight chill is today’s howling gale from the north, and genuine cold. The BBC weatherman used the “F” and “S” words. Ground Frost in Northern England by Friday night, and Snow in the Scottish Highlands by weekend. I live less than 50 miles from Scotland. The first visible sign of winter in Amble is usually an open flat-bed truck come down from Scotland with an unintentional load of snow. I should point out that one’s breath shows in the cold morning air well before the imported precipitation, and I’ve noticed mine as I wait for the car for over a week now.

We had wonderfully coloured autumn leaves in 2008, and then last year, in early September, we had a sudden violent windstorm which withered most of the leaves here on the coast in a day or two. The leaves fell to the ground and blew, I think, into the North Sea before the week was out. They vanished! Autumn’s lease, like that of summer, had all too short a date. One did see some colours in forested areas inland, but nothing compared to 2008. I am watching the plants in the courtyard being blown about; they are somewhat protected. The cables and power-lines above the street are snapping about in the wind, so it’s safe to assume that the bigger trees in town are shaking like a Hawaiian hula-dancer.

There were American and Japanese tourists on the bus yesterday, most of them dressed in summer clothes. Shorts, t-shirts and blouses along with their Foster Grants. The bus hauled a fair number of them from Alnwick (their shopping bags indicated visits to the Castle with its Harry Potter connection and the Alnwick Gardens) over to Alnmouth Village. The usual anxious questions from our visitors: “Are we there yet?” “Will the pubs be open?”

There was an English couple on the bus; I’d guess a husband and wife. Older, dressed for winter, and dressed in rather more formal clothes than the foreigners. I’ll add, to be honest, this couple looked rather shabby, unkempt. They were sat together across and a few rows in front of me in the seats indicated for elderly and infirm passengers. The woman pressed the bell and the couple stood up. The signs on the bus tell us to ring the bell, but to remain seated until the bus stops. I am the only person I know who does that; even the most wibbly of the wobblies insist on rising and making their ways to the door, even as the bus thrashes about. I noticed that the gentleman with his rumpled collar and poorly-knotted tie, old grey-green suit, and a yellow cardigan, had a white stick. He turned back my way, his eyes clamped shut, and it was obvious that he’d come to town without his dentures. His wife called out to the driver: “We can’t see. We want the stop across the roundabout, past the Royal Oak.” They moved along the bus. I knew she’d got it wrong, there is no Royal Oak in Alnwick, it is The Oaks Hotel. The driver brought the bus through the roundabout, which the old lady could sense, and she started calling loudly: “This is the one. This is the one. Stop!” though we hadn’t actually reached the bus stop. She was quite anxious. The bus jerked to a halt and the driver and everyone on the lower deck of the bus watched the blind couple feel their way out of the bus and onto the pavement. Once outside, the man held onto the woman’s arm and began tap-tapping his stick (it was an ordinary walking cane that had been painted white except at the curved handle). They shuffled away, as winter, while those of us on the bus, summer and autumn, rolled on towards Alnmouth.

Weekend before last I went on a day-trip to Bowness on Windermere in the Lake District. Somehow the weather cooperated and we had brilliant sunshine until late afternoon. We’d taken a coach to Haverthwaite where we boarded a steam locomotive and took a really, really slow trip over to Lakeside. In Lakeside we visited an aquarium, and then everybody except me and our coach driver took a steamer down Windermere to Bowness. I opted to do the drive as I do not like boats and with my brother dying in a boating accent last March I’m now totally boat-phobic.

On the train, and during the coach ride around the lake to Bowness, I had some wonderful views of the English countryside. So lush, so green, I have decided that when I win the Lotto I shall buy one of the large estates near Windermere that we passed by. I am wondering, of course, whether all those leafy trees will be as bare as ours in Amble in a matter of weeks. Trees and men are subject to autumn and winter.

On the way back from the Lake District, crossing the tops of the Pennines, we moved slowly through a barren landscape, just low scrub and rocky outcrops. The ubiquitous loose-stone walls were not in evidence, the only barrier between the land and the highway was fencing. There were a very few stone cottages, none looking habitable. A most desolate place. And we passed a small herd of camels. It must be pretty boring up there, even for a camel, as the beasts were standing at the fence watching the traffic go by. The camels would not be surprised by the cars and coaches, for that is their lot by night and day. For me, on the coach, listening to Jefferson Airplane on my iPod, it really was a most unexpected sight to look out at dromedaries. Will they be up there come the snow?

There’s an apple tree in a garden just along the street from my flat. This is the first year in five that the tree is truly burdened down with apples. They are starting to fall, in the grass and some onto the pavement. None are gathered up and I wonder if they are sour. D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem about the falling of apples to the ground in the autumn, making the point that it is only in the fall to the earth and the bruising of the fruit as a result that the seeds inside are released and the cycle permitted a complete rotation. I believe Lawrence was thinking, also, of the advancing years of man, and that it is the ripe, fully mature fruit that gives rise to the new tree in the spring. Lawrence was only 44 when he died back in 1930.

One sure sign that autumn is arriving is The Last Night at The Proms. That was last week. The Promenade Concerts from the Royal Albert Hall in London run through the summer, and some are televised. I rather enjoyed a concert devoted to Doctor Who. I noticed that the audience was more than half young children, nice that many were with their fathers (rather than mothers). I’ve been following Doctor Who, off and on, since the 1960s. I’m more of a fan now than ever. Are my years running in reverse here?

Every year, when it is time for the grand finale of the Proms, I decide I won’t watch as it will be a bit silly with toffs wrapped in Union flags, bobbing up and down to a hornpipe, and then breaking out into “Rule, Britannia” and “Jerusalem”. However, each year I do tune in, just to see who the female soloist will be. The soloist and the conductor always have a chat with the audience on the Last Night, usually something quite amusing.

So, I switched on my telly, dialled up the BBC, and listened to some rather nice pieces by Richard Strauss. The soloist this year, American Renée Fleming, was splendid, dressed up like a ship of state and beaming.

There were Union flags aplenty, and a good many English, Welsh and Scottish national banners. I’m not too good on flags of the world, but did spot a Canadian flag and some from “down under”. Ms Fleming had a small “Stars and Stripes”.

And the audience sang along with “Jerusalem” and not just in the Albert Hall, but in vast crowds outside in Hyde Park, and in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, as well as at other venues in England. I used to sing Jerusalem at school; it was the only hymn we always sang loud enough for our tetchy Headmaster. Listening to Jerusalem the other night brought back the springtime of my life, when grass was green and tides were high. Now, summer is falling behind and autumn is upon me. My mother died in the autumn, 28 September 1992, when she was in the autumn of her life, aged 65. I tried to sing along with Jerusalem the other night, startling Cailean. It comes with too many memories now, which well up as tears. I wonder if William Blake ever wrote of England’s bleak and wintry land.

As I sit here, minutes from midday, the sky has clouded over completely. The wind seems wilder than ever, I can hear it booming in the rooftops, my chimney and fireplace played like an enormous musical instrument. There are the first bullets of rain on my windows.

The few flowers left by my kitchen door tend to be blue: lavender and hydrangeas and small blossoms that froth from my plant pots. Bees are fond of blue flowers, so there are still some of those around. Where do the honey bees go in the winter? Where will the people play?