Friday, 23 July 2010

Desert Island Dreams

PROSPERO: By Providence divine.
Some food we had and some fresh water that
A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo,
Out of his charity, being then appointed
Master of this design, did give us, with
Rich garments, linens, stuffs and necessaries,
Which since have steaded much; so, of his gentleness,
Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act I, Scene II)

I HAVE PLAYED DESERT ISLAND DISCS often enough. One shares with friends one’s taste in music, particular music, for examples. And the game grows: What few books would one want in one’s exile? What artwork? What dwelling? What scenic view? What brief visitor? What long-time companion? What weather? What clothing? What foodstuffs?

The desert island must be far away. My front room can be ever so far away when I set my mind to it. I’m not sure how the term ‘desert island’ came about. Is it, perhaps, that island within a desert, an oasis, a place where one might survive? The spot where fresh water bubbles to the surface and a few trees give shade to a lush and green lawn. The spot where Asian food might be delivered in silence and secret, to be discovered newly arrived just when one has a craving for crispy king prawns in a Hong Kong style sweet and sour sauce. The spot where one could wear corduroys and tweeds and sturdy shoes, and a long scarf: Desert islands need not be on the Equator, need not be hot and humid outposts, they might be in the Orkneys (and mine might be).

If I was permitted my iPod, and could only have music by four or five artists, I believe I would take along Joni Mitchell as my first choice. Followed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, in both cases just their music from the 1960s. I would also enjoy easy access to the Mozart "Requiem". I like just about any kind of music, though I’m wary of show tunes in case I should earn a reputation; I might request a recording of Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin".

I’d hang pictures on my island, given the walls. Anything by Vincent van Gogh. Really, that could be all and I’d be happy as a Sandboy. I love the landscapes with golden wheat fields, and that’s the outlook I’d choose if I was permitted a distant view from my oasis.

I’m not sure who I’d most like to have stop by to visit me. I suppose the other person I’m playing Desert Island Discs with would be polite and prudent. And, to be honest, anyone I was intimate enough to play the game with would be welcome.

A long-time companion: This would have to be a dog. Cailean. My little dog sleeps on his back, stretched across my chest (he’s very small) when I’m reclining while reading a book, and there’s nothing more one could want except having a dog pounce on one first thing in the morning and stab one’s eye socket with his cold, wet nose. Cailean fits the bill. The nose. We’d live, in our oasis, in a small shelter that is more bookcases than walls and windows.

It’s the books that would be most important in my hideaway. I’m truly hard-pressed to think what, say, ten books I’d settle for, if no others could magically appear on the desert island in boxes from Amazon.

I’ve been almost a compulsive reader all my life. I was nine years old when we got our first television set. The cinematic films I did see usually were represented on my bookshelves. When I was about eleven our English mistress, Mrs Lorna Harriott, bless her, did not attempt to bore our classes with the rules of grammar and punctuation. We did not have to write essays. We did not have spelling lists to learn. We did not have set books to read. Rather, Mrs Harriott read to us. Every day we’d have an English class lasting about 40 minutes, and, in her pleasant Canadian accent, Mrs Harriott read us everything from the poems of Robert Frost to novellas by John Steinbeck. We had “Jane Eyre” and “Lorna Doone”. Mrs Harriott created the atmosphere of Sherlock Holmes’s case of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” on Dartmoor, and the visitors from “Out of the Silent Planet” on the planet Malacandra, by CS Lewis. We had Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “King Solomon’s Mines” by Rider Haggard. Looking back, Mrs Harriott had the good sense to be reading us adventure stories with murder and madness mixed in with the love stories. I liked best, at the time, HG Wells’s “The Time Machine” and John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps”, and still like the films made in the years we were listening to Mrs Harriott; I think the books sent me off to those two movies.

Our next English master read us quite a few plays by George Bernard Shaw which I enjoyed at the time. I’ve tried to revisit them and find them awfully dated and not at all funny or interesting. We read poetry with this master, Frank “Buck” Rogers, and I liked only Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (it’s hard not to). Our set book for GCE “O” Level was CS Forester’s “The Gun” which I hated. (I still dislike CS Forester, who was one of my father’s favourite writers with the Hornblower novels. My father had, in his bookcase, EM Forster’s “Abinger Harvest” which is a collection of essays. I cannot imagine my father liking Forster, and have wondered if he got the book thinking it was by Forester.) Our Shakespeare play was “Henry V” which I rather enjoyed, having covered that period in history classes.

What books from my schooldays would I conjure up for my desert island? Shakespeare: as much as I might be permitted, a complete works would be super. I’d like, too, the writings of William Blake (we sang his words to “Jerusalem” often enough at grammar school). I would request the collected letters of Virginia Woolf, and also of Lytton Strachey, for my fix of “Bloomsbury”. DH Lawrence’s “Women in Love” is my favourite book of fiction of all time.

Most recent books (should I call them “modern”?) don’t draw me back, no matter how much I enjoy reading them the one time. I’m presently reading a cracking biography of TE Lawrence (“The Golden Warrior” by Lawrence James) which makes the film I liked a great deal 45 years ago pale by comparison. Much as I’m enjoying this read, I’d not want to tackle it again. However, I’ve got TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” ready to read, and we did read (censored, I’d imagine) excerpts of Seven Pillars in school.

I have done in, happily, Bill Bryson’s “At Home” this summer. What a fun book, and educational too, I think. I count on Bryson to produce another, new, brilliant read every year or so. I would reread Bryson on language and grammar and Shakespeare.

One living British writer who I do revisit is Alan Bennett. Bennett writes wonderful plays and short stories, and funny essays. His screenplays are terrific. I enjoy Bennett’s diaries and potted memories, and he’s at his best when delivering eulogies. I’d like to have Alan Bennett’s “Writing Home” and “Untold Stories” which are, together, his autobiography up until a few years ago sent to my oasis. I could dip in those from time to time.

Some desert islanders would take along a Holy Bible. I’d hope the Gideon Society had left one under a stone for an emergency, and that it would be the original KJV. None of this jive talk I hear preached nowadays. It’s jive talk that would drive me to a life far, far away.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Re: Bus

Every day I get in the queue (Too much, the Magic Bus)
To get on the bus that takes me to you (Too much, the Magic Bus)
I'm so nervous, I just sit and smile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
Your house is only another mile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
The Who (The Magic Bus)

TWO YEARS AGO, perhaps three, the Arriva bus company replaced most of the older buses on the Newcastle-Alnwick run. The new buses are roomier, the entrance can be lowered (pneumatically, I think) to allow people easier access, and there’s space for a wheelchair-bound passenger. For a few weeks the new buses looked terrific; and then the usual scratches and dirt spoiled all that.

Even in our current weather, mostly rainless to the point of drought conditions, the windows on the buses are usually covered in no less than a thin, opaque layer of mud. This spoils the spectacular views. We are having a warm and somewhat muggy summer in 2010 and the narrow part of the bus window on a hinge does nothing to relieve the heat when it is pushed open the permitted inch or two. I’m finding I feel a bit motion sick just now, the stuffy air.

In the rainy and snowy winter the windows of the buses tend to be so muddied that one has to guess where one is, and when to ring the bell for one’s stop. And the heating is inadequate, or difficult. One’s feet might be boiling, one’s ears frozen.

For all that, I enjoy riding on the buses. I like to watch the other passengers and to listen in on conversations. When Cailean travels with me, he makes friends quickly with everybody he can. Not many people can resist a cute "sausage dog" on a bus.

I don’t go all the way to Newcastle on the bus very often; I tend to only commute between Alnwick and Amble. This is the 518 route. There is another bus service, the 472 route that takes one between Alnwick and Amble (through Shilbottle) and no further, and it roams the country lanes. Usually a small single-decker bus suffices. These single-decker buses are old and liable to break down, and they are uncomfortable in every way. From the 518 bus one can see the North Sea (in theory, but depending on the thickness of the dirt caking the windows) and from the 472 bus one tends to just see over the hedgerows into farms and off into the distant foothills of the Cheviots. The other day I saw a hare in a recently-mown field. I’ve never seen one live before; I knew what it was immediately as it stood up and was clearly not a bunny. Made my day seeing that.

The bus station in Alnwick is rather unpleasant, being open to the weather with metal seats. In the winter the snow can blow through it and the metal seats are deadly. Actually, the Alnwick bus station can best be described as ugly. The noisy yobs that hang about in it don’t help. Most yobs are ugly (I think that’s why they become yobs). Some hanging baskets with flowers would help the bus station, but I think they’d be stolen or damaged unless some sort of security was laid on. Bus users signing petitions say there is a need for public toilets at the bus station. Actually, there are toilets only 50 yards away near the Market Square, but I gather they are closed in late afternoon and people do use the buses in the night, and bladders and whatnot don’t shut down at 5.00.

On the 518 bus I tend to be a giant, despite being fairly short. Many of the passengers are elderly, women rather than men, and bent over sticks and sometimes Zimmer frames. I’ve never seen a wheelchair user on board one of these specially modified buses. As the queue forms in Alnwick, the rudest, pushiest people tend to be the oldest ladies. I can only think they believe their time is short and that barging in front of others is permitted. Was it the White Rabbit that hurried past Alice, worrying over his timepiece? The little old ladies at the Alnwick bus station are so many White Rabbits. (Some of these ladies will also grab food that one is examining at the market, and push through to the head of the queue there, while complaining about the younger generation. And I’ve never heard one of them say “Excuse me...” My mother may have been a nutter, but she insisted that we be civil and have good manners.)

We do get a few odd folks on the bus routes I travel. Over the years I’ve come to recognise people. I’ve watched some younger travellers grow up; and some faces have disappeared, and those people may well have popped their clogs. Last Saturday a fellow boarded the 518 bus in Alnwick after the rest of the passengers had been seated; he leapt on and made awfully strange noises. This man may have been about 30, and he looked and acted like a throwback from a story by Tom Sharpe. Dressed in dark-blue overalls, this last passenger sat nearest the door and began making louder and louder sounds that may have been words. “Not in English ...” was my first thought. Then I wondered if he might simply have Tourette’s syndrome. As his words were not recognizable, though having some form as he hissed and growled them, I decided he must be a foreigner with Tourette’s and that he was cursing in another tongue. As the bus made its stops, the muttering man seemed to be drooling and leering and commenting in some horrible way at each and every passengers getting on or off. And then it got really weird. The man kissed the window next to him. Not a quick peck, he put some force and some tongue into it, and some time. When he detached himself his window was covered in slime. He kissed it again.

I was two seats back, and wondering where this creature was getting off. Just as I reached out to press the bell for my stop, the man pressed one by his seat. We got off at my stop. He went towards Amble’s Town Centre and I walked away from it. Might he be an Amble resident?

Yesterday I was walking Cailean and we were passing Amble’s humble bus shelter and there was the mumbling, ticking man, again in blue overalls. He was making all his noises and seemed to be with another chap of the same age, though not in a uniform. And they were kind of wrestling on the bench they shared. The noises were, as muttering noises go, friendly, pleasurable. They then jumped up and moved out into the street, the middle of the street, laughing (I think) with the one man’s arm around the neck of the other. No thought to traffic. They were soon down on their knees. Cailean and I walked on.

In 1980 I spent a few months on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This is, basically, a long sandbank off the East Coast of the USA, with a highway down the middle and houses on stilts on either side. It is all only a few feet above a calm high tide. I was staying in Rodanthe. In that village there was a young woman, Gladys Something, who was daft as a brush. Gladys would go out onto the highway and turn somersaults down the centre of it. We called her “Mad Gladys” (as, of course, one must) and wondered how long this might go on. I was reminded of Mad Gladys as I left the Amble lads mock-wrestling on Church Street behind.

Before I reached the flat, the 472 bus passed me from behind. I could see the window-kissing fellow in the seat nearest the door. Headed back to Alnwick.

In Bible stories we’d have had Jesus curing such a madman, casting out a devil perhaps. Easy peasy. Two hundred years ago the man might be a Village Idiot. In 2010, a Fellow Traveller.