Out Now!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

And yes, I love Anthony Trollope

Dylan Thomas country

It’s strange what lodges in the mind. One of the happiest periods in my life is encapsulated in just four things: a flat in Uplands with the window open, a sunny day, Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and me lying on the bed reading W. H. Ainsworth’s ‘Rookwood’. It helped that there was a pub nearby, an Indian restaurant, and the cafĂ© where I played chess with Sally Percival.

The road to this glimpse of Nirvana had some twists and turns. I’d wanted to go for an MA but failed to get a grant. In a fit of madness I applied to McGill University in Montreal, and in an equal fit of madness they offered me a place with a full grant. It was, unfortunately, a door too far. We were too poor as a family to afford the plane-fare along with other sundry expenses. I remember talking on the phone to an earnest and very friendly Canadian voice, exhorting me to come, but we were flat stony broke and so I said no. It’s perverse to feel regret because I’ve acquired what makes me happy on a different path, but part of me feels regret, the greedy part that would like to open every door simultaneously.

The problem was what to do? I’d never expected to get to University in the first place, never mind get a degree, but what to do with it? I pondered two options: University librarianship or teaching. The former appealed to the scholar in me…the latter, well it didn’t really appeal at all except in one respect. I’m a solitary animal with the social skills of a bear in hibernation. Skulking in the stacks of a University library posed the danger of reinforcing those traits. Teaching on the other hand offered the possibility of developing what I didn’t naturally possess, an extrovert nature.

I was pondering such things on a train to Swansea after an interview at Liverpool University library. It was then that God or the Devil intervened. A materialist would say it was momentary madness and a low afternoon sun.

An elderly man sat in the seat opposite. Passing Shrewsbury he began talking to me in a strong Welsh accent, and I confided my dilemma, teaching or librarianship. He became as one possessed. Perhaps he was. Leaning over, he positioned his face close to mine. At that precise moment the sun came out from a cloud. It shone fiercely on his gold-framed spectacles so that his eyes seemed to catch fire.

“Teaching my boy. Teaching. It’s God’s own profession.”

I felt strangely weak – like Isaiah after a visitation and three pints of beer. And so my fate was sealed. No McGill, no cool academic library. Teaching it was.

Only Swansea’s Teaching Department rejected me, confusing my Liverpool accent with a speech defect.

But the old man had spoken.

I tried Aberystwyth and toned down the accent. The good news was they accepted me; the better news was Swansea unexpectedly offered me the chance to study for an MA with a full grant. The bad news was their ‘suggested’ topic. ‘Anthony Trollope and English Landed Society.’ His mother, Fanny Trollope – bless her – had made pots of money by being rude to Americans.

In her Domestic Manners of the Americans, She criticised the mistreatment of Indians, corruption, the banality of American women, the hypocrisy of American men, “…one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves…their loathsome spitting…the frightful manner of feeding with their knives till the whole blade seemed to enter their mouths, and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth with a pocket knife.” She hadn't seen Swansea University's refectory.

Written in 1836 just fifty years after Britain had lost her colony, the book was a guaranteed best seller, and helped finance her son’s education. She was a smart woman, knew what she was doing, but what about Anthony and his seventy or more books/stories/articles. Would he be near as interesting?

What can I say? He grows on you.

I spent a year in the basement of Swansea University library. In front of me was Peter Traves, studying the sermons of Lancelot Andrews, and in an adjacent desk was a Raphaelite brunette called Jane, who I lusted quietly after in between books.
Yes, there would be teaching…eventually. Aberystwyth was holding my place. But in the meantime Nirvana, Blue, Rookwood, and sunny days in Uplands.

My flat was somewhere top left in the picture

Thursday, 20 November 2008

An explosive Christmas

I dream vividly and in colour and, however weird, they always follow some kind of plot, a story that I never get to complete because, so far, I always wake up. Many of my dreams involve buses, usually green ‘Atlanteans’, and they often end with a journey past familiar landmarks that take me through Walton, then Aintree and the red-brick terraced house I grew up in. I never get there.

The dream probably reflects years of traveling from Wales to Liverpool, and journey’s end, my mother waiting for me with a plate of bacon, egg and chips. Four slices of bread.

She was always pleased to see me, on only one occasion was she worried.

It was Christmas in 1972, at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign on the British mainland. The journey started off well. At Hereford, soldiers on Christmas leave burst into my compartment and shared round bottles of a peculiarly yellow drink – a kind of alcoholic egg-nog called Advocaat, It was interesting. I’d never try it again.

Some time after Shrewsbury the soldiers left, and an elderly woman took their place. She was looking forward to seeing her daughter and grandchildren in Liverpool, and as the evening drew in she itemized each present in her suitcase and her various bags.

“A ham for Julie because she never has enough meat and I don’t like to go into a house empty handed; it’s not nice is it. Then there’s Darren, always difficult to buy for. I always find men difficult. Settled for a shirt and some aftershave. I thought about a tie but then I saw some miniature whiskies – the kind they serve you on planes…What else…? Christmas pudding. They probably have one but you can never get enough of Christmas pudding…” And so it went on. She was a lovely lady, and I was about to ruin her Christmas.

We arrived at Lime Street Station and she was struggling with her two bags and suitcase even before she’d left the compartment. Yes, I offered to help, an unwitting tool in some demonic joke.

I staggered off the train with her suitcase and mine, a rucksack hanging from one shoulder, and joined the eager crowd straining for familiar faces on the other side of the barriers. I wished her a Merry Christmas, told her Darren was sure to love the shirt, and that she was right about never having enough pudding for Christmas. At the barrier I released the suitcase and darted off for the bus – which, as usual, I missed.

An hour later I was home. An anxious mother wrenched open the door.
“Thank God. I thought you were blown up,” she said.
“Why, what’s happened?”
“Bomb scare at Lime Street Station. Suspicious suit-case. There’s a police cordon.”

Over my egg and chips we got the late news. There had been a controlled explosion revealing not a bomb but what was left of a shirt, ham, Christmas pudding and various presents.

Poor lady.

I’d assumed she’d been behind me. Now I wondered who I’d been chatting to, staggering along the station platform, carrying her suitcase. Maybe several different people each getting a part of the conversation and thinking I was mad.

Recently I’ve been wondering whether she’s behind those dreams about green buses, and whether, should I ever reach my destination, she’ll be waiting for me, a grim expression on her face, brandishing a bottle of Advocaat.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The McDonalds of Grandison Road

Michael and Frankie McDonald were my cousins, still are, I suppose. They were the children of my mum’s sister Mary and her husband Frank, someone else who went to sea.

I remember Frank as a thin man with a wry smile who smoked a pipe and was partial to whisky. I don’t really know Aunty Mary’s drinking habits. She didn’t smoke a pipe but had a boisterous laugh and served us salad teas. I remember mounds of lettuce and salad cream, cricket in the garden of 61 Grandison Road, and sometimes excursions to Walton Hall Avenue Park…where we also played cricket.

We never argued. Just did what our parents told us. ‘Play cricket, boys.’ I hated cricket. Thoroughly pointless game. But I loved going over to Grandison Road. I remember blue skies and an Aunty that always smiled.
A brief respite from cricket. From left to right, Michael,his aunty Roma, Frankie...I'm the chubby one with the watchful eyes, probably eating a cheese sandwich. It might have been banana.I tried to like banana sandwiches but with little success. To the left is my mum.
As we grew older I saw my cousins less often, but one thing I’ll never forget. On my twenty first birthday, I was presented with a huge brass key as big as a small dog. It was a coming of age present from Michael and Frankie. I’ve yet to find the door it will open, perhaps the entrance to a Babylonian palace…now that would have been nice as a twenty-first present…only I’ve grown attached to the key.

Later, Michael married and transformed a beautiful innocent into Anne McDonald. They settled in Church Avenue opposite the church where Aunty Irene had experienced her Christmas Epiphany, opened a successful pet shop, and had three children. My cousin had grown up and made it look so easy.

Their house is that little brown shadow in the background between the two other houses. I believe it is now boarded up.

Sometimes, on Saturday nights, we would drink cider and beer, tell dirty jokes and solve most of the outstanding issues of the day. At the back of my mind I wondered whether I would one day own a house, open a successful pet-shop and have three children. Eight years previous I’d played in a tree house on the railway embankment opposite. At least I’d known where I was then…not drinking beer, worrying about the future, and where that future takes us.
The tree-house has gone. Not even boarded up. Dismal sigh

Michael’s children inherited their father’s wheeler-dealer skills. The eldest, another Michael along with Kevin, the youngest, went into catering, ran a restaurant in Liverpool’s Albert Dock complex (sadly I never got round to bumming a free meal there) and now work on oil rigs in Norway and Egypt. Paul went into banking, lives in Australia and has embarked on a second and successful career in photography.

We have just grown older.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Paint it Black

The room was quiet. Candle-flame makes little noise. In the darkness we imagined the sound of itching. The landlady had psoriasis. In the morning we avoided the cornflakes and rarely looked at her legs.

“I got you babe,” whispered Mick.

“Love in vain” I said.

Mick persisted “Honey just allow me one more chance.”

“You can’t always get what you want.”

“Got to get you into my life,” said Mick.

"You never give me your money," I grumbled.

"You got the silver (man)" he added.

I gave him a severe look. Extra words were not allowed.

“Monkey Man” He hissed. “You got the silver…Monkey man”

“I get around,” I said, smugly.

“And your bird can sing,” he said

“For no one.” That earned me an approving look.


“Girl from the North Country,” I sighed.

“Polythene Pam?”

I shook my head. “Suzanne.”

“Good vibrations?” (We were on a roll)

“I want to tell you.”

“Somebody to love.” He nodded - a mixture of regret and approval.

“Satisfaction,” I allowed.

“Something.” He paused. “Tomorrow never knows.”

“Tumbling Dice” I agreed.

The End…? He said hopefully.

“Golden Slumbers.”

The Miners strike of 1972 had reduced us to this. No television, no radio. Blackouts. Drinking bottled beer because beer pumps didn’t work. You sat in darkened pubs given a medieval gloss in candlelight. Girls somehow looked more beautiful and you stumbled home in a pitch black world. Played word games because that was all there was to do.

The rules were simple: maintain a conversation for as long as you could using only song titles. (For the purist the above come from The Beach boys, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and Jefferson Airplane) In the pub we played using Book titles. The problem with songs titles is that they’re over dependent on sex. You don’t want to be whispering ‘I want to hold your hand’ to your mate unless you want ‘Hard Times’ and go back to a ‘Bleak House’.

At least now, however, I know what to do when the lights got out and Armageddon comes. You'll find me muttering in the dark...'I want to teach the world to sing.'