Out Now!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas, and thank you

It was Maria Zannini who cajoled me into writing a blog. I thought she was mad. What to write about, and why? But she has good instincts and all these years later I'm still scribbling. And grateful. It's helped, maybe, in developing a 'voice', and, as important, created the discipline of routine. Then there're the friends I've made, along with old students who have suddenly discovered the alternative Mike Keyton

Only now the juices are drying as Christmas overwhelms in all its joy and various commitments. Not forgetting drink. So it's goodbye from me until the New Year, when the burbling will begin afresh.

Merry Christmas and thank you, Maria, and Merry Christmas to everyone misguided and/or generous enough to follow me:

Jason Hanrahan, Henry Lara, LD Masters, Sam Waters, R, Mac Wheeler, Stephen Tremps, Angela Brown, Jackie Burris, DRC, Adam M Smith, Joy Ann Ball, Misha Gericke, Laura Riley, Malin Larsson, Sue Gagg, Mark Ward, Nikki, Claudia, Vero, Susie Q, Shirley Wells, L J, Carlos, Renee, Seattle Friend, Gwen, Regan - or is that Sue - Diane, Terri, Kerri, Angela Brown, Brian Wilkinson, Marguerite Butler, Andy Bruce

Saturday, 17 December 2011


Wonderful picture from the New York Times. But oh for an Heironymus Bosch to do it full justice.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Black pudding in Aberdeen

Black pudding is a visual feast. It glistens and crumbles on the fork. A single mouthful justifies the millions of years that have led to perfectly formed mouths and taste buds.

The one served at the Ardoe house hotel sat on the plate between the bacon, sausage and fried egg. It looked inoffensive. I savoured the moment before cutting into it and raising it to my lips.

It was like chewing pulped cardboard with the faintest aftertaste of manure. Must be some mistake. Nothing can go wrong with black pudding: a savoury mix of barley, pig fat and blood. I left it for a bit and attacked the egg; went back to the black pudding. Dry. Definitely something wrong. Manufactured slurry. A normal person would have left it. The world is full of black puddings.

I tried again, caught by obsession, a history of childhood rationing and just plain stupidity, until the damn thing was gone.

What was I doing at Ardoe House glooming over black pudding?

We had gone to Aberdeen for our son’s graduation and arrived at Jury’s Inn hotel just after midnight. This was after a ten hour journey by train which involved a 90 minute wait for our final connection on a freezing Edinburgh station. Arctic winds screamed through flesh and bone and precipitated hallucinations. How else could I explain the vision of a man with a Desperate Dan chin, clad only in red T shirt and knee length shorts? He stood arms folded, oblivious to the polar weather. His legs bulged in a Macdonald tartan of varicose veins, the only hint of discomfort. And then he vanished.

Eventually we stumbled into the foyer of the Jury Inn, seeking a warm bed and looking forward to breakfast. Unlike the Holy Family, we had booked our rooms weeks ago and confirmed it earlier that morning, warning them that we would be late. ‘No problem’ we were assured.

Only there was. The young male receptionist told us we didn’t have a room. His tone of voice suggested mild displeasure, as though we were somehow to blame for him being in this embarrassing situation. The mild displeasure turned to puzzlement when we didn’t turn cartwheels of joy on finding out that they had found another room for us in a hotel, which involved a ten mile taxi-ride.

Voices were raised, and then a young Irishman emerged and did brilliantly what the young receptionist should have done in the first place. He once again explained they were victims to a double-booking made by a central computer and that as a result the hotel was full and then, instead of just making the best of a bad situation, he exceeded anything we’d anticipated: The alternative hotel was superb (apart from the black-pudding, but I absolve him from blame for that) Our night there was at a discounted rate and our second night at the Jury’s Inn, for which there was a room available would be complimentary – breakfast included.

The following day a free taxi took us back to the original hotel. We were treated like VIP’s and I realised for the first time what the very rich take for granted.

The lesson is that most cock-ups can be resolved through charm – being Irish helps – and daring to be generous. I feel now like some kind of unpaid ambassador for the Jury Inn chain. Ardoe House too, though my stomach is preparing a Minority Report on the Black pudding.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Closing Doors

My motto has always been to open doors; kick them if they’re stiff. But what if there are no doors? My son achieved A* at GCSE A level in subjects such as maths and physics, Latin and Greek etc. He has an Oxford degree and an MSc in Library and Information Studies. And like a million others is now on ‘Jobseekers Allowance.’ The point is not that my son is particularly hard done by but that the phenomenon is so widespread.

The New York Times tells the story of: Willie Osterweil who graduated magna cum laude from Cornell and found himself sweeping Brooklyn movie theatres for just over seven dollars an hour. Rebecca Chapman who has a master of arts in English and comparative literature from Columbia University, and the previous summer was unable even to find a non-paying job.

As galling was the lack of courtesy shown by prospective employers who couldn’t be bothered to email or otherwise inform her she hadn’t succeeded this time. My son has had similar experiences from institutions that no doubt have a shiny little logo to advertise that they are ‘Investors in People’.

But what I love about New York is its energy, along with its ability to turn problems into solutions…of a sort.

They, along with other ‘over-educated’ and unemployed graduates, meet in a pokey, book-shelved apartment on the Upper East Side. They meet under the banner of ‘The New Inquiry’ edited by Rachel Rosenfelt, and with such a diverse and multi- talented, but unemployed group, the discussion is by turns frivolous and deep. The magazine has no end of contributions – though I must confess little enthusiasm for ‘Kanye West’s effect on the proletarian meta-narrative of hip-hop’.

The novelist Jonathan Letham refers to them as ‘…the precursor of this kind of synthesis of extra-institutional intellectualism, native to the Internet, native to the city dweller.’ Sounds grand. I would call it old fashioned savvy and ‘get up and go’.

Ambitious members of ‘city’s literary underclass’ ignored by the publishing establishment have gone out on a limb, emulating the literary salons of the 1920’s.
The New Inquiry is now planning to print a quarterly edition along with an iPad version for two dollars a month – and doors are starting to open. People are taking notice.

They may have not so much found but created a door that will lead to great success. Equally it may turn out to be a short-lived dead end. But, importantly, it is keeping the spirit alive.

“This is my fantasy: a room full of books, people talking about books — it smells like books,” says Ms. Chapman, the journal’s literary editor, though she also points out that at twenty five and with a good degree from Cornell, a master’s from Columbia, its galling to be unemployed and living at home with your parents.

Similarly, Tim Barker enjoys discussing ‘…ideas at an extremely high level, without worrying about status or material support of traditional institutions: publishing houses or universities.’ But he too points out that his ambition had been to be a history professor – and those doors are closing fast – not just sticky, but bolted and barred.

To paraphrase Earl Grey on the eve of the Great War ‘The doors are closing all over Europe. Who knows when they will open again?’

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Peter Cheyney

I have always argued that to get under the skin of a past culture you have to read its pulp and dreams. All the biographies, political histories and the scholarly works derived from them will tell you the view from above, the sanitised self-exculpatory icing on a dark and fruity cake.

Within the whitened sepulchre lived those who left few written accounts, and the letters and diaries that have been unearthed are subject to the same conscious or unconscious self-censorship.

No, it is in the books they read, and later, the films they saw, that reveal with blistering accuracy the fears, fantasies and unvarnished prejudices of an age.

Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer brilliantly conjure up the paranoid fears of a Britain caught between wars; a sense of skating on dangerously thin ice in a world full of shadows.

Peter Cheyney, too, caught the zeitgeist of an age, reaching his peak in his ‘Dark Series’ that shows what a nation with its back to the wall wanted to believe: that its secret agents, though brutal and flawed were the best in the world and keeping the shadows at bay.

Peter Cheyney wrote thirty five novels and over 150 short stories in the space of fifteen years between 1936 and 1951 when he died aged fifty-five. Some writers have little or no literary merit but ride a short-lived wave. Cheyney’s books would never be accused of literary worth but his wave was more substantial and lasted longer than most. His books portray a world that has long gone, along with the dreams and prejudices of those he wrote for.

It is a world of smoky bars and clubs, stylish apartments, country houses, and more mean and squalid streets. It was also an age of austerity, during the war and in the years immediately after.

Aspiring writers, check out this link and weep

Cheyney may have been subliminally influenced by the fact that his mother lived above the corset shop she owned, or perhaps by the fact that, in 1923, he briefly became involved in a dress making company. His brother, Stanley, stuck at it and earned some success in the field of haute couture, and this is reflected in every novel Cheyney wrote.

When ever a character is introduced for the first time, for the second time and for every time after that, minute attention is paid to what they’re wearing. The action stops until we know almost down to their underwear how the character is dressed. Freud or a cynic might wonder whether Cheyney enjoyed dressing up dolls as a child, but I suspect the answer was more rational. Not only did it add to his word-count, it also pandered to the aspirations of a readership deprived of luxury. In an age before Dynasty and Dallas, big hair, and glossy lipstick, padded shoulders, his books did the trick. Murder and retail therapy.

In ‘You Can Call It A Day, (1949) Johnny Vallon:
‘He wore a dark blue, double-breasted suit that had been cut by a good tailor, a cream shirt, a blue tie.’ (It continues) .....is observing Querida Gale:

‘She had what it takes in a very big way, Vallon decided. She was wearing a navy blue suit with a skirt fitting so well it looked as if it had been painted on her. Under her coat was a blouse that came out of France – a fine hand-made georgette in a faint lemon colour with hand sewn tucks. Her shoes were hand-made and the seams of her stockings were dead straight up the back of her calf.’ Most men would be hard pressed to recall in detail what their wife is wearing but this is a hard-boiled private eye who drinks whisky before breakfast, smokes for England and who, unbelievably, even recognises the name of her perfume.

The Fashion show continues:

'Mrs Gale was standing in front of the fireplace. She wore a superbly cut black velvet dinner gown with a square cut neck; a dog collar of pearls. There were two diamond clips at her neck. Vallon looked at her with approval from the top of her well coiffured head to her four inch-heeled sequin embroidered shoes.
Vallon helped himself to a whisky and soda'

The formula often ends with Vallon, or his equivalent in other books, dampening desire with a drink.

(Evangeline Roberta Trickett ) 'was sitting at the dressing table doing things to her mouth with a lipstick. She wore black lace underclothes, with a gold wrap, worked with black Chinese dragons, over them. She wore the sheerest silk stockings and black satin pumps spangled with gold stars. Miss Trickett was a ‘looker’ and knew it. Vallon poured out a drink…'

Sometimes the ritual has purpose, is insightful and acute.

'A girl came into the bar and sat on the high stool next to him. He looked at her casually. She was pretty and had a good figure. Her coat and skirt were well cut – even if the skirt was a trifle short. Her stockings were sheer and her patent pumps had been expensive. They had been. Now, he noticed there was a slight inclination on the part of the sole of the left shoe to part company with the upper. You could only notice this when she was sitting, as she sat now, with one foot tilted on the bar-rail at an angle.'

More often it reads like a fashion magazine inhabited by murderous models:

Kiernan stood in the doorway. He wore a short leather jacket with a dark fur collar. A tweed cap was pulled over one eye. A cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth. He was smiling. (Dark Wanton 1948 1946)

'She stood motionless, one hand resting on the bottom of the balustrade, the other hanging by her side. She wore a long black velvet skirt with a white georgette blouse. The ruffles about her neck and the full sleeves at her wrists were caught with black velvet ribbons. One small crepe-de- Chine shod foot tapped impatiently on the floor. (Uneasy Terms 1946) As you can see, it would be quite easy to write a whole new novel from a fashion mash-up. Women could read his novels for fashion tips and, like the men who read them in bedsits or on the battle fields of France, indulge in mild eroticism.

There is so much more, but this is long enough. Too long. I’m sorry. Perhaps a posting some time on Cheyney and women.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Bottoms up

Oh for an apostrophe

This set me on a search for other London street names associated with the lower half of the body

So many of our old street names were direct and to the point; they literally cut through the crap. London's Sherbourne Lane has been bowdlerised from the more accurate Shittenbourne Lane of medieval times. The lane ran alongside the River Bourne, which was an open toilet for much of London.

But if you truly want to savour old English in all its crude vitality, you can do no better than explore the origins of the very respectable sounding Grape Lane. This blog is aimed at those who appreciate the minor currents of history, rather than the prurient, never the less I have drawn the appropriate veil via the link. I suspect many historical novelists also have veils which they dare not twitch, but what really interests me is whether other languages past or present were so unashamedly explicit.

Let's end on a more uplifting note

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The table remains

I was appalled to read that our politicians not only wish us to fund their lavish lifestyle, but also fund their parties to peddle their lies and half-truths. All we need now is legislation to compel us to vote and we’ll inhabit the seventh circle of hell.

Give me the good old days. I want to sell my vote for a barrel of ale. I want to be cooped, gathered up from the street dead drunk and locked away until voting day. I want to belong to a small union of voters who’d sell their seat to the richest in exchange for a tangible reward. And don’t tell me that was because only a small proportion of people then enjoyed the vote. A majority today don’t vote. Why should they when the choice is between Punch and Judy, Tweedledum and Tweedledee? We have made a country ‘Safe for democracy’.

I know we now sneer at the rotten boroughs of old England, those boroughs so small their votes could be bought. A source of corruption we say. Colonial nabobs, invariably red-faced and corrupt, buying seats like Russians buy football teams. The reality is that many of these ‘Nabobs’ self-made men, proved to be the most capable and independent-minded men in the political system.

I know we now snigger at those electors who, allowed for the first time to vote in secret, would approach their patron or lord and ask them which way they would want them to vote. Such servile deference. Not like constituencies today so enthralled by ‘culture’ and party machines that they’d vote for a pig if it wore the right colours.

In a previous age English aristocrats had pedigree - brands if you will. You knew who you were with a Salisbury, a Russell or Grey, much as you do with a Toshiba or Sony, a Pepsi, or Coke. Pedigree or long established brand; both take the long view or perish; both factor in historical and cultural accountability. Which aristocrat or indeed the next head of Microsoft or Apple want to see their brand perish?

An aristocrat was born, not voted for, but imbibed a sense of public duty along with a degree of historical and cultural accountability. Can that be said of the faceless men who rule us now? They come and go having sucked the trough dry and accountable to none. We’re ruled by leeches sensing the banquet is nearing its end.

Democracy in prosperous countries is like a finely laid table, with its creamy linen and silver tableware, its floral arrangements, decanters and gleaming tureens. Whip away the cloth and the table remains, privilege and power.

And if that power, in whatever country, faces serious challenge, the table cloth with its fables and pretence, is the first to go. In that sense we should wag the finger lightly at the Chinese, Syria, and those other regimes who cannot afford or who have not yet bought the tablecloth.

With Greece denied its referendum and, with Italy, ruled by unelected technocrats, it is clear that democracy has a set price, and in uncertain futures, the contours of power will reveal themselves in other countries across the world.

The status quo knows what it wants, knows what it doesn’t want. And protest which knows only the latter foams against it like surf against rock. Sometimes ‘great changes' occur - captured on camera and media tagged. But nothing really changes, not for long. Even when Lenin’s preconditions* for a successful revolution occur, the new status quo follows the contours of power with fractal inevitability. The table remains.


• A ruling class that is split or has lost its nerve
• An unreliable military
• An underclass at the end of its tether
• A disciplined, revolutionary leadership.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Life at sea

This blog began as a cyber-fire around which a very large and scattered family could sit, and, to mix metaphors, dip into.

This is a heartfelt rant from my cousin, Michael McDonald, in his own words: 'currently knocking round Newfoundland on a big, rusty, metal mental asylum....'

It's long but instructive and will leave you wanting to down a can or two of strong ale. Maybe five or six...ten, twelve... Over to you, Mike.

Wellservicer Simulation

I'm frequently asked by friends and family back in Liverpool what it's like to be on this ship. So to allow them to share in the experience I have devised a little simulator. Now they, too, can have their very own offshore Wellservicer experience from the comfort of their own homes.

First of all, you need to simulate the unit, i.e. the room you'll be spending 12 hours a day in. Choose the smallest room in your house and divide it in two (a blanket or some bits of board should do the trick.) Half a typical small room is about the size of a typical unit. Remove anything remotely decorative or comfortable, and paint what’s left into this weird beige colour; throw in an off-cut from the 70's style Indian restaurant carpet knocking round the attic. Find yourself a metal desk, perhaps a filing cabinet too, and then a chair, although you first need to break the chair and attempt to fix it, just make sure you can't sit back and relax.

Set up a laptop and other random bits of electronics, install a phone that has no outside line, and give yourself an intermittent internet connection. Better still, have no internet at all. If you have intermittent internet, make sure all sites remotely interesting or useful are blocked by the company’s access policy, in fact just cut and paste the following screen as your pc screen saver screen.

The website you have attempted to access has been blocked.
This is in accordance with the Technip Internet Access policy.

After all this make sure you get fleeced good style by someone: any treats for yourself to take to your set up simulator room must come from an old cupboard; the sweets will not have seen the light of day for at least 14 months and all sweets must be unnervingly close to the sell by date. Write camp boss on a family members T shirt and get that person to sell you some sweets for seven times the price. This is important: make sure you have no other option.

Get them to also sell you a phone card that pertains to be for 2000 minutes but actually only giving 2 minutes 22 seconds. Remember this is your only possibility of contact with the outside world, but switch it off when you really , really, really need it.

keep all your important numbers on the wall, then spend 2 minutes keying in 24 numbers before dialing the one you actually want, whilst anxiously looking at the keypad hoping you inputted fast enough and correctly whilst looking at the number on the wall, then when you think you have cracked it, cut the phone dead and start again....do this several times... take more minutes off your phone card each time.

Now put a TV in the corner somewhere, so when you sit back, you can’t really see it. Hook up a video with a 5 minute recording of sky news and play over and over again , all day in fact; you must ensure the remote control does not match or control your particular TV set; open up the remote and bite the batteries so they contain teeth indents and place back, put black tape round the battery compartment to hold it together...ensure you have no other channels....pay thousands for the installation of the satellite and at yearly intervals have someone come round and dismantle the dish and put it back together. You must pay obscene amounts for this, but make sure it’s still not working. Shrug your shoulders and do not complain, just accept it.

So we have now our basic cabin and workspace, but the ambience is all wrong. Crank up the heat to an unbearable level, and install a gigantic air conditioner/fan in the room. Ensure it doesn't work. Allow it to switch on and blast air around very noisily, but make sure it isn't remotely cooling. Just outside of the room/unit, you need to create a source of noise. Perhaps 2 to 3 Hoovers might do the trick. This is mere background noise,

To accurately simulate the agonising blowing of the foghorn we regularly endure, you may need to borrow a Newfoundland seal and have it tortured at two minute intervals. Really, really hurt this seal, over and over again. In fact, put it in front of a megaphone as you do so.

You may close the door to soften the noises (a little), but if you do so, you must increase the heat greatly.

To simulate the PA system, simply turn on your radio, find a grainy piece of static, and put the volume to full blast at random intervals.

Ensure there is no intelligible content within.....get a recording of some Pole or Pilipino trying to make an announcement in broken English...make sure you can’t understand it...

If you choose to simulate dayshift, your hours are 6am to 6pm, with meals at 5.00am, 11.30am and 5.30pm: and nights opposite. Meals should consist of 9 year old steak from the back of the freezer, or anything from the pound shop that they cannot sell in Turkistan, and some mystery meats in wraps or anything hiding beneath a layer of cheese or powdered mash to cover up the poor quality. Cheese must be the processed cheap type, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous chop spam and sprinkle on top! (don't attempt to eat unless your teeth are in A1 condition.) Safest option is chips.

You are perfectly entitled to go outside at any time, but must wear luminous coveralls, a hardhat, gloves and safety glasses, given to you by a ‘safety man’. Find a member of the family to simulate him, one that has failed in every other walk of life, preferably someone that has had a few accidents, can talk down to people and disappears the first sign of trouble, and talks constant rubbish. You must ensure he is trained in the art of deflecting any responsibility or common sense, and likes the sound of his own voice! If you have such a person in your family - one who usually lives in the Far East somewhere with shady tendencies for young women.

Whilst outside listen to ugly men swear. (find a large family member that can take off a north east UK accent, preferably from the Newcastle area, and make sure they look particularly scary) All communication must be grumpy. Humour is only allowed in small and very bitter doses. Do not smile. Do not be nice. Do not talk about your emotions. Remind those around you how miserable conditions are. If you have a full blown conversation, ensure it is about mechanics, football or engineering or bits of pipe, and do not try and understand it...just nod and smile to them, they will eventually go away when the mystery meat curry is being served up in the galley.

To accurately simulate sleeping conditions, find a single bed too short to stretch out in. You may turn off some of the Hoovers, but keep the seal torture up. Remember every two minutes!

Every couple of nights, simulate the steward by having a friend open and close your door just as you’re nodding off, and sometimes turn the light on and off. Don't say much to him/her, or he will talk to you usually about sex or if in foreign waters "jiggy jiggy" Get your friend to ask you if you have any of them "decent" DVDs for him...or about if you know when the next port call is.

Here comes the key part of this simulation: it must last for weeks...no, months. In fact, when you begin, try not to even know how long it will last. Have a friend roll a dice in secret, and then have them tell you an entirely different, lower number. It is vital you begin your simulation believing it to last three weeks when in fact it will last six.

The good news: when you finish your Wellservicer ship simulation you are allowed - nay, obliged - to drink very heavily for weeks and weeks. DO NOT STOP.

And then, just when you've spent your final penny on your final bottle of Stella, crank up the Hoovers, borrow the seal, and plunge yourself into another month or two of sensory shutdown. You are now ready and primed to embrace the offshore existence aboard the Wellservicer.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

London Streets

A man stopped us in Shaftsbury Avenue. To be more exact, he stopped my daughter. “I must tell you,” he said, “that you are most cute. I want to shake your hand. Where are you going?” He shook my hand too, not because I am cute but presumably due to my proximity to cuteness.

I wondered on his motives. My daughter is beautiful though she would deny it with some vehemence. Suffice it to say she is more beautiful than Cleopatra, which is perhaps not saying very much since Cleo had a very big nose. (Stop digging this hole and throw away the spade. Climb out now!)

So, beautiful then. The point is that this has happened several times to her, complete strangers accosting her in the street to tell her she’s beautiful, and using much the same words like a formula learnt.

My mind went into overdrive…which means it stumbled along at four and a half miles an hour. Who were these people? White Slavers? Smooth talking pimps? And why did they insist on shaking hands - bacterial infection? I rubbed mine vigorously down the side of my trousers and scraped it for good luck on a wall. Were they angels made flesh acknowledging another beautiful spirit, or demons with motives much darker, or missionaries for some obscure cult? A troupe of Hari Krishna snaked passed us, chanting what ever it is they chant, and I shuddered, imagining my daughter in orange robe and bald head.

Who are these people? Are they active in other cities across the world? And why don’t more of them accost me, telling me how beautiful I am? One of life’s many mysteries.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Chain of Souls

Me and Sheri Lamour were talking, shooting the breeze. Work was slow that week and there was little else to do. The office needed cleaning but one look at Sheri tells you everything you need to know about her. She don't do cleaning, her skills lie elsewhere, and mine mostly involve drinking and solving crime.

We don't do cleaning.

“Anything interesting?” I was talking about the book in her hand, not the small television permanently on mute. It’s a box for stumblebums grazing on fried chicken or breeding the new feral horde. Give me a book I can open or close, occasionally burn. In my experience screens are only good for regurgitating lies, else salacious tattle from broads with more silicon than brain. Jeez. I like a broad with something to hold. I just don't want to be knocked of my seat when they turn.

Sheri ignored me, her eyes on the book. I noticed she had only four pages to go and I was down to my last four fingers of bourbon. For the moment it was quiet, the way I liked it. But the fly was about to land in the ointment. When she closed that book Sheri would be wanting to talk about it, and the bourbon wouldn’t last that long.

She closed the book, a small smile on her face. “That was one damn hot book,” she said.

Did I tell you that Sheri has a voice like honey and a figure to match?

“Who’s it by?”

“A dame called Zannini. Maria Zannini.”

A shiver ran up my spine. It was that kind of name. Sheri noticed. She pouted, her lips like dark cherries holding a worm.

“What’s it called?”

"A Chain of Souls"

“Any good?” I looked at the cover. “And what’s with the pointy hat?”

Sheri shrugged helplessly as if to say what the hell do I know? You’re the detective, big guy. “I think it’s good,” she said at last. “A lot of people do. They say it’s her best yet.”

I gave her my shark's smile, the one with teeth. "What else do they say?" I've always found 'they' useful. Rumour's cheap. Informers you pay.

She took out her lipstick. When she brought that thing to her mouth the world stopped, and she stopped talking; only I wasn't finished with her. Not yet. She must have seen it in my eye; anyway she stopped, gave that secretive smile of hers that makes me go whoozy.

“The FBI rates it. Bob Mueller's bought a copy for every agent.”

“Bob Mueller, eh?” Never trust a man who sounds like a yoghurt pot, they're either Gestapo or Red, and all three amount to much the same thing. Even so I don't prejudge; it's not the American way. "It must be good – so what’s it about?”

“Two hot angels – one working for the other side – but brooding over the same broad who can’t quite make up her mind.”

Tell me a woman who can. “Hot, you say?”

“Not in your league, Clay, but hot, yes. I’d say so.”

She said it quickly, too quickly perhaps. “You think I’d like it?” Hell, I wanted to see who my competitors were.

“You like breaking hearts?” She sounded like she was going to burst into song. She sounded like Hank Williams. The thought was distressing and I closed my eyes, even as she said the killer line. “I guess you do, Clay. I guess you do.”

“Okay, pass me the goddamn book. Anyone dressed like that can’t be all bad. And what’s with the rosary beads. . . and the gloves?”

Friday, 21 October 2011

Open yum

I was sitting in the King’s Head sipping a pint of Spit-fire, a lovely beer, and a great name. Can we look forward in the future to beers named Trident or Kalashnikov? In front of me was a large TV and a beautiful lady was forecasting the weather. For the hard of hearing, which included everyone in the pub since the TV was on mute, subtitles showed us what we were missing.

So, for example, I was told that: ‘Rain followed by some scattered Samba will reach the Midlands by late Steven’. Other forecasts have been equally surreal, such as for example: ‘Snow falling on the Staffordshire Mormons’ or ‘a cluster of Sharons are moving across the Midlands.’

Welcome to the wonderful world of auto-generated subtitles.

For those not wishing to risk LSD but who enjoy the surreal, or those who simply wish to maximize the disorientating effects of strong beer, subtitles are both essential and addictive.

You sip, you muse: So ‘Howard Carter discovered Tooting Common in Egypt.’ A contemplative sip: ‘The Nazi dictator, Adult Pickler held rallies at gnomeburg’. It begins to make sense, as does the ‘hospital patient in a korma’, the ‘Toon Army that hit Japan’ I shouldered past similarly bemused viewers to the bar. Time for a refill. The world is going mad but the beer is good.

I’m back just in time.

Ah, the beautiful TV historian. I don’t need an introduction. I know who she is. But no, subtitles have their own relentless momentum. So instead of: ‘And with us now…’ We had ‘And with a snout Bethany Hughes.’ Subtitles are no respecter of persons. Barack Obama greatly excites them: ‘Back the bomber flew back from Europe’ or sometimes ‘Back the barman met with the Queen’.

Subtitles can make forceful police tactics sound like fun. In the real world the police moved in on an illegal traveler’s camp at Dale Farm using Tasers. But in the wonderful world of auto generated subtitles, I read that ‘police deployed teasers’, which is much nicer. I pondered on the gentle mockery used against those gypsies who refused to move.

Subtitles can also be subtly feminist. The extremely rich entrepreneur Theo Paphitis has no fear of women with quotes like:

"are we seriously saying that 50% of all jobs should go to women… (women) get themselves bloody pregnant and ... they always argue that they'll be working until the day before, have the baby, go down to the river, wash it off, give it to the nanny and be back at work the following day, but sure enough, their brains turn to mush, and then after the birth the maternal instincts kick in, they take three months off, get it out of their system and are back to normal". The subtitles got their revenge by referring to him as ‘The Foetus’.

There are residential homes where the TV is always on and where auto generated subtitles have become the new reality. What are elderly residents to make of Vadim Muntagirov talking of his dancing partner, Daria Kilmentova: ‘I really love dancing with Diarrhoea,’ cars called ‘Toy hauteur’ or ball room dancers attempting the ‘Pasta dough blade’?

Opium might make sense of it all, or in subtitle-speak ‘Open Yum’

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Cherry picking the dead

The eulogies given in memory of Steve Jobs have been complex and interesting, most of all those coming from the left or liberal side of life. Patrick Neilson Hayden is aware of the complexities:

‘Late capitalism sucks…Our futures are controlled by people who don’t give a crap for anything we care about…Steven Jobs cared about something. Without him our lives would have been different and probably worse.’

I imagine this is the same late capitalism that exploits cheap Asian labour in the manufacture of designer trainers and err…Apple products. So the issue is whose lives are we talking about?

Steven Fry, a man who has given pleasure to millions, and to my knowledge exploits no one trills like a song bird in heat when discussing the Apple product in hand:

“I would be dishonest if I did not confess to the childlike excitement, the pounding thrill, the absurd pride and the rippling pleasure I always feel on such occasions…”- an iphone, not something more intimate.

Steven Fry mocks his own reactions, showing to everyone his awareness of the irrational, but, and with total justification, refers to Jobs as ‘a great personality’, a ‘remarkable man’ and a ‘visionary’.

The ‘dark side’, from the view point of the liberal left, is acknowledged but glossed over:

"It would be vulgar to say that the proof of the correctness of Job’s vision is reflected in the gigantic capitalisation value of the Apple Corporation, the almost fantastically unbelievable margins and the eye-popping cash richness which has transformed a company that was on the brink of collapse when Jobs arrived back in 1997 into the greatest of them all.”

Vulgar or not Fry says it, but offers a further qualification.

“… abject worship is (not ) the only allowable viewpoint when it comes to the life and career of this magnificently complicated man. I am very glad that I did not work for him. I cannot claim he was a friend but over thirty year or so years I bumped into him from time to time and he was always warm, charming, funny and easy to talk to, yet I know, and the world has already been told enough times over the past few days and weeks, that he was a fearsome boss, often a tempestuous mixture of martinet, tyrant, bully and sulky child.”

But against that we have:

“His perfectionism, the absolute conviction and certainty in the rightness of his opinions… the charisma, passion, delight in detail, excitement and belief in the creation of a new future – the sheer magnetic force of the man made his many faults a forgivable and almost loveable part of his mystique and greatness...I will not be so presumptuous as to mourn the loss of Steve as a personal friend, but I will mourn his loss as a man who changed my world completely."

All well and good and generously said, but where’s the consistency? Much the same words might well be used in Margaret Thatcher’s eventual obituary, but not presumably by Stephen Fry:

And here is where the irrationality of the heart is laid bare because Stephen Jobs was Thatcherite in spirit. Job’s realistic, hard-headed approach to customers:

“You can’t just ask customers what they want then try to give that to them,” he once said. “By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

To me this reveals the same autocratic spirit as Thatcher.

His attitude to Teaching Unions:

“What is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

Is similarly straight from the Margaret Thatcher song-book.

Steve Jobs had no interest in the rainforests or the environment. He did nothing for charity, scrapping Apple’s corporate philanthropy programmes on his return to the company in 1997.

He simply wanted everyone in the world to buy his products.

Like Margaret Thatcher and, I think, Reagan, Jobs was an early admirer of Ayn Rand, his later more ‘progressive’ persona a design feature as much as anything else. As Steve Wozniak put it:

(Steve Jobs wanted) to have a successful company and he had a lot of ideas. He must’ve read some books that really were his guide in life, you know, and I think… Well, 'Atlas Shrugged' might’ve been one of them that he mentioned back then. But they were his guides in life as to how you make a difference in the world. And it starts with a company. You build products and you gotta make your profit, and that allows you to invest the profit and then make better products that make more profit. I would say, how good a company is, it’s fair to measure it by its profitability."

Changing Stephen Fry’s world was incidental to Jobs’ primary aim: all-encompassing global market domination.

And this is not an attack on Stephen Jobs, Stephen Fry, or Patrick Neilson Hayden. What Stephen Jobs achieved was brilliant and consistent with his principles. But like all great men and women, cherry-picking their virtues and vices lead to problems of consistency.

(And, in the unlikely event that Patrick Neilson Hayden ever reads this. I hope he doesn’t see it as ‘the wag of a reproving finger’ and tell me to ‘plobz the frap off’ :)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Painting Time In Oils

At the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille I saw close up, one of my favourite paintings – The Concert in the Egg by Hieronymus Bosch. Yes, there are wonderful minor details such as for instance the lute player pinching the monk’s purse, another hand stealing a fish, the man at the back wearing an inspired item of millinery And I wish I knew what the birds signified.

But what held me for so long were the faces. Strip away period costume and you have peculiarly modern faces. There are no two ways about it. They’re as modern as smart phones.

I can see E.E.C. bureaucrats, former Labour cabinet ministers – I’m sure that’s Alun Michael in the pointy cap, and John Prescott reluctantly playing the harp. I’m sure any American studying the canvas would recognize Democrats, Republicans or minor executives

It’s quite similar to his, perhaps better known Ship of Fools where there’s more drinking and less singing, though the message is equally critical. In the second painting though, the faces are less finely drawn.

In the basement of Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille they have a wonderful late medieval section. The carvings are immensely powerful but one painting rang some very loud bells. Where had I seen this picture before?
Portraits of Louis de Quarre and Barbe de Cruysinck

But I was wrong. I hadn’t seen it before. Not this particular painting. I had however seen this.

The artist Grant Wood claimed his inspiration was sparked by the gothic style window in the building behind and he decided to paint it with "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house." A nice story, but splendid that the building is known as ‘The Dibble House’. So that's where Officer Dibble was born.*

From what I know, Louis de Quarre and Barbe de Cruysinck were reasonably happy with their portraits. The artist, Grant Wood, had problems with American Gothic. For a time at least. Iowans apparently objected to their portrayal as ‘pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible thumpers.’ One farmer’s wife threatened to bite Wood’s ear off. Way to go Van Gogh.

Grant Wood was supposedly influenced by Northern Renaissance art - ‘the highly detailed style and rigid frontal arrangement of (its)figures,’ I just wonder whether there was a more specific influence, conscious or otherwise.

* From Top Cat

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Economy of Truth

The phrase ‘being economical with the truth,’ is a Godsend to politicians, banned from calling another MP a down-and-out liar during parliamentary debates. The liar thus becomes respectable, his sin venial, obscured in the phrase.

But ‘truth’ is a slippery thing, something entirely distrusted in the English language. Many phrases, usually prefacing the statement to come illustrate this:

‘I can’t lie…’ suggesting I’d damn well like to.

“I can’t tell a lie…’ again, suggesting regret

‘I can’t lie to you…’ more resonant because personal.

I particularly dislike the phrase ‘To tell you the truth…’ I mean, why would you do otherwise?

But this brandishing of ‘truth’, like a shield or a matador’s cape has many permutations:

‘Truth be told…’ here truth becomes something managed, rationed and doled out reluctantly.

‘Without a word of a lie…’ Suggesting the norm is otherwise.

‘To be honest…’ Similarly suggests that this is something different from the normal way you go about things.

‘To be quite honest…’ suggests partial honesty and grudging at that.

‘To be honest with you…’ is very similar to ‘I can’t lie to you’ but marginally more positive. Whereas the latter suggests real pain at having to forgo the lie, the former suggests that whilst he may be less than honest with others, he’s making an exception of you.

Then there is: ‘God’s own truth…’ Suggesting I might lie, but God doesn’t.

And whilst we’re on a religious theme we have the incipient guilt-trip: “I don’t like tea, I must confess.” Why must you confess? Were you considering hiding the fact you didn’t like tea?

Finally there are the variants of: “Ain’t that the truth…’ an Americanism, suggesting truth as bad news and accepted with due resignation.

The London version is shorter: ‘innit’ a more sullen and challenging response to ‘truth’. For example: ‘Coppers are bent, innit.’ Delivered correctly it carries aggression: ‘Yes, it is the bloody truth and I bloody well don’t like it!’

My favourite is a Welsh variant found around Swansea. There they have the habit of turning everything into a question. ‘A pint of beer, is it?' Bear in mind, it is not the bartender asking whether you want a pint of beer. It is the customer asking for one. Here truth becomes something to be questioned; a form of existentialist angst. I like to think he stares at the beer for some time before drinking it.

Schrodinger's pint.

Is this linguistic distrust of truth found in other languages?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Amusing God

Somewhere in the land of Oswaldtwistle, Grimshaw and Ramsbottom lies St. Joseph's Church, founded in 1884. It is the highest parish in the Liverpool Archdiocese, standing 750 feet above sea level, and within sight of Darwen Tower, Withnell Moor, Belmont Moor, Great Hill, and Winter Hill. It also had an idiosyncratic priest whose sermons every Sunday centred upon the history of Brinscall.

We dropped in twice yearly whenever we visited my brother and settled down to another instalment of Brinscall through the ages. He spoke in a soft mumble that would put a sheep to sleep and took us through the glories of Brinscall through the medieval period. I think we got as far as the Tudors before my brother moved and Brinscall was lost to us forever. I like to think he retired before he reached the twentieth century and woke up.

St Aloysius Gonzaga, more popularly known as the Oratory is an entirely different kettle of choirboys. This church is squeezed in between a hospital and a hairdressers on Oxford’s Woodstock Road. It faces a row of small houses and a Chinese restaurant.

On this occasion I attended a High Mass in Latin, a dreamy spectacle if you were in the mood, a mechanical opera if you weren’t. I was particularly struck by the caped priests and the alter servers who, on several occasions, appeared to be line-dancing to the baroque choral music descending from somewhere behind me. They walked in line, like sacerdotal chorus girls. They walked in unison and with great earnestness like a slow moving windscreen wiper across the alter steps, each swinging a censer until the alter itself faded in a dense haze of incense; and asthmatics dropped like flies all around me.

At least you could listen to and watch the event, though perhaps not pray. Still, it wasn’t boring. Neither was the small church in the Lake District whose organist must have had a summer job in a seaside resort, playing at the end of the pier. Every hymn began and ended with a twirl or a flourish so that you didn’t know whether to sing or waltz down the aisle.

Then there are the terrible priests where you want to march down the aisle with a tumbrel, but that might be another post.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Berrington Hall

Dedicated to Richard and Ruth Lewis and their ‘passion’ for Downton Abbey.

Do houses have their own peculiar curse? Robert Cecil, a thoroughly bad egg, invested a life of back-stabbing and ambition in Hatfield House. The building is magnificent inside and out, the Jacobean carving extraordinary in its artistry and detail. Walk inside and it takes your breath away, as it did for Cecil who died just before it was finished.

Sometimes bad luck can strike once and then it’s done. With other houses it’s a more drawn out affair.

Berrington Hall with its own melancholy history is a case in point. It was built in 1778 by Thomas Harley, a wealthy banker and government contractor. The house was designed by Henry Holland. Capability Brown landscaped its parkland; and its interior, exquisitely proportioned, was opulent and warm. Thomas Harley had no sons. You can’t have everything, but his daughter, Ann, did marry the George, the son of the more famous Admiral Lord Rodney.

This man, whupped the Spanish, French and Americans? What were their commanders like? Seriously, Gainsborough reveals a lot in that face

Lord Rodney had been a gifted naval commander who’d thrashed the Spanish, French and Americans in many naval encounters. He was also greedy, addicted to gambling and spent more than he owned – to the extent that he was forced to flee Britain in order to escape his creditors and spent some time in a French jail.

The Rodney family weren’t blessed with luck. Anne’s brother-in-law was lost at sea, and her three sons, the third, fourth and fifth Baron Rodneys died in 1842, 1843 and 1846 respectively. By the time the seventh Baron Rodney took up residence, Berrington Hall was the worst for wear and to make things worse he’d inherited the first Baron’s taste for gambling. Over the years Berrington was stripped of its farms and much of its treasures. The house was sold in 1901 to Frederick Cawley MP who’d made his wealth in the cotton industry.

For a time everything went right for them. Frederick Cawley had patented a pure black dye and when, in 1901, Queen Victoria died, a nation went into mourning and clothed itself in black crepe. And Cawley became even richer. In 1906 he was made a baronet and Berrington hall prospered under his enlightened and energetic ownership.

Then in 1914 tragedy struck. World War One. Within a few months of war their son, John Stephen, was killed in action. He was thirty four. The family were still grieving when in 1915 their second son, Harold, died at Gallipoli. The youngest son, Oswald, was killed in 1918, just three months before the war ended.

It is well worth reading the link, describing each brother’s death.

The house has a small room where pictures of the Cawley family hang. They show faces that are down to earth and decent. Good men died and the parents never recovered. On the wall is a personal, handwritten letter from Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, commiserating with their grief. The letter is intimate and sincere on first reading.

But Captain Harold Cawley’s death is not without mystery. Initially he was Aide-de-Camp to General Sir William Douglas and enjoyed relative security in Divisional Head Quarters. From there he wrote a series of uncensored letters to his parents, describing in detail the poor calibre of the recruits from the Northern towns of Lancashire. More significantly he went on to describe, in caustic detail, the short comings of General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston, and Major General Sir William Douglas, who he described as ‘peevish willie. The brunt of his criticism was that Generals were sacrificing men without reason but through sheer stupidity. Were their consequences?

The official line is that Captain Harold Cawley requested to be posted to the front - "I have always felt rather a brute skulking behind in comparative safety while my friends were being killed." He was granted his wish and two weeks later was killed.

A descendent, Charles Cawley, perhaps expressing a family tradition, has a different line. Harold’s letters were addressed to his father who was in the cabinet. More significantly they could be interpreted as criticism of Churchill who had masterminded the Gallipoli campaign. In Charles Cawley’s words :

“As a consequence, (Harold) left the general staff and went straight to the front line. The inevitable happened. It is more than possible that he knew exactly what he was doing and this was an act of virtual suicide.” Confronted with Churchill’s handwritten letter and the story as told by Charles Cawley, it is hard to be certain of where truth lies. But the grieving father was made a full baron, and money continued to roll in with a nation in mourning and the increased demand for black dye.

Harold Cawley

During World War II Berrington Hall was turned into a hospital but the new Lord and Lady Cawley still dressed for dinner every night and retained stiff upper lips when the Americans arrived and churned up their park in their jeeps. When Lord Cawley died in 1957 a grateful nation charged death duties of 80% and they were forced to sell up, bequeathing their house to the Treasury and ultimately the National Trust. Lady Cawley was allowed residence there until she died, though she lived longer than anyone expected – dying a centenarian in 1978.

Even then a degree of controversy lived on

Friday, 9 September 2011

Waking up slowly

The morning begins slowly. Three strong mugs of tea and solitude. I don’t count the radio, murmuring the news, telling me what to think for the day and the rest of my life. Sometimes I will sit in a green gloom with curtains closed. On good days I will draw the curtains wide and stare through the conservatory at a giant damson tree, its leaves furiously break-dancing, feeding on air.

The tree is a slow measure of the seasons, a dense green throughout summer, gold and brown then ragged as autumn progresses, and finally bare, showing the hills beyond.

Today I realised I was stroking a hair just below my bottom lip.

I hadn’t shaved; my face a mess of stubble. I realised at the same time that I always fingered this particular hair. Short and stubby just below the bottom lip. This was an errant hair following no particular grain, an oak amongst hairs. I still had two cups of tea to go, so plenty of time to work this one out. My hand coursed across both cheeks and jaw line. It was like feeling sandpaper, coarse uniformity. Not one hair drew attention to itself. If I arbitrarily chose one I immediately lost it when trying to find it again.

My finger returned to its old friend, pushing it from side to side, enjoying the tense tingle to the skin around it, feeling the urge to shave it hard, knowing it would grow again and be waiting for me as perky as ever the following morning.
Reassured, I drained my final mug of tea and woke up my wife. A new day begun.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Just standing in St. Materiana’s church in Tintagel immerses you in an intense and magical peace. St. Materiana herself is most interesting because the Church has so little to say about her: "A Welsh or Cornish widow. No details of her life are extant, but some Welsh churches bear her name." Had she been martyred, no doubt the record might be more fulsome.

Scraps from myth and old Celtic records associate her with Modrun, a refugee in North Wales, a Queen of Gwent and a Cornish saint, which leads some to say she was an extremely busy lady or an amalgam of more than one Modrun. Others suggest she was a Christian invention covering over an older pagan cult (Matrona/mother goddess) which accounts for her name popping up in so many places.

Young British men, some little more than boys pop up in even more varied places. One of the melancholy joys in exploring old country churches are the wall memorials to fallen soldiers and seamen who lost their lives in forming an empire. All over England, in the most obscure hamlets, ancient churches record the deaths of ensigns, and lieutenants – some as young as seventeen – who died where they had no right to be. How in God’s name did a boy from an unknown Welsh village die in the gulf of Tonkin in 1673? What was he doing there?

Reading these memorials stirs something in the soul. They died for something greater than themselves. In our culture the individual is glorified; by sleight of hand deluded in to believing they are beholden to no one. The reality is different and the result is a growing subculture of the infantile and selfish, aspiring to riches or fame without effort.

And yes, I know a glorious con trick was played on our forbears. Many acted without choice. And ‘That something greater than themselves’ invariably enriched those who ruled them in church or state, often both. But does that demean or cheapen aspiration, sacrifice or nobility? Are the works of Michelangelo tarnished because he worked for the Medici and two corrupt Popes? The sacrifice of a warrior less so because he was there without choice? In the words of Bob Dylan everyone “Gotta Serve Somebody” And you're more likely to find yourself serving others than serving yourself.

And may St. Materiana look over you.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The mystery of strangers

It is a source of deep regret that I have now reached an age that leaves me no time to sample every whisky in the world. To try would hasten my inevitable demise and I can find no way round this particular Catch 22. But there is another, deeper regret. Even in a lifetime it is impossible to know everyone that you might like to know. And this has its own ‘Catch 22’. It’s not something you’re likely to think about as a teenager. Whisky, maybe, sex yes, but not people.

I was on the train to Gerard’s Cross when an elegant, middle-aged lady sat next to me. She wore Rive Gauche and her voice was low and attractive when she asked whether the seat next to me was taken. Immediately I wanted to know more about her, and I wondered why that was.

What made her different from anyone else who might have chosen to sit next to me and who I might not have given a second thought? Okay, the perfume, the low attractive voice but it wasn’t just that.

From early on I’ve always been attracted by a person, more so than his or her body. Probably true of most people. A person can crackle with energy or exude something more subtle, glimpsed in a smile, a glint in the eye, voice, and that something hard to define so I’ll call it a life-force or soul.

A soul you intuit and you want to know more. A bee has no inhibitions nosing from flower to flower. Pollen, though indispensable, is more mundane than the soul, but nevertheless the bee devotes a life in its pursuit. We have more important things to do.

And yes, pollen is food but we are spiritual creatures. What is it that prevents us from exploring others?



Alcohol loosens the tongue, opens doors and closes them. Have sympathy with the overtures of drunks. For a moment in time they are wanting to know. Inhibition removed, they’re responding to the same urge that made me want to know more about that woman on the train.

A writer – okay, a nosy bugger - stares out the window at a darkening Buckinghamshire countryside and imagines who the woman is, where she is going, where she has come from. He will never know, and he will never know all he’d like to know, or drink all the whisky in the world.

Friday, 19 August 2011


We emerged from the mist like melancholy sheep, wraiths in anoraks. This was more like it. Morose but content. The Keytons on holiday. Overlooking the sea indistinguishable from the wetness around us, we picnicked at Tintagel and ruminated on Arthur. If this was his Camelot no wonder the Knights of the Round Table came to their dismal end. Arthur must have been terminally depressed; probably threw himself on Mordred’s sword just to get away. There would be sunshine in Avalon, and he had chain mail to protect himself from midges. I understood then why Isolde had fled her husband in favour of Tristan. Mark never stood a chance. “It’s not you, dear.” And she probably meant it. Tintagel.

We chewed our cheese sandwiches and contemplated the rock, grey in mist but rearing high in the clouds. The climb looked formidable and I thought back to Canillas de Aceituno, and the expats we had met. There was a guy that could make you drunk on his breath. Flies died from alcohol poisoning. This was his solution to sunshine and loneliness; another who had imbedded himself in the Spanish community. He was opening a convalescence home for seriously ill children, and his own child attended a Spanish school. He seemed the exception.

They reminded me of Crusading knights each in their villa - tiny castles on alien hills - each with their pool, their glorious sunsets, their satellite dish, and most important of all, a fast internet connection to home. They were immensely hospitable, some cheerful and at peace with the world, others lost like ghosts in a landscape that didn’t belong to them. It reminded me of the importance of roots and that relationship with others that even plants, with their very different senses share. I chewed on my sandwich.

“What are you thinking of?” my daughter asked.

“Richard of Cornwall,” I said. “His brother Henry III gave him Cornwall as a birthday present. He built the castle – what you can see of it - in 1233.”

“Not Arthur then.”

“Not Arthur, though the site itself was important to the ancient Cornish kings.

“So he may have been here.”

“Have a cheese sandwich.”

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Canillas de Aceituno

Fresh from the experience of 'Macbeth' in a storm – well, to be honest some years after but the memory was strong – we booked a holiday, our only criteria being somewhere hot and dry, and with a pool. We settled on Canillas de Aceituno in the mountains of Andalusia.

The patio overlooked deep valleys and a turquoise but diminishing lake. Mountains surrounded us; very Wagnerian, the mosquitoes less so, whining Valkyries that fed on the living.

I didn’t anticipate problems. Swallows dived from azure skies, and we had a pool. Even our very own fig tree.

So Canillas de Aceituno was two miles away. We could do that. We thought. What we hadn’t realized was that this two miles involved a vertical trek. The town was perched even higher than we were! 40 degrees centigrade heightened the experience.

I lost weight.

Not in the normal way.

Mosquitoes and a whole host of voracious insects took great chunks from my arms and legs and neck. My face turned volcanic, a deep Martian red. The flies followed soon after, settling on each and every itching wound. "Laying their eggs," my son said gloomily, as though considering what his reaction would be when I writhed with maggots and exploded in flies.

I didn’t expect over-much sympathy. Never do. As things stood, the whole family walked ten paces behind me, reluctant to be seen with the leper. My name became 'Belial, Lord of Flies.'

No one else in the family was touched, just me, the sacrificial goat. It was good to get back to Monmouth. No mosquitoes yet, just the pleasant charm of quiet eccentrics.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Macbeth in a storm

In 2001 we saw an open air production of Macbeth in the grounds of Llancaiach FawrManor. It starred Abigail Hopkins, the daughter of the more well known Anthony. It also rained. Not just ordinary rain. Wales doesn’t do equatorial. Not often. Fate – I pictured her as a malevolent Welsh woman with a watery grin - waited for us to choose our seats, open our sandwiches and then without warning covered us with the Atlantic and some of the Pacific.

It poured down, turning cheese sandwiches into a cold fondue, and here is where a weird, British perversity kicked in. We tightened our hoods, unfurled our umbrellas and raised our feet as the ground turned to mud and pools grew into lakes. As the performance went on, our chairs slowly sank into the morass, but still we remained…and, equally weird, so did the actors in a strange, symbiotic relationship: as long as an audience remained, they would perform, and for as long as they performed we would remain. Besides, they’d probably factored in the curse of the play that must not be named.

And maybe they were enjoying skidding across a greasy stage and sometimes coming off. Abigail Hopkins surely did. As Hecate she with the other witches were perched up a metallic tree, silhouetted against a lowering sky when suddenly lightning flashed and thunder rolled. This was SFX with attitude and I’ve never seen witches so terrifying, or terrified. Alas, all good things come to an end, our applause muted in rain.

But a decision was made. Our next holiday would be taken in sunshine. Be careful what you wish for. Be very careful:)

Friday, 29 July 2011

Temptation in Herefordshire

I was sitting between an elderly man with far-away eyes, and an even older woman with an imperial spine and watchful look. A large window to my right opened out to a sea of corn and the rolling hills of Herefordshire. And before me stretched a table laden with salads, various flans, a huge game pie, coffee and brandy cake rich with cream and so moist it oozed on a glance. There were other desserts, a massive Kiwi Pavlova; looming behind that an even larger cheeseboard.

The elderly lady, for some reason, was thinking on breakfast and ascertained that most of us didn’t eat it, or nibbled on toast. A few brave souls risked muesli with low fat milk. This greatly puzzled her. ‘I’ve spent ninety years eating a full English breakfast,’ and she proceeded to list, with some relish, the bacon and eggs, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms and fried bread she attacked each and every morning. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on her. ‘Never did much me harm,’ she concluded, her tone curious rather than an inflammatory attack on a mineral water and Statin obsessed culture.

The man to my left coughed, the far-away look replaced by a smile. ‘There have been studies.’ He wiped his lips. ‘These people who live extraordinary long lives all had high cholesterol levels.’

Well, knock me down with a feather. The table glared in a Damascene light. A Michael Crichton moment. So high cholesterol was the key to a long and healthy life! And all those years of fibre chewing; was it all part of some great, far reaching conspiracy – actuarial calculation and science - a way of dealing with aging populations and spiralling pension costs? Were we consuming aspirin and Statins, slurping tubs of cholesterol-beating, low fat spread and munching vegetables - Gaderene hypochondriacs – worried lemmings unwittingly rushing to an early grave?

I drank more wine and considered the matter. The old man could have been talking nonsense, but there was more game pie, and the coffee and brandy cake looked awfully good, and then the cheese of course.

I suspended judgement.

At worse it would provide the plot for a third-rate thriller, perhaps add a few more conspiracy theories to the net and a few more pounds to the waist.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Friday, 15 July 2011

Gary Glitter

Justice is beautiful, says Socrates to a poor, befuddled Polus in the Gorgias though I prefer the more ambiguous, double-edged fable that Justice is blind. And there’s the miracle because justice is both blind and selective. The sins of some become elevated to cultural taboos.

Who now will happily admit that they like Gary Glitter – not the man (Paul Francis Gadd) but the artist and music of thirty or more years ago? We’re talking high heels and glitter suits here, over the top hair and cheesy anthemic songs that evoke a time and place. Immense fun and tongue in cheek bubblegum. And yet it has somewhere been decided that to like Gary Glitter somehow suggests you also like molesting children. On this criterion one should also despise the works of Socrates, Alcibiades, Roman Polanksi, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry.

Gary Glitter’s downfall began when child porn was found on his hard-drive. Career in ruins, he was hounded out of the country and his demons pursued him, his proclivities now unchecked by the discipline of having something to hide. When you compare the two images of Glitter in his hey-day with Paul Gadd as he is now, justice is almost Shakespearean.

But the question arises as to whether a more sinister justice is at work, sinister because it is unaccountable. Quietly and without judge or jury, self appointed arbiters of what’s good for the public, have removed from British play-lists, so in effect he is being punished twice in terms of royalties and revenue from work that bears no relation to his crime. This particular punishment also effects his band.
You may decide it’s what he deserves, but it wasn’t part of the sentence passed down on him. Moreover, removing him from the playlist of the state broadcaster is reminiscent of Stalin's erasure of 'enemies of the state' from the public record. Not that I'm comparing Glitter to Trotsky.

If it were ever discovered that Bob Dylan had committed similar, heinous crimes would his oeuvre be omitted from BBC play-lists? If not, are we suggesting that Justice is dependent on the perceived value of one set of songs over another ‘Tangled up in Blue’ Vs ‘I'm the Leader of the Gang( I am)? 'Great Balls of Fire' Vs 'Rock and Roll, Parts One and Two' Polanski's 'China Town' Vs 'I Love You Love me Love'?

It’s an interesting game. Which artists do you think would transcend any crime because of their cultural significance - Phil Specktor? And who would get the Gary Glitter treatment because their music is seen as dispensable? And is this even handed justice?

Friday, 8 July 2011

Kennedy’s Pimp

When the new school curriculum decreed that every child should learn about the ‘Industrial Revolution,’ History Departments up and down the country had a problem: how to persuade children that history was more interesting than Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame, and Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny? And don’t get me started on ‘Turnip Townsend.’

In short, how were we to persuade the brightest and best to choose History as a GCSE option and so maximise the grades by which a Department was judged?

The process was inexorable. Child poverty and abuse, became ‘entertainment;’ the ‘Slave Trade,’ the Workhouse, children in mines, exploited again in order to provide cheap thrills for otherwise bored students; prurience and sympathy curiously mixed.

Titillation reached its peak just before students came to make their final choice of options for Years 10 and 11.

Then we moved on to the Holocaust and Kennedy’s brain. These were ‘taster’ lessons, pedagogic commercials for the joys awaiting them should they choose to do history the following year.

These two years of modern history have formed in my mind a sombre montage of Horst Wessel and wasted corpses, lynchings and burning barns, men ranting in white pointy hats, others in uniforms and surrounded by flags. And every year we dissected Kennedy’s brain in our search for who murdered him.

This was the highpoint of our coursework for over a decade, the reason why many chose to do history in the first place. Who killed President Kennedy? It had everything: a who-dun-it caught in colour and never resolved. It combined serious analysis of varied and conflicting evidence with the gravitas of Greek tragedy.

Twice a year for a decade or more, my life would be briefly dominated by endless freeze-frames of Kennedy’s head jerking back…or was it forward? Trajectories, Oswald’s marksmanship, or lack of it, Jacqueline’s undignified scramble out of the car, or was she trying to grab a piece of her husband’s head. No reverence here, the children wanted to know.

And I was part of the process, at one with Oswald lurking behind that window, or the possible second gunman behind the white picket fence on the knoll. Only every year, unlike Zapruder, I knew what would happen. I stood poised to freeze-frame what Zapruder had filmed. I had the remote, doomed to pause and repeat history year after year. Had a president died for this?