Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Minor Question Answered.

I was asked tonight whether I meditate. The answer is: no.

I went through a phase in my life when I tried diligently to meditate, but it didn’t work. I kept going off on mental journeys and got wrapped up in the experiences. I remember there was one in which I found myself flying over some cliffs and across the sea. I came to an island with a cave at the base into which I flew, and then continued through subterranean caverns before re-emerging and flying back to land. And then I climbed onto the roof of a white building and talked to a crowd of people gathered on the space in front of it. I don’t remember what I talked about; I don’t suppose it matters.

I sometimes wonder whether I should have been a writer.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Little Nigel Gets Petulant.

Donald Trump says that he would be in favour of Nigel Farage being made British Ambassador to the US.

The British Government’s response may be paraphrased as: ‘We’ll make our own choice, if you don’t mind. We don’t need your advice.’

Nigel Farage’s response to the government’s coolness on the issue was to become petulant as usual. His response may be paraphrased as: ‘You’re only doing this because you don’t like me. You’re letting your dislike of me take precedence over the national interest.’

So could somebody please tell me:

1. Why would Donald Trump want some insignificant little has-been like Nigel Farage to become British Ambassador to his country, unless it’s to give the phrase ‘America’s poodle’ some small basis in fact?

2. Why would some insignificant little has-been like Nigel Farage think it would be in the national interest for him to get the job, unless he considers the prospect of having a warm kennel ever at his disposal at the back of the White House to be sufficient justification for indulging in the most absurd of delusions?

So would somebody skilled in the use of Photoshop please dress these two in Laurel and Hardy gear and publish the result far and wide. (You might have to get the BBC’s permission. I expect the copyright is theirs, but I suspect they’d get the joke and wouldn’t mind.)

*  *  *

And while I’m reluctantly engaged with the subject of Trump yet again, I read today of the ongoing hostility in New York to his hollow victory. They’re not very enthusiastic, are they? It seems to me that NYC is giving some credibility to America’s jaded reputation all on its own. Broad shoulders, indeed. Dare I say I love this town?

Monday, 21 November 2016

A Minor Boast.

I keep getting recommendations on YouTube for a video entitled:

Oldest Humans on earth even older than history (sic)

My limited capacity for rational thought creaks reluctantly into motion, and comes up with:

1. Nothing can be older than history because history is, by definition, everything that has happened so far. I reason that the uploader must have meant ‘recorded history.’

2. But this raises its own issue because there would be no recorded history if humans hadn’t begun the process of recording it. Ergo, humans must have existed before recorded history did.

This is typical of YouTube, and I want to know whether there is any means by which I can annotate my file to the effect that I have a measurable IQ. Hopefully, Google’s system of identifying suitable recommendations will then stop assuming that I don’t.

While the Dog Rests.

I’ve started reading Kobo Abe’s novel The Woman in the Dunes as recommended by the Special Personage.

I’ve come to the point where our less than intrepid hero is trapped without means of escape in a crumbling wooden house situated at the bottom of a giant pit in the sand dunes, and the sands are ever-shifting. He isn’t happy and realises that he’s been placed in this position of peril by the local villagers, although he is currently ignorant of their motive.

His one consolation – if such it be – is that the young woman who owns the house, and for whom he has already felt the stirrings of libidinous interest, shares his situation. More than that even, she is currently kneeling stark naked in a position of apparent supplication close by, presumably because she has been complicit in arranging the poor man’s incarceration while he slept. But there’s a problem: like everything else in the near vicinity, she is covered in sand.

He muses that he likes looking at her because the curious patina thus engendered reminds him of a statue, but he doesn’t fancy touching her because… she’s covered in sand. This is clearly a sensibility to which the Japanese are accustomed, but which is only vaguely comprehensible to my western mindset by virtue of my fascination with the surreal. In a truly real world, I would be inclined to either secure an implement with which to scrape off the sand, or mutter indignantly: ‘Madam, do have the decency to cover yourself.’

It’s a very strange story so far, but who am I to talk?

*  *  *

The black dog has been keeping faithful station close to my heel for some days now, but he’s currently taking a well earned snooze. That’s why I’m writing this post.

*  *  *

And I confess to missing somebody, however hard I try not to, who is out there beyond my reach or knowledge in the darkness of a dripping and depressing night. Today has been unusually wet and windy, just the sort of day to stay indoors and address the issues, the anxieties and the difficult decisions. Phone calls have been made, letters written, and options pondered to varying levels of satisfaction or otherwise. The black dog, bless him, loves this sort of weather. It makes him feel empowered.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Defining Fantasy.

These days I tend to resist going into that world which most people inhabit, so much so that I dread it a little when the prospect is unavoidable. You know the world I mean – the world of fast highways and recreation venues and places where people talk of TV shows and celebrities and the tragedy of a lost monoculture. These days my reality is the world of trees and animals and birds and blogging and dreams of the Yangtze River cruise and my future with The Woman and searching YouTube for strange music from far off places.

‘You’re living in a fantasy world,’ I’m told. ‘You need treatment.’

Yes I am, and maybe I do, and the only reply I can conjure is:

‘So are you. Your fantasy resides in shopping malls and furniture warehouses and new car salesrooms, and is built on the fantastical – not to say delusional – notion that having new cars and new carpets and the latest smart phone makes you happy. It doesn’t. Like any addiction it gives you a temporary high, and when it wears off you need another fix. And so you head back to the peddlers of the painted fa├žade; more than that even, you make regular visits to stay topped up and be convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Do excuse my appropriation of a literary reference and application to alternative purpose. It just seemed to fit rather nicely.

‘Ah, but,’ comes the retort, ‘cars and carpets and smart phones are real things, concrete things, things you can own and touch and use. Your fantasy is all in the mind.’

‘Quite right,’ I say, ‘insofar as it goes. But fantasy isn’t about concrete things. All fantasy is in the mind, and the only difference between yours and mine is that yours is created and designed by a system over which you have no effective control and then injected into your bloodstream while you sleep, whereas mine is tailor made. By me.’

On Post-Truth Blues.

Jeremy Corbyn says that the ‘fake anti-elitism of rich white men like Donald Trump is farcical.' Of course it is; I said the same thing on this blog months ago.

The whole point of the argument, however, is that it’s a prime example of the post-truth principle. If you want to win in politics, don’t give people objective facts and secure reason. Instead, strike the right pose and appeal to their emotions and prejudices, especially their fears – however irrational they might be – and their innate reliance on perceived self-interest. And the sad fact is that however much you ameliorate the disappointment of that ludicrous American election by citing low turnout and the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, too many Americans fell for Trump’s post-truth expertise.

But don’t be too disheartened, Americans; you’re not the only ones who fall for this sort of thing. I have little doubt that it’s the reason for the disturbing rise in right-wing support in Europe at the moment. And the Tory faithful in Britain fall for it as a matter of routine.

Friday, 18 November 2016

On Black Dogs and Weddings.

My old dark time companion, the black dog, has begun walking at my heel again. He usually appears some time in November and rarely leaves my side before February.

November to February tends to be an awkward time for me. I go into an awkward frame of mind, possibly because a lot of the most difficult episodes of my life happened between November and February. Some even spanned the whole period. An odd coincidence, but true.

I was born in November and I got married in November. Not that they were the worst things that ever happened, of course, but getting married was a bit of a mistake (or part of the learning process, which I suppose is pretty much the same thing) and it might possibly be argued that being born was the worst thing of all. But I won’t try to argue it, not right now at any rate.

Tonight’s episode of Sherlock was set mostly at a wedding, and the reasons he gave for hating such events (during his brilliant best man speech) were just about exactly what I would have said if only I’d been capable of the same degree of eloquence. It also reminded me of the fact that nobody ever asked me to be his best man because I was never anybody’s best friend. (I thought I was one person’s best friend once, but he emigrated to Australia without even telling me he was going, so I suppose that was another useful bit of the learning process.) And it gave me the clue as to one very good reason why I was never the marrying kid:

Bridesmaids. I’m the sort who would spend the whole of his wedding day wanting to cultivate the acquaintance of the bridesmaids, and you’re not supposed to do that, are you? It just so happened that my wedding was a very low key affair at a registry office with only seven others in attendance (including a baby) and the only person passing as a bridesmaid was my wife’s sister who wasn’t my type. If she had been, things might have been different. My wife and I could have got divorced straight away and the poor woman would have been spared the 6½ arduous years of living with me.

But there’s an even bigger reason why I’m not the marrying kind: I don’t join things. When people get married they don’t just enter a cosy little arm-in-arm association which involves calling each other Mr and Mrs and wearing the same colour sweater, they create a mind-melded third entity and join it. That’s the most intimate of all forms of joining, and when you’re not the joining sort…

And there are other reasons which are deep and subtle and complex and psychological and which I decline to go into.

At the end of tonight’s episode Sherlock walked away from the wedding alone while everybody else engaged with the tradition of socialising and carousing. ‘And there,’ I thought, ‘go I.’ Only he didn’t have a black dog at his heels, so maybe it wasn’t November.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Reluctant Ramble.

Writing is proving difficult again today. Not Trump this time, but the ever-nagging sense that there’s always some actual or potential reason to fear tomorrow. But I have to write something. It is Wednesday after all, so I’ll ramble.

*  *  *

There were two men in the coffee shop who taught me something about myself: I’m no Sherlock Holmes. I don’t observe tiny fragments of detail and draw conclusions, rather I observe whole pictures and draw impressions.

One man was the small town business type – slightly overweight, dressed casually in jeans and open necked shirt, garrulous and a little loud, exuding small town confidence in his efforts to impress. He used the word ‘million’ more than once. The other had that Italianate leanness about him, seemingly soft but probably a false impression, too immaculately dressed in a pale grey retro suit with white shirt and red tie, carefully groomed tight black hair over a tanned visage, and one of those tight, reluctant mouths that you trust at your peril.

The small town businessman kept opening and closing a laptop to demonstrate his points while uttering seemingly rehearsed facts and figures in artificially modulated tones. His frequent gestures were definitely of the small town variety. The lean and hungry companion smiled and nodded and mumbled with apparently contrived interest, and I kept expecting him to go to the toilet and return with the gun that had been secreted in advance behind the cistern. I left before anything exciting happened.

*  *  *

And then there were the frequent squalls of cold, driving rain that mingled with a blizzard of brown leaves, obscuring the view at times and scattering the flock of humans to seek shelter wherever it could be found.

*  *  *

I asked the little black Cocker Spaniel tied to the dog rail outside Sainsbury’s whether he wanted a friend in his lonely situation. He growled at me, so I assumed he didn’t and moved on.

*  *  *

My new friend Chloe came over to talk to me in the store while I was considering whether or not to buy a quiche for my dinner. She asked whether I’d noticed that she wasn’t there last week. I had. I asked her whether they had any loose leeks. They hadn’t. That meant a change of plan for the week’s dinners, which was irritating.

*  *  *

But the most notable feature of today was that a flame was extinguished. I could explain in detail, but choose not to. I did, however, contrive a third rate ditty to accommodate a sad circumstance:

There once was a flame
Which cast light on the way
So ain’t it a shame
That it went out today

*  *  *

I received another small cheque in the post for a picture used in a magazine. It’s turning cold again. I ordered coal today so I can have somewhere to read a book and do crosswords. I feel slightly sick because I snacked on too many pieces of cheese.

Ramble over. Time for a shower.

Lightening the Shadow of Trump.

You know, making blog posts has been almost impossible since Trump ‘won’ the election. Everywhere I look I see Trump, Trump, Trump, with the result that the light and humour has gone out of life. The shadow of Trump and his Fascist entourage is blocking the sun better than any solar eclipse could manage.

And now I’m becoming prey to a probably irrational suspicion. I see a scenario unfolding in which Trump, having subjected America to the delights of totalitarian control, pulls the USA out of NATO and joins forces with his pal Putin, thence to proceed with a plot to divide Europe between them, partly by force and partly by sneakier means. I see a second War of Independence looming, only with the roles reversed. I see a container load of Chicken McNuggets being tipped into the Manchester Ship Canal.

Was that funny enough? It’ll have to do.

*  *  *

Meanwhile, I’ve been drifting back to my highly impressionable teenage years when I used to frequent Spiritualist meetings. In particular, I’m remembering how mediums used to tell everybody that their spirit guide was either a North American Indian chief or a wise old Chinese man. I was different. I was told that my spirit guide was a South Pacific maiden wearing a grass skirt. (I’m not making this up, really I’m not.)

Well, I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I’d like to propose a compromise. Maiden I’m happy with, but could she be Chinese please?

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

A Musical Aside.

I thought I should cut down on the whingey posts a bit, so I decided to offer a haunting and unusual little music video which I discovered a couple of nights ago.

It's interesting for the mixture of styles, having been written by a Japanese man with Japanese lyrics and an indisputably Japanese background, but with a melody and lyric style based on Chinese tradition. The real surprise, though, is the voice. It's vocaloid (I had to look it up.)

This blog should have demonstrated well enough by now that I'm something of a champion of nature and naturalness, so I thought I would throw my hands up in horror at the sound of a synthesized voice. But no; surprisingly, I find it quite charming. I find the whole piece quite charming, and it's been played a lot over beer, scotch and hot buttered toast.

So who says I don't have a life? (And do I detect echoes of my next one here?) And to whom should I address a strange but meaningful email tonight?

Monday, 14 November 2016

Not So Super.

I went out and looked at the super moon earlier. I wasn’t impressed, sad to say, because I didn’t see anything particularly super about it. It was certainly splendid because full moons always are, but super? Had it been rising and falling like a yo-yo, or spinning like a Catherine wheel, or turning into a purple elephant and back again, I would have conceded the adjective ‘super’ with some enthusiasm. In reality, it was just a full moon. It reminded me of those total eclipses of the sun which are supposed to plunge the world into darkness, only they don’t.

Or maybe I’m just jaded because I had to be up early and was then subjected to a busy day. I’m not at all accustomed to busy days and I dislike them. They ruffle the reclusive feathers and disturb the energy of musefulness. And then there was the hospital appointment that didn’t go quite as anticipated. ‘It wouldn’t be our first choice,’ said the expert. Right.

And that man Trump kept getting in the way of my attempts to restore equilibrium. He kept turning up, making me fearful for the good Americans I know and even more fearful for the fate of the world if his intellectually-challenged and inarticulate redneck tendency is allowed full rein. I kept being reminded of how his twin soul mates, Hitler (I will make Germany great) and Mussolini (I will make Italy great), plunged the world into fiery hell and brought their countries to their knees before coming to ignominious and premature ends in the vicinity of bunkers and lamp posts. Maybe Trump, too, believes that living one day as a lion is better than a hundred years as a sheep. Well, let’s just hope it isn’t too much longer than one day.

And I keep writing strange but meaningful emails to people at around 2 o’clock in the morning, but they never reply.

Observing the Races.

I do find it a remarkable fact that Africans generally resemble gorillas, East Asians look like orang-utans, and Europeans are dead spits for chimpanzees. I suppose that’s why Africans run fastest over long distances, East Asians eat bean sprouts like they’re going out of fashion, and Europeans drink vast quantities of tea. I think Darwin might have missed something important.

This is a late night post. Please make allowances.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Little Nigel's Big Day Out.

There’s an amusing little news report in today’s media to the effect that Nigel Farage has become the first British politician to meet President-elect Donald Trump.

My first thought was ‘why?’, to which the answer came quick as a flash: ‘because no other British politician would want to meet President-elect Donald Trump.’ But it’s not that simple; there’s still a mystery.

I think it reasonable to assume that Farage didn’t just fly over to America and tell customs: ‘I want to meet Donald Trump.’ It wouldn’t work, would it? You’d either be locked up in a police cell for causing a disturbance, or locked up in an asylum on the reasonable presumption of insanity. That being the case, he must have been invited. So why would Nigel Farage be the first British politician Trump invites over the pond to meet him? Let’s take a look at Mr F.

In terms of British politics, Farage is a nobody. It’s true he used to be leader of the right wing fringe organisation known as the United Kingdom Independence Party, but it was never really a bona fide political party because it had only one policy: build a big wall around Britain so that no foreigners can get in unless they’re either crazily rich or of some general benefit to what’s left of the Empire. UKIP drew its support from the ranks of the living brain dead, and is now in purportedly terminal decline following fisticuffs among the delegates at a recent conference and the defection of some prominent members (prominence being a relative term, of course.) And Farage isn’t even the leader any more. His only political credential now is that he’s a rank-and-file British MEP in the European Union (which is a bit ironic considering the fact that his was one of the loudest ‘Leave’ voices at Brexit time.)

So why did he get the big ‘come over’ from Trump? I don’t know. Maybe Donald is banking on the fact that Americans don’t know how insignificant Farage is. Maybe he was hoping to dupe the great American public into thinking that the big guns from the old country are on his side. Sorry to disappoint you, America, but Farage is nothing more than a plastic pea shooter. Or maybe he was hoping that Nigel had researched the subject of building big walls around countries and wanted some advice regarding his Mexican project. My favourite theory, though, is that the pair of them were cashing in on the enduring popularity of Laurel and Hardy, but it’s only a theory. The mystery remains.

Anyway, here’s a picture of Stan and Ollie in action. In case you don’t know, Trump is the one with the big head and smug expression. Farage is the little Brit with the little flag and the grin that I would be tempted to describe as ‘orgasmic’ if only I could persuade myself that his mental age had passed puberty.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Ending on a High.

An energy efficiency assessor came to my house today. He asked lots of questions and did lots of measuring and looked in the loft and took pictures on his phone (etc, etc) and eventually promised major disruption to my peace and quiet when the law changes next year. I asked him whether my house could be exempted on the grounds that caves are Acts of God, but he referred me to the small print and said that he was only doin’ ’is job, mate. That wasn’t quite how it went, but it is my interpretation of the bottom line.

And I received a communication from the local authority which demonstrated just how uncompromisingly weasly bureaucracy can be when it comes to the matter of keeping the peasants where they belong in order to keep the rich from complaining that the law of the jungle isn’t being properly observed.

And the bread which I’ve been using for years without incident suddenly started behaving very oddly when I attempted to toast it in the toaster.

And I read that Trump has changed his spots (because that’s what chameleons do at the cellular level when people start looking at them in a less-than-friendly way) on the subject of Obamacare.

And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find people or things in which I can place my trust or good opinion.

But Sherlock went well. I started watching the complete collection tonight and it’s even better than I remember it. That was today’s high note.

*  *  *

I keep thinking I should write a major piece on the subject of The Effect of Insipient Reclusiveness on the Matter of Perception, but those who are so disposed would already know it, and those who aren’t would never understand.

Tonight's Notable Discovery...

... spinach and coleslaw sandwiches.

I was a little peckish earlier so I went to the fridge seeking inspiration. I discovered that I was a little oversubscribed in the baby leaf spinach department and there was some coleslaw that needed eating up, so I put the two together on a slice of buttered stoneground wholemeal bread and took the dip into the unknown.

It was quite splendid. Admittedly, the subtle taste of the spinach was lost to the much stronger taste of the coleslaw, but that didn’t matter. The combined textures of soft bread, crunchy coleslaw and chewy spinach were a delight to the teeth, the tongue and the taste buds.

So here we are again finding such pleasure in something so simple (and cheap.) I’ll think of it as Manna from the God of Small Things, and next time I’ll probably add a little pepper.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Mysteries Solved and Unsolved.

Both the supermarkets I use have a machine near the checkouts which invites customers to use it to exchange their small coins, and they’ve always intrigued me. Exchange them for what? I’ve never known, so this week I asked the checkout operator in Sainsbury’s. This is a more or less verbatim record of the conversation:

‘Tell me how that machines works.’

‘You throw your coins into the chute and the machine sorts them, adds them up, and gives you a voucher in return.’

‘A voucher for what?’

‘A voucher to spend anywhere in the store.’

‘Does it charge a fee?’

‘Yes, a percentage of the amount you put in.’

‘So let me get this straight. You pay a machine to take money off you and spend what you’ve got left in Sainsbury’s because you can’t spend it anywhere else?’

‘I suppose so, but people put their small coins in jars and things, then bring them in here to change.’

‘Why don’t they just keep their small coins in their pockets or purses and spend them as they go along? That way they wouldn’t have to pay a machine to take money off them.’

‘Erm… I don’t know, but lots of people do it!

So the message is: if lots of people do something, it must make sense. Got it now.

*  *  *

And I was in the lingerie section of a shop today with Mel when I spotted packs of something that looked like half a bra. The label said ‘strapless, backless bra.’ It seemed the packs contained not half a bra, but two halves of a bra nestled together.

This is something else that’s always intrigued me. You sometimes see women wearing off-the-shoulder gowns, and yet they appear to exhibit perfect uplift (if that’s the right term) without so much as a hint of a strap in sight. I went over and read the small print. Adhesive bra, it said (in small print.) Adhesive? You mean it sticks to something? I went back to Mel.

‘Those bra things over there use the word ‘adhesive.’ To what, precisely, do they adhere?’

She didn't know, so I went to Plan B.

‘Do you think it would be improper of me to go and ask that young woman shop assistant over there?’


So I didn’t, and I’m still none the wiser.

On Malls and Mortality.

I was walking through a shopping mall today and realised that I never, ever go upstairs. I wondered why, but only briefly. ‘It’s because there’s nothing up there to interest me,’ I thought. ‘Come to think of it, there’s nothing down here to interest me either, apart from the coffee shop.’

So why is there nothing in shopping malls to interest me? I suppose it’s because I no longer paddle and frolic in the shallow watercourse provided by our culture in this theme park we call life. I drift these days on a river that is wider than a mile in some parts, but narrow as a creek in others. And sometimes I’m beset by overreaching waves that threaten to engulf me, while at others the water settles and becomes as calm as a duck pond on the old village green. And then there are the outcrops of jagged rocks against which I'm occasionally driven, and the stagnant backwaters in which I sometimes find myself marooned. I’ve even been over the odd cataract here and there, and come out bruised but still breathing.

But one day I shall encounter the great maelstrom and be pulled under with irresistible certainty, never to be seen again. And the same maelstrom will also find and swallow the paddlers and frolickers, because as the man said: Send not to know for whom the bell tolls…

And this is all in the mind, of course.

And this is an odd time of day to be making such a post. It belongs with Lisa Gerrard songs in the sagging, sultry hours after midnight, so I’m being precocious for once.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On Coffee Shops and Comestibles.

I have to find something to talk about that has nothing to do with American Presidential elections, so I thought I’d just mention the fact that the young woman in the coffee shop who used to treat me like something the cat brought in having first devoured and then regurgitated it is a lot friendlier these days. What did I do? I don’t know, but I never look a gift horse in the mouth so that’s OK.

Today she gave me a well informed explanation as to why I can have my hot chocolate hotter – although there is a limit because of the danger of burning the milk – whereas the temperature of coffee is writ in stone. I do like it when people talk intelligently and informatively about meaningful things, and the twin delights of good coffee and good hot chocolate are among the most meaningful things in my life.

And it’s often occurred to me that if I lived in a town I would probably sit in the coffee shop for an hour or so every day, probably reading a book since hardly anybody ever talks to me unless they have to. It seems to me that the coffee shop is unique among trading establishments in that they don’t mind you occupying their space for unduly long periods on the strength of one small purchase. It’s part of the ethos of coffee shops, and long may it continue. It’s just a pity that you can’t have a pack of Turkish cigarettes on the go these days and luxuriate in an atmosphere augmented by the smell of old socks, but I suppose nothing is ever perfect. And I don’t live in a town anyway, so the matter is academic.

(I wonder whether the young woman from the coffee shop would come around to my place instead, bearing a bagful of delights from the Chinese takeaway. I haven’t had water chestnuts and fried rice for a very long time, and she wouldn’t even have to talk except to mutter 'OK' when I told where the plates are kept.)

The Last Word on Trump.

The election of Donald Trump as US President came as something of a shock to me, as I suspect it did to most of the civilised world. Americans might ask whether I as a British national have the right to an opinion on the matter. I would reply that, since America likes to promote its presumptive status as leader of the free world, the election of the US President is everybody’s business, and so I will continue on that basis.

The result is disturbing because it asks questions of American culture, the American election system, and even the good sense and decency of the American electorate, since the man they have elected promotes himself as an empty-headed bigot. He comes across as a bawling, bragging, sexist, racist, xenophobic, unsophisticated, socially divisive Fascist. I didn’t imagine that image; he and his campaign created it.

He says he will ‘make America great again,’ but I don’t think anybody should believe it. People like Trump don’t know what greatness is. People like Trump know how to acquire wealth, how to maintain power, how to abuse women, and how to put the planet in peril for the sake of short term pecuniary gain. People like Trump understand bigness, but they don’t understand that greatness is something else entirely. His constant bleat ‘America first’ gives the clue to his ignorance in the matter of greatness, since the single-minded pursuit of personal interest is not the stuff of which greatness is made.

Or have I got it all wrong? Is Trump really a nice guy at heart? The problem with Trump was always that nobody ever knew what they would be getting if he were elected to power. Throughout the campaign he has been the consummate chameleon, forever softening and hardening his position to suit the exigencies of the moment and the nature of his audience. Did he promote his basic nature in the terms listed above simply in order to garner the votes of a majority of Americans? If so, we come back to the disturbing questions.

Time will tell, of course, and I’m sure there are those in America whose only hope is that four years will be insufficient for him to do the damage of which he is capable. But for now, Americans have made their bed and Americans must lie on it. I wish some of them good luck, but I’m more than a little disappointed in the others. As for how his tenure in the White House will affect the rest of us, it remains to be seen. And in spite of the title of this post, I doubt it will be the last word on Trump.

Going to the Heart of Perception.

In all my life I’ve never stopped being both enthralled and mystified by the way in which certain melodies – or even phrases within a melodic string – can go so deep inside you that they touch some primal core. They somehow link your conscious mind with one of those profound abstract foundations on which the emotional nature of the human experience is built. I suppose it's why they can sometimes move certain highly aware people to uncontrollable sobbing, and when that happens I further suppose it's a form of enlightenment.

Among modern popular composers, Hans Zimmer is particularly good at writing them. I wonder where he gets them from.

Attempting a Remedy.

I went upstairs at about 11 o’clock tonight and was astonished at the intensity of the cold in the bathroom and my bedroom. In the ten years I’ve lived here, including through some pretty cold winters, I never remember quite such a level of frigid intensity before.

‘Is it me or is it astonishingly cold up here?’ I asked myself.

‘It’s probably you,’ I replied.

‘Could it be paranormal activity?’

‘Grow up.’

And to make matters worse, I’ve had sore sinuses all evening because the weather has turned from cold and dry to cold and wet and that sort of thing always makes my sinuses sore.

And the water supply has gone off because they’re working on the mains, but we were warned so I suppose I can’t complain.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t be in a bad mood, and so I am. And that’s why I’m now going to listen to a Chinese lady called Zhao Cong playing a plaintive air on her pipa and hope that when I go to bed I can dream of goldfish and tea ceremonies (and the scent of peach blossom being brought up on warm summer breezes from Guandong Province.) If I’m still in a bad mood tomorrow, I might not bother to say.

You can listen along with me if you like. Please declare the content of your subsequent dreams in the comments.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

A Debt to Catherine.

Over the past ten days of unseasonably frigid weather in Britain I’ve been quaffing unusually high quantities of hot tea (not that tea stays hot for more than about thirty seconds in this house during the winter, but you know what I mean.) And today I discovered an interesting fact: Apparently, we have Catherine of Braganza – wife of King Charles II – to thank for introducing the tea habit to the British aristocracy, whence it subsequently percolated down to we lesser mortals.

What’s of some personal interest to me is that I was born and raised in the city of Stoke on Trent (or Joke on Trent as it’s affectionately known to the locals) and Stoke owes its meteoric rise during the Industrial Revolution to the production of ceramics. (Its pottery industry is now reduced to a fraction of what it was because Mrs Thatcher considered shopping malls to be more important than factories, but that’s by the by.)

What isn’t by the by the by, however, is the reason why the ceramics industry burgeoned during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was largely due, or so I’m reliably informed, to the increasing social habit of taking hot beverages such as tea, instead of cold ones such as beer and dirty water. And hot beverages taste better when drunk out of ceramic vessels than those made of wood and pewter.

Ergo, if Catherine hadn’t married Charles and said ‘You crummy English should drink hot tea like we civilised Portuguese do,’ I almost certainly wouldn’t exist.

And here's a view of my home town during its heyday. The big smoky things are bottle kilns in which the pottery was fired. (They're called bottle kilns because of their shape, just in case you're wondering, not because bottles were made in them.) And all because of Catherine.

A Friend Out of Season.

The house fly won’t listen to me. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing here, since this year’s mid-autumn temperatures are about in line with the January average. Not exactly house fly weather, yet here he is, wandering happily around the monitor screen, dancing on my hand, and taking his ease with great presumption on one of my ear lobes. I keep telling him:

Go over there where it’s warm!

And sometimes he does disappear for a few minutes, but mostly he doesn’t. And when he does, he’s soon back. He’s currently sitting on the desk in front of me, rubbing his front legs together. I expect he’s seen me do the same thing because it’s a bit cold in my office. Ah, but now he’s preening his wings with his back legs, a feat which I don’t think I could emulate. OK, Mr House Fly, you’re more agile than I am. And yes, I know you can fly and I can’t. Respect. And I suppose I should be glad of the company.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Chinese Notes.

My choice for a random Google search last night was: When does the peach blossom bloom in China? I learned that it never freezes in Guilin (which isn’t true according to the climate stats on Wiki), that’s it’s very cold in Beijing in January (what has that got to do with anything?), that the Li River scenery is where those mountains that look like salt shakers are (fond memories of The Water Margin), and that the Li River is so full of cruise ships these days that the cormorants have developed a taste for burgers and changed their allegiance. Oh, and the peach blossom in that part of China blooms in March.

It’s also gratifying to note that I seem to be becoming habituated to Chinese music. Last night – for the first time – I recognised a fragment of melody being given one treatment as having the same base as something I heard in a completely different piece about a year ago. I assume it must come from a traditional source, which means that Chinese music is not so much a foreign language to me as it used to be. 

It’s also interesting to note that Chinese musicians – especially the women for some reason – are in the habit of using facial expressions and subtle nuances of body language to compliment the music. You might say that they play the instrument as much with their eyes as they do with their fingers. (Or you might not, I suppose, but I do.) So are there still those over here who claim that the Chinese are inscrutable? They’re not; it’s a silly old prejudice.

And on the subject of prejudice, this is what Sax Rohmer, the British author of the Fu Manchu novels, said of his arch villain:

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, ... one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."
- The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

Yellow peril incarnate? ‘The yellow peril’ is one of those sad little pejorative soubriquets (like ‘the white man’s burden’) that the colonial British Establishment liked to insinuate into the minds of the British public so as to condition them to notions of superiority. As far as I’m aware, the Chinese have never shown the slightest inclination to go empire-building overseas, so I wonder just how they were supposed to be such a peril. (Apart, that is, from kicking the British butt when we behaved high-handedly in their country, for which I think they might be forgiven.)

And for further amusement, here’s a poster for a Fu Manchu movie which demonstrates just how perilous the fictional yellow person can be. (And did you know that he studied for one of his four doctorates at Edinburgh University? What an interesting choice.)

A Blessed Escape.

I was reminded tonight of a woman I once knew who asked me what sort of music I liked. I said I liked all sorts of music, but had a particular fancy for Gaelic folk music, which I did at the time. She agreed enthusiastically, and offered the opinion that there was nothing more stirring than the massed pipes and drums of a Scottish marching band. She also had white carpet throughout her house.

Put the two facts together and it should be obvious why I made an orderly but hasty retreat when it became apparent that she had designs on me. She was quite well off and I could have been assured of a materially comfortable life, but I swear my body would have outlived my soul. And what doth it profit a man…

Sunday, 6 November 2016

An American Extravagance.

I’ve noticed that when Americans write, they’re rather fonder of the full stop than we Brits are. (Only they call them ‘periods’, which must be a little confusing for American geology students.)

So, for example, they will write N.B. (nota bene) where we will write NB. And they will write my name as J.J. Beazley, where I will write JJ Beazley.

This is an important point for any foreign person to remember if he or she is planning to write a novel in English. Consider writing it in the UK form because it will take less time to type.

On Knowing Romania.

Blogging is being educational again. According to Blogger stats, I have a regular visitor from Romania who seems to read nearly every post shortly after it’s posted. Then again, there might be several of them for all I know. What I do know is that he or she or they never talk to me, but then very few people ever do anyway (even though at least one of them claims to feel better for the experience.)

And so, being naturally intrigued, I decided to Google ‘Romania’ and paid keen attention to the map. And in so doing I discovered where the Carpathian Mountains are, and that was a real thrill because I never knew before. They lie to the east and south of the region known as Transylvania, and therein resides the clue to their reputation.

The very name has a ring to it, don’t you think? ‘We travelled north through the Carpathian Mountains.’ Mmm… scrummy stuff. It evokes images of a cold and distant terrain where dark forests and jagged peaks stand stoically in frigid harmony with each other, but in silent and simmering opposition to your unwelcome intrusion. It is a land populated by howling wolves, prowling vampires, and brawny, moustachioed men with skin the colour of Turkish coffee who regard you suspiciously and then nod to each other when they hear your English voice. It is definitely one of the last places on earth in which to linger without a Magnum 45 and a crucifix.

Bram Stoker's Carpathians

The Cuddlier Version

But I expect Bram Stoker has a lot to answer for, because it’s probably all rubbish. The only Transylvanian I know is my dentist, and she is small, slightly built, fair skinned, kind, gentle, and sweet as grandma’s apple pie.

So the question I must consider is: can I now claim to know Romania just a little? No, of course I can't, but I can dream a little more vividly.

A More Reliable Souce of Information.

Today I searched the internet for answers to the following two questions: When is the best time to prune dogwood? and When is the best time to prune sage? The wide variation in answers made the exercise effectively worthless. Here are two examples:

Do not prune dogwood when the shrub is growing vigorously as this will cause it to bleed sap profusely and leave it open to infection. Dogwood should be pruned in the autumn or winter when the plant is dormant.

Dogwood should be pruned in early summer to encourage flower growth. June is favourite, but any time in the summer will do.

See what I mean?

Having spent ten years getting to know the plants in my garden on an individual and fairly intimate basis, I’ve started to get a feel for what they want me to do. I tried it last year on the massive broom which was starting to outgrow its own strength, and the following May it bloomed more magnificently than ever before. I was taking a bit of a risk because I’d been given widely conflicting advice by two supposedly expert gardeners, and had heard that broom is highly intolerant of pruning.

So dare I suspect that I’m learning to listen to my plants? I don’t know, but if I am, it demonstrates yet again that there are better sources of information than the internet.

(And by the way, Mr Dogwood says that he wants me to prune as soon as the current cold spell is over, and Mistress Sage wants me to leave her alone until early spring when there’s no danger of frost for at least a few days. So that’s the plan.)

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Song at Thirty Paces.

With both candidates in the American election currently working frantically to snatch a narrow lead in the race, it occurred to me that one of my favourite songs from childhood holds an uncanny resonance with the contest and might be used as a battle hymn:

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk
And said goodbye to the circus
Off she went with a trumpety trump
Trump! Trump! Trump!

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk
And trundled back to the jungle
Off she went with a trumpety trump
Trump! Trump! Trump!


The head of the herd was calling
Far far away
They met one night
In the pale moonlight
On the road to Mandalay

It has such an innocently childlike quality about it, and therefore perfectly counterpoints the bombastically childish nature of the whole affair. The only thing I can’t decide is which of the combatants should use it as propaganda.

Sensible Superstitions.

I remember reading a superstition once which said ‘Upon seeing the new moon, kiss the first person you see and you will get a new dress.’ It impressed me, so I thought I’d invent a few of my own.

*  *  *

Never pick your nose with the third finger of your left hand, or you will be unsuccessful in matters of the heart.

Never eat more than three eggs on a Sunday, or you are likely to die before the following Easter.

Never urinate in a public toilet on the north side of a street, or you will be surprised by an enemy while in a compromising situation.

Never speak to a milkmaid if she’s whistling, or you will marry someone with retarded development.

Never climb stairs if a clock is striking, or you will have difficulty using escalators.

Never answer the telephone at midnight, or your hearth will be invaded by crickets.

Never cross a river if your back is itching, or your hair will fall out.

*  *  *

If they’re not silly enough, try spotting the references. (But don’t bother asking me because I probably won’t remember by then.)

Tempus Fugit and the Autumn Fayre.

I spent more money than I usually do at the village Autumn Fayre today, but at least I got a little of it back by winning a bottle of premium beer in a card game. And you know what somebody said to me? (This should come as something of a surprise; if it doesn’t, you haven’t read much of my blog.)

‘I always feel so much better whenever I talk to you.’

I honestly can’t imagine why that should be the case, and it isn’t the sort of compliment to which I’m generally accustomed. In fact, I’m not generally accustomed to any sort of compliment, but I’ll take it if it’s on offer. But then, you might ask, was this person:

Female? I have no reason to think otherwise.

Young? Relative to me, yes.

Attractive? I always thought so.

Married? She wears a wedding ring, but I’ve never seen her in the company of a man. And the point is irrelevant anyway.

But it was interesting to hear it, and as far as I can tell the shock hasn’t done me any lasting harm.

The trip to the Autumn Fayre was also notable for the fact that my ex-landlord spoke to me without being prodded, something I don’t think he’s ever done before. Maybe it’s because he’s eighty five. Maybe he mistook me for somebody who matters.

The problem with village events of this kind, though, is that you become prey to middle aged women who sidle up to you and ask you to buy a ticket for something or other. Some are quite pushy, some take your arm, while others stand there looking sad and hopeful.

One of the latter accosted me and asked whether I would buy a ticket for the money tree. 'What's a money tree?' I enquired. 'Well,' she began enthusiastically, 'we put all the money in a pot, and then the winning ticket gets half of it. The rest goes to church funds.' 'I suppose it's a pound like everything else, is it?' 'Yes.' 'OK.' I gave her the pound and then sat down on one of a row of empty seats, only the ordeal wasn't over. She sat down next to me. Why did she do that and how was I supposed to react? Should I have talked to her? She didn't talk to me. Should I have invited her to tea, or professed my conviction that she was my long-lost soul mate? I glanced furtively at her a few times and she was staring dead ahead like somebody had switched her circuit board off. And then she got up and sold another ticket to somebody else, and I never saw her again.

Ah, but then there was the poignant encounter:

There was a woman operating one of the game stalls. She was the first person I ever spoke to when I moved here 10½ years ago, and I reminded her of the fact that I met her walking her children home from the village school one sunny afternoon and asked her where the nearest post box was. One of those children was with her today, only she isn’t a child any more. She looks to be around eighteen now, is as tall as her mother, awash with easy confidence, and pretty as peaches. She would look perfectly at home on the cover of a movie magazine, and I’m not exaggerating.

Why does time have to walk so determinedly forward with such unfettered haste? Whatever happens to all those meaningful moments he leaves in his wake, blowing around the road of life like so many withered leaves on a November afternoon? Why can’t we arrest his progress and demand: ‘Not another step until I say so.’

Friday, 4 November 2016

Thin Pickings.

I went searching one of those cornucopias of useless items that you get stapled into TV listings magazines tonight, looking for something funny to put on the blog. They used to be a brilliant source of amusing material at one time, but they’ve become tedious now. They don’t sell James Bond watches and beautiful plastic plants-that-light-up any more, being almost wholly preoccupied with flannelette leisure wear, comfort shoes, bra extenders and incontinence requisites.

There was a flea comb on offer which electrocutes the little vampires rather than poisoning them, but apart from finding some oblique reference to American forms of capital punishment along the lines of wondering when somebody will invent a flea strangulation device, I couldn’t think of anything to say on the matter

The only item of modest note was a device which purportedly removes ear wax safely. The blurb said:

No need for potentially dangerous cotton buds – this handy Ear Cleaner effectively cleans out wax in a kinder, safer, more hygienic way. Gentle vacuum suction smoothly removes ear wax without pain, damage or irritation.

Sounds good, doesn’t it, but I’m curious to know why sticking a mini vacuum cleaner in your ear is any safer than doing the same thing with a cotton bud.

The Chinese Name Problem.

My love affair with traditional Chinese culture must be the stuff of legend on this blog by now. I want to go and experience some of it first hand, but I have great difficulty remembering the names. I want to see the Daming Palace and the Dunhuang caves, and I want to visit Guangdong Province because it sounds warm and quietly romantic in a warm and quietly Chinese sort of way.

But how do I remember the names? It’s as though somebody put lots of g’s and a’s and n’s and u’s and d’s and h’s in a bag, emptied some of them out wherever they went and said ‘that’s what we’ll call this place.’ Let’s face it, if I can’t remember what a parsnip is called, how the hell am I supposed to differentiate between Daming, Dunhuang and Guangdong?

And then there are others that don’t have an –ng ending in sight, like Xanxi Province and Xaanxi Province. That isn’t a typo; the two of them really do exist next to each other. I mean, would we in England have two counties called Rutland and Ruutland? No, so why must the Chinese do it? To confuse foreigners, maybe? Or maybe it’s because western popular media makes a habit of giving Chinese names to villains who are brilliant but reprehensible, like Ming the Merciless and Dr Fu Manchu. Maybe they’re just getting their own back. (I wonder whether they have comics with characters called Trump the Tyrant and Black Bessie the Wigan Werewolf in them. I would.)

And then there’s the multitude of Chinese musical instruments to sweat over. I’ve just about got the guzheng, the guqin, the erhu, the pippa and the dizzi in my memory bank, but that’s only five. I’m struggling badly with the other 5,000.

But I did learn tonight that I can get a hulusi (I had to look it up; it’s still knocking on the door of my memory bank requesting a residents’ permit, but the gatekeeper is getting deafer by the day) for the meagre sum of £14.23. The sound of it puts me in mind of sheep and summer days, and the sheep are probably the only ones who would ever hear me play it. Should any passing farmer ask ‘What’s that you’re playing?’ I would have to answer ‘Dunno, mate. It’s from China.’

Questioning Star Trek.

I watched Star Trek: Nemesis tonight. (Note that I am catching up. This film was made only fourteen years ago.) It raised a few questions.

The first is the one that’s been asked many times: Why do the Romulans, who live in a far galaxy many light years away, speak English with an American accent? ‘Ah,’ you might say, ‘they don’t. You have to suspend disbelief and accept that it’s only presented that way so as to avoid having to invent a different language and use subtitles.’ ‘Oh right,’ I would respond, ‘but there’s a scene in which a Romulan commander is talking to Jean-Luc through his big TV screen, and she’s definitely lip synching with an American accent.’

Second question: Why does the Romulan rebel, Shinzon, speak with a British accent? ‘That’s simple,’ you would reply. ‘It’s because he’s a clone of Jean-Luc Picard. Jean-Luc speaks with a British accent, so his clone would speak the same way.’ No, he wouldn’t. If he’s been brought up in Romulan culture he would speak with a proper American accent like all the other Romulans.

Third question: Why does Jean-Luc speak with a British accent anyway? His name is definitely French, and I seem to recall there being a ST film in which he goes back to his family’s vineyards in France. So why doesn’t he speak with a French accent? Better still, why didn’t they just cast Gerard Depardieu in the role, so when Geordie says ‘All the shields are down Captain, we have no photon torpedoes left, there are seventeen Romulan warbirds closing in for the kill, and we’ve run out of cornflakes. What do we do?’, Jean-Luc could just do a massive Gallic shrug and everything would make sense.

And hasn’t anybody noticed the obvious reference to Arthurian legend in the relationship between Jean-Luc and Shinzon? It was obvious enough when the father/son-style hostility first appeared, and was later confirmed when Jean-Luc despatched his young clone by shoving a big pointed stick through his chest. It was lifted directly from the scene in Excalibur in which King Arthur dispatches Mordred in exactly the same way.

But now I’m becoming serious. Time to stop.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Savouring an Historic First.

I saw in today’s Times newspaper that Donald Trump is now leading the opinion polls, and it occurred to me that this is probably the first time in history that Europeans have been genuinely interested in the US Presidential Election. The majority of us don’t usually give a damn, but this time it’s different.

The appearance of Hillary Clinton in the contest is no surprise, even if she is crooked as many claim. Crooked politicians are ten a penny in both the free world and the not-so-free world. The main difference is that free world politicians tend to be more circumspect about admitting their propensity for cheating and lying because they have a greater need to protect their public image. So a crooked Hillary Clinton (if such she be, and I make no such claim) would be just your average candidate for the job.

But Trump? Not only is he outside the box, nobody even knows which box or bunch of boxes he does inhabit. He sells himself like a used car salesman – cheaply, bawdily, and with all the shifty qualities of a callous chameleon.

That’s why we’re increasingly fascinated by the prospect of the seemingly impossible coming to pass if Americans actually go so far as to elect him to the White House. And if that does happen, we’ll be even more fascinated to find out what happens next. And especially we’ll be watching with keen interest to see how the rest of the free world leaders approach the unpleasant prospect of having to sit in meetings with him, attend banquets with him, and even shake his hand. I should imagine, for example, that Queen Elizabeth is not at all amused.

That’s why the current election is such an historical ground breaker. It’s simply unbelievable.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Priviliged Information.

Sometimes I get bored during the long hours between washing the dinner dishes and going for a shower at around midnight, and then I have to find something interesting to do. One of tonight’s options was to Google Cities north of the Arctic Circle, and you know what I found out?

The Arctic Circle isn’t fixed. It varies, apparently, on a 40,000 year cycle, and at the moment it’s moving north at the rate of 49ft per year. So imagine if you lived in a house with walls less than 49ft long and whose southern extremity was sitting precisely on the Arctic Circle. Next year you could have postcards printed with a picture of palm trees on the front and a message on the reverse which says:

We don’t live in the Arctic any more, so now you can come visit us.

And you could send them to all your friends who live in more hospitable latitudes, and they would reply:

‘Did you move?’

And you could reply back:

‘No, the Arctic did.’

And then they’d all think you’d been touched by the midnight sun and would be sure to keep their distance. But you’d know different and could scoff at their ignorance, as do I.

Oh, and the biggest city north of the Arctic Circle is Murmansk (which is in Russia, in case you didn’t know.) I suppose it’s a distinction of sorts, but I should think the people who live there must get a bit grouchy in December.