Friday, 25 June 2010

A Tragic Age

Everybody's flying and no one leaves the ground
Everybody's crying and no one makes a sound
There's a place for us in the movies you just gotta lay around
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Strange days indeed - most peculiar, mama
John Lennon (Nobody Told Me)

IN THE LAST FORTNIGHT I have had three separate interactions with three long-time friends that, some days later, on reflection, have a connection and, taken as a whole, allow me to address a curious period in my life that I have touched on only briefly, and hardly openly to all. I dare say that anyone interested in therapy, incoming or outgoing, would make a note on this page I am writing, perhaps even two notes. (1) He faces his past. (2) Will he come to terms with it?

A friend of mine, a little older than I am in the record books, but who has reinvented himself to such an extent that when we were colleagues at AIG in Bermuda, when I was certainly in my early twenties, he would have been quite unborn (truly a trick of the light!) offered this opinion on my life. “Ross, you’ve had a pretty unhappy life. It’s no wonder you suffer from depression.” Pretty unhappy is another way of saying miserable, disastrous, awful, crushing, unsatisfying (and unsatisfactory), and failed. But the good news is that one can blame it all on having a father who buggered off when one was still in short trousers. That (sort of) makes it all right. And, as some wit noted, the consultant psychiatrist will tell you: “If it ain’t one thing, it’s your mother.”

Days later, I had a message from the wife of a friend who wasn't really writing on his behalf, who was not so much baring her teeth as her own suffering soul. The friend’s wife remarked on the good life I lived, with the inference that this was not something new. Inferred because she said that (while I was living my good life) her husband had had to struggle to support and bring up his family. He’d had to work hard. And I know he did, for a fact. Blessings on him. My friend came from a more privileged background than I did, but our lives followed the same route for a time. So far as I know he remained on that particular path and I did not, and my divergence is, I suppose, the sin that his wife sees: my unexpected and unearned good life.

Less than a week ago I sat down to talk into the night with an old friend I have known longer than my AIG colleague, as well as the other friend and his wife I’ve mentioned. This friend, who attended the same grammar school that I did, knows my story, as much by direct observation as by hearing it related on the telephone or on paper; he has seen the ups and downs, the lines growing deeper and longer on my face, the greying and whitening of my hair, and, I think, my delight at living where and when and how I do. We have walked along Horseshoe Bay Beach in Bermuda at night, the waves booming on the soft sand and the rip tide pulling silently in the dark. We have walked in a cold, howling gale on the Northumberland coast, and we’ve sat in the chapel in Durham Cathedral dedicated to the Venerable Bede amongst soft and warm whispers. That friend always sees the good in things if at all possible. He remembers funny moments with both of my parents. I'm fine with my parents. Parents, and their children, should just do what they can. This is not to say one should do the very least one can get away with when the boxes are being ticked. One should reach out, up, down. One should gather, and set free, with enthusiasm. That third chapter in Ecclesiastes must be one of the few in the Old Testament that should not be fed to the fires, for it is poetry and poignant and pointed.

Listen, I did not have an unhappy life. It’s still wobbling along and it’s still not an unhappy life. However, I have had unhappy moments. I have had times that were a real struggle, but I’ve never thought to top myself. Indeed, I have survived days and nights and weeks and months that some people might not manage.

When I was awfully young, perhaps six-years-old, my mother was taken ill and had to go (from Bermuda) to Montreal, Canada, for treatment related to her grand mal epilepsy. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, and probably never shall, my younger sisters and I were farmed out individually for a spell. I was taken to the home of strangers, who talked loudly to me, as adults without children tend to address youngsters, and had to live there, go to and from school by bus and on foot as their very small, very young lodger. I can still recall (I have an astonishing memory) the walk from the bus stop, up a winding road to the strange house. My hosts would not be there, they both worked, their maid would let me in. I remember lying on my bed in their very nearly empty, small box room, and closing my eyes against the brightness. I wasn't even sure what I was supposed to call these people, best to try to avoid them.

John Lennon pressed buttons for me in 1967 when he sang: “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” John was farmed out to his Aunt Mimi, his father had buggered off, his mother had buggered off. His suffering was revealed in his music. I managed somewhat better than John Lennon, but had to make do without the genius that can come with the pain. I did share some traits with Lennon: a very bad temper, the use of and growing dependence on drugs, difficulties with relationships. However (and this essay might be called “However”) no end of teenage lads in the 1960s were shirty and shitty and shit-faced. Truthfully, George Harrison was my favourite Beatle. George went singing “Om” and I went singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints”.

I went to parties, I went to dances, I went to clubs and discotheques, and I went to pubs and restaurants with live music. I made lots of really super friends. I skipped school and took the train to London and walked for days in museums and galleries, usually by myself. I did not study very much, but passed my courses, usually with good marks. I went to the movies when I could, and to cathedrals and castles. I read so many books and was blessed with the longing to read more. I chain-smoked (didn’t we all?) and drank fruity cocktails till religion had to be investigated, tried, lived and then discarded. Curiously, but I'm grateful for it, I emerged from religion fairly sober and not smoking.

I had a go at painting pictures and writing poetry, and was not terribly good at either. I believe I could write a pretty good letter in the days before email and text-messaging.

I travelled a fair bit, despite health problems. I confess I self-medicated and sometimes took wing and even with my astonishing memory I lost time, and have no recollection of the journeying. Arriving usually meant sleeping for a few days to burn off near-lethal doses of drugs. But I felt driven. I have seen some remarkable places on my travels. I’ve met some terrific people.

So, my critic, the one who thinks I’ve had it too easy compared to some (her husband), could almost take these words above as my own confession that I’ve had a pretty good time of it. Surviving is good once one has survived, but getting there can be bumpy.

About six years ago I was wakened in the night by strange sounds and smells. I opened my eyes. I was in a room, in near dark, which was just eight foot square. There were three cots in the room, each six feet long, two feet wide, a thin mattress and a mix of raggedy blankets. I was waking up on one cot, my head was almost on the feet of someone in a cot at right angles to mine, and the third cot was empty. In the small square of space in the middle of the cots, below a dim ceiling light, the elderly black man with an Islamic name who usually occupied the third cot was standing naked and having violent, noisy and thrusting sex with a very large black woman. Really, the most obvious thing in the room was this woman’s heaving backside as my skinny roommate battered her.

I’ve forgotten the man’s Islamic name, though I’m tempted to say it was Abdul, but he had been Michael somebody, and he had twelve children by as many women (at least, he said), but no matter his faith, he was a dealer and user of drugs. I’d often be interrupted by his drug parties, which seemed to be held fearlessly, despite the rules of the Salvation Army which ran the Homeless Shelter stating that no drugs or alcohol (or women) were permitted on the premises. Michael Somebody (or Abdul) took a moment from his sex to announce to me that the girl he was with was willing to fuck any and all the men living in the hut that night. That would have been well over a dozen, in a wooden building with smashed windows, and broken plumbing that generally resulted in toilets overflowing so that faeces might be running down the central passageway between the tiny box rooms.

The night I was taken to the Homeless Shelter a bed, a cot, had become available only because the previous occupant had just died in it. Another resident was found dead in an open ditch behind the shelter not long after. Because I was white, I was threatened regularly. I understand that: the residents, all black, thought I was a spy for the Police Force. The Police did do searches from time to time, but the residents had advance warning and drugs and stolen goods seemed to disappear for a convenient period. We were all told to ride the buses till midnight (to keep warm and dry) and then to sleep in any park with an open gate. That meant only the park outside the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. I’d been to parties at the RBYC in my time, and now I was hidden under its shrubbery trying to sleep while noisy partygoers left the Club.

The day after Abdul’s friend serviced all those wanting it in the Homeless Shelter, I moved out. I slept in the cemetery where my mother is buried for a few nights, and went and raised a ruckus with a social worker, who suggested I move into an abandoned building (he suggested a former hotel dormitory awaiting demolition). Somehow, things fell into place and I was offered an efficiency apartment in a brand new Government project. It was very basic, but clean (I know, I cleaned my room and often others) and dry, though in a neighbourhood one could not be outside in after early evening, particularly if one was white. I started doing house- and pet-sits, and I got an evening job coaching a creative writing class at night school. It happened that I had the opportunity to leave Bermuda, and I’ve rebuilt my life. Well, it’s still under construction, as any life should be.

So, why was I suddenly homeless six years ago? It happened rapidly. I had moved from a cottage to an apartment, with my little dog, Aleks, and two days later I went out for an hour. When I got back, Aleks was gone. As he was micro chipped the story came out: Aleks had been taken and used as live bait for fighting dogs. A tiny dachshund to give pit-bulls the taste of fresh blood. I have been able to survive, to get through, many things, many trials and upsets, in my lifetime, and my life has been a good one, but I could not believe, accept, understand, and cope with the murder of my beloved little dog. (I still have dark hours when I miss Aleks terribly). I broke down. I went walking. I walked away from everything. I fell down when I could walk no more. This went on for about a week. Then I walked into the Police Station and said: “I’m homeless. What do I do?” I was put in the back of a police car and, siren blaring and lights flashing, we roared through Hamilton to the Shelter.

It was a horrible experience living in that shelter. Over the months I was there I lost about four stone, my only food was at the Salvation Army soup kitchen five evenings, or the Seventh-Day Adventists’ kitchen two nights a week. I'd guess we ate spaghetti five times a week. If you are homeless in Bermuda, you must keep moving. The authorities keep anyone they suspect of being of no fixed abode on the trot. My God, but I walked a good deal! One thing I hated: At the SDA kitchen the preacher referred to me as “Pops” because, I suppose, I looked old and tired.

There’s probably a good quotation that would explain that I would do well to give back on account of the good fortune I’ve had for five years now. From Savage Garden: “I believe in Karma, what you give is what you get returned...” I’d like to be putting something into the system. Perhaps writing this down is a start
. (1) He tells a rather strange story, and it's true, and it might be entertaining. (2) He might just shame the Bermuda Government over its handling of homeless people, and make a difference.

NOTE: I looked online for a photograph of the Homeless Shelter owned by the Bermuda Government, and operated by the Salvation Army. There was nothing to be seen. The Shelter was built many decades ago and has been in a state of disrepair for many, many years, and the Bermuda Government is yet to replace it, though funds have been found, easily, for golf courses and for captive dolphins, for world travel, and for cars for the Party faithful. Shame! Shame! Shame!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Laughing and Having a Party

I think people tend to live, whether they like it or not, influenced by what's next door to them.
Campbell Scott

WHEN I WAS TWO YEARS OF AGE my parents bought a half-acre plot of land (with my mother’s parents’ money) and my father drew a simple design for a house which was soon built by professional builders and friends and family members, all pitching in. I can remember my grandfather up a ladder with a bucket of plaster, and the sound of limestone roof slate being cut from big blocks on a wooden platform supported by saw-horses. Some earliest memories.

Before our house, the first in the private sub-division called Tamarind Vale, was finished, our neighbours, on the lot to our north, had their house well under way. My father had sketched the plans for both dwellings, and both plans were flawed, not thought through. Nowadays one would have to submit plans drawn up by a professional to some governmental board for approval. My father would have spent on a ruler and a pencil, and not much more.

The half-acre immediately to the south of us remained unsold for a year or two while homes rose here and there through the Tamarind Vale estate. Eventually the dead cedar trees were cleared and burned, and the excavations began for a good-sized unit there. I was old enough to walk and climb about this latest house, so near us, as it was under construction. It was the first in Tamarind Vale to have two floors. Norman and Adele Jones bought that house when it was completed, and Adele lived there until her death earlier this year; for about 55 years I’d guess. I’d sold our place when my mother died in 1992. I’ve looked down on Tamarind Vale and my mother’s house by way of Google Earth, and (as I’d heard) the house is almost unrecognizable: much bigger, and the main entrance to the property is now on the side we called the back garden, our front closed off.

I can, in my mind, still walk myself through Tamarind Vale as it was when I was young, a boy with a fishing line and some bait walking barefoot on the hot tarmac, sometimes hopping from one foot to the other, to our dock on the Harbour. The children from Tamarind Vale spent unsupervised holiday time at the dock, swimming and fishing, even though one of us, Mikey, had fallen overboard when there with another neighbourhood youngster, Billy, who couldn’t save him from drowning. An adult neighbour got little Mikey’s body to shore.

Before the drowning, Norman and Adele Jones’s eldest son, Bobby, had died of cancer. He was perhaps seven years old. I can remember Bobby quite well all these years (decades) on. Bobby was the first person that I knew “my age” to die. I didn’t understand death then, and I had older relatives dying; but I felt keenly the departure of friends, whether for a holiday abroad or to live overseas. It was (and is) more difficult to be separated from the living than from the dead.

In 1967 another lad from the neighbourhood, Eddie, passed away after a freak accident and resultant surgery he did not survive. Eddie’s father died not long afterwards; a broken heart we all said. They’d lived in the house where Mikey, the boy who drowned, had lived ten years earlier. That had spooked us.

Those boys’ ghosts do not haunt me in my dreams and mental revisits to Tamarind Vale; neither does my mother (and so many neighbours of my parents’ age now dead). Rather, they are part of the background sights and sounds and as alive now as those of us who have survived. We are all part of it.

I did not live a particularly solitary childhood, but I could amuse myself with a book and pass on a game of softball on one of the empty lots. Saturday mornings did mean a few hours at the movies, our friends our age would go too, catching the bus at the bottom of Tamarind Vale. After the film got out we might take the Belmont Manor ferry back to Harbour Road and walk the mile or so home to Tamarind Vale.

On Harbour Road, not far from our home, the English actor, author and playwright Noel Coward lived in the gatehouse at Spithead. I remember being aware of that, but not being much impressed. I’ve read the biographies and now know that Coward would have been having a pretty gay time in Bermuda, avoiding the taxman.

Our neighbours were, almost without exception, extremely kind to us. My father had left my mother and their children not long after I’d started school. Single mothers were rare in the 1950s. So rare that my mother, who had been an enthusiastic and active member of the Church of England, was told by our parish priest that if she divorced her husband she would not be permitted to take Holy Communion. My mother never went to church again. Over 30 years later that same Vicar, raised to a Canon or some such, turned up at my mother’s bedside in the hospice where she was dying of cancer. By then my mother was unconscious, she was to die the next day, and the Canon said to me: “Would you like me to conduct your mother’s funeral?” I muttered something about him not wanting her in life. Why only in death? That Vicar - who preached “Love thy neighbour as thyself” – struggled to be a good neighbour.

I often played music at a considerable volume if I was home by myself. I know it disturbed neighbours downwind of us. Perhaps, especially, because my music of choice was the long-haired variety. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I’m paying for that loud music now, being fairly deaf and requiring a hearing aid. Eh? Sorry?

My childhood was a time when one left doors unlocked if one went out. If one’s laundry was on the clotheslines and rain threatened, a neighbour would bring it inside. Many homes might be left with doors and windows wide open, while families gathered to watch the kids playing baseball or softball, or for a picnic at the dock or at the beach. Baseball because a number of our neighbours were families stationed in Bermuda with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Tamarind Vale is a long while ago, and close at hand. My youngest sister was telling me that she doesn’t like neighbours, homes close together, and doesn’t much like company. I told her that I liked living in a small block of flats. I rarely see my neighbours, but I know them and quite like them (as does Cailean). I enjoy community dwelling.

That said, when I win the Lotto I would almost certainly buy a large home with lots of space between it and any neighbours. But I would have people living in it with me (a valet, cook, maids, and a gardener) and be open to visitors. Come and spend the summer. The winter. And I know just the place.

On a hilltop above the Northumberland seaside village of Alnmouth there is a very large and rather antiquated building that has some history. It has been a private home, a club, a small hotel, and it is now a friary. The Friary of Saint Francis is a retreat for a better class of retreater, I’m guessing, having seen some awfully posh sports cars on the gravel in the forecourt. The few friars wear long, brown, monkish robes and sandals, but look quite well-off, a better class of friar. I imagine their paying guests, arriving in the costly cars with designer clothes, wouldn’t be comfortable with scrawny, gaunt, perpetually-fasting, hungry friars lumping about in hair vests. Hell, until Henry VIII put his oar in, the religious houses were comfortably well off, and then some. Storybook Friar Tuck was a big man, man. And Jesus wears a Rolex.

The Friary building has been added upon, and there are portions with a religious flavour, but it is, at heart, an enormous country house overlooking the north end of Alnmouth Beach. There must be four floors and masses of windows facing the North Sea. I have no idea what a property like the Friary would go for on the market if the Brethren wanted to sell up, but the view alone would be worth a small fortune. When I win the Lotto, and I have a large fortune in mind, I would make the Friary an offer so enormous that they could not resist.

I’d probably have to leave the basic outside structure of the Friary intact, unchanged, but I would remove all of the Christian iconography. The inside would be completely renovated. I’d want my any-time-at-all visitors to have all the comforts of a hotel on Park Lane, luxurious accommodation with a spectacular view. And when the storms rage in from the North Sea, my winter guests might warm themselves at an open fire and watch the surf smashing onto the beach and WW2 fortifications below, or read in a recliner chair, a blanket over the knees for extra warmth. At least one miniature dachshund to maintain order. Two to run riot.

I might be some measure from the nearest house, beyond spitting distance, but with my Lotto money I could bring the neighbourhood inside, bring my friends in. It’s a dream, a fantasy, but better to be prepared in case one does win the Lotto. My Lotto Dream, in which I entertain at home, and make a place for friends and family to come and be pampered for a spell, fits in with my Childhood Remembered Dream in which friends and family (excepting my father) were all around. The main difference between the dreams of things to come and those already done would be the level of comfort, some nice touches: art, music, books, fine food, company, and conversation. These things I had as a boy, but it was a struggle. One might borrow a record or book, go to a gallery to see a Vincent van Gogh, talk beyond one’s mental means about the Coming of the Counter-Culture, but it was a bugger to get regular invitations to really upscale dinner parties. I went to dine at the homes of lovely friends, and had the steak my mother could not afford, but being waited on was rare.

I’d love to move my mother (who has been a ghost these past 18 years) into my Lotto Dream home, the former Friary. It would be nice to have her in the flesh, but with time and times rolling on, her spirit would be welcome, perhaps walking a gallery. Calling out, as she did when she was ill and worried in bed: “Ross! Ross! Are you there?” And I’d tempt the ghost with a dish of bread-and-butter pudding into a well-lit room overlooking the Sea. I’d read a book, and my mother would stand at the window for a spell. A magic spell. The sun shining through her. And a mini-bus load of friends arrives that evening. Dinner, then charades, perhaps cards or Scrabble, and somebody will play the piano and sing something by Cole Porter. “The girls today in society go for classical poetry. So to win their hearts one must quote (with ease) Aeschylus and Euripides ...”

We could all sing along, quite loudly, because the neighbours are far down the hill, and the neighbours are us.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Signs and Wonders

Durham Cathedral & Castle from Railway Station

And the people bowed and prayed
to the neon god they made,
and the sign flashed out its warning
in the words that it was forming,
and the sign said: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls”
and whispered in the sound of silence.

Paul Simon. The Sound of Silence

LAST TUESDAY I SPENT THE DAY wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of Durham in the northern English rain with an old friend from Utah. Richard had never been to Great Britain before this long journey, we met at grammar school in Bermuda forty-mumble years ago.

Like me, Richard has his roots in this part of the world, his mother’s family were converts to Mormonism in Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1849, sailed to the Americas in 1853, and eventually trekked across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. Richard’s great-great-grandfather, James Campbell Livingston, 1833-1909, was appointed by the Mormon Prophet Brigham Young in 1860 to be head of the quarrying operation for the construction of the Salt Lake Temple. Livingston lost his right arm in a blasting accident in 1870, but continued to supervise the granite quarry until the Temple was completed and dedicated in 1893. James Campbell Livingstone had three plural wives and 18 children, and held a number of Church offices, including that of Patriarch.

Salt Lake Mormon Temple, Utah

When we arrived at Durham Railway Station, which is on high ground, we found the City well sign-posted and were able to make our way down to the River Wear, then up to the Cathedral and Castle. The only traffic (besides pedestrians) seemed to be very small buses and the odd bicycle, and we were able to walk in the street easily and safely as we climbed the hill. The buses had electric signs flashing their stops and ultimate destinations.

I have visited Durham Cathedral before, on a cold but dry winter’s day in 2006. That day I was on a coach tour and had to walk around the building rather quickly, and I was only able to see the major attractions there. Last Tuesday we had plenty of time.

I was pleased to notice that outside the main doors to the Cathedral there was no sign indicating entrance fees (Westminster Abbey, in London, had a £10 charge years ago). There were several other signs at the door in Durham. One covered the policy on dogs, only guide dogs being permitted inside. An elderly, ginger-coloured with a grey muzzle, Labrador was tied to a post outside the door, on a leash long enough that the dog could sit just inside the archway. The dog was friendly, and rather a charming touch. Mind you, in my perfect world Cailean would go everywhere. Once inside the doors, there were large signs telling visitors that no indoor photography was permitted, and that postcards were available in the gift shops. A large wood and glass box had a notice to say that it costs over £3 million a year to maintain the Cathedral, donations appreciated. If one is a UK taxpayer, one can use an envelope provided and there is some benefit to that. The glass case did not have a great deal of money in it, and only a half-dozen envelopes. Hard times, or do the regular Anglican worshippers use direct debit payments?

We walked along the nave to the high altar where we were told that we might stay only very briefly as a Mothers’ Union service was to be held in fifteen minutes’ time. We’d noticed many women wearing lapel pins, and some wearing blue robes, along with male and female priestly types swooshing back and forth importantly. We headed back to the rear of the nave and asked at the information booth where the Café was. Just off the Cloisters, several doors and twists and turns and it would appear before us. But, we were warned, the restaurant would be packed to its ancient arched ceilings with really old ladies from the Mothers’ Union. We got chatting to one of these ladies, all the way from her home in Wales for the service. It was a national conference.

As we walked along the Cloisters (my favourite part of these very old cathedrals and abbeys, I could imagine sitting there to meditate many centuries ago, away from the world) I held my camera out through the arches to take a (probably illegal) photograph. God did not strike me dead, and I quite appreciate that. I’d prefer not to die in a church in case it would be thought I was a religious type.

Durham Cathedral Tower from Cloisters

The Cloisters’ walls had many signs on them, rooms and exhibits in this door and that. The Café was as far down as one could get. As forecast, it was crammed with grey-haired ladies, many (perhaps most) looking a bit wobbly with sticks, crutches and Zimmer frames. Some were clinging to slightly steadier women. One wonders if the Shrine at Lourdes might be a bit like the tea-room at Durham Cathedral during a conference.

Richard and I pushed through the doors and joined the massive queue. I explained the difference between a line (American) and a queue (English) to Richard while we shuffled ever so slowly towards the buffet with its rapidly decreasing comestibles.

Most of the Mothers’ Union crowd seemed to be eating soup (it would turn out to be tomato and basil) with a large bread roll and a knob of butter, with a cup of tea. A few made do with just tea and a scone. We did see a few plates with clearly over-cooked broccoli and cauliflower on them, which Richard wondered at. My father liked his vegetables cooked to a tasteless sludge, but it was because he had (like all these Mothers) dentures and could not manage crisp foodstuffs.

We moved at glacial speed and reached the counter just as hundreds of little old ladies were alerted to the start of their service in the main body of the Cathedral. We were able to ask for scraps left in the serving dishes (I had pork stroganoff and roast potatoes with the last slice of Victoria sponge cake for dessert), and when we turned around the Café was almost empty. Tapping canes and frames could be heard moving along the Cloisters towards the service.

A sign by the food cases said that the Cathedral’s own ale and mead were available. I’m betting not a single little old lady went for that option. Not while in control of a Zimmer! I should note that there were no mobility scooters inside the Cathedral, and they must not be permitted as the doors were not friendly-looking, and the entrance passage involved two or more right angles, and the Cloisters were beyond more twists and turns.

These Signs made me Wonder

After our meal, which turned out to be substantial (if expensive), Richard went to see Saint Cuthbert’s famous door-knocker. One may enter the Cathedral for free, and walk past the replica of the original door knocker on the main doors, but to see the real thing near the Café costs a fiver. I wasn’t that eager. I went in search of the Toilets.

One must go out of the end of the Cathedral most distant from the high altar windows, and then a sign points to the left and right, around a corner. A smaller sign suggested a Resource Centre was around that corner too, but I couldn’t see it. Of course, the sign read MENS instead of MEN’S. Should one send a message to God in blue pencil, or let it go? Hell, put it on a website, embarrass the Deity.

The Mothers’ Union service was under way in the main body of the Cathedral, and Richard and I stood at the back to watch and listen. The preachers were so far away that one could not really see them, or determine their gender, and the sound system was not the best. The hymn singing was so dreadful that I reckon the congregation had new and/or unfamiliar books. I certainly didn’t know the few words I could make out. The Lord’s Prayer was mumbled, but I noticed a family of Asians standing at the back near us intoned the Prayer perfectly and clearly, before resuming their personal conversation in Mandarin or something exotic.

There did not seem to be any recent signs or notices with a Christian message. In the very old chapels within the Cathedral one could see some writing on the walls, often damaged courtesy of Henry VIII in the 1530s and Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. Old tombs and monuments had headless bodies. The signs all seemed to be towards gift shops, all in English, and not terribly well done. Assuming they get their £60,000 a week, it doesn’t go very far. Perhaps it costs a bundle just to dry clean all those robes?

Richard climbed the spiral stairs up the Cathedral’s main tower. I sat outside on the Green and made conversation with a couple who, like me, were knackered from all the walking inside.

When Richard emerged we went across to Durham Castle and joined a wonderful tour with an attractive young guide. She was a PhD student, had lived in Alabama for twelve years, and had an international sense of humour. This Castle was new to me, though some parts of it are nearly 1,000 years old. It is in use by Durham University, the Keep is now student residences. The best part, in my opinion, was a very old Norman chapel in the basement that had vanished for generations, and that has recently been rediscovered and cleared out and opened to the visiting and worshipping public.

An hour or so later, we walked back down the hill, taking photographs, and made our way to the Railway Station by following the many helpful street signs. On the way I excused myself and dodged into a public toilet down many slippery stairs (it was still drizzling rain) well below street level. A very small toilet with only three urinals and two cubicles. I was the only person there and stood at the urinal nearest the door. Then Richard decided he’d use the facilities too, and came in and went over to the third urinal just as I was leaving and another bloke was coming in quietly. The stranger stood at the middle urinal. Not looking, Richard thought the only other person there was me, but I’d gone outside. A minute later Richard emerged looking a tad flustered. He’d said, thinking I was at the urinal, “That’s a fine stream you’ve got going there. You won’t be coming down with prostate cancer any time soon.” Then he realised he was talking to a complete stranger. I do not know what the fellow said, but Richard suggested we get our skates on.

Waiting for the Train to Alnmouth

We were at the Station just in time to catch the northbound train heading to Dundee; it stops in Newcastle and Alnmouth before crossing into Scotland. A very, very long train, this one. We had to walk through carriage after carriage to find seats. There were many unoccupied seats, and most had small notices to say they were reserved. In fact, few people boarded the train in Durham and Newcastle, and almost none in Alnmouth where we got off. I wonder if one can actually disregard reserved signs on trains. Had the seats been reserved and vacant since the train left King’s Cross?

Cailean had been alone in the flat for eleven hours, but had not peed indoors. He needed to go out for sure! After a short walk, I came inside and wrote a dozen postcards and popped them in the pillar box across the street. I suppose, more correctly, one should write and post any postcards where they were purchased. “Having a lovely time ...” rather than “Had a lovely time ...”