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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Taking tea with dolphins

Queens Drive baths was a lovely building but weirdly inefficient inside. It had no changing room, no lockers. Instead there were individual cubicles. These were small with flimsy doors, and they lined two sides of the pool. The result was, that when these individual cubicles were full, no one else could swim. As a result each swimmer was rationed (a mind-set from the war). We wore coloured wrist bands and a voice called us out when our  time was up.

Until then we went mad, random and loud, like excitable quarks. Water was magic but invariably cold. A favourite game involved the expulsion of air, which allowed us to sink like stones. Once assembled at the bottom of the pool we assembled in grave circles and drank imaginary tea, until somebody dived on top of us, or we ran out air.

Once there were dolphins – and one grim future day, someone may say that for real. But I’m talking here about dolphins in swimming pools. No one could ever accuse Liverpool City Council of not being…weird.

I thought of all this on Wednesday morning at 7.30 am, swimming one of my 45 lengths. Monmouth Leisure Centre is far more sedate, especially at 7.30 am. We swim our respective lengths in silence, but make a point of saying ‘Good morning’ or similar pleasantries to every new swimmer. This is accompanied by a chin-above-water smile. Monmouth Leisure Centre unfortunately lacks dolphins, and no one takes tea underwater. Instead we just swim, minds in free fall and thinking all manner of things. 

  It is not all plain swimming though. There are the occasional distractions. Until recently we had ‘bouncing woman’. This was a lady who bounced on the spot. She spends half the year in Monmouth, the other half in Australia. I suspect she bounces her way through like some elderly Persephone. She may be bouncing her way back to us even now.

Then there is the ‘Thresher’ though some call her ‘combined harvester’. She resembles a plump beetle and takes no prisoners. Her limbs are hard and bony, unpredictable. She decapitates the unwary with a grunt. Sometimes a ‘professional’ swimmer invades our territory. Even the ‘Thresher’ is wary of them. They have heads like cannonballs, and snarl for air as their heads briefly surface.

 I’ve probably left it too late to be a professional swimmer, but I could probably teach them a thing or two about taking tea six feet below. But I wish there were dolphins. Sharks for the 'Thresher'.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Dreams and Reality

 Dreams slide glide from the conscious mind, evaporate in reality, whatever that is. Shreds remain, fish-scales that vanish in time. You may catch the dream for a moment – hold and inspect it  What was coherent and real now looks plain weird. Fragments that won't reassemble - nothing holds - which is probably as well.
There is a very thin membrane separating my dream-life from everyday reality. I feed on them, but I wouldn’t like it the other way round. A good friend of mine, an old man - once a very famous writer, is now losing it. He is still, though, a gentle and beautiful spirit.
When I visit him he tells me of armies of people walking down the stairs, clumping in the bedrooms above. He spends much of the day alone, often in the chair from which he nods in and out of sleep. His ‘real’ world has become so thin the membrane has broken and dreams intrude. They make sense to him. Sometimes they make sense to me, too. I listen to his memories which are not so far removed from dreams.
I imagine the brain stores memories and dreams in much the same way. Most people cannot remember their dreams except for an occasional fragment. Some people cannot remember ‘reality’. It would be nice to have the choice, nicer still not to grow so old you lose everything in dream.

Friday, 15 June 2012

What flavour, mate?

Narrow horizons made for hard minds and warm hearts, solidarity of family, religion and class. It was a black and white world with an occasional flash of denim blue. And then colour came and with it flower power and LSD. I dabbled in neither…apart from a pair of pink jeans and…er…a bottle green Regency jacket. 

Then the wheel turned again.

Bubbles burst slowly. It’s a relative thing. A somnolent hippy world vanished like the dream it had been.
It hit me one day in Liverpool, walking up Hardman Street on my way to the ‘Phil.’ Heron-thin sharp-boys glided by with urgency and grace. Where had they come from? And the wine bars, the cold Chardonnay. Had they always been there? I felt clumsy and old, and I was still in my twenties. 

Worse was to come. 

I returned to Liverpool throughout the eighties, each time seeing it sink further into decline. Aintree, once respectable, now saw shops with metal shutters that made them impregnable in the night. I went to my local off-license to buy wine, perhaps beer, and entered Fort Knox.  A narrow corridor led to the counter. From behind a thick grill a pair of eyes examined me:


            “Er…I’m looking for some wine.” Easy to say, difficult to do. The entire stock was hidden behind an iron-grey grill. 

            “What flavour, mate?”

            Aintree had changed.

            I went to the pub. Beer had seen me through worse times. Good beer - not the thin drizzle now served in cans – but strong beer warm and raw to the throat so you want to drink more: Bass, Walkers and Felinfoel, Brains, Abbots, Fullers, Theakstons, Bishop's Finger…Sometimes a cheeky Holstein Pils, the list goes on and on. It deserves a post of its own. And I deserve a drink.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Thoughts on a Damson

 It began with two damson trees. In the space of eight years these have proliferated to at least fifteen fresh saplings, and there would be even more if I didn’t cut the grass with metronome regularity and weed out others with trowel and spade.

 The damson tree knows know better. Its foliage is profuse, cold and heavy under grey skies, a fat, vibrant green when lavished by sun. But always busy above and below.

Every day I say to myself, I have no right to be sad or depressed. Grumpy and melancholic are much finer words so I’ll go with those. And most days I’m not. Recently, however, it’s been harder to shake off a sense of dissatisfaction when taking stock of the day, that moment before the head hits the pillow and sleep. There’s a sense I’ve done nothing, the time filled up with little things. Left to themselves inconsequentialities breed like mice and eat you up. 

Some things have to be done – like keeping my blessed damson trees in check – but other things are pointless accretions, like Face book and twitter feeds, emails – even blogs -when all these ‘displacement’ activities conspire and distract you from facing a blank screen and actually writing. The finest moments are being in ‘the zone’ when hours pass and you gradually realise you’ve created something worthwhile – something damson trees do as a matter of course. 

Pity the sad bonsai, roots and branches clipped to create something unnaturally small, a practice akin to Chinese foot-binding. In both cases others ‘create’ something from them. And that is the danger of ‘Facebook’ addiction -self inflicted - or allowing others to take too much of your time. Damson trees are boisterous, selfish and productive. 

Friday, 1 June 2012

Old Man's pocket

When I was forty, or thereabouts, I put my hand in my pocket to retrieve a comb and recoiled in disgust: Old man’s pocket. It had come early.

I pulled out tissues, some as old as trilobites, forgotten sweets with wrappers slightly soiled, a small stone, a pen-top, crumpled till receipts, a fragment of chain, chalk, more tissues, an envelope…

The memories flooded back to a time when, as a boy, I delivered beer, wine, and spirits from a black cast-iron bike, with a huge metal basket attached to its front. Every Saturday I wobbled along Warbreck Moor, delivering much needed alcohol to elderly men and quite a few women, too.

There was this old guy who invariably asked me to retrieve the money from his trouser pocket. Nightmare stuff. 

‘Arthritus,’ he said, brandishing two tobacco stained claws. 

He watched me while I fumbled; a smile on his face. It was like scrabbling in a damp waste-tip: soiled ten-shilling notes, sixpences and fluff, handkerchiefs that hadn’t seen light since Dunkirk, a half cigarette…
Every child confronts horror, and some far worse than an old man’s pocket. But I was a squeamish child.
And am I glad to use that word again? Squeamish: Great word.

But I neither squirmed nor squealed. I just counted the change and washed my hands after.
The question now, however, was had it come at last to me, prematurely early: ‘old man syndrome’? Unkempt pockets replete with ecosystem. What would happen if I was ever run over?

My mother was always concerned I had clean underwear for such an eventuality. She’d never foreseen ‘old man’s pocket.’ 

It was my Damascene moment without the blinding light. I threw the contents of my pocket into a nearby bin then searched other pockets for similar evidence of advancing senility. Emptied them out.
A minimalist would swoon at my pockets today. You could eat in them so long as you cleared up after you finished: a wallet, two keys and a comb – and pockets and pockets to spare. Better than Botox, and along with clean underwear I am now prepared for the worst.