Monday, 24 May 2010

Under the Bomb

One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.
Emily Dickinson

IN OCTOBER OF 1962 a group of young girls with their dance teacher drove up to the main entrance of the United States Air Force Base in Bermuda. The mini-bus paused at the gate and the guards, who seemed to be on high alert, surrounded it. There was a great deal of fuss, questions were asked over and over, the armed soldiers were clearly most anxious about these young visitors in their leotards. On the side of the mini-bus the words: THE BERMUDA SCHOOL OF RUSSIAN BALLET.

This was the fortnight when politicking and posturing by three very different world figures with troubles at home brought the world rather close to nuclear war. The Americans had recently put intermediate-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in southern Italy and Turkey, all aimed at the Soviet Republics. In the spring of 1961 American forces and Cuban exiles trained by the CIA had attempted to invade the Caribbean island of Cuba and had been turned away by the troops of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara (a clear embarrassment for American President Kennedy). In the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev was struggling with domestic policies including difficulties with agriculture. Hungry citizens are rarely happy. Khrushchev was aiding the Cubans, glad of a client state near America’s underbelly.

Kennedy, Castro and Khrushchev were all flawed and dangerous. If religion may be said to be dangerous, this was in part the committed non-religion of the atheistic Communists. I’m not sure that the Kennedys preached their Catholicism as most Americans were a different kind of Christian and didn't seem to trust Papists. One wonders if Kennedy dreamed of restoring Catholic leaders in Cuba, and dreamed of getting praised by the Pope for doing so. Who knows? We know Kennedy lied and cheated. Khrushchev had to tell a few fibs to keep his position as Premier of the USSR. Fidel Castro may have been the most open and honest just then.

So, in October of 1962 the USSR shipped intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Cuba and got found out. Castro, in the style of the totally mad revolutionary you’d think could only exist in bitter comedies starring Peter Sellers, wanted the Soviets to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the USA, even though it would certainly mean Cuba being wiped off the face of the Earth. Think about that: Annihilation is good for the Revolution!

Armed submarines set sail, and aeroplanes flew about, with nuclear-tipped devices. The guards at the gate at Kindley Field in Bermuda stopped the School of Russian Ballet mini-bus and worried about little girls not yet in their teens armed only with slippers. And I cannot say that much of this registered with me. I met some of those ballet students a few years later and heard their story. We laughed at it all.

In the 1950s I had seen photographs and film of nuclear explosions. Those wonderful mushroom clouds. The British were setting them off on atolls in the Pacific, I believe. The Americans would light up the sky in Nevada. I would, years later, come across the Down-Winders in southern Utah who had been bathed in radioactive fallout as their military practised the extermination of humanity in the desert to the west. One finds it hard to believe that the devastating effects of radiation could be so conveniently ignored. Was it for the common good?

There is something rather exciting, amazing, about the cloud an A-Bomb or H-Bomb can kick up. There’s art in it. There is natural art in a tornado, in a tsunami, in a landslip. But the nuclear bomb is our invention, and we drop it, or bury it in the sand, having set the trigger and moved sharpish to one side. In the 1950s I recall fabulous sunsets, courtesy of atmospheric nuclear tests. How could a young boy be fearful of that? I never sensed guilt at Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the conversation of my elders.

Despite Castro’s malicious goading, Khrushchev did a deal with Kennedy. The missiles were taken out of Cuba and the Americans removed their missiles from Turkey and southern Italy. Kennedy kept his part of the bargain secret, and that made Khrushchev seem to have lost the face-off. Khrushchev was removed from office a couple of years later. Kennedy was unpopular enough in some circles (those conspiracy theories continue today) to take a bullet. Fidel Castro was condemned to a half-century in fatigues. I don’t think even the Russians took Castro that seriously, and he was a constant drain with the need for foreign aid and only the Communists willing to give it.

One woman, it is said, links Castro, Khrushchev and JFK. Lady Jeanne Campbell - daughter of the 11th Duke of Argyll, granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook, and grand-niece of Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise – was a socialite and foreign correspondent for the Evening Standard. Lady Jeanne was, apparently, the intimate of the Cuban, Soviet and American leaders. Some claim she was the lover of all three. It’s a wonderful story, if true, and would make for a great film plot. In fact, even if it is a fantasy, it would entertain. One of my cousins is married to Lady Jeanne’s daughter. (Her father was American author Norman Mailer who was the subject of FBI monitoring for 15 years after J. Edgar Hoover decided Mailer was a possible Communist sympathiser.) My grandmother rather liked Lady Jeanne, not at all concerned by the exotic history. She also liked Norman Mailer, who was only briefly married to Lady Jeanne Campbell.

I was living in the history of 1962 without being aware of it. My friends from the Russian Ballet were closer to it, but hardly alarmed. Their mini-bus was cleared at the gate and went through to complete whatever business they had on that patch of the USA in Bermuda’s East End. I was told the story in 1965.

Almost fifty years on, we have a few rogue nations, and some dodgy friends, with some nuclear capabilities. Bush and Blair lied about Iraq. However, we do have North Korea – a peculiar, family-run state where the millions seem to take no notice of their fearless leader’s dubious sanity. Kim Jong-il is a nutter. Kim has nuclear devices and missiles, though not many of them. North Korea could take out a very large, populous city in that part of the world. The thing is, the reaction would involve countries with far greater military force. And I suppose that is a cloud I must live under. We all must.

If one is to fear something, best to stick with the knapsack left unattended on the platform at the village station. Report it if necessary. It may just contain history.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Still Green and Pleasant

A peace is the nature of a conquest; for then both parties nobly are subdued, and neither party loser.
William Shakespeare

CAN HISTORY BE TAUGHT, or must it be lived? I believe the first history lessons I had at school, at Warwick Academy, some years before I reached my teens, were outlined in a book describing the discovery of the Bermuda Islands in the 1500s (this was poorly documented) and the settlement of the archipelago by the English in 1609. This was something of an adventure story, it being easier to amuse schoolchildren with tales not unlike “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe” which we read in English classes. We were white children, privileged in that regard in the society of Bermuda in the 1950s. Our teachers were white and British. We did not approach the subject of slavery in the Bermudas, the story of the ancestors of the boys and girls who took the other buses, attended the other schools, sat in the other seats at church and in the cinema. The only picture of a black face I recall from a text book I studied in those days was that of “Bombo” from the Congo, in our geography lessons. If memory serves, Bombo was a pygmy and lived in a jungle with monkeys and elephants. It was a small picture and a short chapter. In 1959, the coloured people in Bermuda forced legal integration on the community with boycotts; only ten years later the first blacks came to the school I’d attended as a right. Had those books featuring Bombo from the Congo been boxed up and hidden in a basement by then?

In the Senior School we had a little world history, as far back as Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great, the Romans, and then the Europeans during the Dark and Middle Ages, but in condensed form. Our later GCE courses covered British history from the arrival of James I and the Stuarts in 1603 through the Civil War, the Restoration and the Hanoverians. Then we switched to the Americas for the War of American Independence, and, finally, back to Britain for the accession of Queen Victoria. We did not have a text book to follow during these years; our History Master, Colin Benbow, would write the day’s lesson on the blackboard (I recall he was left-handed) from his memory, and we’d copy it in our exercise books.

Colin Benbow was a favourite teacher of mine. I loved history lessons and was fairly good at remembering it all, and connecting events. Happened that my step-mother was the History Mistress at another school and I had the run of her large collection of books at home, which I read for pleasure as much as learning. She eventually joined the staff at the school I had attended.

Having English parents, and then going to the UK to complete my schooling, and having visited, in person, many of the famous places in Britain, from the henges to the Norman fortresses and Tower Green, to St Paul’s and royal palaces, and baronial homes built by industrialists, I have always felt a closeness to the history of these Isles. I have sensed, in some way, old spirits in Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. A friend once told me that he had a theory that the great cathedrals of Britain and Europe were way stations on the routes between this lifetime and the hereafter. Spirits would gather in these grand places, waiting for the transport to eternal life. As I walked on steps worn down by centuries of use where I was a mere tourist clutching some postcards and a guidebook, and I felt that I was not alone, no matter I could see no others, might I have been sharing space with our (my) ancestors?

I have voted on every occasion possible, in Bermuda for some years, now in the UK, because, it seems to me, to not take part is to not only ignore history, but to belittle the contributions of all those people - politicians and citizens - who have built Britain – a little here, a little there – into the society we have today. I have been aware that all types, all faiths and beliefs, all political doctrines, have moved us along. Perhaps I have been taught a little, but I can finally appreciate that I have lived a fair bit of history.

As a child, a very young child, I was trotted down to Front Street in Bermuda - it would have been just before Christmas 1954 - to set eyes on Prime Minister Winston Churchill. My Latin Master at Warwick Academy, Reginald Frewin, was Winston Churchill’s cousin. Not long after the great man’s death in 1965 (which I recall vividly) I visited Churchill’s home, Chartwell, in Kent with my Nan Eldridge and my mother. I have stood by the memorial to Churchill in Westminster Abbey several times, as recently as 2006. One returns to history, in my case with my heart beating a little stronger for the trip.

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.
Mark Twain.

We have just had a General Election in Great Britain. I cannot say that I enjoyed this campaign which became more of a Presidential and American effort, with style valued over substance. I am not an American and I don’t subscribe to their kind of politicking. It seems that the British have spent over a century making political leadership possible for any man, any woman, with the desire to take part in the evolving process. We’ve had some unpleasant types in Downing Street in my parents’ lifetime. Even in my half-century-plus we’ve had gods and monsters. At times we’ve been governed by, I think, fools. However, we have had the ability to vote out those who do us harm within, at the most, five years.

I’ve been disappointed, in 2010, with the many people who have said, within earshot, that they weren’t going to bother to vote because “the politicians are all the same, nothing changes, nothing will change.” I don’t believe that. Apathy by the voter breeds apathy in Government. Passion begins with the ballot paper you mark.

So the politicians are all the same? Now we have an election result that splits the country basically three ways looking at percentages of votes cast: a little over a third is “Conservative” and a little under is “Labour” and about a quarter is “Liberal-Democrat”. I read Twitter comments. A great many seem to be from supporters of the Liberal-Democrats, a party I’m not too wild about. My maternal grandparents’ families, back in Burnley, had been staunch Liberals, supporters of H.H. Asquith. Of course, the women did not have the vote, and I don’t know if they were as enthusiastic as my male ancestors. Asquith lived long enough to witness the (apparent) relegation of the Liberal Party to a minor player in British politics. In 2010, the Liberal-Democrats are attempting to claw their way back, which will only succeed if major reforms to the voting system come about. As partners in the new Government (with the Conservatives’ David Cameron as Prime Minister) the Lib-Dems could well force changes.

The day of the absolute is over, and we’re in for the strange gods once more.
D.H. Lawrence

The British people are probably in for minority and coalition governments from now on, unless one party in itself can be so inclusive that the voters simply cannot resist giving it a clear majority. Unlikely, we are a fractured people when we are not at war with outsiders. I don’t like to see the prejudice spouted on Twitter. Dismissing over a third of the electorate as toffs, as upper-class twits, because some of the Tory leaders have had educations in schools thought to be elitist (ignoring the fact that they might have benefitted from whatever education they had and might use that to help us all) is offensive to me. I would also be most annoyed to hear the socialists amongst us put down because of their parentage or education, or because they wear flat caps and speak with an Oop North accent. I can slightly adjust a line some wit wrote and get: “There are Conservatives and Socialists in British politics, and the Socialists have made it possible for the Working Man to be corrupt as well.” That is to look down on all politicians, and there are many decent people who will stand up for us.

If we get truly-proportional representation, we may well have more of a muddle than we have right now, with UKIP and Green and BNP members taking seats in Parliament. If the BNP are denied seats because their beliefs are offensive and dangerous, then a fairly sizable section of the electorate is to be ignored. Where does one draw the line?

I like the idea of a strong coalition. Wouldn’t it have been remarkable if Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrat MPs in this new parliament could think for a moment and realise that a government of National Unity might be appropriate with Britain in dire straits? A government by the best of all.

What we have is a government representing about 60% of the voters that bothered to go to the polls. Because only about two-thirds of the electorate actually cast a vote, less than half of us have a connection to a voice in Westminster. This is hardly proportional representation, but if so few bother to vote, no proportional representation will be true, even if we change the way we vote.

Personally, I think it’s time to make the House of Lords an elected chamber. How much freedom the new Lords will have will be interesting. In the USA the Senate and House are always at odds, so much time is wasted, and so much legislation is watered down. I’d like to see our Upper House have limited powers, perhaps the ability to delay legislation a little, to send it back to the Commons, but not to mangle everything.

In the electoral contests for MPs in the Commons, and the Lords, I think the top two candidates after an initial poll should then have a run-off a few weeks later. I cannot say that I’m interested in very minor parties taking up space simply because they are Green or Christian or Nationalist. However, a politician from any party background, no matter how small in the big picture, who can persuade his district’s voters that he belongs in Westminster should get the chance to go there if he can win a majority for himself. Better a vivacious and desirable candidate win a seat than any old party member just because the Tories or Labour or the Lib-Dems had him stand as a matter of routine, or as a favour.

The more I see of Democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric light and water closets, and nothing else.
D.H. Lawrence

I’m personally in favour of the sort of term limits that will clear out the old-timers. I’m not impressed that a man or woman has sat in the House for thirty years, in or out of Government, when many newcomers to the system have had to be ignored for decades. We had the expenses scandal in 2009 and this did force out a lot of (I’ll say corrupt) old fools from all of the parties. That was good.

No presidential style politics in my ideal Britain. I’d like to feel comfortable with a candidate in my district first and foremost. That is who I’d support, and hope that he or she will support the right leaders and policies in Government.

For those who didn’t bother to vote, I am disappointed. If you liked not a single one of the candidates in your district you could have spoiled your ballot, which is a vote for “none of these” which says a great deal. In America one could write in “Mickey Rat” and make an “X” by it.

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

I worry that our form of government might be a victim of history in the making, rather than a growing thing that evolves forward, carrying the best of everything we’ve created over the centuries here on this small island. Let’s keep it green and pleasant.

Monday, 10 May 2010


There's one thing that he loves
and that is flattery.
One week he's in polka dots
the next week he's in stripes,
'cos he's a dedicated follower of fashion.

They seek him here,
they seek him there,
in Regent Street and Leicester Square.
Ev'rywhere the Carnabytion army marches on,
each one a dedicated follower of fashion.

His world is built 'round discotheques and parties,
this pleasure seeking individual always looks his best
'cos he's a dedicated follower of fashion.

The Kinks (A Dedicated Follower of Fashion)

I’M CHAIN-SMOKING CIGARETTES and sipping my Bacardi and Coke on the first-floor balcony outside The Hoppin’ John, a restaurant and bar complex above Front Street in Hamilton, Bermuda. I pop the maraschino cherry the bartender had added to my drink to make it appear classier, and to indicate it has alcohol in it, in my mouth, bite it in half, and swallow the pieces. Richard rescues the cherry from his glass and flips it over the wrought-iron railing, aiming for the tourists walking below. We’re here for the Eclipse of the Sun.

It’s cloudy, dark clouds, and when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun there is little change in the light. We’re talking about books we’ve read, the ones we liked. No mention of the duds. I try to tempt Richard into having one of my Kools. He declines, common sense rather than a Mormon upbringing, I imagine. I’m chain-smoking enough for two, grey smoke in the grey and faded light.

At The Hoppin’ John I usually order the Club Sandwich in the afternoon.
One night four of us went to The Hoppin’ John for dinner in its inner restaurant. No windows, dark panelling, portraits in gilt frames, plush carpets, dim lights in the sconces, starched, white linen tablecloths and napkins. We’d been given money enough for dinner, our benefactor had thought, but we ordered turtle soup, escargots, Chateaubriand and full table service, flaming desserts and Brandies Alexander. We’d done in a few bottles of Aloxe-Corton red. When the bill came, the cash in our envelope was not enough. I was the only one in the group with money in a current account, I was employed, and I got to write the cheque for the excess.

We’d been on the television that evening, to talk up local art on "Date before Dinner". After a few cocktails and pills to help loosen our tongues, get the words flowing. I’d become wonderfully relaxed, expansive. Peter played the piano in the studio, live. Chopin, I think.

One evening a friend and I had dinner on the balcony of The Hoppin’ John. If it was not too chilly, and not raining, it was pleasant enough there, above the pedestrians and cluttered traffic, across from cruise ships and freighters. On this occasion, it was summer. Time for Bacardi cocktails: rum and Grenadine over crushed ice, sweet and sickly, and toxic. My friend, facing me, whispered: “Turn around slowly and look behind you.” A drag on my cigarette and I casually twisted in my seat. I was seated about three feet away from a face I instantly recognised. One of the most famous faces in the world at that moment. The super-model Twiggy. She was with her then manager (and boyfriend) Justin de Villeneuve. De Villeneuve was really Nigel Davies, which seems naff enough without Frenchifying himself. Twiggy was really Lesley Hornby. And the Walrus was Paul. Those were the days.

Twiggy was not only dining next to me, in a restaurant partly-owned by my mother’s brother, but she was also spending her summer holiday break in my uncle’s house, next door to my mother’s place (where I lived). We’d seen Twiggy and friends coming and going on their rented mopeds day after day, and heard their parties around the pool. One of my sisters walked over to see Twiggy, who was polite enough to invite her in briefly. My sister did not ask for an autograph, she just said: "Hello!"

In 2010, Twiggy Lawson is still one of the best-known models around, and must be the face of Marks and Spencer. She looks better now - it seems to me - forty years on.

One night I went with friends to a party at the home of the grandson of Bermuda’s Government Leader. It was next door to the Leader’s residence. Sir Henry Tucker may have attempted to embrace Bermudians of all races politically, but I don’t recall any black faces at the party I attended. It would have been rather a shock at the time. (I actually do recall the first time I ever attended a mixed-race party. It was not supposed to be that way, but a New Year’s Eve bash at the private Coral Beach Club was invaded by natives. Black lads burst in and several shook my hand in some sort of black way and wished me a "Happy New Year".) At the Tucker homestead, there were lanterns and candles, music from several stereo systems played in different rooms, and every room was packed with people, most of them smoking dope. I was chain-smoking cigarettes, but I did have several glasses of rum punch from a brand new, shiny, galvanised trash-can.

And the walls and people melted and rose up, and the dim colours one could make out swirled to the music. The music became tactile. Voices became music became colours became pulsing artwork.

I do not recall how I got home, but the pictures in my head, with accompanying soundtrack, lasted into the next morning. I had a telephone call not long before midday to confirm a lunch date at The Hoppin’ John. I knew nothing of it, but I was not at work that day and arranged to meet in the rear porch at the restaurant as it was too cold to sit on the balcony. When I parked my moped and went inside, it turned out that I’d invited about a dozen people to lunch while under the influence at the party the night before. A couple were people I knew, but not exactly my close friends. LSD will do that to you. The bar bill was steep, but I believe we ate burgers and club sandwiches. And I wrote the cheque.

I am chain-smoking cigarettes, and I’m, as usual, a little over-dressed. A friend and I are having lunch in the Café Royal at the southern end of Regent Street. Here Lord Alfred Douglas dined with Oscar Wilde and on one occasion Bosie’s father, the unpleasant Marquess of Queensberry, was actually won over by Oscar’s dinner table talk and charm. Of course, Queensberry destroyed Wilde in the courts and we got "The Ballad of Reading Gaol". I’m wearing clothes left over from Carnaby Street days, a pastel-coloured shirt, floral-print tie from Liberty of London, just up the street, double-breasted, slash-back blazer with a brilliantly-coloured silk lining. We’re watching the patrons within, and the crowds moving towards Piccadilly without.

The Frostop is a burger joint and drive-in on the road, State Street, at right angles to Main Street in Hurricane, Utah. There are few tables inside; most people eat in their cars, trays hooked on the vehicles’ windows. I eat inside, always a BLT, very greasy bacon leaking onto the toast, extra mayonnaise, Diet Coke. In cold weather the windows are slightly fogged-up. I’m watching the cars outside, in the parking area and headed back and forth on State Street. I’m not smoking; the Mormon gods would not like that. There’s no place where one might get a Bacardi cocktail. Once a friend came to visit me and we had to join a private club so that he could get a rum and coke. The membership fee must have been many times the high price of the beverage. The club had no windows. One could smoke inside, the gods couldn’t see through the bricks. Or didn’t care to. The Ten-Mile Mormons would drive that far from town for a drink their bishops would not approve of.

I’m sitting at a table in the buffet restaurants’ eating area at The Rio in Las Vegas. For very little money, one can go back as many times as one can manage to the eight different buffets. Chinese, Mexican, Mongolian Barbeque and so on. I look to my left, directly into the crotch of a very tall, young woman wearing only a bejewelled g-string and pasties, a peculiar headdress featuring feathers and fake-diamonds. She’s in towering heels, and holding a small silver tray. “Keno?” she says. I have no idea what exactly Keno is, and I don’t gamble in any case. I watch her bare arse as she moves to the next table.

It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m on a double-date with friends in a French chateau that some wealthy American bought in France and dismantled and shipped to Utah, reassembling it on the benches on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley. Up here, above the City, there’s a great deal of snow, but the chateau at the Quails’ Run is warm, with central heating and open log fires in vast fireplaces. The food is fabulous and expensive, but I’m a guest, not paying for my date and me. Looking out of the window there’s a snowy yard, and it’s snowing, and in the open there’s a small heated pond on which there are swans swimming slowly. I wondered if they were real, apparently they are. They seem quite content in the steam rising off their swan lake.

In a moment I’m going to pop along to the minimart for a sandwich and some pomegranate juice to mix with diet lemonade. I shall dine in my kitchen and watch the clouds racing towards the flats from the north, the rain beating on the windows. There’s volcanic ash fresh from Iceland’s Eyjafjallakull up there. It may be May, but it is cold today, snowing in the Northern Isles, we’re to expect frost tonight. I’m concerned that my flowering plants in the courtyard may not take too much of this. Cailean is asleep in his bed below my desk; he burrowed under his blanket when I sat to write this. My observations today go down on the keys and up on the page. Later, a cup of tea, no Bacardi cocktail.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Kittens for the Drowning

You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.

All the powers in the universe are already ours.
It is we who have put our hands before our eyes
and cry that it is dark.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

IN 1961 I was staying with my Auntie Maud in the house in Harle Syke, Lancashire, in which she and my grandfather and my great-uncle James Arthur had been brought up in the early years of the Twentieth Century. My great-grandparents had bought the terraced house on Sutcliffe Street, overlooking the moors at that time, before the Great War. A messenger from the War Office brought word to Harry and Elizabeth Lancaster that their oldest son, James Arthur, had been killed in battle on 2 September 1918. The messenger would have knocked on the same door that I ran in and out of a dozen times a day in 1961. I never gave it a thought. In fact, this moment, in 2010, is the first time that I’ve made that connection.

There are so many connections that one can make in life and death. I tend to ramble on the telephone. I have one friend with whom I have had extensive and wandering telephone conversations for over forty years. Not quite Virginia Woolf’s streams of consciousness, we have tended to be more intelligible, I believe. However, even a journey from A to B has tended to include stops in X, Y and Z.

In 1961, while in Harle Syke, the main topic of conversation on the bus, in the Post Office, at the Mill, was the film “Whistle down the Wind” which had been filmed in the communities around Burnley that year. The people in Harle Syke spoke of it, and strangers in Clitheroe did as well, and people one had never met standing in a queue in Burnley.

When the film opened in Burnley, Auntie Maud took me down on the bus. We’d have seen an early evening show, I believe, as Maud was still working shifts in the Queen Street Mill. She’d been first sent to work in that Mill in about 1908, aged eleven, over fifty years before. I’ve just made that connection, noted it. In 1961, as far as I was concerned, Maud just went along to the Mill of a morning, not of a lifetime. I can tell you that she retired in late 1961 and went to live at the seaside, Morecambe, with a friend. She died of a stroke two months after that, her body was brought back to the family plot in the Haggate Cemetery where we’d trimmed weeds growing over my great-grandparents and Maud’s husband and son who’d all died young. At the funeral, someone said to my grandfather: “Maud didn’t last long away from Syke.” There’s an expression we use to mention death in other words: Maud popped her clogs. Until her retirement, Maud actually wore clogs when she was at work. I don’t know if she’d taken them to Morecambe.

Whistle down the Wind starts with a man flinging a sack into a reservoir or small lake. Not a scenic place, the water surrounded by rough rock and sand, with no grass or trees in sight. The man walks away as the sack starts to sink. And three young children who have been following the man at a distance run to the water’s edge and hook the sack with a stick and guide it to the shore. When the sack is hurriedly opened, we see what even I as a young child expected: mewing kittens.

A few years before I saw Whistle down the Wind, I’d had the dubious pleasure of watching the 1948 film version of Oliver Twist. The entire school I was attending, juniors and seniors, had been marched along to the Morgan Hall where we held assemblies and fairs and pet shows and we’d been instructed to sit quietly on the metal and canvas chairs facing the stage. Below the proscenium arch a large screen had been set up. A film projector was on a table half-way down the room. This was a rare thing. In fact, I recall only two other films being shown in the Morgan Hall, Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” on the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which was shown at night and parents had to accompany the children attending, and another Dickens of a movie, “David Copperfield.” This version of David Copperfield had been made in 1935, starring WC Fields as Mr Micawber.

The 1948 feature Oliver Twist is awfully different from the musical “Oliver!” which it somehow spawned about twenty years later. I’m not exactly sure that young schoolchildren should have been seeing Oliver Twist in the mid to late 1950s before we’d had our souls hardened by television. In Dickens’ original story, Oliver Twist’s life is not at all cute and filled with all-dancing, all-singing, pocket-picking chums. Bill Sikes beats Nancy (who loves him despite their abusive relationship) and eventually he mauls her to death. Make a song and dance out of that!

I recall that murder. I never read David Copperfield or Oliver Twist after seeing those movie versions. I never wanted to. Afraid of identifying with the lads, perhaps. However, grim as Nancy’s untimely (if not unlikely) death is, I best remember, having dwelt on it in dark moments for decades, Bill Sikes attempting to drown his dog “Bull’s-eye”. The dog, as dogs do, was pretty faithful to Sikes, choosing to ignore Sikes’s dark and evil heart. Bull’s-eye survives long enough to see Sikes accidentally hang himself, and I believe the poor dog followed him to Hell.

That sack with the dog and a brick in it has been something of a brick in my spirit. I’ve probably invested more love and concern for my dogs (and those I’ve dog-sat) than most of my family. My Cailean is family; my Aleks was too, as was my Lexi. My cat, Pudding, was also both friend and related in some way.

I have an unpleasant cat story. Sometime in the late 1960s one of my sisters, living with my father and stepmother at that time, had managed to adopt several stray cats, all of which turned out to be female and in the family way. A head count soon after revealed a total of 35 moggies. My father filled a bucket with water and drowned kitten after kitten, and buried the dozens of wet bodies under a hedge. I did not witness this, but heard about it in whispered tones, and then it was never mentioned again. Until today. A slaughter of the innocents.

Whistle down the Wind is about three farmer’s children in Lancashire in about 1961. The oldest girl, played by a very young Hayley Mills (her mother had written the book), discovers a sleeping bearded man in a seldom-used barn. She calls out to him: “Who are you?” The startled man wakes, muttering: “Jesus Christ!” in shock. And the little girl takes the man at face value, and true to his words, and believes she has Jesus in her father’s barn.

The film holds up well fifty years later. I watched it yesterday for only the second time. In 1961, I’d not picked up on all the references to the life and death of Jesus in the film. References and allegories. I did understand, all those years ago, that the children (my age at that time) were innocent, and the adults doubted. I'd identified with the children and thought them in the right. Now, I guess I’d say the children were naive, foolish, and somehow to blame for their ignorance. I’d like to think that even the youngest child questions everything. Everything. The bearded man in the barn is a murderer on the run from the police. He gets Hayley Mills to bring him a gun he has hidden in a railway tunnel. By this time, many, many children have become his followers. The grown-ups know nothing of this. Until a little boy lets it slip. The hunt is on again as the police are called to the farm. The man is holed up in the barn with his gun. Outside, the police are facing a swarm of children.

I don’t have any children. Can’t say I ever wanted any. Watching Whistle down the Wind I had to wonder whether I would want my children, if I had any, wrapped up against the cold, hard, real world, everything doubted. Trust no one. Or would I want my children to make up their own minds, take some chances based on what they’ve been taught (putting an onus on me to teach them), and to stand up for what they believe? Even if it’s risky as heck.

We sent our boys and girls to church and Sunday school in my day, and some parents thinking they are righteous and all-knowing send their kids to churches, synagogues, temples and mosques in 2010. They expect those youngsters to come home filled with the Holy Spirit.

It seems to me that a child that is told to believe in something outside him, to have total and unwavering faith in this something, is put in harm’s way. A child raised up in this fashion must accept the Crusades and the Holy Wars, the Edicts and the Fatwa’s, the flames of hell flickering at one’s feet as one reaches up for the arms of the angels.

Children might as well be placed in a bag with a great stone and flung into deep water.

Surely, it would be better to understand oneself and then one’s relationships with everyone and everything else. No murderous false gods in the barn, or in the Temple, but the feeling of well-being when one wakes in one’s own mind and body. Arriving without travelling.