Wednesday, 28 December 2011


“But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.”
St John 19:34

THE WIND IS BOOMING TODAY. Here in my kitchen, the sounds made by the changes in pressure on the chimneys on top of the building are no less than those of a relentless hurricane passing over the Bermuda Islands at the end of summer. In my life, I have experienced a number of those.

I have just walked to the corner shop, about a hundred yards away. Getting there, with the wind at my back, I had to struggle so as not to be pushed forward on my face. Coming back, with my carton of milk and bottle of apple squash, I tried to get as close as possible to the walls on my right, pausing several times in doorways, then pushing ahead again, gasping for breath.

I have a memory of my grandfather, Henry Charles Christopher Eldridge, stored away in September of 1961. Charlie Eldridge was born on 26 July 1894, which happens to be the same day that the English novelist Aldous Huxley was born. In 1961, my grandfather and Huxley would have been about 67. My grandfather died in 1962, and Huxley in 1963 (on the same day that JFK was assassinated, so that Huxley’s passing went pretty much unnoticed in the media). Cancer. They both died of cancer.

The two novels I have read most often in my life, and love the most, are Aldous Huxley's "Island" and D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love". Huxley and his wife were at Lawrence's bedside when he died of consumption back in 1930.

My memory of Charlie Eldridge, recorded in late summer of 1961, is of a tall man bent over by poor health. Charlie could not, and did not, walk too far. Not without sitting here and there to catch his breath. He had advanced lung cancer. So, we are in London walking along a street that seems to feature many antique shops. My grandmother and I had to keep stopping to allow my grandfather to catch up with us. It seems remarkable to me that he would have gone up to London with us, which would have involved an hour on a train and then buses. I am glad he did, because I have had the memory of it for 50 years now.

About the time my grandfather died, I began writing letters to family members who happened to be across the country or across an ocean sometimes. I corresponded with family at first, but as the 1960s rolled on, and I left school, I tended to keep in touch with friends. I suppose many of my elderly relatives were dead or dying by the 1970s.

I have always enjoyed writing. It has been almost a compulsion at times, making things real. I came to write a newspaper column for a few years, and then, in about 2008, I began blogging. My blog was “Barking Mad in Amble by the Sea”. I use the past tense, because I expect this will be the last entry there.

I am done with writing.

I have finished reporting, finished remarking, finished with the news. I have finished preaching. I am done with writing. All the words I ever had have gone out of me. Done.

A fortnight or so ago, I received the sort of Christmas present one really does not want. The diagnosis of cancer. I have skin cancer, which started in my right side, then moved into the lymphatic system, both lungs and other tissues. Funny, I celebrated 30 years since I last smoked a cigarette last August, and the disease is in my lungs, of all places.

What can I say? If you smoke, then quit. If you are young and are tempted to smoke, it is possibly the worst thing you could do with your life to smoke.

I have that memory of Charlie Eldridge, walking slowly along a pavement in Chelsea. It was a sunny day, not windy, unlike today, 50 years on.

Yes. All the words have gone out of me.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Dreamland Pilgrim

“The colour of truth is gray.”
André Gide (1869 – 1951)

SEVERAL MORNINGS AGO I stepped into my shower a Heathen. I washed myself, shampooed my hair, rinsed off the soap, and turned off the water. When I pulled the shower curtain back, I was still a Heathen (a clean one at least). Stepping down, I immediately appreciated that my bathroom floor was wet, very wet. Not just puddled, but under two inches of water, and this seemed to be rising. The Heathen paddled across to the bathroom door, up a slight step, and across the hallway. Every towel in the top of the wardrobe went onto the bathroom floor, along with the spare bathmats. Somehow, the Heathen won the battle; the dripping towels went into the laundry basket and then off to the washing machine in the kitchen.

The Heathen, which is to say the Writer, had dabbed at his wet body while flinging towels about, and was able to get dressed. On with the central heating to get the floor quite dry.

An experiment: A jug of water poured into the bathtub bubbled up through the space between the bathtub’s housing and the floor. Here was trouble.

I had cursed a blue streak, but calmed down enough to phone my landlord for advice. Unfortunately, he was out of town due to a family emergency. I figured I would wait a few days and make do with my bathroom sink and the hose from the shower, which could be used there.

When I was a boy, at my Nan’s home in Kent, and at my Mother’s family home in Lancashire, we did not have indoor plumbing. In the morning, Nan or my Auntie Maud would pour heated water from a ewer into a bowl on a washstand in my bedroom, and I would bathe in some fashion that way. The small child does not usually smell as much as someone does at my present age. Using my bathroom sink, I have washed myself incredibly thoroughly for the past few mornings. I had no complaints.

I shall tell the reader now, the first time I have told anyone, that my Mother, who lived most of her adult life in Bermuda in a house with good modern plumbing, never, ever, had a bath or a shower. She washed at the sink. Might she have been afraid of water? I never knew. In her last few years, she could not bear to be in a room with a closed door, and that included the bathroom. It was rather discomfiting. Her bathroom door faced across a hallway to the living room. One had to make excuses ... I think the dog needs a walk ... privacy should go both ways.

Was the Heathen, the non-believer, to be flung into the world of his grandparents and peculiar Mother, when it came to bathing in October 2011? For a few days it was interesting, gave me something to think about.

Yesterday, I had had enough. Was I getting all the shampoo out of my hair (the few strands remaining)? Could I be sure I was not malodorous? I was also missing the physical pleasure of a hellishly hot shower.

Then, last night, I dreamed that my Mother was telling me about a bolt in my bathtub drain. I doubt that my Mother had any knowledge of drains, taps or pipes or the nuts and bolts that hold them together. How did she get into my dream with the explanation that a bolt had fallen down my drain? I know so little of plumbing myself; I could not invent her words (could I?) I should point out that Mother passed away over 19 years ago, and has never appeared in my dreams with helpful hints.

I told a friend here in town about the bathtub drain, and he brought over two small washers. Told me he thought there would be a bolt somewhere below the drain and a screw passed through the washers would restore the drain. Well, the Heathen was not too much of a believer.

This evening, on my own, I shone a torch down the drain after lifting off the sieve plate, and way down I could see a metal ring with a ... wait for it ... bolt through the middle pointing up. It was awkwardly distant to be reached by fingers or pliers, but I had the sudden thought that a fishhook on a line might be lowered into the drain and the device below snared and pulled upwards. As if I had a fishhook and a line! However, after hunting through the many drawers and boxes in my flat, I found a long twist-tie with a thin metal centre coated in plastic. I bent the end to make a hook and lowered it into the darkness of the drain (impossible to manoeuvre a torch at the same time) and, praying “Please!” to no god in particular, pulled upwards. The hook had latched onto the bolt and its ring; it came up to the bottom of the bathtub. I quickly unscrewed the bolt, took off the corroded and worn washer on the end of it, dropped on the new washers, and screwed the bolt down again. This pulled everything tightly together.

The Heathen, with his dream, his Mother, his friend and (his luck?) had fixed the drain. He dared to run the tap for a good long time, and no water bubbled out from below the tub.

When I was younger (but older than I was at my Auntie Maud’s) I used to find religion, hints of God, in both major and minor events. The night sky might make me tremble and so might a few minutes of listening to sitar music. Words, especially, could turn me on. Words still turn me on, but they no longer seem to turn a god on. Not the way they did in the 1960s. I took drugs to try and find the way to God.

That said, I recently watched again, after a few decades, the television series “Cosmos” written and presented by Dr Carl Sagan. I recalled reading that Sagan, as he was dying of cancer, had pretty much decided that there was no God. When I read that, years ago, I was surprised. As a Heathen, watching the series from start to finish over a few nights, I had to ask myself how Sagan could have dismissed God while speaking of so many wonders in the Cosmos.

Haydn’s “The Creation” oratorio has the line: ‘The wonder of his works displays the firmament,’ which is pleasant to sing (which I did in school) and thrilling to hear. Happens that the original German does not make sense in English as commonly translated. It has to be ‘The firmament displays the wonder of his works’.

The works displayed so wonderfully by the firmament that Sagan wrote and spoke of had me thinking that maybe I had it wrong. Maybe there is a god, even a God.

“That the Mormons assume a right exclusively to the benefits of God will be a lasting witness against them, and the same will it be against Christians.”
Thanks to William Blake
(1757 – 1827)

For me, I think the main difficulty with a belief in a deity is that people tend to create Him (or Her) in their own image. This exclusivity extends beyond the worship service, beyond the sacred image, beyond the promises attached to this or that god. The True God and his True Church (for there must be one, if just to collect tithes and offerings) can only succeed when all opposition is crushed. There was never a god that whispered to the prophets: “Tell the people to pray as they will, do as they would, be what they wish.”

At the present time, there is a run-up to the Presidential Elections in the USA. A year from now, Americans will elect a leader. One of the Republican candidates is a Christian, we are told, of the Evangelical bent. Another Republican front-runner is a Mormon. The Christians, the Bible Believers (dare I say Bashers?), are getting the word out that Mormonism is a cult, not Christian, and that a Mormon President would surely lead the country into the jaws of Hell. The Mormons, by the way, believe that when the American Constitution is “hanging by a thread” the Mormons will take over America (and eventually the world) and rule for the Mormon god(s). There will be a political kingdom of God.

A True Christian, and a True Mormon, cannot believe outside their particular Catechism.

JFK was elected President despite (we must assume) adhering to Roman Catholic doctrine, which differs from that of our Evangelical Christians almost as much as Mormonism. Except, so far as I know, the Pope was not pulling strings.

Mormons in their meetinghouses vote to sustain their church leaders by the sign of the raised hand. I have never, ever, seen a hand withheld, much less a hand raised in opposition, no matter how difficult a decision. Simply, the members vote for the candidates that the Church leaders tell them to.

Do not expect the voters in Utah to sing the praises of Barack Obama, the Democrat, or Rick Perry the Republican Christian. Utah Mormons (and those elsewhere) pushed The Osmonds to the top of the pops 30 years ago, and Brandon Flowers of The Killers is repaying his fan-base by backing the Mormon Republican Mitt Romney for President in 2012.

I would not back a Mormon candidate for high office because I know a little about Mormonism, and a good deal about what True Mormons are expected to believe and do. Mormons are expected to withhold information that might put their church and its leaders in a bad light, indeed, they can lie and it is quite all right. They do lie. I have lied for them and with them.

As I stood in my flooded bathroom the other morning, sending up the sort of prayer King Canute might have, that Noah might have, I did not really expect an answer. Dreaming of my Mother and the bolt in the bathtub drain was rather odd, and finding my answer in the dream was even odder. I am not going to found The Church of the Flood (that would be a very catchy name, of course) and get religion. I might put the clues together, admire the firmament, and feel comfortable with the casual thought that someone or something, billions of years ago, released everything into time and space, and that matter and energy flooded outwards in every direction. Did someone or something create the laws of nature, of physics? Perhaps they were inherited from an earlier incarnation. Let it roll.

The Heathen is enjoying his shower again. This is a rainy day outdoors too. Bless the drain that works!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Vanished. She was that Small.

“I can never decide whether my dreams are the result of my thoughts, or my thoughts the result of my dreams.”
D. H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)

MOST NIGHTS I TAKE CAILEAN FOR A WALK some time after ten o’clock. In the summer months, this would be in daylight, even as late as half-eleven. However, for most of the year, it is well dark and we rely on the city lights illuminating our main street to mark the way out and the way back. The glitter of the sign above the door at Euro-Pizza, the creamy glow through the fogged window at Taste of China, the twinkle of the cigarettes youngsters are smoking on the bench outside the Post Office may not be visible at the International Space Station (indeed, I don’t suppose the folks up there can even spot Amble by the Sea in the daylight), but for the dog-walker they are signs of light and thus life.

I remember Marianne Faithfull being interviewed back in the 1960s, might it have been on the Simon Dee Show. The singer was not talking about her song - she may not have managed one that month - but about light and thus life. In her somewhat growly voice, Marianne told us that a spaceship from some distant world on a reconnaissance mission in our galaxy would have been disappointed until they slipped into the skies above the side of the Earth celebrating night. There, in the dark, would be sudden pockets of extraordinary brilliance. Where millions gathered in cities, the street and vehicle lights and the lights from windows in blocks and homes, would tell our visitors in no uncertain terms that we are at home here, their journey was worth it. I dare say the aliens overhead might wonder if we were glowing creatures, rather than the dark lumps we actually are. Might we gravitate to the dark with our inborn light, rather than light the way artificially as we fumble about without it?

It is curious how one recalls a brief interview conducted 45 years ago on the same day one pops across to the corner shop to buy milk and bread, but comes away without the bread because one forgets what it was one needed (and no list was made).

Last night, at about eleven o’clock, I walked Cailean as far as the Post Office on Queen Street, and turned back when I reached the three under-dressed young schoolgirls who seem to be there every night, smoking and yelling obscenities at passing cars and into mobile telephones. I crossed the street and walked up the pavement on the other side and at the top I was slowed down by scaffolding around the building next to The Waterloo public house. Outside the pub were a half-dozen or more youngish people, males and females, smoking, some drinking, and all in loud conversation.

Over the past few years, my dodgy hearing has worsened and I have a hearing aid in one ear (I am waiting for a device for the other ear). I struggle to make out ordinary talking, radios and background sounds. I can hear loud birds (the feathered variety and the lasses) quite well, something about the pitch, perhaps. People yelling on a dimly lit street do register with me.

And so, outside The Waterloo, I heard:

“She was really small. Not a dwarf, like ... But really, really small.”
“I recall her too. Lost track of her.”
“Remember what people used to call her at school?”
“Oh, yes. Bridgette the Midget.”
“Even though she wasn’t a midget.”
“And her name wasn’t Bridgette.”
“She was that small. Well under five feet. Maybe four.”
“Don’t know where she went after school.”


That I remembered this afternoon, though I forgot the bread.

A Rustle at the door: Autumn had Arrived.

It is very much autumn. Cold, windy. The multi-coloured leaves were promising after some unusually sunny and warm weather a fortnight ago. The wind seems to be sufficient to wrest the leaves from the trees, and to blow a good many of them into the North Sea.

We may well have snow a month from now, if the past few years have marked a pattern. In any case, we are wearing nearly the full complement of winter clothes, though I have not worn my hat and gloves yet. God knows, walking Cailean late last night I wondered why I’d not reached for a hat when I left home.

Last winter our pavements and all but the main street were blocked by snow for weeks at a time. My courtyard was under ice. This year I have a snow shovel, and hope to make pathways.

Last winter, and the months through to early summer, my mood was buoyant. My Manic-Depressive Illness has, more or less, highs (mania and hypomania) and lows (depression) lasting around nine months each. When I am up, I feel brilliant, I am something of a superman, a rising star. I cannot sleep more than an hour or two a night. I read several books at once, an hour of this one, an hour of that one. I also walk a good deal, which is healthy. My medications tend to get me to a level point between high and low, but it is not easily done and requires monitoring. Nine months of flying near the sun and feeling untouchable ends, and I come to earth. I slow and cannot keep awake. My appetite goes. My enthusiasm dims.

Winston Churchill famously suffered from Manic-Depressive Illness, and he referred to his depressed periods as “the black dog”. I have a black dog, but Cailean tends to guide me through the light and the dark, aware of my wobbling, and he loves me as much when I stretch towards the sun claiming it for myself as when I go to bed at noon and pull the covers up because the light hurts.

I have been south of the centre for about four months. I am heavily medicated, more than I have ever been when low. I am sleeping too much. I am reading one book, and slowly. I am watching less television. I stopped writing entries for my Barking Mad Blog a few months ago.

Today, despite the wintry feel without and within, the cold and the dark, and struggling to eat regularly (I sometimes forget to eat for a day), I had a short group of words come to my mind. Not “buy bread” which might have been helpful this morning. Rather:

Look to the left,
And look to the right,
And walk into the starry skies.
Walk into the night.

I have been watching Carl Sagan’s wonderful television series from about 30 years ago—Cosmos—and know that Sagan, before his death, seemed to stop believing in higher powers, gods, divine creation. As I have watched his lectures on the telly, I have found myself returning to a belief in something. Christians and other religionists might not think much of the belief that flickers within me somewhere (nothing as bright as the light on the sign at Euro-Pizza). I find myself somehow content to think that something may have set our universe in motion (and that is that, no further interference, the laws of physics were set at the beginning). There are some scientists that think we may dwell in one bubble in a vast bowl of bubbles, each bubble a universe. Who is disturbing the soapy liquid, blowing the bubbles?

This flicker of belief, sadly, has given me little in the way of hope. Hope is a religious principle, and it seems to be the promise in a rather unpleasant life. I am not feeling any hope that I will see my dead loved ones some day. I feel the light, I feel the dark, the highs and lows, and they are real, but there are no visions. One day, it seems to me, I shall look this way and that, then walk into the unknown. Perhaps I shall see well-lit cities as I go forward, and shall know there is life, light in the darkest night. Will I dare to land?

“Life is a travelling to the edge of knowledge, then a leap taken.”
D.H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)

Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Tumble in the Hay with Lord Krishna

AS YOU CAN SEE, this is a picture of Krishna and Radha, a most exotic couple. In 2006, I bought some colourful postcards in a gift shop at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hare Krishna Temple in Hertfordshire. These certainly are extravagantly dressed gods. I have not only been in this temple of Lord Krishna, but in a Mormon temple. I can tell you truthfully that the Mormons’ attire is a damn sight more peculiar, and not nearly so attractive.

The gods, Krishna and his partner Radha, use rather a lot of makeup. I like the clothing best. I am too old now—and too short and fat—to wear anything fancier than corduroy trousers and a Harris Tweed jacket, and the odd Liberty of London tie if I must. That said, in the late 1960s I fancied being more colourful than the few flower-patterned shirts I could afford to buy in Carnaby Street or on the King’s Road in Chelsea. For good or evil, I could not save up enough to buy myself raw silk jackets, in bright colours, that fastened with golden frogs. White trousers with huge belts and buckles. Pale blue shoes. I once prayed for a fur coat having seen they were “in” with the Beautiful People. “A fur, just like you wear, dear God.” In 1967, the “Summer of Love”, I had a vision of myself that I cannot now revisit comfortably. As all those who take a look back more than twenty years say: “What was I thinking?”

Visiting London for a week in 2006, in the hottest weather on the books, was perfect for trekking around the city on foot, and to go out by car looking for the countryside. It is there somewhere, if you can just get past the new housing estates and old neighbourhoods. I saw a sign that read: “Suburbs next 50 Miles.” No, of course not.

So, onto the highways and byways of old England. My friends, Nalini and Shekhar, had asked me if I wanted to pop in and “See the God Revealed” as the traffic had been so congested that we could not travel far and hope to be back in Wembley Park before dark, even with the long twilight. We had been wandering around the ring roads of north and west London looking for touristy places. I had no idea what I might be getting myself into. God revealed. Might this be like the film shown in a Mormon temple during the secret endowment ceremony, featuring gods and prophets and men and at least one snake-like devil?

We arrived at two large gateposts, with plaques reading “Bhaktivedanta Manor” and “Hare Krishna Temple”. Inside the gates, past neatly clipped hedgerows, finely boxed hedges, greenhouses, and brilliant flowerbeds, was an enormous Tudor manor house, white with black beams, at least three storeys, outbuildings, and with leaded windows big enough for a church, some with stained glass. God’s summer cottage, perhaps? He might kick off the shoes and stretch out on the lawn, sipping a cold beverage. What would God drink? Nectar? Mead? The first and last of the wine of Cana? We parked with many dozens of cars in a designated field. It would be muddy in the rain, but was brick hard in the summer of 2006.

“You’ve been in a Mormon temple,” I told myself again. “It just cannot be weirder than that.” Following the crowd, I too took off my sandals, putting them at the edge of the many outside the main door, wondering aloud: “If I find a nicer pair of shoes when I come out, can I trade up?” My joke was not appreciated. Too Church of England, perhaps.

The late George Harrison of the Beatles had presented the Manor to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness movement back in 1973. In June 2006, I wandered about the Temple, with lots of other pilgrims, they turned out to be worshippers, waiting for the God to turn up. I was one of very few whites in the building that afternoon; half a dozen others were dressed in the saffron dhotis we have all seen in airports. I tried to sense George there. He wrote and sang: “All I have is yours, all you see is mine.” This was quite a donation, quite a gift.

Most of the adult visitors were people my age or older, of Indian heritage, and beautifully and modestly dressed with sudden touches of colour. With them, grandchildren perhaps: Youngsters so unlike ours. These neatly dressed little ones walked slowly, did not call out or poke at things, and must have had some appreciation for the more sacred things in the Temple. No golden frogs on the visitors. Would the God have them when he was unveiled?

It was to be at four-fifteen. On time!

All the doors, throughout the house, on three floors, were closed. What you needed to do—were encouraged to do—was to open them as you reached them. A gentle push sufficed. You pulled the doors to as you passed through, and all closed gently, quietly, none locking. I examined a huge bathtub. It was very nearly the size of the baptismal fonts in the basements of Mormon temples.

I was given two small dishes of rice when I returned to the ground floor. One was plain, the other spiced with ginger root. No knives, forks or spoons. Paper towels. I was a bit peckish.

As four o’clock approached, I joined Nalini, Shekhar, and many others in a large hall that had no furniture. One end of the hall had a closed curtain from side to side and ceiling to floor. At the other end of the room sat a life-size—I thought it was a live person at first—figure. Nalini told me he was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. That is a fine name. He had founded the Krishna Consciousness Movement. The statue was surrounded with flowers and clothed almost as oddly as I had wanted to be back in the 1960s. People—except for me—kneeled and bowed to the statue, some lay flat, face down, on the floor in front of it. I also saw adults prostrating themselves on the floor at the feet of young children. Perhaps, in sympathy, to remind the children that nothing ages quite like youth: “You could be our age in the blink of Krishna’s eye.”

All the people—adults and children—moved slowly. People smiled and nodded, but did not reach for your elbow to hurry you along to where they thought you should be. There was no running about. Even with four-fifteen closing in.

Nothing seemed too weird in the moment. Even the chanting was pleasing to a degree. In the room with us—I include the Swami—there were a couple of white men in one corner, wearing the robes you see Krishna people wearing in Airports. One man thumped a drum and the other worked a squeezebox. Here, in this Temple, these priests were quite unattractive. They are creepy in airports too, I think. What is that all about? I believe it is because I find their pallid, shaved heads and doughy bodies repulsive, rather than their Consciousness. Tanned and brown-skinned monks in saffron dhotis are wonderfully attractive. These acolytes in Watford would look so much better with a Mystic Tan. In addition, I thought wickedly, after a hearty meal at a Mongolian Barbecue. Clearly, I had much to learn.

Then, my hosts’ bowing over, we joined dozens of others sat on individual sized flat mats, on the floor facing—curiously—the closed curtain, and they chanted. As people lowered themselves, they picked up the Mantra.

There I was, sat on a mat in a dimly lit hall with about fifty people singing “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Krishna Krishna”. To think I was—for over thirty years—severely limited by panic disorder. And then we watched the God unveiled at 4.15pm. Why 4.15pm? Two more shaved, robed men opened the curtains after a little bell rang somewhere. Is my mobile phone switched off? The Divine One had been behind the curtains all along: Or was he wheeled in from the wings? Actually, this Krishna was a sort of conjoined entity: They were very attractive if you like that sort of thing. They were life-sized, unlike Christian Gods, and very colourful, and draped beautifully with flowers as they sat at their altar.

This splendid altar held candles, incense, flowers, dishes of food, and drink placed before and around Krishna and his partner. Offerings over, there followed a thorough scrubbing of the floor within the holy place and then a careful dusting and polishing of the images. I wondered why the God’s place was so carefully cleansed after receiving gifts from his people. Do the gifts of men come polluted? I will write 250 words on that the next time I stay after school.

Chanting! Chanting! I am thinking of the line in “Absolutely Fabulous” when Edina tells her concerned Guru over the telephone: “I’m chanting as we speak.” Before the ceremony wrapped up, a large, wooden chest—that just did not fit in with the general decor—was placed where Krishna’s floor became ours. People went—on their knees and backsides—to the chest and slipped money into the slot in it. Mostly coins. Krishna would prefer the rustle of five and ten pound notes, I am certain; the Church of England does. However, clinking coins sounded good at a ceremony that was orchestrated with bells and other plucked or thumped instruments. Another draped man—they seemed to be getting paler the nearer they were to Krishna—waved a very large feather, perhaps that of an ostrich, to encourage the burning incense. To get the scented smoke up Krishna’s and Radha’s noses. Hare! Hare!

Quite suddenly, a bell rang somewhere off-stage, reminding Krishna—I suppose—that he had another appointment. Therefore, abruptly, the curtains were closed. Getting to my feet was not easy, the mat slipping about, and then fine dust on the floor, and only the flat wall to claw at. I ached all over.

Having withheld my coins and five-pound notes from the temptation of the ugly wooden chest, I headed outside, and noted my own sandals were the nicest in the heap, so I put them on again. I was thus able to afford some postcards and a string of love beads and a mango milk shake at the “Hare Krishna Temple Store and Café.” I bought sodas and biscuits for Nalini and Shekhar. I am wearing the beads today, so many years later. I cannot figure out how to release the clasp. A bit like some branches of Christianity.

Leaving the Café, we walked through greenhouses and past aboveground pools with water lilies in them, and little golden fish chasing bubbles and sparks. You could reach out to a lotus blossom without falling over and into a ground level pond. We could see the parked cars in the distance, but went through wooden gates towards the posted “Temple Farm”. Enormous cattle, water buffalo, gave us the eye from a field very nearly crowded with enormous multi-coloured wagons. Nalini explained—poor thing had been explaining before we ever left Wembley Park—that at times the oxen would be hitched to the wagons, which were then considered “chariots” and the teams raced about. I recalled the charioteers in “Ben-Hur” and laughed somewhere behind my Foster Grants. I could not imagine it here, and they had no postcard showing bus-size wagons drawn by burly bulls. How fast could that be? Do they smack their oxen to hurry them along?

A very large building had a sign reading “Temple Barn”, and as we walked in, we were asked to wash our hands. That is not a bad idea; for over an hour I had been pushing myself about on my mat on the floor of Krishna’s audience room, trying to get my folded legs under me bearable, and some feeling back in my lower body. I was dusty.

There were no cows in the barn after all that. It was milking time in another building, somewhere sterilised. This barn looked as pristine a place one might have. We found a ramp that went up to an elevated platform, higher than the barn floor, about six feet. Up I went. Outside a gate on the platform was a shining steel bin filled with exquisite, fresh, unblemished fruit and vegetables. Behind a stall door, lying on fresh hay, were two calves: Quite young and almost golden, coats brushed clean, no flies, no bits of straw, eyes enormous and brown almost as if they were wearing make-up. No manure in the stall, and only a sweet fragrance. A picture of total serenity. One calf was called Krishna, a common name at the Manor, and I cannot be sure the other was Radha. Their mothers must have been in the milking shed.

I crouched on my aching legs to reach in and touch the calf nearest me, who might have been Krishna, or the other one. I did not recall ever having touched a live cow. This one did not look as if it would bite me. I gave the creature’s ear a nice massage and did the same routine that works for dogs, cats, swans, budgies, lions and tigers, and everything else, including Lotus Europa sports cars. Singing:

Hello Baby! Hello Baby!
I would like to stroke your muzzle!
Come on Baby! Come on Baby!
You are such a beautiful Baby!

Someone below called out: “Would you like some very fresh ice-cream?” Of course, I would, as a chaser after the mango milkshake. I pushed down on my legs and made to stand up. That did not happen: I felt dizzy—I do that often with my dodgy blood pressure—and went sailing off into space.

My knapsack came up behind my head and upper back when I reached the concrete floor below the platform, protecting my head from a direct blow. Some loose, clean hay softened the fall of the rest of me. The barn was so immaculate, that not even a straw was out of place and in need of refreshment. Does Krishna actually keep a lookout for his followers and visitors? If he does: “Thank you, Sir.”

We then had the very fresh ice cream, again mango flavoured. I was but a little shaken by my fall. As I hit the ground, I had thought: “This will make a good story.”

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Waves

He, doing so, put forth to seas,
Where when men been, there's seldom ease;
For now the wind begins to blow;
Thunder above and deeps below
Make such unquiet, that the ship
Should house him safe is wreck'd and split;
And he, good prince, having all lost,
By waves from coast to coast is tost.
William Shakespeare (Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Act I, Scene IV)

AT WARWICK ACADEMY, from time to time, the recess or lunch break on the playing fields would be interrupted by loud shouts of “Fight! Fight!” and suddenly a knot of boys would form here or there, encircling something unseen but understood. One boy would have taken umbrage at something another lad had said or done, and would launch an attack of fists and feet. Sticks, stones or knives simply did not enter into it.

The spectators would continue to call out their encouragement until one (or both) of the boys was bloodied; and then the knot would unravel rapidly, the gladiatorial ended, and runny noses, split lips and blackened eyes would be dabbed at in the toilets.

I do not recall teachers, or even prefects, ever breaking up a fight.

I might add that I do not remember ever seeing girls fighting, except by way of words and distant gestures. The girls were as adept with a rude finger or two as their older brothers were.

There was not a great deal of bullying at Warwick Academy, bigger boys lording it over younger or smaller pupils. That said, in my day, some of our young tin Caesars felt it necessary to dictate hairstyles and the length of one’s hair. As this demand for short hair was the same as that dictated by the Headmaster, I never saw people punished for ganging up on boys with hair a little over the ears or collars. Our Headmaster could never be accused of being fair.

Only once was I threatened with a haircut by my classmates, and that was at a party one weekend night. I simply slipped out of the host’s door and walked a few miles home in the dark. I can still remember the walk home, 45 years later. Slipping out of the house, slipping along the roads, and taking a longer route than I need have done so that if anyone came after me they would expect me elsewhere, slipping into my home after midnight and never telling my mother I had walked home. One or two friends at the party did worry when I had vanished, knowing I had no transport and four or five miles to get home.

The Headmaster bullied me over my “long” hair. Many the times I was called up in morning Assembly, and told to report to the Headmaster after our little services were done. In his office, I would be shrieked at by a man twice my size, who would go so red in his rage that one expected something to pop. I can tell you he lived into his nineties, possibly because when he retired from his position at Warwick Academy he grew his hair longer than mine had ever been.

Last night, very late, I watched rioters, looters, and arsonists attempting to level part of London, starting in Tottenham’s High Road. Apparently, a small protest over the shooting death of a bloke two nights earlier got “out of hand”. It appeared more likely that a peaceful protest was hijacked by mini-gangsters who wanted to rumble. Soon I was watching people fleeing, while a few males pitched rocks and petrol bombs at vehicles and buildings, and there was a live view of the arsonists’ younger brothers wheeling shopping trolleys loaded with electronic goods from shattered storefronts.

A reporter from the BBC seemed to have taken a position in the centre of a street, with fires raging in the buildings behind him, and rock-throwing youths battling mounted police nearby. Two teenagers, in jeans and T-shirts, came up behind the reporter. First, Yellow Shirt gave the viewing audience a bit of a dance and hand gestures that were offensive even to someone as out of it as I am. Punching fists, rude fingers, and thrusts. Then Blue Shirt jumped in from the dark and shoved Yellow Shirt, who stumbled about.

I was waiting to hear “Fight! Fight!” However, the shirts decided to play for the cameras, smiling widely and looking anything but tough. The BBC reporter did not seem to know what was going on two feet behind him, or was simply not going to be bothered by it. The camera operator narrowed the shot so that only the reporter’s face and some flames behind his left ear filled the screen. The boys were out of the shot. That is when the reporter got the push and other rioters and yobs went for the camera and the BBC van. The presenter back in the studio told us that there appeared to be some confrontation between their team in Tottenham and protestors. "And here are some earlier pictures ..."

Today, it is all smouldering buildings, streets covered in rubbish and ash, and police walking about looking for “evidence”. Walls of now-roofless Victorian buildings are tottering in Tottenham. The locals are homeless and some even have no clothing but that they wore to flee the fires in the night. Somewhere, one supposes, boys and their slightly bigger brothers are setting up splendid stereo systems and HD television sets. How do young kids explain the new 42” telly with a surround-sound feature in the front room to their parents? Do they even have parents, or people who parent them?

From what I can gather watching the Beeb, at first only about 15 police officers were on duty when the protest started. One of the Police bigwigs tells us they misjudged the size of the crowd and the emotions of those taking part. Several riots this summer have also been poorly anticipated. Our Government is busy reducing the police services, and our military, despite protest marches and gatherings and the heartfelt anger that the population seems always to feel during Tory administrations.

Right now, our Government is off on holiday. No doubt Cabinet Ministers travel well on the taxpayer. The world’s economies are collapsing, and the world’s leaders (all in their holiday digs) simply do not have a clue and no end of photo-ops will calm the markets.

Our Government’s huge budget cuts have resulted in the closure of youth clubs. Notably in the parts of London with the ethnicity of Tottenham. Is it not time to weigh up the many millions lost in riots and arson and looting against the cost of providing boys and girls with somewhere half-decent to go on a Saturday night?

In the television coverage last night I was amazed at the many different types on the streets, though must admit there were 9 boys to every girl. But there were whites and blacks, Arabs and Hasidic Jews, and people in all sorts of clothes, from conservative to rather sluttish. Nearly all, when interviewed, seemed to speak with English accents. Imagine the fun they could have at youth group events!

Yesterday we saw a posed photograph of President Obama of the USA chatting on the phone with his military advisor, being told that over 30 US soldiers had been killed when a helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. Obama’s hair looks grey, he looks weary, and that is how he had to look. It was a single still picture, not a film. Did he also swear? Shake a fist? Curse the Taliban and their Allah? Did he shed a tear, edited out?

Could the economies of the great western nations be up shit creek because we are fighting unwinnable wars? Not just unwinnable wars, but wars that nobody seems to understand (or want) back at home.

Why are we bombing Libya, but not Yemen or Syria or Bahrain? Why not North Korea or Burma? Do we even protest at Cabinet level when a Saudi woman is the victim of Sharia Law?

Why are we being asked to send tens of millions of pounds of food aid to starving Africans who are forbidden by their Muslim leaders to accept aid from Infidels? We have to borrow to get the money to send on its lost cause. Why cannot rich Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states send aid to their Islamic brothers in Africa?

Over the last 30 years, we have been accompanied on life’s journey by no end of video games. We have shot down Space Invaders, blasted dragons, and outgunned dark-skinned forces in a desert town. At the end of the day, we have pressed the “reset” button and all returned to normal. For 30 years, death has been brief and life restored in a click. Magic! No wonder boys shoot their mates without a second thought. Press reset a thousand times to revive your dead, and pull a trigger twice. What is the harm?

Civil unrest, military disasters, monetary mayhem. It is as if natural disasters, those typhoons, tornados, tsunamis and great rumbling earthquakes just are not enough suffering for us.

I enjoyed my late night walk home from the party that threatened to cut my hair in 1965. The air was cool and the lights sparkled on the water. I just left the hassle behind and enjoyed the new moment.


Friday, 15 July 2011

Mentholated Dreams

And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the LORD being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.

And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.

And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my LORD.

Genesis 19: 16-18

I WAS NOT AWARE of actually lighting my cigarette last night. I always seem to have a lit cigarette in my mouth, or in my hand. When I am not sucking on the thing, I am stabbing the air with it, an extension of my small, stubby fingers. It is quite possible that my constant waving is somewhat camp, more so when I am smoking one of those extra-long brands. More. Are they called More? 120mm wrapped in dark brown paper. Menthol, I have always smoked menthol.

In 1967, at school in England, I smoked Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes, and then over the next few years Salems, and, finally Kools. Kools were so mentholated, so cold on the palate, and in the sinuses, that it was not unlike candy. I dare say that was the point of those minty additives, taste and a numbing sensation. What did my breath smell like? Did the raw tobacco fragrance come through? My clothes always smelled of tobacco, as did my furniture, curtains, hair. However, I thought that might be from the company I kept, I never attributed the foul effluvia to myself.

In 1973, I was chain-smoking in my office at AIG, drinking all the coffee the tea-lady brought round, and filling my ashtray several times a day. I do not remember whether I tipped the ashes into the bin under my desk, or if one of our janitors came round to tidy unpleasant things away.

In the autumn of 1973, I was investigating the Mormon Church (this was their wording, prospective converts were “investigators”, which may not be used nearly 40 years later when a careful investigation could catch the Latter-day Saints out) and through the missionary discussions (another of their catch-words) I chain smoked. Quite possibly leaving the young missionaries assigned to me with smelly clothing and watering eyes. I sucked up that mentholated smoke from my King Size Kools while I was inhaling the oddest doctrines and nodding and bobbing.

The Mormons encouraged me to quit smoking, but I was not having that wisdom forced down my throat. I could not join their church while I smoked (or drank alcohol, tea and coffee). The best part of a year passed. And in late summer of 1974, one night I had been to see a play (it was “Harvey”, performed by the students at the high school on the USNAS in Bermuda) and I was riding my moped home. I suddenly stopped my cycle, took my pack of cigarettes from my pocket, and removed the one I had been smoking as I rode through the night from my mouth and chucked them into a hedge. I did not smoke again for two years, and was baptized a Mormon during that time.

By 1976, I was involved in local theatre and it seemed that everyone smoked. I was no longer active in the Mormon Church. No guilt. The Mormons were sneaky and appointed me a member of the Branch Presidency, so that I had to attend and conduct meetings (three meetings on a Sunday at the chapel, and a Presidency meeting from time to time, and calls to minister to our flock). I did not smoke in the calendar year 1978.

Despite living in Salt Lake City, I managed to smoke in 1979 and the first few months of 1980. Back in Bermuda, cigarettes were certainly easier to find and buy than in Utah. I smoked heavily, at least two packs of Kools a day, at 55¢ each in 1981. That was about 30p, though cigarettes in the UK were further taxed so that a pack, purchased in England would set you back at least 80p. (In 2011, as I write this, in the UK a pack of cigarettes costs about £7.00, or over $11.00.)

In 1981, in July 1981, exactly 30 years ago as I sit here typing tonight, I was in a psychiatric hospital being treated for severe panic disorder. I was sectioned for about six weeks in late spring. I was taken off all the medications that I had been prescribed for a year or so, and those tablets I had managed to get on the sly. I was locked up to keep me from doing myself some harm. I sat in my tiny room with its tiny toilet and sink and chain-smoked. Night and day, I smoked. Then, in mid-July of 1981, one day, in the hospital, I ran out of cigarettes and was so anxious that I was unable to walk down the hill to the drugstore to buy more. I have not smoked since then, thirty years ago. I tend to suck on mint sweets.

Except in my dreams. Nearly every night I dream, and, in nearly every dream, I am smoking.

If I walk past a pub and there are people outside smoking, I try to hold my breath and walk quickly. I am aware that the stench of smoke attaches itself to one’s clothing so easily. I dislike that tobacco smell so much. So many very young people, as many little girls as boys, are smoking on the streets here, and the awful smell surrounds them. Sometimes one smells the breath of a smoker who is not smoking at that moment. It might be a stranger. It never goes away, no matter how much mouthwash and chewing gum one uses.

My doctor checks my lungs every year, because I had been such a heavy smoker over so many years. My father and one of his brothers, chain-smokers, died from conditions brought about by that unhealthy lifestyle. Died at around 70 years. My two grandfathers, smokers, died of cancer. The one of my grandmothers who smoked (now and then) died, quite young, of cancer. My mother, always surrounded by cigarette smoke (much of it mine) while not a smoker also died of cancer.

I do not know whether I might be at high risk as a former smoker, (has the damage been done?) or whether I just happen to be dealing with some genes that might give me trouble in, possibly, less than a decade.

In my life, until 30 years ago, and in my dreams as recently as last night, I am a rather flamboyant smoker. It is all fun. However, I wonder if the dream will come, in which I cannot catch my breath, which finds me wheezing beyond my annual hay-fever discomfort, that sees me propped up in bed and counting the last days out in tonics and tablets and cannulae.

Yes, it does occur to me that my crippling years with panic disorder in the 1980s might well have saved my life. I was unable to smoke and drink for financial and physical and psychological reasons.


Saturday, 25 June 2011


Portrait of the Art Critic as a Young Man

Hoy-day, what a sweep of vanity comes this way!
They dance! They are mad women.
Like madness is the glory of this life.
As this pomp shows to a little oil and root.
We make ourselves fools, to disport ourselves;
And spend our flatteries, to drink those men
Upon whose age we void it up again,
With poisonous spite and envy.
Who lives that's not depraved or depraves?
Who dies, that bears not one spurn to their graves
Of their friends' gift?
I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me: 't has been done;
Men shut their doors against a setting sun.
William Shakespeare. (Timon of Athens. Act I, Scene II)

TO THE BEST OF MY RECOLLECTION my first paying job was mowing a lawn. About an acre, belonging to my mother’s brother. Our near relatives lived next door to us, on a hillside. I had mowed my mother’s half-acre for a while, and it was rather rocky ground, but not too steep at least. When I moved up onto the slopes, I really did begin to sweat. Seems to me that it was about this time that I first experienced body odour. My own personal stink.

I was saving money to buy a moped. I needed £100, and each time I mowed my uncle’s acre I brought home £1. It seemed that it might take forever. About that time, a second paying position opened. I washed dishes after dinner parties. I would arrive in the kitchen as the dinner was being plated, and start washing anything that was no longer required, working my way through the pots, pans, whisks, and ladles to the demitasse coffee cups and little crystal glasses that liqueurs had been served in. After two or three hours, I had clean fingernails, a moist forehead, and a pound note.

I believe I managed to save the £100 in less than a year. Not bad, bearing in mind I had other expenses. What I did not spend on haircuts, I did use to buy the latest pop records and some rather dodgy clothes. I thought I looked good in flowered shirts with my hair covering most of my face and over my collar.

One short-lived job was tending the bar at The Wheatsheaf Inn, in Ludlow, Shropshire. A lovely old building, where I lived in the attic. I had to remember to walk down the centre of the room and duck my head as I rolled onto my bed. Just above the bed was a flat window in the roof, and as I looked out, I could see bats and night birds flying around the inn’s chimneys. I did not much care for the bar tending, but joined a crew of house painters in the neighbourhood and did that in the daytime. I was paid £5 a week, plus breakfast and lodging.

I was interviewed by the personnel manager at a branch of the Westminster Bank in Maidstone, Kent, and, despite having absolutely no experience of banking and finance, I was offered a job. The Bank advised me to buy a suit or two, and to get a haircut. I might expect £10 a week, before taxes. This seemed rather grand, twice my pay at The Wheatsheaf Inn.

The bank job did not happen. I had put out feelers at the Bermuda office of American International Group (AIG), and flew off to see what that might offer me, a still-greasy teenager. My mother’s brother, the one whose lawn I had mowed some years before, happened to be the president of AIG operations in Bermuda; I also knew many of the employees through their children with whom I had grown up. I was offered a job immediately. In my defence, my uncle did not know that I was applying for a position in his firm.

My talents were judged most appropriate to work in the Accounting and Finance Department. I dare say this was not because I had some experience in an office, but I had never even had so much as a chequebook to balance. So why? I had managed to pass GCE “A” Levels in Mathematics, though only just. There was nothing of bookkeeping in those courses, just a few months of calculus, some statistics, a bit of applied mathematics and physics. I could have worked out something involving Newton’s three Laws of Motion (sometimes I still recall the equations, though not tonight), but I had no idea what a Debit or a Credit might be.

Happens, I learned a bit about bookkeeping, and I worked in that field, for a few employers, off and on for the next 30 years. My mind has now been wiped clean; I now have no real notion of what one might do to balance books, by hand or on a computer. I let the bank balance things for me, though I have a vague idea of what level of poverty I should be classed in.

I have many AIG memories, but the one that comes to mind first involves my boss in the Accounting and Finance Department. The Treasurer was a very large, bulky man, not too many years older than my parents were, but his children were old enough to have been ahead of me academically and socially. I knew his name, but nothing else about him. Mr Dale had a buzzer system that he operated from his desk in his corner office. A single buzz was to summon his executive secretary, two buzzes meant his personal assistant should rush in, three and his chief filing clerk had to get hopping. There were other buzzes that nobody seemed to understand. Had Mr Dale buzzed five times, or was it a two and a three? Had he rested a ledger on the button?

Mr Dale travelled to the company’s New York City offices frequently. We were all glad when this happened. The first experience I had of this was within days of settling into my chair near the Xerox photocopier that I was supposed to keep full of paper, and ink, and to dismantle when copies (frequently) jammed in the works. I was truly clueless. As the boss prepared for his trip, his filing clerk was on constant alert to photocopy everything and anything that might be needed in NYC. This before computers, of course. Hard copy days.

The morning arrived and Mr Dale’s secretary came and asked me to carry his bag to the elevator, and then out to the company car in the parking area. I crept into the corner office, Mr Dale looked at me as if he had no idea who I was (I do not suppose he would) as I reached for the leather straps on a large canvas bag. I hefted and the bag stayed on the floor. I lifted again and it moved just a little sideways. I reached with both hands, got the bag airborne and wobbled towards the door with it. I was sweating by the time I pushed it into the elevator. Downstairs, out of sight of Mr Dale, I simply dragged the bag over to the door and signalled the driver to bring the car up.

I asked for an explanation when we were all horsing around after the boss had headed to the Airport. Turned out the very large, bulky Mr Dale was on a strict diet and his doctor had passed him along to a psychologist. The shrink had told Mr Dale that he must purchase lead ingots equal in weight to the amount he exceeded his perfect weight for his height and frame, put them in a bag, and carry it with him everywhere. He was not particularly tall, and was mostly fat. There was the better part of a man’s weight in the canvas bag. Rather than lift it himself, Mr Dale had staff members lug it about for him. To the best of my knowledge, very little lead came out of the canvas bag. His excess weight remained steady, or increased. Books badly balanced?

I have worked in insurance accounting offices, at a supermarket, at a Peugeot motorcycle and bicycle dealership, for a landscaping firm, in a convenience store taking passport photographs, in a petrol station, and as an assistant to a friend who needed someone to take her dogs to obedience training. I even taught night school classes in creative writing.

Almost exactly ten years ago, late 2001, when George Harrison died, I phoned our local newspaper and asked if I might write an obituary on the former Beatle (my favourite, it happened) for the weekend edition. To my surprise, the editor agreed and I banged out a thousand words. They came easily. A thousand words still flow easily (we are nearly at 1,500 here). I have been writing since I was editor of our grammar school newspaper. I have always kept up a considerable correspondence with friends. It is easy for me. Computers made it even quicker, as fast as I can type with two fingers of my right hand; the words are always there.

I offered the occasional article for that weekend edition, and it would run something most weeks, at $100 a pop. They wanted articles about things I remembered. Things I had seen. As if I was so very old.

Then the art critic for that weekender died. I did not weep long, but offered to have a go in her place. That turned out to be an interesting experience, one I enjoyed. My family has artists on both sides, not just painters, but actors and musicians. I tried to paint when I was in my salad days, not terribly well, but mixed with a fair lot of artisans. I knew painters well, and that lead to set-painters in local theatre, which took me into producing a couple of shows on a small scale.

I attended gallery openings, and first nights at the theatre, and managed to knock out the required column in short order. I only ever struggled when commissioned to write a group of articles on motor vehicles; I was not used to re-writes.

I am reminded of an opening at “Kofu Hair and Gallery” in Bermuda. The hair salon was on a rooftop in a dodgy part of town (one might be gunned down there nowadays) and the owner, a Jamaican with a Bermudian girlfriend, did the hair of black women, and hung paintings on every spare bit of wall space. One was given a programme and, working around the clients, chairs, sinks, and hair-dryers, could study the latest exhibition.

My first visit to Kofu was surprising. The quality of the pictures on show was surprisingly good, even if most of them were the work of the proprietor. There were a few odd things, chairs with nails driven through the seats, hanging from the ceiling. Then the owner took leave of the matron he had been seeing to at the sink, and invited me to go in the “Private Gallery”. I was told that I could not review, or mention, these special pictures, but he would like me to see them to better understand his work.

We walked to a closed door in the centre of one wall, and my host unlocked it, switched on a light, and directed me into the narrow corridor inside. I could tell the walls were hung with huge canvases, some reaching from ceiling to floor, but seeing them was extremely difficult as the corridor was so narrow. One could not get more than a foot away from the surface of a painting perhaps eight foot square.

“What do you think?” The gallery owner asked, indicating a painting.

“I cannot really see it. What exactly would it be?”

Imagine a Jackson Pollock being sucked into a train tunnel. Or the open jaws of a feeding shark.

“It is my girlfriend’s pussy. Close up.”

Close up and eight feet across, at the end of my nose.

“You cannot write about this, of course. The police would raid us.”

This sort of thing might put one off, I dare say. I might have become a John Ruskin. Instead, I see the comedy in it. Ruskin, apparently, never got over Effie Gray’s pubic hair, or was it her menstrual blood, and I am guessing he never had a good laugh about it.

Nowadays I write blog entries. I am not paid, but for the occasional compliment. I also write Tweets, 140 character remarks, on Twitter. Moreover, on good days, I attach my blog entry to my Tweet, and somebody might wind up here.

How did you get here?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Concessionary Tale

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest.

You are always asked to do things,

and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

A FORTNIGHT AGO, some old friends of mine (so many of my friends are old now, and this is what keeps me so young) on their first trip to Great Britain arrived in my part of this other Eden.

Sue and Dave had driven up from London, taking a few days, with a stop in York to visit the Minster. I can tell you that some of these single attractions are alone worth the flight from the New World back into time and place. They had spent a good part of a day at Westminster Abbey in London padding about between poets and headless queens.

I have been visiting many of these historic sites for over 50 years, first in the care of my Nan Eldridge who knew what is what and how to get to what is what. Those were early mornings in the forecourt of a coach station, with a bag of sandwiches for our lunch. A muddle of people, most of whom seemed as old as my Nan, which is to say truly ancient, would gradually make their way to the appropriate gate and form a queue. Of course, these fossils, these relics of another age, survivors of the war and peace, were not, in fact, as old as I am now.

Once on board the coach, we would fiddle with the air vents, and I would look out of the window to watch familiar places fall behind us. Then, at about nine o’clock, everybody on the bus would open his or her boxed lunch and eat every crumb. At ten, the driver would pause at an inn somewhere for a toilet and tea break. Nowadays, the word to politely cover this is a “comfort stop”. We all watch full-frontal nudity and listen to shocking language on Channel 4 in the evening, but prefer not to be troubled by anything that hints at bodily functions.

I have a toilet story. A year ago, Sue’s brother, Richard, was in town on his first visit. We took the train down to Durham for the day and after a while I needed to use the toilets (Richard, in Utah, would likely call them restrooms) and we found some at the bottom of several flights of stairs in a small shopping mall. I left Richard at street level and followed the signs downwards.

It was a very nice, clean toilet. A few others were using it when I arrived. I went to the row of urinals and unzipped my flies, as one does. There was one other bloke at the urinals as Richard appeared. He had decided he had best get some comfort. I did not appreciate that it was Richard, last to enter. I finished, headed quickly to the sink, and then climbed the stairs back up to the shopping mall concourse. No Richard. I decided to stay in place and wait for him to reappear, thinking he might have gone into one of the shops.

Richard trots into view, from the door down to the public toilets. He indicated we might move along, seeming a tad flustered. Turned out that Richard had, while peeing, thought the fellow a few bowls along from him was I, and with the stream of urine being plentiful and powerful, Richard had remarked on it. “Nice and steady there! You won’t be having any prostate problems for a while.” Then Richard realised it was not me, but a complete stranger.

When Sue and Dave rolled into Alnwick, where we had decided to meet for a walkabout and to visit the Castle (I had taken the bus up from Amble), they were coming from Otterburn, inland, and were directed by their Sat-Nav to the Pottergate entrance of the Castle. I had disembarked on the far side, where the Alnwick Garden entrance is. One has to walk across some fields to enter the Castle.

We each expected to find the other in the same gate area of the Castle, but were on opposite sides of the massive building. Thank heavens for mobile telephones! I think that when I phoned Dave’s mobile (he would call it a cellular device) the call might have looped across the Atlantic Ocean to Maryland and back. No matter how well travelled our telephone signal was, we talked ourselves into a common area outside the gift shop.

There was a younger woman, perhaps 25, behind the counter in the ticket office. I approached, smiled, and asked for a single ticket for the Castle. The young lady smiled back and whispered something to me.

I am hard of hearing, and am presently using a temporary hearing aid before being fitted for something more powerful in July. I said to the counter person: “I’m sorry, I cannot hear too well. Might you repeat that?” Another whisper. Another: “Sorry. Louder.”

One might be forgiven for misunderstanding what I was being asked in this whisper. The woman had said, a few times before I understood clearly: “Are you a grownup?”

“What do you mean?”
“Grownup. Are you over 60?”
“In fact, I am. Would you like some identification?”

I had ID, and I was wearing a grey beard, bifocals and a hearing aid.

“No. That is okay. As a grownup, you get a concessionary entrance ticket.”

Therefore, I was charged a pound or two less than the many visitors a few years and more younger than I am.

It is good to be a grownup!

I am suddenly reminded of something that happened over 40 years ago. A friend (a young friend then) and I had gone to the cinema to see the recently released (and much hyped) film “Bonnie and Clyde”. We thoroughly enjoyed the picture (I have never seen it again, and do not know if it has held up at all well) and came out into the chilly night air, lighting our cigarettes and pushing through the crowds to get to the parking area.

And we walked straight into my mother’s parents and some family friends, a couple not much younger than my grandparents. They would all have been around the age I am as I sit here typing this account.

My mate and I were positively bubbling with enthusiasm about the bloody gangster film we had all just seen. My grandparents and their friends looked quite deflated, shocked even.

“We thought it was just awful.”
“We had expected it to be a Scottish musical.”

I am wondering if my grandparents, who would have been “grownups” by the current definition at the ticket desk at Alnwick Castle, would (40+ years ago) have got a discount on their theatre tickets.

Are there any attractions, such as historical sites, places of worship, films, plays, and books, that one can gain entrance to at a mutually agreed rate? If the Tower of London knocks one’s socks off, might one happily pay the full admission price (or more)? And if Owl World disappoints, can one ask for a few quid back (to spend in the pub)?

Alternatively, shall we just have the young, and grownups?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


So sure as this beard’s grey,
What will you adventure...?
William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene III)

IN 1978, I had a passport photograph taken in a shop in the Bermudiana Arcade in Hamilton, Bermuda. The proprietor sat me in front of a screen, took a photograph with a large camera on a tripod, and then took another picture after telling me not to move. My photographs would be ready in a week’s time.

I recall collecting four prints (and he gave me the two negatives), which would have to be trimmed down by somebody in the passport section of the British Embassy in Washington DC. The head, neck, and uppermost shoulders were the correct size, but the photographer had set his sights on my waist and everything above.

Happens I had a beard at the time. Not the first I had grown. I have had a moustache since I was in my late teens, and once I reached my twenties, I would grow a beard from time to time, depending on the weather. A cooler time of year would be more encouraging.

In 1978, when I was renewing my British passport whilst in Bermuda, I was anticipating a trip, my first, to the Rocky Mountains. I would have been 28 years old. My hair and beard were reddish brown, quite a bit darker than my hair was in a 1968 passport (taken in Gillingham, Kent). A passport in the late 1980s showed me with thinning, greying hair.

My current passport, issued here in Northumberland about two years ago, is that of a white-haired individual, with a white moustache. The same picture appears on my bus pass. When I was in the booth, having my photograph taken by a digital camera, my glasses seemed to reflect the light. I took them off, and so I am not exactly myself, as I always wear my glasses when I am out and about. I look squinty.

I spent a few years on the other side of a camera in the same shop in which I had posed for my passport picture back in 1978. It would have been the late 1990s. “Kit ‘n’ Caboodle” sold newspapers, cigarettes, junk food and soft drinks, and ghastly small toys at Christmas. One could have photocopies made. I never figured out how to work the enormous Xerox machine, and tried to be busy whenever a customer appeared wanting copies. As I recall, most of these customers were expatriate workers copying documents to submit to the Bermuda Government to enable them to retain their jobs another year or so. There were also a few poets who wanted no end of copies of their latest oeuvres. Expectant mothers would turn up wanting copies of their ultrasound scans, and would point out the important bits. The ultrasound foetus, one’s first passport picture.

At Kit ‘n’ Caboodle, I was mainly employed as their passport photographer. One would hold a Polaroid camera, and aim a beam of light at the client seated in front of a light-absorbing screen, and a tiny red dot of light could be seen on the client’s forehead. One learned where to aim the beam of light for the particular type of passport photograph. Different countries had different requirements. The United States passport needed one ear showing, so taken from slightly to one side (I forget which). The United States also requires passport photographs of even the smallest infants, with eyes wide open. This could take an hour and could reduce me to near-insanity. One had to stand leaning over the wee bairn, holding the camera out, but being extra-careful not to drop it (which could kill the kid!)

Our black customers nearly always hated their passport photographs, usually saying: “This is too dark. I look like a Jamaican.”

One woman with rather droopy breasts pushed them up from underneath and asked me to ensure they were in the finished picture. I explained that an acceptable passport photograph showed the top of the shoulders, neck and head. No breasts (neither pert, nor pendulous).

We also had an ID photograph service, creating personal identification cards that were, clearly, not legal. $18 would buy you a laminated card the size of a bus pass with your name, address and age alongside a photograph. The client would write the details onto the card. Nothing was witnessed. The client could create his own identity.

One day a young, light-skinned lad came into Kit ‘n’ Caboodle and asked for one of our ID cards. The boy looked, perhaps, 15 years of age. I dare say he wanted an ID to buy cigarettes and liquor, requiring him to be 21. This kid’s picture added nothing to his smooth face. Before I could glue the photograph onto the card on which the boy had written his inaccurate details, and then laminate it, he grabbed the photo, whipped out a black felt-tip pen, and scribbled a beard and moustache on the immature face. “You can laminate it now.”

The boy had it in his mind that if he presented a photograph of himself with a beard, even if he did not actually have one on his face, he would still be able to buy his smokes and Black Seal rum. He did not seem to have a notion that his hastily drawn beard was clearly just that, scribbled onto a picture. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Naïveté is like the bloom of a delicate, exotic flower. You touch it but once and it is destroyed forever.” One did not have the heart to spoil the boy’s day. I gave him two dollars change from his twenty-dollar note.

I have two personal activities that are, I dare say, hobbies. I research genealogy, which involves many, many hours following up leads back many centuries. I have around two thousand individuals in my “family tree”, all considerably detailed. Each relative has documented evidence attached to his or her file: addresses, dates, connections, photographs.

I also have a Nikon digital camera, and I spend time taking dozens of pictures that I tinker with on my computer, and that usually are deleted as the one or two satisfying snapshots stand out. If a picture is too dark, I can change the lighting with a few clicks. Nothing Jamaican about my photography.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Factory Flowers

And the heart that is soonest awake to the flowers
is always the first to be touch'd by the thorns.
Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852)

I SOMETIMES JOKE that when I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning I find my grandfather looking out at me. Of course, I have two grandfathers somewhere behind the looking glass, two parents, my grandmothers and great-grandparents, all around in my lifetime. It might be more accurate to say that I look like one of my grandmothers, perhaps my mother’s mother. Bleary-eyed, as I get ready to brush my teeth and shave, I do not get into too detailed an examination of the fine (or not so fine) structure of my face; indeed, I cannot, for I do not have my glasses on.

Like both of my parents, and all of my grandparents, I discovered I required glasses to read (and, in my case, also to see distances) clearly when I was a young adult. Over the thirty years since my first eye-test and prescribed spectacles, my eyesight has worsened steadily. The vision correction has been complicated because I take some rather strong medications, and take different medications appropriate to the cycle my illness is in. Six months after an eye test resulting in new lenses, with different substances in my system, I might be straining to make out figures in a fog.

My mother, Mavis Lancaster Eldridge, wore glasses from earliest childhood. Born arse-first, in a clumsy delivery back in 1926, my mother suffered what we would call brain damage. In those days, it was just not mentioned. In fact, I did not know the circumstances of my mother’s birth until her mother told me shortly before dying at the age of 104. My mother, who had suffered with mental and emotional illnesses, and eyesight so damaged that reading was well nigh impossible for her (I never in my lifetime saw my mother read a book, or anything smaller than a newspaper headline), died young, my grandmother outliving her by over a dozen years.

My mother only took her glasses off as she got into bed. She suffered grand mal epileptic attacks and even then, one did not remove her glasses. One day, during the last week of her life spent in a cancer hospice, I arrived to spend the afternoon with my mother (she was quite lucid until the day before she passed away) and found that the hospice staff had propped her up (and belted her into) a recliner chair. My mother looked comfortable, but she was not wearing her glasses. Only when I spoke her name did she realise who it was taking a seat next to her. She did not know where her glasses had gone and was quite bothered. I went looking for the hospice manager. They had left Mother’s glasses off because she was not using them. They meant to read or watch the television, I assumed. I was rather angry and pointed out that there were other things to see, shadows to comprehend, the light coming through the shutters, the visitors. I found Mother’s glasses, put them on her, and that was not a problem again. My mother’s glasses had become part of her. I took them off on 28 September 1992, at 3.03pm, when she died. To close her eyes. The glasses went in a case, Mother went out in another. She was wearing them when she was buried.

My mother’s mother, Elsie Proctor Lancaster, who lived beyond her centennial, wore glasses all the years I knew her. As did my grandfather, William Lancaster, who died in his 70s, though he only wore his when reading. They were both avid readers, and spectacles’ cases were usually lying around their home. As very young children, we would ask to try one of their pairs on, and realise just what happens to one’s eyesight as the years pass. My grandmother, like her daughter, had a run-in with nursing staff in her last days. I was spending afternoons at my grandmother’s bedside in a care facility and found her without her glasses on, and without her hearing aid in. I had been taking some responsibility for the hearing aid, changing the batteries and fiddling with the volume. I had difficulty getting my grandmother to understand who I was, as she was literally in a fog of sound and vision. I raised hell with the nursing staff.

My mother’s parents were both sent off to work in a cotton mill in Harle Syke, Lancashire, just outside Burnley, at the age of eleven. That was a hundred years ago. The Queen Street Mill is now a museum, and it houses the last steam-powered looms in the world. If you saw the film “The King’s Speech”, you saw that mill. The King addressed his northern, working-class subjects there, at least in the Hollywood version.

The mills in Harle Syke (eventually eleven weaving firms with seven mills) were built in the years following 1850, when some men from Haggate built the first one. Haggate and Harle Syke blend into one another, the larger area is Briercliffe. The last mill, Queen Street, closed in 1982. Water came from nearby streams and coal to power the looms was mined in the Burnley area even after the middle of the 20th Century. There were no public houses in Harle Syke (my great-grandfather, Harry Lancaster, would catch a ride on a wagon, or walk, to a nearby town to do his weekend drinking). There was, and still is, a Church of England chapel in Harle Syke; my grandfather’s brother, James Arthur Lancaster, killed in the last days of the Great War, aged 24, is noted on the war memorial in the churchyard. His body, which we located recently, is in the Pas de Calais in a very nicely maintained cemetery.

I visited the Queen Street Mill some fifty years ago, as a boy, while staying with my grandfather and his sister, Maud Lancaster Roberts, in the house in Harle Syke that my great-grandparents had lived in. I slept in my great-grandfather’s bed. He had been alive when I was born, and for a few years after that, and would have had photographs of his first great-grandson. I eventually inherited a number of old pictures of my great-grandparents taken from 1900 until about the time my great-grandfather died in January of 1952.

In 1900, my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Geldard Lancaster, was expecting her third child, the one that would turn out to be my grandfather. Apparently, the childbirth experience had not been a particularly good one for Elizabeth and she had decided that this time she would not survive it. To mark her impending doom, Elizabeth had Harry, and the children, James Arthur and Maud, dress in their very darkest, gloomiest clothing and they went off to a photographer’s studio for a family portrait. Elizabeth was swathed in black cloth, the pregnant figure not being suitable to display, and the occasion being such a sad one. Harry was wearing a dark suit and looked very handsome in a working-class way. The children had only wide, white collars to indicate there was any hope for them.

Elizabeth survived the photograph, and my grandfather’s birth, but did not manage the winter of 1942, dying that December. Like many, indeed most, members of my family, Elizabeth did not reach the age of 70.

Harry Lancaster, my great-grandfather, actually reached 77. Both of his parents, my great-grandparents, John Lancaster and Ann Driver Lancaster, died in their early thirties, their young children subsequently being fostered by the Driver family. The Drivers’ own children worked on the family farm, the Lancaster lads were sent to work in the mill.

I had never been in a factory until my grandfather walked me over to the Queen Street Mill to see his sister, my great-auntie, Maud at work. It happens that Maud and her father had raised my mother’s brother, Jack Lancaster, through the Second World War years. As Jack left the UK after the War, he had been a teenager, and apparently had the same wavy blond hair and grey-blue eyes that I had fifteen years later when I turned up. Several people working in the mill cooed: “It’s Jackie, come back!” (In a marked Lancashire accent, of course.) There was soon a group around us, and people, who seemed very old to young me, pressed coins into my hands. Not pennies and sixpences, but florins and half-crowns. As I was off to the seaside for a fortnight, this loot was much appreciated.

My mother’s family, for the most part, are buried under the surface of the old Haggate cemetery, now grown wild. The collapsing Haggate Chapel has been pulled down. As a child I tended my great-grandparents’ grave. My Auntie Maud died at the age of 62, almost my present age, as we do. She went into her parents’ grave, the one we had weeded together.

All that said, I should mention my father’s family. I do look like Dennis Eldridge’s son, if not so tall and thin. I have wavy, blond hair from my grandfather, Henry Charles Eldridge, on that side too. However, there are a good many on the Eldridge side with dark, almost black hair, olive complexions and dark eyes. I have a paler version of my father’s nose to identify me. I can see my father’s looks, which I recall seeing when I was younger in my grandfather Eldridge, and grandmother, Charlotte Crow Eldridge, in my Eldridge cousins, and in their children. My father’s family could be generally described as better looking than my mother’s.

My father’s parents were not sent off to work in a mill when still children. However, the boys, some of them, did join the military, especially the Royal Navy, when still in short trousers. Happens that my father dropped out (as we might say) and became a naval cadet in his early teens, though he never made much of that as a career and was washed ashore in Bermuda during the last War where he unhappily married my mother, there with her father who worked for the NAAFI.

In addition, the family scattered to Australia, the USA, and Canada. Some returned, in the next generation, to the UK. One of my parents’ grandchildren lives in Mainland China, and his wife is expecting a child who will be, as we say, of mixed race. We have red hair, now and then, in my mother’s mother’s family. My nephew has that ginger hair; no telling how that will blend with the Asian genes.

We have a fair number of artists, actors, musicians and writers on both sides of my family. My cousins’ children have inherited those gifts. Fortunately, the youngsters are able to have educational opportunities and can develop their natural talents. Some members of the family made a great deal of money, some lost a lot. We have punk rockers and members of the Peerage in the family tree.

As for me, I tend to scribble things down. I also study and compile my family history. I live in a world of Post-It Notes, remembering, noticing, seeing and hearing.

I have poor eyesight and wear bifocals. Moreover, not generally known (I have not mentioned it in any Christmas card inserts yet) I am quite deaf. My hearing aids are being replaced in a month’s time and I am hoping that I will be better able to hold my own in conversation. I am not deaf, as my grandparents were, because of the dreadful noise in the mills that they were exposed to as very young children. I played a great deal of loud music, and found I sought louder and louder music as my hearing declined, compounding the damage. (You have been warned!)

I think it was my grandfather, William Lancaster, looking out at me from my mirror earlier today. In addition, his father’s moustache seemed like a true reflection. The words roll forth from generation to generation, and I reach out for all that I can.

Sunday, 8 May 2011


“If I revealed all that has been made known to me, scarcely a man on this stand would stay with me, and, Brethren, if I were to tell you all I know of the kingdom of God, I do know that you would rise up and kill me.”
“In your hands or that of any other person, so much power would, no doubt, be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would be safe to trust with it. Remember, I am a prophet!”
Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805 – 1844)

I CAN REMEMBER THE BEGINNING almost to the hour of the day, easily the month and year. It is the ending that is unclear. It began exactly 38 years ago, and was over about 8 years ago, give or take a few years.

When people find out that I was a Mormon for over a quarter of a century, for most of my adult life, they often ask me how I managed to get involved in such a peculiar cult. How did a chain-smoking, drug-taking, manic-depressive and anxiety-ridden lad raised in the Church of England and on rock and roll end up singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints!” a couple of times a month, year after year?

Mormonism is, in 2011, a great deal easier to investigate in depth, thanks to the Internet, new revelations, confessions, books and personal testimonies. I dare say that a person aged 61 who has not developed dementia, and has had some experience of life, if just through conversation and correspondence and late-night television, is likely to question a great deal of what he is offered. Particularly when it sounds too good to be true. When I was 23 years old, in August 1973, I knew very little of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, except that Brigham Young had had a great many wives and over fifty children. I had not picked up that knowledge in Sunday school, but in conversation with my grandmother. It is worth noting that a recent publication of the LDS Church does not include the multiple wives and children of the Church Presidents. I dare say even the Third World nowadays, where the Mormons are seeking converts, might frown on Church history.

My grandmother had told me that when she was a little girl, which would be no later than the year 1910, if she and her siblings were naughty, my great-grandmother would tell them: “If you don’t behave, the Mormons will come and get you.”

My great-grandparents and their seven children lived near Burnley, Lancashire. Happens that in the years after 1830, when Joseph Smith Jr. founded the Mormon Church, missionaries were sent to Great Britain (and other countries in Europe) to convert white folks and get them to bring their families and funds to America, to gather to Smith’s Zion. Zion had to be reinvented several times as the Mormons, both homegrown and converted overseas, were hated and hounded, persecuted and driven out of street, town, state and finally the boundaries of the USA at that time.

Many of the English converts joined the Church in Lancashire, within but a few miles of the villages where my mother’s family lived. My great-grandmother’s threat of Mormons kidnapping boys and girls and taking them away to America was probably quite effective. I imagine missionaries in top hats, carrying strange scriptures and talking in unintelligible American tongues, would appear in and around Burnley. I have researched and studied my family history in considerable detail, especially the folks in the past 200 years, and, so far as I can tell, no member, naughty or nice, on my mother’s side in the North, or my father’s side in the Midlands and Southern Counties, ever converted to Mormonism in Britain, and none caught the ships in Liverpool and sailed away to the Promised Land to gather in Joseph Smith’s or Brigham Young’s latest City on a Hill.

We now know that Brigham Young (and other Church leaders) told the missionaries, lads in their teens, sent off to Britain and Europe, that they should convert attractive, young, unmarried women, who looked promising as child-bearers, in particular. Not as prospective wives for the young missionary converting them, for the girls must be set on the rough seas and dusty trails to Salt Lake City where they would discover they had joined a church that believed, above all things, godliness only comes with polygamy. Back in Britain, such practises would have been strenuously denied. The girls would be married to the elderly Brethren in positions of power in the Church who collected plural wives.

On trips to Utah, I have looked in telephone books and have noted that many surnames are typical of the people of the towns in the North of England. Men and boys over here also converted and followed the command to gather in America.

Among the converts in Scotland was an ancestor of a friend of mine whose family, in 1973, was still essentially LDS. James Campbell Livingston was born in Lanarkshire in December 1833. In 1849, young Livingston was baptized into the Mormon faith, and, in 1853, he left for America, by ship from Glasgow to Liverpool to New Orleans, over nine weeks at sea in all. He went up the Mississippi River to Nauvoo, the former Mormon city, where he met Joseph Smith’s widow, first wife, Emma. We now know that Joseph had at least 33 wives, most likely over 40. Joseph was fond of young girls who might be employed by Emma. Joseph would get a sudden revelation and the girl, one as young as 14, some already married, would be told that an angel with a flaming sword had threatened Joseph with death (!) if he did not marry the particular girl. James Livingston would not have known all this at that time, if ever in such detail, but when he arrived in Utah, he did take three wives and fathered 18 children. He was one of the quarrymen for the Salt Lake Temple where plural marriages took place. By the way, Emma Smith was not a fan of polygamy and always threw Joseph’s latest wives out, and Emma eventually claimed that Joseph had never practised spiritual wifery, despite her documented part in it. Lies beget lies.

In the summer of 1973, my LDS friend visited me while I was house- and pet-sitting in Bermuda. One day the two Mormon missionaries stationed in Bermuda stopped by on some errand to see my friend, and I met them long enough, as I recall, to nod my head. Elders Belnap and Mortensen came by again after my friend had gone off to the USA, and we chatted a bit. I chain-smoked and they told me in brief what they were doing in Bermuda. Self-supporting missionaries, two years in the field, working out of New York City. This interested me, the concept of lads younger than I was committed to a cause, even if I had no idea what exactly they believed in.

Could they come by another time and tell me about their church? Certainly. You don’t mind if I smoke, do you? It is not good for you. I know that.

It turned out that the missionaries had a very slick presentation kit, coloured pictures and charts that could be flipped over in a binder, and it did fascinate me. Apparently their Joseph Smith had been directed to some golden plates on which was engraved a book (of Mormon) which he translated using curious spectacles. The missionaries showed me paintings of Joseph sitting with his golden plates while his scribe wrote down the translation as Joseph gave it. Smith was not wearing his magical goggles, however, which I would like to have seen. The Urim and Thummim, they were called. There were no representations of Smith in one room with his face in his hat, in which was a peep-stone, or seer-stone, calling out his translation to someone out of sight, at a distance, and no golden plates. One now knows that this was the manner Smith supposedly dictated his Book, nobody besides Smith ever saw the golden plates uncovered, something was under a blanket at one time, but it was not revealed to any witness.

Smith’s visitations by gods and angels were recorded, re-recorded, and changed until he was murdered in 1844. Family and friends claimed different versions that had been related to them by the Prophet or amongst themselves. The stories became more and more convoluted and forced to fit the latest situation. The Angel Moroni, the keeper of the buried box containing the golden plates, was sometimes a white toad or salamander. Smith, like many people in that part of the world at that time, believed in folk magic. His line of work had been seeking buried treasure using a peep-stone. Treasure never found. Well, until the Book of Mormon.

If Elders Belnap and Mortensen had told me their Prophet translated by looking into a hat jammed on his face to keep out the light, there being a stone he had found while digging years before in the hat, on which words would appear, I would have thought it so much nonsense. Those missionaries would not have known all this either. In fact, I doubt that it is taught to potential converts in the huts of the South American and African countries where the Mormons are canvassing today. What pretty pictures do the Mormon Elders flip in their binders in 2011, say in the Philippines?

I did not feel immediately inclined to go to a church service with the Mormons, but I accepted an invitation to a “Family Home Evening” with some members of the Bermuda Branch of the Church. There were a fair number of people, all clean-cut, eating tacos and jell-o and drinking Kool-Aid, with prayers to start the gathering, bless the food, and to send everyone home safely. Everybody was rather nice.

This is what converted me. The toothy, smiling, happy faces. The abundant food.

Then the doctrine: Families are forever! That was an idea I rather liked as I had a few relatives I would be quite happy visiting in the afterlife. At some of the get-togethers there was one peculiar woman who had been having no end of miscarriages, but who firmly believed that she would be reunited with those children of hers and would raise them in the afterlife.

Without any reservations, I went through the course prepared for investigators and the missionaries told me to pray about it. Ask if it was true, Brother Eldridge. And I did, and got no reply. That was in the autumn of 1973. Nice parties, nice people, even if I had to smoke outside, God was silent. I should have listened to that silence! Belnap and Mortensen had mentioned that God and Jesus had bodies of flesh, had passions and parts. There was little mentioned concerning the key LDS doctrine that God once was a man, and that we men might become gods.

I was challenged to stop smoking, and drinking alcohol and tea and coffee. The missionaries and the happy people probably had not known that Joseph Smith and his cronies drank wine in their temples in Ohio and Nauvoo. Joseph served it to his guests at his home. Tea and coffee were used and went with the Saints to Utah. All this after the Word of Wisdom.

In the autumn of 1973, Elder Mortensen finished the Bermuda portion of his mission and an Elder Love replaced him. In February of 1974, Elder Belnap left and Elder Burke arrived.

I do not think I am subject to revelations or great knowledge, but I knew, somehow, that Elder Carl Burke was an unusual fellow. I bumped into a fair number of LDS missionaries in my time, but Carl was a special friend from the get-go. In addition, it was Elder Carl Burke who baptized me on 1 August 1974. I had given up smoking, tea, and coffee to make the grade, and was attending services in the chapel used by the Saints in Bermuda. Once I was baptized, Carl was transferred back to New York City to complete his mission. In 1975, he returned to Bermuda as a civilian, and worked in a motor garage on the US NAS for a few months, staying with me part of that time.

I had a close friendship with Carl Burke and his family, and was devastated when he died suddenly some five years ago.

Despite anxiety disorder, I was attending and taking part in some LDS church services. I learned how to conduct meetings, to give talks, teach classes. All using the very basic information available to us.

Until June of 1978, it had been doctrine of the Mormon Church that people of colour, if they converted to Mormonism, could eventually have their skin magically lightened. However, they could not, if they were Negroes, be anything more than a basic member of the Church, and could hold no offices or enter Temples. With Church officials unable to tell which of their prospective converts in countries like Brazil might have a trace (even the smallest) of black blood, which would make them ineligible to be full Mormons, a revelation arrived saying everyone could come on in. Fundamentalist Mormons, who tend to remain true to Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding polygamy, race, and the ways of heaven and earth, disregarded the latest change in the unchangeable word of the Lord.

I have travelled to Utah a few times and enjoyed my time in large and small towns. I have held church positions here and there, and went in the Temple in St George, Utah, to receive my endowments, and picked up my sacred/secret Temple name that I must never reveal (it is Dan), and appreciated how fragile many of the Saints are in Utah. So many on tranquilizers, so many depressed, so many trying to be on top in Ponzi Schemes. Moreover, so many choosing ignorance so as not to upset the scheme of things, believing and doing what the Old Men in Salt Lake City command.

“I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting.”
LDS Apostle Boyd K. Packer, when interviewing a prospective member of the BYU faculty in 1976.

About 8 years ago, we started getting books by members of the Mormon Church and others that have uncovered some rather startling and unpleasant Church history. It has seemed to me that the Mormons I have known over the past almost-forty years simply could not, did not, know most of what we are learning at such a pace now.

I wrote to the LDS authorities and asked them to remove my name from their records, utterly and completely. It was easier than I expected. At least I hope so. I received a letter saying it had been done, but any time I wanted to return I should contact them.

Mormons are somewhat fanatical about keeping their numbers up. They canvas for converts in the here and now and in the hereafter. You may not know that they do baptisms for the dead, which is why they are out copying records all over the world. You may be horrified to know that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun have been baptised, by proxy, in the font in a Temple basement so that they can chose whether to be Mormons, and to enable them to carry on and become gods.

It is not that I now believe Mormonism to be so much guff, and I do, but that I find no attachment to any God, Lord or Maker, any Creator, any Great Magician or Spoon-Bender. When I look out over the landscape on sunny days, or days like today (grey, a bit cloudy), I see the world as it is. I do not see it rolling forth out of time. If I have a feeling about it, it is the immediate warmth on my face, not the hot breath of gods on my body, or the Holy Spirit flaming up in my chest.

Do I regret my quarter-century in Mormonism? Not at all. I have learned a great deal, made some lovely friends, travelled about, and in reading the exposés have been entertained and my knowledge broadened. Somehow, fortunately, I do not feel to have been made a fool of.

For someone today, with access to libraries, bookshops, lecturers and the media, I can only say that you should not believe that Joseph Smith Jr. did what they told me he did when I was new to this, about 40 years ago. He has been shown to be something quite different. He and his followers changed their histories repeatedly, they changed their perfect books, and they changed their unchangeable gods.

“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.”
André Gide (1869 – 1951)

The ministering of angels might just be indigestion.

Ross Eldridge
8 May 2011