Monday, 31 October 2016

Bats and the Cycle.

The passage of the seasons is a seamless though often erratic affair, but we have several events in Britain which I regard as marking the end of the light time and the beginning of the dark.

There’s the final cricket test match at The Oval Cricket Ground, the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, the chatter and drone of the farmer’s machine as he trims the field boundary hedges, and the woolly whiteness of the willow herb seeds on the lane verges. And then there’s the last of them.

I haven’t seen any bats flitting acrobatically over the lane and garden for the past several evenings. Watching bats fly during the long summer twilights is one of life’s great pleasures for me, and now all I can do is wish them a safe sleep and successful return when the wheel comes round another half circle on our own fretful strutting to the final curtain.

On New York and the Big Scene.

I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately and tonight I was going to write a terribly highbrow and incisive post (says me) about why I think Donnie Darko is character driven, not plot driven, and why I think it’s important. Instead I watched another movie.

Mel sent it to me. She said she thought I’d like it. She wrote ‘Lovely film. Soul of the city’, obviously because she remembered my disappointment at the documentary I watched about New York City, and how I said I wanted to see something about the soul of the place rather than its logistical wrangling with the smooth functioning of social machinery.

It was called New York, I Love You. You’ve probably heard of it. You’ve probably even seen it. I expect everybody in the world but yours truly has seen it, because that’s usually the way with me. (I haven’t even watched Notting Hill yet.) And I did like it because it is a lovely film.

But you know what? For all the mix of drama and superficiality, for all the humour and pathos, for all the gauche erotica, for all the varied nuances of desire and affection, for all the random quirkiness (I like quirkiness, especially when it’s random), one uncharacteristically ordinary scene stood out because it reminded me of something I’d forgotten.

I remembered what a thrill it is to have a child take your hand and walk with you; to tell you what does and doesn’t make them tick; to ask you questions about what interests them; to grin at you through a gap in the front teeth when you’ve helped them through a difficulty they couldn’t quite navigate; to tell you without unnecessary words that you make life easier and they’re glad to have you around.

That’s what I’d forgotten. And you shouldn’t need to be in New York to remember that, should you?

The Face.

I was driving along a narrow, winding lane today when I encountered a car coming the other way. We both slowed. I had only a tiny verge and high hedge on my side, while she had a small space to pull onto and stop. She duly obliged (there was no other option) and I drove past slowly and with due care.

In those situations it’s customary for both drivers to lift a hand in mutual acknowledgement of each other’s courtesy and rational consideration, which I did. She didn’t. She sat gripping the wheel and staring dead ahead through heavy, black-rimmed glasses. Her brow was furrowed, her nose wrinkled, and her teeth clearly clenched behind a pouting mouth. And I thought:

Cartoonists labour long and hard to draw a face like that.

Nocturnal Noises.

I watched a YouTube video tonight about people who’ve picked up inexplicable noises on their mobile sleep apps while they’ve been sound asleep in bed. One woman was so freaked out she moved home on the strength of them.

Why do people of nervous disposition do that sort of thing? Suppose you played it back the following day and heard two gravelly voices in conversation:

‘What’s that?’

‘A human.’

‘Can you eat them?’

‘Dunno. Are you hungry?’

‘Not really.’

‘Me neither. Let’s come back when we are and find out.’

Going to bed the next night would be a lot of fun, wouldn’t it?

*  *  *

It’s now the early ours of the morning of Halloween. Mustn’t forget to placate the little people with whisky and cake tonight. If the scotch has gone the following morning, I’ll assume the postman drank it. (But I won’t raise the matter with him.)

A High Priority.

At one time I used to Google my name frequently, just to see whether there were any story reviews I didn’t know about. I haven’t done it for a long time, but tonight I was bored and tried again. I selected Images for JJ Beazley and found this high on the list:

How did they know?

(Flippancy on the strength of a mere half bottle of beer usually indicates either nervousness or jet lag. Blame the clocks going back.)

Sunday, 30 October 2016

On Being Selective.

During today’s perambulation of the Shire’s gold-bedecked lanes I stopped to talk to a woman on horseback. I always stop to talk to people on horseback unless they’re either male or the type I don’t feel comfortable with. It goes without saying that I don’t talk to people with whom I feel uncomfortable whether they’re on horseback or not, but the blanket objection to men is something else.

To people of peasant stock like me, you see, there’s a race memory involved. The men who used to ride horses were also the men who rode my ancestors to an early death from overwork and malnutrition, and we don’t forget the sins of our fathers’ oppressors easily. It’s also a fact that among city dwellers, only the girls ride. They get all ponced up in tiny jodhpurs and riding hats and go trotting off to pony clubs on Sunday mornings, while the boys play football, climb trees, and smoke illicit cigarettes behind conveniently placed walls. And then there’s the fact that people on horses look down on you while they’re talking. I don’t mind women doing that, but it gets a bit competitive when there’s a man involved. It explains why I’m usually less than 100% pleasant to 6ft 4in land agents.
This is the kind of person I talk to

This is the kind of person I don't

I should also add that the real reason I talk to people on horses is to have an excuse to talk to the horses. Horses have a habit of suddenly doing unexpected and endearing things while you’re talking to them, like nuzzling your ear or trying to eat your jacket. That can be fun.

Anyway, the horse-mounted woman I talked to today offered the opinion that it’s possible to train a horse to do anything a dog can be trained to do. I felt inclined to differ. ‘What, like bark at the postman or round up sheep?’ is what I should have said. If I’d known her better I probably would have done, only I didn’t, so I didn’t. And the next woman I saw riding a horse was one of the locals I don’t feel entirely comfortable with, so I just said ‘hello.’

A Musical Hint.

I listen to an awful lot of Chinese traditional music, and I’ve found that the vast majority of it is tranquil and reflective.  It sits very well with images of still water, statuesque mountains, pouting goldfish and pretty-as-peaches peach blossom.

And since a nation’s traditional music must give some telling clues as to a nation’s traditional characteristics, it blows quite a hole in the stereotypical western view of China.

The Wonder of GMT.

British clocks will be going back an hour at about the same time as I publish this post. It means that on this most auspicious of early mornings we shall have two 1am’s and two 2am’s. And October will be an hour longer than it should be. Isn’t that exciting? There really is nothing like messing about with numbers to keep you awake and alert into the early hours.

A Jaundiced View.

I still have an email in my inbox relating to the purchase of a new fridge/freezer in May 2013. That’s 3½ years ago. Do you realise that, taking the biblical definition of a normal life span, 3½ years is 5% of an average person’s life? It feels like a few months ago.

And tonight’s beer is London Porter, courtesy of Sainsbury’s regional beers. Porter is a very dark beer with hints of liquorice and a bitter aftertaste, and is reasonably strong at 5% ABV. It’s rather too heavy for summer drinking, but now that the days are depressingly short and the trees look like a giant baby has vomited over them, it’s back in favour.

I think I should consider reviewing my attitude to life.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

On Belonging and the Fan Phenomenon.

I discovered two interesting facts tonight:

1. The Lenny the Lion Fan Club was started by David Bowie’s father.

2. Tang Shiyi is not only one of the most brilliant dancers I’ve ever seen, she’s also pretty damn good looking as well!

But to begin at the beginning:

I occasionally wonder when I stopped being a belonger and became a non-belonger. As a kid I joined lots of things, like the Cub Scouts, the Boys Brigade, the local church, and the Lenny the Lion Fan Club. (The Lenny the Lion Fan Club is a very distant memory from early childhood. I remember I was sent a black and white picture of the famous feline and was very proud of it until I came of age – probably at around 10.)

But at some point in my life the notion began to ooze into my consciousness that belonging to something nearly always involves accepting some sort of consensus. By then I must have grown suspicious of accepting any kind of consensus, and so I stopped joining things. I just don’t remember when it was.

I also have serious misgivings about being anybody’s fan. That’s a difficult one because it depends on how you define fan status. I will admit that there are certain people for whom I entertain a more than passing level of respect (like the brilliant Tang Shiyi, for example), but I could never be a fan in the sense of waiting at the stage door to ‘meet’ my hero. Such people don’t actually meet their hero, do they? It’s more a process of paying obeisance while the hero figure looks down from a high place and smiles indulgently. That kind of fan simply accepts a subservient position for the delusional reward of a few seconds of fake orgasm. Not for me.

On the other hand, if the Lady Tang Shiyi were to approach me in the street and say ‘Excuse me, most esteemed English gentleman with a face that looks lived in, would you grace me with your company and allow me to practice my English in return for a cup of fine coffee and a piece of expensive cake?’ I would reply: ‘Certainly, madam, it would be my pleasure. Aren’t you Tang Shiyi, the well known Chinese dancer? Thought so. You’re impressive.’ That would strike me as achieving a certain degree of respectable parity, and I don’t mind being that kind of fan.

And just to prove that I did once join things, here’s a picture of me in my Cub Scout uniform. It was around the start of my Four Years as a Fat Kid. 

When the fat (‘puppy fat’ as one of my mother’s friends called it) dropped off, I was very confused to discover that I could sprint faster than almost every other kid in the school. The other kids and the teachers were confused as well, but they still left me languishing in the front row of the school rugby team, a fact which conferred upon me a negative body image for the rest of my life to date.

And I suppose it would be no more than properly gallant to balance the picture of the ugly fat kid with a rather more pleasing one of the Lady Tang Shiyi in performance.

On Small Statistics and Credibility.

I do stretching exercises every night. I stretch up to the kitchen ceiling, but can never quite make it however hard I try. In the morning, though, I can touch the ceiling quite easily. That means I must be about an inch taller in the morning than I am late at night.

And did you know that the moon is moving away from the earth at the rate of 4cm a year? I didn’t either. Still don’t, it’s just something I heard somebody say on a YouTube video. But of course, it would be the height of foolishness to accept something just because somebody said so.

I don’t do belief either. I accept that which I can personally prove or which has been demonstrated to my satisfaction. Everything else is allotted a degree of credence dependent on the combined forces of evidence and instinct. And I haven’t noticed the moon getting any smaller.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Some Minor Miserable Musings.

The growing things in the Shire are colouring up much more than usual this year and there’s a lot of deep yellow to be seen in and from my garden. I have an ambivalent attitude to yellow. On the one hand it’s the colour of gold which we prize greatly as a culture. On the other, it’s the colour of jaundiced skin and baby vomit.

I remember once being told what causes autumn colour to be more intense some years than others; what I don’t remember is the explanation. I could Google it, of course, but I expect I’d come across a gleefully pessimistic website which would tell me it’s some manner of ill omen (it’s often the way) and that would depress me. So I’ll remain ignorant and try to find the sight of gold-clothed trees a thing of beauty, even though I know it’s the colour of decay and presages a time of cold, darkness and the partial death of the self.

I have a birthday approaching, too, and here’s something I don’t understand. Why do people celebrate birthdays once they’ve gone beyond the age of majority? Up to that point it’s understandable because you’re going through a process of gaining entitlements until you can finally call yourself an adult and freely tell the authority figures where to stick their instructions. But after that point, every birthday is just a marker on the road to the final curtain. How is that something to celebrate? I suppose it makes a kind of sense to celebrate the 100th because staying alive for a hundred years all in one go is quite an achievement, but apart from that…

*  *  *

I’m busily engaged in writing blog posts tonight because I’ve run out of DVDs to watch, and, apart from some clerical work which I’ve dutifully done, there’s nothing much else to occupy me. I still have the novel to read which the priestess recommended, but the only comfortable reading position in my house is at the fireside, and only when there’s a fire burning which won’t be for a few weeks yet. As for the TV, I’ve long realised that the TV is, by its very nature, implacably insistent on reflecting the culture in which we live. And since that culture is mostly pretty dumb, the vast majority of what comes out of the screen is also pretty dumb. I do occasionally watch the odd thirty seconds or so when I’m feeling masochistic, but tonight I’m only feeling pessimistic. So now you know.

Getting to Know Me.

Back in my early days as a photographer I thought of myself as being engaged in an artistic pursuit. The problem was that I never understood what made an artistic photograph. It was obvious that certain pictures had a lot more about them than the average snapshot, but I had no idea where the line should be drawn between ‘artistic’ and ‘not artistic.’ Take the following for example:

At the time I thought it said something about the contrast between the natural identity of the tree and the human artifice represented by the church. And I thought it said something about longevity and the nature of passing. And I thought that the relative weight and position given to the figure (of my then wife) made a statement about which element had the shortest span of all. Now I think it’s just a very average snapshot, as I’m sure most people would.

Several years later I was visiting a London publisher, having by then established myself as a landscape photographer whose job it was to illustrate books and magazines and suchlike. There was a woman waiting to be interviewed for a picture researcher’s position and we fell into conversation. It occurred to me that if she got the job, she might one day be useful and therefore worth cultivating. (How terrible is that? How opportunistic? How very businesslike! But I did, I’m sorry to say.) I said I’d wait for her and invited her to have coffee with me in some nearby establishment.

When we sat down she started asking me what I thought made a good illustrative photograph. I began my answer, and after about twenty minutes of non-stop talking I realised just how much I’d learned about the nature of illustrative landscape photography. It quite shocked me.

And then the penny dropped. The reason I’d never known what made an artistic photograph was the fact that I’d never been an artist. I was an illustrator, and a half decent one at that, but not an artist. And that, I think, was the beginning of the ascent into humility.

Cars and the Social Scale.

I was watching people getting in and out of their cars in a supermarket car park the other day and I imagined a universal musing going through their minds:

‘I can look down on him because his car is seven years older and a lot cheaper than mine. But I suppose I have to look up to him because he’s got an eighteen-month-old Audi A6.’

I doubt that people actually think that consciously, but I’m sure it’s there somewhere at the back of their minds. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of these days they’re going to start grading public car parks so that the spaces closest to the amenity will be reserved for the poshest cars, while the ones furthest away will be the only spaces available to the cheaper ones.

And I suppose the educational system is in large part responsible for it, because it seems to me that the main thrust of education these days is to pressure kids to aspire to reach number 11 or 12 on the 1-20 social scale, rather than having to settle for position 9 or 10. That’s what success is. It isn’t what I think it should be, which might run something along the lines of ‘being content with being who you are and being allowed to function according to how you’re wired.’ And it tends to overlook the futility of it all, because wherever you are on the social scale there will always be people above you.

And on that note, I read today that somebody in Hong Kong paid over £½m for a parking space (just one) in the parking lot of a swish domestic development. One local remarked that a new top-of-the-range Ferrari costs less than that. Quite, but I expect the proud owner of the 12 sq metres of expensive tarmac already has one of those.

I do hope that somebody in HK has a sense of humour and is prepared to wait until the rich guy goes out, whereupon they will park a 30-year-old Ford Escort (with rust patches and a broken tail light glass) in his hallowed space and then film his reaction when he comes back. I’m sure if they posted it to YouTube it would become very popular very quickly.

Finally, I’m reminded of that line from the Godley and Creme apocalyptic concept album, Consequences. The rich lawyer is bemoaning the difficulty he experienced getting to the meeting through storm force winds, and says:

‘Thank God for the Rolls, I say. Some of the cheaper cars were going backwards.’

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Anti-Stress Techniques.

Back in the early days of my obsession with photography I had a heavy raft of financial, career and emotional problems sitting on my plate. (Listing them would make tedious reading, so just take my word for it. They were bad and there were a lot of them.)

Some of them were my fault and some weren’t, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I refused to take anti-stress medication because big boys don’t do that sort of thing, and many was the night when sleep didn’t drop as easily on me as it did on the lucky old conformists out there. And so there was many a night when I would have to get up in the early hours and find something to do that would calm my mind. I had two favourites:

1. Go into the kitchen and clean everything – thoroughly.

2. Go into the studio and make an attempt to be creative. It usually involved spray-painted bottles and variable focus techniques for some reason. (You’d have to ask a dozen psychologists to explain my fixation with painted bottles and variable focus, and I expect you’d get a dozen different answers. I never bothered.)

Needless to say I never was creative in any meaningful sense, but it’s easy to believe in one’s creativity in circumstances like that. And so I did – at the time. Later, I had a couple of them printed up to remind me of happier days and the nature of delusion. This is one of them:

I got through. It only lasted about fifteen months until I sold the house and moved in with The Other Woman, and then there were more interesting things to do at night than clean kitchens or photograph painted bottles. For a while…

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Taking a Breath.

It’s been nearly three days since I made a post and that won’t do. Writing is as natural to me as breathing, and almost as necessary. So I need to write something, but what? Maybe I should explain, with essential brevity, why it’s been nearly three days since I made a post. It’s like this:

When your mental state constantly fluctuates between low anxiety and high anxiety, when every tomorrow is a day to be feared, writing becomes difficult. If I may resurrect the simile: Imagine how tiresome breathing would be if you had a leather strap fastened tightly around your chest so that your capacity for lung expansion was greatly reduced. That should explain it.

*  *  *

Maybe I might mention that I watched the movie Red Dragon tonight. (I realised that I’d seen it before, but I’d largely forgotten the detail so it still kept me amused for a couple of hours.) What surprised me was that they employed three British actors – feigning presumably acceptable America accents – in three of the leading roles. I wondered why they didn’t just use three American actors. I have to say, however – and I do apologise for having to say it – that Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Watson acted everybody else off the screen. But then they did have the most interesting parts.

*  *  *

So now let me think whether there’s anything to say about my shopping trip to Ashbourne. OK:

1. I sometimes see a little scrufty dog tied to a dog bar outside a store with his much bigger lurcher friend. He always barks aggressively at me and gets a wide birth in consequence. Today he leapt at me, thrusting his front paws against my thigh, and the purpose of his barking became more transparent. I realised that it meant: ‘Will you please stroke me like you do my big friend? Please?’ And so I did, and he seemed very happy with the attention.

2. I passed the Lady B’s mother and sister in the street and we exchanged a greeting. (I think it was cordial.) Few of the restricted thrills available in Ashbourne afford more pleasure than exchanging a greeting with the Lady B’s mother and sister.

3. A young woman shop assistant who addressed my query showed distinct signs of nervousness – the hurried speech, the anxious smile, the eyes seeking approbation, the hint of a flush in the cheeks, the sense that she was about to perspire slightly… That was very odd. It’s not as though she was uncertain of her ground because she’s worked there for years and was perfectly at ease with the information. And I’m sure there isn’t anything remotely intimidating about me, so maybe it was the frown that I’m told I wear even when I don’t mean to. Maybe that was it. I sometimes wish I didn’t notice such things. I’m sure life would be less confusing.

*  *  *

I just had a spinach and mayo sandwich on stoneground wholemeal bread. If that isn’t a sign of refined taste, I don’t know what is.

*  *  *

And I wrote something. Hooray. Maybe tonight I’ll remember to pull the shower curtain across before I turn on the shower. A few nights ago I was too absent minded and forgot, and the resultant pool of water on the rug has only just dried.

Monday, 24 October 2016

My Favourite Ghosts.

Monks. Monks have always been my favourite ghosts. More mysterious than grey ladies, more believable than headless horsemen, more subtle than Japanese women with unkempt black hair climbing out of TV sets, they are the supreme exponents of the haunting art.

You must admit that while monks with bald heads (OK, ‘tonsures’ if you must expect me to declare a modicum of erudition) hoeing the fields are pretty nondescript, monks with their heads covered and their faces hidden are already a bit other-worldly, so seeing one standing in your garden just as you’re about to go to bed, or walking through a quiet autumnal wood while the birds fall silent, is doubly so.

That’s why I find the final scene of The Masque of the Red Death, in which a red-robed monk complete with capacious cowl is talking to a little girl, so memorable. And it’s why my novel begins with young Brendan Bradshaw meeting a hooded figure in his local wood on a still day in November.

Only he isn’t actually a ghost as such. He’s more mysterious than that. Mmm…

The Witching Eve Approacheth.

There’s a Halloween event planned at the village pub next Saturday. I don’t usually go to evening events at the pub these days because pub beer is expensive and my alcohol tolerance is low at that time of day (and I couldn’t possibly countenance going into a pub without having a couple of pints. My publican ancestors would turn in their graves, especially at Halloween.)

But maybe I should go to this one. Maybe I should muscle in on the biggest of the groups and spot the right moment to break in. Would you like to hear an interesting story? I might ask. Of course they would; what would Halloween be without an interesting story? They’ll be all ears. When they're sitting - or standing - comfortably, I'll begin:

It happened at another Halloween party, at a pub in another village where I lived some years ago, I might begin. Some people came wearing fancy dress – the usual stuff, you know: witches with pointy hats and plastic broomsticks, men with devils’ horns, teenage girls with white faces and red-rimmed eyes, lots of fake blood…

Shortly before midnight – the pub had a late licence that night – a figure walked in wearing a monk’s habit, a black one. The cowl was voluminous to say the least, and the wearer kept his head down so no one could see his face. He (everybody assumed it was a man because monks always are) walked among the drinkers without actually touching anybody. All eyes were on him as you would expect; people were smiling and making guesses as to who it was, especially since he was quite short – around 5ft 5 was one person’s guess.

‘Declare yourself,’ I heard somebody call out. ‘Come on, mate, let’s see the whites of your eyes,’ said another. The figure ignored them both, but walked over to the corner of the bar and sat on the floor, his head still bowed.

‘We’ll soon get to the bottom of this,’ snorted a heavily built young farmer. He strode over to the sitting figure and unceremoniously pulled back the cowl, at which point the costume sank to the floor, empty.

The gasps of amazement were soon replaced by titters, and a general consensus was held that it had all been some clever magic trick performed by an expert illusionist and paid for by the landlord. The landlord, however, who hadn’t been in the bar at the time to witness the event, strenuously denied that it had anything to do with him. And in all the years I lived there, nobody else ever owned up to it either.

The audience will smile indulgently and claim that I made it all up.

‘You don’t expect us to believe it,’ one of them will no doubt say.

‘It’s of no consequence to me whether you believe it or not,’ I expect I’ll reply.

‘But it’s not true, though, is it?’

‘That’s for you to decide.’

But a little later, a nervous woman who resembles a bird and is gaining in years will sidle up to me and ask:

‘That wasn’t true, was it? Please say it wasn’t. I have to walk home alone, you see.’

And then I’ll have to decide whether to be kind or not.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

On Choice and the Hour Glass.

It seems to me that modern times fail to prepare us for the inevitability of ageing because one of the primary bywords of the age is ‘choice.’

We’re obsessed with choice these days, and we have so much of it. We no longer have to go to a cinema at the appointed time to watch whatever film they’ve got on offer. We no longer have to be sitting in front of the TV set at 9pm on a Wednesday night because that’s when a favourite programme is on and we’ll miss it if we’re not in position. We no longer have to go to our bedroom to listen to a favourite piece of music because that’s where the audio system is. We no longer have to wait until we get home to make a phone call because there isn’t a phone box nearby. Now we have DVDs and Netflix and mobile audio devices and mobile phones and YouTube…

We’ve grown used to having freedom of choice in so many ways, but ageing doesn’t give us a choice. The river of our life runs on uninterrupted and uninterruptable until the cataract is reached and we topple over into oblivion or whatever the next stage is. And modern times are gradually conditioning us away from accepting the inevitable.

I for one feel frustrated that I can’t be whatever age I want to be. It seems almost natural to me to be a teenager one day, experiencing the first flushes of all those things that become available at that age, and an 80-year-old the next experiencing whatever 80-year-olds experience. Why can’t that be? Why don’t I get a choice? It feels wrong.

Such frustration is not, however, a modern phenomenon. Shakespeare presumably alluded to it when he wrote:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death…

But if Macbeth could utter that sentiment in the early 17th century, how much worse is it for us today?

*  *  *

Meanwhile, here's a picture of me at about the age I would choose to be most days. Do note the commendably minimalist approach and the presence of the Laughing Monk who is currently sitting behind me as I type. Stylish, isn't it?

And on the subject of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, tomorrow I have to receive a visitor who will pollute my hallowed space and delay my beer-buying trip. I have no choice in the matter, and back we go to the beginning.

Well Targeted Ads.

Here’s a hoot. I watch a lot of Chinese stuff on YouTube, and now most of the adverts I get are in Chinese.

I like that. Adverts written in a language I neither speak nor read are less insulting than the ones written in English.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

A Probably Pointless Film Review.

I watched this tonight. Don’t ask why; I could explain, but I can’t be bothered. I just did.

It disappointed. I was hoping it would carry the same superficially entertaining appeal as The Da Vinci Code, but it didn’t. Unlike most of the latter film’s detractors, I actually found the film of The Da Vinci Code more enjoyable than the book, largely because Dan Brown’s writing style is so damned amateurish. (He structures cleverly, but he writes like a 10-year-old.) I assume that’s why I found the film uplifting but the novel at best amusing scoff fodder. And I noticed that they used the same progressive musical motif – which is uplifting – in both films. It worked in The Da Vinci Code; it didn’t work in Angels and Demons (but credit to Hans Zimmer who really does know how to write splendid film music.)

My recommendation, therefore, would be: Don’t bother, not unless you’d be satisfied with seeing:

1. Tom Hanks doing some decent eye and voice acting. He’s a bit old for the gung-ho stuff now (he doesn’t run quite as convincingly as he used to) but his eyes and voice still carry some weight.

2. Ayelet Zurer being splendidly sexy in a sultry Italian sort of way. I admit, I couldn’t help pining for a cameo appearance from the incomparable Audrey Tautou, but you can’t have everything.

3. Stellan Skarsgård commanding every scene he’s in, as he usually does. I’m a bit of a fan of Stellan Skarsgård.

If they’re enough, OK.

But I suppose I have to make a confession here. I suppose the reason I found The Da Vinci Code uplifting was because it was about establishing a woman’s right to equal billing in the development of a spiritual tradition. That affords the message a hint of the pagan, which appeals to me. Angels and Demons, on the other hand, is all about establishing the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is really just a bunch of well-meaning nice guys after all. I’m more with Father Ted on that one. But I accept that any Catholics in the audience will probably have an opposite view to mine.

And there’s another factor which should be taken into consideration. It should be remembered that the plot of The Da Vinci Code was lifted in large part from the earlier nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I know that Dan Brown was victorious in the plagiarism litigation, but it doesn’t alter the fact of the matter, does it? He had (as far as I know) no such guide with Angels and Demons.

Finally, I expect everybody else in the world has already seen Angels and Demons because I have a long history of being the last person to watch anything, so I suppose none of the above was worth writing.

The Geese Conundrum.

The geese were flying north today. Why were the geese flying north?

The migratory geese are supposed to be coming down from the Arctic Circle at this time of year, so why is it that every autumn I see them flying north?

What’s going on here? Are the experts lying to me? Have I been transported to a parallel universe where the polarities are reversed? Is the matrix cracking up?

Answers on a postcard.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Passage of Time.

I watched a TV drama tonight in which there was a scene which showed a woman eagerly awaiting the arrival of her lover, and when she heard a car coming up the drive to her house she smiled gleefully. It occurred to me that there isn’t a woman on earth who would feel that way if it were my car coming up her drive.

I felt a little chastened, but maybe I shouldn’t. Relationships of that sort were always white knuckle rides with airy pinnacles and dark subterranean caverns. It comes with the territory when you have the instinct of a rake, the personality of a romantic, and the mind of a Romantic idealist. Together they make a troublesome combination and condemn you to perpetual failure in almost everything except the gaining of experience.

You can grow quite used to being routinely glum, you know; you can even come to terms with having your advice more sought after than your company. Being needed more than wanted has an appeal of sorts, and the G forces encountered in rapid ascents and sudden plunges can be such a drain on the system.

Today's Unfair Comparison.

Today, 21st October, is notable in Britain for being the anniversary of two significant events.

On this day in 1966, a slag heap in the mining village of Aberfan, South Wales, became saturated and collapsed. It slid over the local school and smothered it, killing 116 children and 18 adults. The nation was shocked, but the response of the government was less than gracious. Demands by the local people to have the rest of the slag heaps made safe were resisted, and when public opinion obliged the government to act, they forcibly took part of the cost from the voluntarily-funded Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund. The blame for the disaster was placed fairly and squarely at the feet of the national body which administered the coal industry. The National Coal Board and its Chairman were decisively deemed to have been grossly negligent in their attitude to health and safety.

On 21st October 1805, Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson was killed during the British naval victory over a combined French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, and the nation mourned for the loss of its hero and darling. He was afforded a lavish funeral followed by interment at St Paul’s Cathedral, at which some members of the Royal Family insisted on being present despite the fact that it was against the protocol of the time. It should be said that Nelson displayed great courage, tactical brilliance and devotion to duty, but it might also be mentioned that he was soundly condemned during his career for being instrumental in the committing of atrocities at Naples. There was a dubious side to Horatio, whatever his value to the security of the nation.

So is it fair to compare and contrast these two events? I don’t suppose it is, not unless you happen to be musing on the relative significance apportioned to the matter of untimely death by a nation’s Establishment.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Value in Small Packages.

Once upon a time there was a man called Peter Cheeseman CBE. He founded the theatre where I used to work, and ran it for many years as Theatre Director. Most people respected him and some revered him, while a few thought him an overly idealistic martinet. I was one of those who respected him; I even liked him most of the time.

When the time came for him to retire, an elaborate leaving ceremony was held. It was staged in two parts, the first part in the auditorium with an invited audience, and the second – a dramatic fire ceremony – in the building’s capacious grounds. I was on front-of-house duty that night and my contribution to the proceedings was to ensure unobstructed passage from one location to the other. Because I was working blind, it required radio contact and some careful timing to get the opening of several doors just right.

It worked perfectly, and when the entourage had passed out into the night air, the Front-of-House manager, whose job it had been to co-ordinate the whole enterprise, came over to me. She was the extraordinary Judy Bowker who has received honourable mention on this blog before, and whose open-hearted generosity, intelligence and lightness of spirit made her a legend among those who knew her. She wrapped her arm around my elbow, took my upper arm with her free hand, pulled me towards her and said: ‘Thanks, Jeff.’

It doesn’t sound much, does it, and yet it was a supremely special moment which will ride high in my consciousness always. It was one of those occasions when the God of Small Things shows Its beneficence and makes the lowest of light glow a little bit brighter.

And so I come back to an old theme of mine – how important the little things are when compared with the big and showy ones because they reveal the abstract which lies at the heart of the human experience. I mean, who on earth should want to become the President of America or the tyrant at the head of a business empire? Such an aspiration leads only to the massaging of a power-seduced ego. Having the God of Small Things take your arm and say ‘Thanks, Jeff’ makes your soul grow just a little more substantial.

The Potential for Crooked.

I see that Donald is throwing egg in his own face again by refusing to accept that the election system won’t be rigged. Naturally, everybody is throwing their hands up in horror, and it goes without saying that Donald will only make such a claim if he loses.

But let’s not forget that this isn’t a new issue. After GW Bush won his second term, the whole world believed the election was rigged. And let’s not be too naïve; where power of that magnitude is involved, nothing is impossible.

Admitting My Failure.

I first saw this picture on a YouTube video and it sparked a reaction, and then I found it on Google Images.

So should I apologise for posting it? I suppose I’d better, so here goes:

Sorry for being such a sucker when it comes to kids. Sorry for being so held in thrall by their simple honesty of heart, mind and expression. Sorry for hating an educational system which seeks to deprive children of their childhood, and which instead wants to fast-track them into becoming nakedly ambitious, self-serving, guarded, emotionally reticent, acquisitive, judgemental, egotistical, prejudiced, irrational, insanely competitive, and mostly seduced by the lower mind in order to fit the exigencies of politicians, corporations and the media. Sorry for my inability to like and respect those who run the world and the majority of adults who’ve forgotten the more virtuous values of childhood. My apologies.

But thank heaven for the few exceptions who didn’t play the game. I know you’re out there.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


According to Blogger Stats, these jottings of mine get visits from all the far-flung corners of the globe – from Singapore to Seattle, from Beijing to Buenos Aires.

I often wonder why, and I often wonder whether to believe it. But let’s suppose it’s true. In that case, I’m then tempted to wonder what people to whom English is a foreign language make of the various writing styles I use. (Do they appreciate, for example, the nuances and mood variations thus implied?) And after that, I wonder what they make of me. Oddly, the former matters much more to me than the latter. I don't worry unduly about my reputation except when it serves some useful purpose.

But today I made a new friend in Sainsbury’s, and together we helped the lady with the foreign accent find the Eccles cakes. You wouldn’t think that somebody with a foreign accent would ever have heard of Eccles cakes, would you? Maybe she’d become a fan of The Goon Show and thought they’d be a passport to laughter. She did seem a little nonplussed when I expressed a preference for Chorley cakes.

Anyway, the new friend and I discussed our shared vegetarian tendency, and when we parted she said ‘It was nice talking to you.’ Was it? I wonder. I trust so little these days.

*  *  *

I’ve been having difficulty finding subject matter for the blog recently. I wonder whether anybody has noticed.

Coming Down to Earth.

I found an ad I like on YouTube. Fancy that. It’s this one:

Obviously, it isn’t the wares the ad is peddling that interest me. I don’t even know for sure what they are, since I neither speak nor read any Chinese language. It’s the woman and the story she evokes.

There you are, depressed as hell and languishing in a seedy backstreet bar in downtown Shanghai, drinking yourself to oblivion and pining for Hilda Moriarty (see earlier post), when this vision of whatever China has to offer by way of heaven comes and sits next to you.

‘Is it a woman who is troubling you?’ she asks.

You look back at her through misted but appreciative eyes.

‘You’re very perceptive,’ you reply, held in thrall by the enigmatic gaze that makes your brain vibrate, your legs quiver ever so slightly, and your breathing adjust itself to the earthy sound of a wailing erhu coming from somewhere behind an unseen curtain. She continues:

‘Of course I’m perceptive. My ancestry goes back to a princess of the Tang dynasty, so making a man happy is in my blood. I could make you happy tonight, if you like.’

The prospect of bliss beckons and you move closer and closer to submission. But the closer you get, the louder chimes a little bell. Before long you recognise the tell tale tinkle of a cash register and realise that you have only £10 worth of traveller’s cheques left. You feel the sudden tug of a lead weight on your leg (the left one) and gradually sink back to the reality of terra firma.

‘Thanks all the same,’ you offer by way of apology, and continue the slide into oblivion.

*  *  *

It's late, and the bottle is emptying faster than usual.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Dog and Its Boy

I saw a trio of beings coming down the lane from the school this afternoon. It consisted of a middle aged man, a young boy – probably his grandson – and a soft-eyed Labrador dog. When I smiled at the dog, the little boy smiled back and I thought I detected a hint of pride in his look. The dog continued to wag its tail and look soft. The middle aged man maintained his sour expression.

It occurred to me that all children should have a good dog for a companion. Good dogs have such good values, and are probably a far better influence on the impressionable young mind than a good many adult humans.

Monday, 17 October 2016

A Muse on Things Unfinished.

My life has been a catalogue of aspirations that reached a certain level and then were snatched away by forces or circumstances beyond my control. Mostly I dealt with it well enough, accepting for the most part that what can’t be changed shouldn’t be dwelt on, and that once something has gone it’s gone. I’m not the type to look back in anger either, because I seem to lack the capacity for entrenched bitterness. I admit that I do sometimes wander nostalgically among the headstones of dead adventures, but I don’t try to reanimate something from which the life force has clearly flown.

But a few aspirations are different. They’re the rosebuds in stasis which sit on the branch unopened as the garden around them waxes and wanes. As such they become objects of curiosity and nagging frustration. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year they sit there, inviting the eye to will them to open. And so it does, but still they hold their place, unrepentant and unyielding.

And then the mind begins to suspect that the bud is only a pristine husk; inside it is nothing but the browning detritus of a long-decayed flower-in-waiting. Eventually, even the eye begins to doubt the evidence of its own faculty. Maybe the husk itself is just a mirage, persistence of vision made manifest by a sense of something unfulfilled. Sometimes the rosebud vanishes at that point, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Highland Travelogue.

Some people like to go to the Mediterranean hotspots for their holidays – Spain mostly – where they can indulge their passion for emulating chimpanzees to the sound of several men in sub-Disney costumes performing Torremolinos, Torremolinos with great depth of feeling. I’m more the sort to bury myself deep in the heart of the Scottish Highlands and play Scrabble in the sunshine after dinner. I think it suited Penny le Pooch better, too.

We were buried deep in the heart of McCrae country to be more precise, just over the water from the Isle of Skye, and here’s a picture of the heart of McCrae country.

And here – yet again for the sake of passing American archaeologists who are temporarily absent but far from forgotten – is a picture of the McCrae graveyard. One might be tempted to wonder whether the local roofing specialists were away on holiday in England at the time (or even Torremolinos.)

Finally, to end on a specifically personal note, this is me in the heart of said country calling on my vast nautical experience to demonstrate that I know what boats are for.

Drink and the Soul Equation.

People sometimes ask me: ‘What the hell do you do when you’re up into the early hours of the morning?’

Well, mostly I listen to meaningful music, and if I can’t think of anything to write to the blog, I write emails to meaningful people instead. The big problem in the early hours is convincing myself that I don’t really want another piece of hot buttered toast, even though I really, really do. The problem with food, you see, is that it costs money and makes you fat, and if I’m going to spend money and get fat, I might as well drink instead and go to sleep quicker. Besides, unconventional though the opinion might be, I’m convinced that drink is better for the soul than food is. The argument goes like this:

Drink + Imagination + Music (optional) = Mental Exploration + Insights (which might or might not be false or fanciful, but it’s rarely provable either way.)

Ergo: Drink plus imagination plus music exercises and expands the consciousness, and if we accept the proposition that consciousness is effectively synonymous with the soul – which I think quite likely – there you are. Point made.

(I seem to be losing weight, which either validates my point or doesn’t depending on how you choose to see it.)

It isn’t half as depressing as it sounds, really it isn’t. I will admit, however, that the emails to meaningful people sometimes precipitate a little embarrassment the next day, but even those closest to me think I’m a fruitcake anyway so what does it matter?

A Lifelong Influence.

When I was a kid, my mother told me about the ghost which used to chase her down the street when she was a girl. The ghost’s name was Ginny Green Teeth. Isn’t that a splendid name for a ghost? I gather she was a bit of an urban legend in the area.

And then there was the ghost of her long-deceased brother which she saw sitting on the end of her bed one morning, and the old man she saw sitting in an armchair when she was on her way out to work, and the ghost of my dead stepfather who used to watch her from an upstairs window when she was in the garden. And what about the little figure she saw leap off the end of her bed and disappear into a mirror? What about that?

It isn’t surprising I grew up a bit odd, is it?

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Knowing the Song Too Well.

Something happened today which stung a bit. I won’t go into detail except to mention that it brought to mind a song I posted on this blog several years ago (and which I frequently used to sing to amuse the little people while walking along Mill Lane after nightfall.)

Raglan Road is a classic Irish folk ballad, being a musical setting of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem of the same name and covered by many singers down the years. (And I gather it’s based on a true story; the woman’s name was Hilda Moriarty, apparently.) The Luke Kelly version is generally considered definitive, which is why it’s the version posted here.

As a poem, I don’t think it’s up there with the best. Too many lines are inelegant and too many expressions naïve. As a song, however, it works very nicely if you accept it for what it is and don’t expect a Puccini aria.

What surprises me, though, is that it was only today that I realised how close this song is to a personal experience. I know this song. It happened to me almost as told, so it means rather more to me than most songs do. There are, however, a few differences:

1. Unlike the first person protagonist, I’m not bitter.

2. Also unlike the protagonist, I claim no angelic status.

3. And unlike the object of the protagonist’s regard, the object of my regard had nothing clay-like about her.

But of course, the references to an ‘angel’ and ‘a creature made of clay’ are metaphorical, as you would expect of a poem. If you understand the metaphor as I understand it, there might be some parity. Although on the surface it appears to demean the object of regard, actually it doesn’t. Which is just as well because the object of my regard was simply the most beautiful woman I ever met.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Means by Which the Soul Flies.

I sometimes become irritated with people who feel the need to analyze music using technical terms and contrived arguments. I find the whiff of ego and artifice displeasing (which might be my loss, of course.)

I don’t mind people analyzing lyrics – I’ve done it myself often enough. Lyrics are just words, and words are things that have both their source and destination in the mind. Music – at least ‘proper’ music – is different; music is launched from somewhere more rarefied than the mind, I think, somewhere perhaps connected with that mysterious faculty called consciousness. I think it more than mere coincidence that in some versions of spiritual doctrine, consciousness is effectively synonymous with the soul. And as it takes off, so does it land.

But, you might argue, surely a competent musicologist can reasonably and convincingly analyze the structure of a symphony or even a phrase within it. Of course, but surely the structure, however brilliant it might be, is ultimately only the framework on which the real essence is hung. The real essence is surely something else.

And so music to me is a giant bird from the realm of magic on whose back you climb, thence to be carried to places where only consciousness can go. And when the journey is done, you return neither better nor worse for the experience, no more knowledgeable but perhaps a little more knowing. Why try to analyze what functions beyond reason?

My Criminal Past...

... or 'How Poverty Led Me Into Crime and Made Me Cleverer.'

I was either nine or ten at the time, and I was the biscuit monitor at my primary school. So what is, or rather was, a biscuit monitor? Well, it’s like this.

At that time, every child in Britain was given a small bottle of free milk at morning break. I gather it was to stop us getting rickets or something. (Mrs Thatcher later put a stop to it, as Mrs Thatcher put a stop to just about everything which had a whiff of altruism about it.) And along with the milk we were offered a selection of biscuits (two as I recall – malted milk with a cow embossed on them, and a wrapped, chocolate-covered confection called, if I remember correctly, Choc-a-Doodles. They had a cartoon cockerel on the wrapper, just to explain the otherwise arcane nature of the humorous name. Maybe they should have been called Choc-a-Doodle-Dos, but I expect the wrapper wasn’t big enough.)

Anyway, the biscuits weren’t free; they had to be paid for at a nominal price, and one child was selected to take charge of the biscuit box and sell the comestibles. That was me.

Problem: I didn’t get enough pocket money to afford such luxuries as biscuits at morning break time, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that I felt some slight sting of deprivation and injustice when I saw the other kids freely producing their pennies and munching happily on the sweet reward. So what did I do? I decided that as there were no teachers around while the biscuits were being dispensed, I’d simply help myself to one every now and then (probably every day, if I’m to be belatedly honest.)

Second problem: Nobody had explained to me that there was such a thing as stocktaking or how it worked. I had no idea that there would be a weasly teacher somewhere counting the stock and counting the money and putting the figures together and discovering that two and two make three. Which they don’t, and which is why I was stopped one day and told to empty my pockets. I hadn’t eaten the Choc-a-Doodle that day; it was in my pocket… Damn! I was told that I would be seen by the headmaster in his office later.

And so it came to pass, only the headmaster wasn’t alone in his office; my mother was there, too. She was sitting in a chair, sobbing.

‘You black-hearted little villain,’ intoned the headmaster. ‘Look what your depraved and dastardly deed has done to your poor mother. It has heaped upon her such disgrace and distress as the day would quake to look on, and she such a fine, upstanding woman who deserves better than your wretched little self is capable of giving her. I hope you are truly ashamed.’

Or words to that effect.

‘But she isn’t upstanding, sir,’ I replied. ‘She’s sitting down.’

(No I didn’t. I made that bit up because I just realised it’s what I should have said.)

I must admit, I did feel ashamed, although mostly because it seemed the right thing to feel in the circumstances. I didn’t really understand why my mother should have been so upset. She hadn’t stolen anything, had she, so what was her problem? Still, at least I wasn't consigned to a life of toil and turmoil in a penal colony in New South Wales, as my sheep-stealing peasant forebears had been.

So did it cure me of stealing? More or less, but mostly it taught me that if I were going to do something against the rules, or the regulations, or the law, or whatever, I would need to be more circumspect. I would need to consider all the ways that my action might be found out and proceed accordingly, and to work out a variety of means by which I might wriggle out of retribution should I be discovered. And it’s mostly worked.

On Silence and My Leader.

I think I mentioned once before on this blog that I seem able to perceive two levels of silence. Simple silence is an entirely passive phenomenon, being merely the absence of sound. The other sort – let’s call it ‘profound silence’ – is something more palpable and energetic that settles on you and makes your skin tingle.

So is this right? Are there really different levels of silence, or merely different states of perception which vary with mood? The latter would seem to be the obvious answer, but it’s too mundane to convince me. Besides, I remember once watching a documentary in which some logician argued that there are three levels of zero (I think he called them something like zero, deep zero and absolute zero.)

What I don’t remember is the logic he used. Whether that’s because I don’t have sufficient intelligence to fathom the logic of a professional logician, or whether it’s because my favourite maxim is ‘perception is the whole of the life experience’, I don’t know. The problem with holding to such a maxim is that it makes logic seem much less important.

Of course, this capacity I have to merely hear one sort of silence while feeling the other might indicate something else about me, the most obvious possibilities being:

1. I’m not human.

2. I really am schizoid.

I think option 1 is by far the more likely.

*  *  *

By the way, I just saw a short video clip in which a CNN journalist referred to the President of the USA as ‘the President of the Free World.’ Isn’t that just a bit… erm… arrogant? Is that what Americans really think? If so, could you please tell me where I should go to vote in November? And when I get to the voting booth, will there be somebody in attendance who can explain to me exactly what ‘the free world’ means?