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Friday, 8 December 2017

A small life on the outside

I remember, as a boy of fourteen or so, standing on a traffic island in the middle of a busy road in Liverpool.Traffic thundered by in every direction, the air heavy in petrol fumes, heavy in direction and purpose. I had purpose, too. I wanted to get home but beyond that—nothing. The future was a grey immensity, and I remember standing there, thinking on it and feeling suddenly terrified. What happened to you when you left school at fifteen, unqualified, unskilled and no real purpose in life? I didn’t know, and at that moment, I didn’t want to step off the roundabout.

It’s a feeling I’ve never forgot, and every so often I return to the memory with a sense of great gratitude, the realisation that life is full of strange and unexpected paths, and that I explored as many as I could – not out of courage. I have none; more the fear of missing out.

It's quite a small life in the great scale of things, but hugely enjoyed. And when all's said and done, a life is much like a Tardis.

And in the words of a great sage:

But until then we just carry on


Saturday, 2 December 2017

Food for thought

Josephine Tey wrote a fine book called The Daughter of Time. It focuses on a Scotland Yard Inspector - Alan Grant, injured and bored out of his mind in a hospital bed. Then a friend introduces him to the mystery of Richard III and the disappearance of the ‘two princes in the tower.’ It’s a wonderful historical ‘who-dunnit’ and I’d recommend it to anyone. 

I was put in mind of it halfway through ‘LovingVincent,’ which has had mixed reviews. The story is told through the medium of his paintings and portraits, animated and spoken through actors. Some have found it visually unsettling, others thought it lacked emotional depth in the same way a cartoon might. I thoroughly enjoyed it both as a visual spectacle and for introducing me to the mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s death. It was an adroitly told ‘whodunnit’ which left more questions than answers and, as I said, put me in mind of a now largely forgotten book.  

Before I move on to another event, I’d urge with the zeal of . . . a zealot to google Van Gogh quotes. For me they were an eye-opener – another unexpected bonus of the film. Two in particular apply particularly well to the writer:

"Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don't know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can't do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can't' once and for all.”
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, October 1884)

And in another letter, another useful tip especially for those who deal in words.

Exaggerate the essential, leave the obvious vague

The second event of an action packed week was a concert in the Newport Centre featuring Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott. I don’t know about a ‘starry starry night’ but this was a bloody freezing night.

 Even before they came on stage I was forcibly reminded of two tips I should never have forgotten. 1) Bring a hip flask with you. The beer was overpriced and the queues immense. 2) The seats are booked so for God’s sake only arrive when the act you’ve paid to see come on to the stage. The support act is usually a waste of time. In this case it was a Philadelphian band called ‘Son Little.’ (the singer) 

They ambled on stage like disconsolate factory hands starting a nightshift. The drummer went bang bang bang. The two guitars went ‘thrum thrum thrum’ and the singer shouted. Pretty basic stuff.
And then Heaton and Abbot took to the stage and the magic began. And I confess now, I wasn’t a particularly devoted fan. That is my wife’s privilege. But the artistry, professionalism and sheer stage presence won me over: sharp lyrics, harmonic chemistry and the ability to work a crowd from years of experience followed by three encores. I remarked afterwards they must have left the stage on a high, buoyed on a wave of gratification. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime.

A selection of videos and some very nice ‘Dad Dancing’

So, a book, a film, and Paul Heatonand Jacqui Abbott’s latest album all recommended

Saturday, 25 November 2017

It's not a pretty sight

I think I was born judgemental, coming out of the womb in horsehair wig and red robes, a tiny gavel to hand. I imagine I had view on the quality of the placenta, my mother’s milk. I certainly had views on codliver oil and National Milk powder that came in blue and white tins. A Catholic education fed the urge to judge even more. The nuns were ferocious and unbending, and we learned the script quickly. Marxism was another layer, another script, another worldview. Then there was teaching and the never-ending supply of weird and wonderful minds.Unfortunately teaching involved grading, making judgements based on attendance records, ‘personal qualities’ and academic achievement. The judging continued via staffroom gossip and the subliminal drive for consensus.

I think it was teaching—not the fabled summer of ‘peace and love’ that passed me by in a blip—which undermined certainty and the desire to judge others. After ten years of ‘judging’ I’d had enough, and I had another twenty or so years to go. 

The habit though is hard to resist and I still cringe at how I once judged a middle aged Dutch couple who invited me to dinner in Queens. I found them boring and failed to appreciate their generosity—certainly with sufficient warmth—though now of course I’m judging myself. Judgmentalism is  indiscriminate. It strikes where it can.

Judging has a more benign twin: ‘sizing up.’ In fact ‘sizing up’ the stranger is an essential life skill, especially in Liverpool where it’s taught in the womb.

Explaining the difference between ‘sizing up’ and ‘judging’ is relatively easy. A few days ago I passed a man, well into his middle age, walking arm in arm with an attractive Filipino woman. ‘Sizing up’ conjured up various scenarios/explanations—a habit with me. I do it everyday on the keyboard. Sizing up possibilities is relatively neutral. It becomes judgmental when you focus on one and vent an opinion—whether it be ‘Good on you, mate’ or ‘you should be ashamed of yourself.’

I have yet to achieve the serenity of Buddha or the kindness of Christ. Politicians remain fair game along with celebrities and pundits pissed on ego juice. There are times when I spit with rage. I try to be alone on such occasions. It’s not a pretty sight.

Friday, 17 November 2017

A Day In A Life

This is one of my quieter fantasies lacking only one thing: the sea bashing against a mullioned window as the storm grows more fierce. Not likely to happen in the Cotswolds, though I thought I detected the murmuring of sheep. A pleasant twenty or so minutes passed with a pint of Hobgoblin followed by a pint of premium German lager, Warsteiner, I think. It doesn’t get much better but then I am easily contented.

The beer is on its way

Fire and a Hobgoblin

Fire and a lager

Good things only last forever in Heaven and fires only in Hell. This fire crumbled into greyness and my legs began to feel cold and still no sea lashing the window.

Salvation came in the form of a man in an elegant and beautifully cut suit. He squatted nimbly and crushed newspaper into loose balls. These he shoved beneath the grill holding the fire. Next, with some dexterity and grace, he arranged kindling wood in the form of a wigwam on top of the grill immediately above the paper. Finally and with the flourish of an artist enjoying his job, he placed three small logs on each side of the wigwam. The lighter appeared from nowhere. The man was a magician. In seconds the paper was alight, shooting flames through the grill and catching the kindling. I almost felt impelled to stand and applaud but instead stayed where I was and moved my legs closer to the fire. A third pint would have been nice, but there were things to do, people to see. Besides, we were staying the night and there would be other fires and more pints. For those curious, it was the Slaughter's Country Inn.

If only the Murenger had a fire.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Stroking Statues

I have seen some funny things in life but Adam takes the biscuit. It’s an Epstein sculpture, carved from alabaster in 1938/39 and, not surprisingly perhaps, found it difficult to find a buyer, or indeed anyone willing to exhibit it. Then again, World War 11 was just around the corner. It did at last find a home . . . in a travelling fair as a ‘freak object’ before being sold to Madame Tussauds. It says something for the taste and discernment of the 7th Earl of Harewood who bought it in 1961. Fifteen years later the Entrance Hall was strengthened and since 1976 the statue is the first thing you see as you enter the house.

My first thought on seeing it was profound gratitude that God not Jacob Epstein had designed man. Having said that, it is immensely tactile, and I found my hand straying in unexpected places. Epstein did eventually get the hang of things, if you pardon the expression, as the 18foot high bronze statue adorning an iconic Liverpool Department store illustrates.



 Sometimes known as the ‘Big Man’ or ‘Nobby Lewis’, sometimes ‘Dickie Lewis,’ it stands on a plinth like the prow of a ship overhanging the main entrance. Its left hand is stretched out and his right arm raised as calling or signalling and symbolises Liverpool’s resurgence after the war. It's primary function though was as a meeting place for friends or perhaps girls. 'See you under the Big Man.' 

But back to Adam. I’d had my fill of stroking it and so wandered off in search of something more orthodox. This looks promising, I thought. It was a statue on a plinth and from the back looked as though   it brandished something worthwhile.

 I went to investigate and discovered an important truth. It’s decidedly okay to stroke something that bears only the slightest resemblance to anything human. Less so for something more specifically so. Besides, I couldn't reach. 

 My final thoughts were that statues end up in some very weird places. Adam, after a chequered career ended up in Harewood House. Nobby Lewis, another Epstein statue ends up fronting a derelict Department store. I think, though, the one on terrace has the best view of all.

By John Bradley - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6520483