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Saturday, 19 December 2015

Santa's Grotto

The best thing about Christmas when I was a small child was going to Santa's Grotto where in the days before paranoia set in you were allowed to sit on a strange man's knee. All the big Liverpool stores had their Grottos but my undoubted favourite was Blacklers. Getting the bus there with my mother and brother on dark and wet December day was beaten only by Christmas Day itself. And I'll say one thing more. Chocolate Selection boxes were considerably bigger than they are now!

This was Blacklers before my time and before the Blitz all but demolished it.

The new Blacklers was rebuilt in 1953 and this was how I remember it, huddled under my mum's umbrella

                                                    Not exactly Vegas but magic to us.

                                               Toys on offer. They sufficed.

                                            Though not everyone was pleased

                                           Maybe they had just seen Scary Santa!

And for those who like trivia, George Harrison worked there in 1959 as an apprentice electrician. It was a wise move opting for The Beatles for Blacklers closed in 1983

And Merry Christmas! Time to sink into reflection, indulgence and chaos. See you  in the New Year. God willing.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

A Poo Stick in a Tsunami

Some days wake you up with a bang. This week I walked to the pool for my usual early morning swim. It’s a chance to slowly wake up, walking down a long country road in darkness. It’s a melancholy business, especially in autumn, trudging through drifts of dead leaves, registering the hooting of a solitary owl as you pass the fields where old women will later unleash their dogs.

Today though was different. Today I was buffeted by wind, the tail end of Abigail, or Bertie or Clodagh or something. Britain has finally got round to naming its storms—like America.  Think it’s cool. I can’t keep abreast of it. All I know I was being tossed this way and that along with trees doing some kind of hip-hop, and waking up much faster than I wanted.

Never mind. I consoled myself with visions of a lukewarm pool, where I could rediscover my Zen.

There is pain in getting up so early. It demands military precision. But it’s all worth it because apart from owls and the odd insomniac the pool is usually empty, crowded when numbers reach four or five. You can swim through half-closed eyes imagining yourself in your own private pool, on good days, swimming in a moon-lit lagoon.

Not today. The British Olympic swimming team were there. I’m exaggerating, but these were serious swimmers, thrashing the water to within an inch of its life. What the hell were they doing there at 6.30 am? Don’t they know this is MY private pool? MY Pacific lagoon?

I slipped in between them, all thoughts of lagoons swept away. This was more like the North Sea in a Force Nine Gale. I was being tossed this way and that. Great waves of chlorinated water slapped against me. Breathing air and not water became crucially strategic, survival hung on the moment.  It was like being a poo-stick in a tsunami.

By God, I was awake when it finished. Never was forty lengths such hard work. Even when they’d gone it took some time for the water to settle. I gave them plenty of time in the showers. I needed silence and peace.

There is merit in the unexpected. Some people swear by it. And storms, the fraility of flesh against the elements. Wonderful stuff. Yes, I get that. But it was nice to be home afterwards with a strong cup of tea and no sugar.

Friday, 27 November 2015

"I'll thcream and thcream 'till I'm thick."

Puritanism and then Liberalism were two great progressive forces with two inherent weaknesses. They presupposed God, and then the equally intangible ‘Right’ were on their side. They were useful ‘weaknesses’ to have. It’s hard to argue against God or Right. They are also inherently totalitarian in a bossy, self-righteous kind of way.

The simple 'Do to others as you would have them do to you,' has been codified into abstruse lists that would make a medieval churchman proud. Some of these new, specific strictures puts the whole business on a par with Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Thus you can no longer wear any costume you like to celebrate Halloween. To suggest that you might is a sacking offence.  You shouldn’t wear Mexican Sombreros. No one in their right mind would dress up as Hitler or a Waffen SS Guard, though the great scholars have yet to pronounce on the merits of dressing up as Stalin or Mao or a zealous Red Guard.

The whole business of ‘cultural appropriation’ is riven with inconsistency. You can be criticised for dressing up as a Geisha for a promo or party, an Indian chieftain or squaw. As far as I know Vicars and Tarts remain on the menu, along with Nun stripograms, though Yoga has been considered a form cultural appropriation.

 Then there is the question of what to do about the All Blacks, the current Rugby world champions. Will there come a time when their on-field chant, the Haka, taken from the indigenous peoples their ancestors replaced be seen as ‘cultural appropriation? Presumably it should. It fits the criteria, along with shamrock, berets and kilts. 

Sometimes the new puritanism is querulous in the manner of Violet Elizabeth Bott. "I'll thcream and thcream 'till I'm thick." And if nothing else, just watch this clip of the glorious Violet Elizabeth Bott.

Sometimes the bullying is arrogant and harsh. The most outrageous example of this comes from this radio clip, which after two minutes tarnishes the tolerance it’s meant to defend.

And sometimes the bullying is both sinister and daft. Pupils at Colston Girls School in Bristol have been told not to leave the school in their uniform because they are being accosted by protesters – not against anything these twelve year old girls have actually done, but because their school is named after a dead man who derived his wealth from the slave trade. On that basis you may as well call in ISIS and have them smash half the great buildings across the western world, the various foundations and grants. It seems to me that a Statute of Limitations should be drawn on ‘Victim-hood’ and more attention focused on living victims today. But redressing the past by token gestures is by far the easiest option.

Friday, 20 November 2015

On Finding Sleep

                                           Just looking at those nails gives me nightmares too.
Do you find sleep, or does sleep find you? It’s a bit like Hide and Seek when one of the players refuses to hide, or else hides so well he or she is not found. Going to sleep is one of the great pleasures of life, the ultimate escape, and with the radio on murmuring the News, I’m usually off within ten minutes.
It’s that waking up in the small hours, that’s where the problem lies. Twice a week I’m up at 5.15 for the early morning swim, otherwise it’s a six thirty call. So what happens when you wake for no reason at say 3 a.m – or worst of tortures 4.15 and you think to yourself: can I find sleep again before I’m up in an hour’s time?
Can I find sleep?
Like hell I can.
It’s there somewhere—in the shadows—the ensuite—under the duvet, malicious and all-powerful.
Sometimes I think of the novel I’m working on. What’s going to happen next? I have no idea – the sheer unfathomable mystery invariably sends me to sleep; but now my mind wants to engage, it’s taking me seriously, and it’s the devil’s own job to shut it down again.
 Sometimes I deconstruct my body, imagine its atoms whirling in beautiful patterns, the vast spaces separating every nuclei and proton, the fact l’m more air than flesh, resting on air, sinking into strange, warm mattress-y patterns.
But then I get an itch on the edge of my non-New Age nose and it’s back to the flesh, scratching the damn thing. Minutes tick, an owl hoots, occasionally a cat or a fox yowling not hooting. Dogs are remarkably quiet at night, presumably masters of Zen. They know how to sleep.
I look at the time. Ten minutes. It seems like an hour. I think of shopping lists, lists of all kinds. Lists I never imagined making, and then my mind quietens. . .
This time it’s an ear.
Sometimes I lie on my side and stick my right arm up into the air like a deranged Yogi or anchorite. It’s always the right arm, never the left, and that gets my mind going as to why that is, and so the minutes tick by. I have no idea why I stick my arm up. I just find it strangely relaxing, the acceptable face of Yoga for those who can’t sleep.
Thirty minutes before the alarm I’m just nodding off to sleep, nose and ears for the moment quiescent; and then the bladder coughs politely: ‘I think you’ve forgotten about me.’
Ignore it.
It persists, a low, whiny nag: ‘I’m not going away, you know.’
I succumb to the inevitable but little comes out. It was just playing games, wonders why I can’t take a joke.

Sleep wonders that too, as it covers me in darkness minutes before the alarm.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The Magnificent Smollett

In this age of fear of giving offence Tobias Smollett should be compulsory reading, in particular his letters making up ‘Travels through France and Italy’. This man was a curmudgeon with a capital C, a man who makes Basil Fawlty a model of reason and sanity in comparison, a man who in 1763 embarked on a tour of France and Italy with his wife and manservant. The journey gets of to a bad start even before he leaves England:
‘I need not tell you this is the worst road in England…The chambers are in general cold and comfortless, the beds paltry, the cooking execrable, the wine poison…the publicans insolent and bills extortion…Dover is a den of thieves.’

He’s in for a treat in France.

But first he has to get there, and he’s not very impressed by the boat:
'The cabin was so small that a dog could hardly turn in it, and the beds put me in mind of the holes described in some catacombs.'

 French inns are worse, and Smollett doesn’t mince his words: (here) 'one finds nothing but dirt and imposition.' One of his hosts is ‘a true Frenchman in vanity, which is undoubtedly the ruling passion of this people.' He extolls the virtues of French food, with the exception of fish because by the time it has been transported inland is in ‘such mortified condition, that no other people except the Negroes on the coast of Guinea would feed upon it.’ At first I assumed this was an example of ignorant and misplaced certainty. And I was wrong. Smollett was a well-travelled man and there are some wonderful tidbits on the eating habits of various peoples throughout the book.

His bad tempered analysis of France is laughably unpleasant. It’s also sharp and makes clear why, twenty or so years later,there was a French revolution.
If French peasants are filthy and villainous. The French nobility fare no better:
 ‘I know not more insignificant set of mortals than the noblesse of Boulogne; helpless in themselves and useless to the community.’
This is the wonderful thing about Smollet, his scattergun offence approach. Every race and culture gets it in the neck—even as an aside:
'If there is no cleanliness among these people, much less shall we find delicacy…Indeed they are utter strangers to what we call common decency; and I could give you some high-flavoured instances, at which even a native of Edinburgh would stop his nose.' I’m guessing he’s talking about toilet habits here—and my apologies to Edinburgh.

Smollett’s indignation knows no bounds when he describes a fine lady escorted to  the ‘house of office’ by her admirer, who stands outside the door uttering pleasantries to her while she conducts her business.

As Christopher Hibbert observed: ‘Always prepared for the worst, Smollett generally succeeded in finding it.’ Perhaps that accounts for his habit of demanding the bill with his sword in one hand and his cane in another. He hates innkeepers French ones especially. Their food was ‘obnoxious’ and landlords are variously described as assassins, waiters as ‘stark staring mad.’

This is a wonderfully intemperate book and I’m still only halfway through France. Italy, in Smollett’s view is even worse. I can’t wait. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite. You enter a very special mind when you read Travels through France and Italy, and glimpse xenophobia in full and glorious flood. Smollett is in turn observant, wilful, insensitive and opinionative; above all, robust.  A Briton voicing his thoughts without looking over his shoulder. Even so, one wonders throughout what his wife thought.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Why did they burn his damn letters?

The Murenger remains my favourite pub in Newport. It is quiet, idiosyncratic (in a city that turns idiosyncracy into something worth bottling) and is a refuge for writers, or those who value a silent drink. The two, it must be said, do not go hand in hand, at least on a Thursday afternoon. There two people hold sway, William Cross and Monty Dart; two literary truffle-hounds who’ve been invaluable in the background to my forthcoming trilogy, The Gift, Bloodline, and Bloodfall.

They have turned Evan Morgan, the last Lord Tredegar, into a cottage industry and it’s impossible to avoid their enthusiasm. They scour the arcane: Kew, the Vatican Library, and the private records of the Great Houses in their quest for forgotten letters that reveal more of their quarry.

William Cross’s latest book Evan, Lord Tredegar, selected Letters, Prose, and Quotations, the Mystic Muse of Evan Frederick Morgan is a little longer than its title but packed with insight into the earthy and otherworldly lord. The full story will never be told because his most private letters and other material were hurriedly burnt on his death. Knowing what we do of Evan Morgan it’s easy to understand why.

So what do we have here?

The first part of the book treads familiar territory to those who’ve read the author’s previous books on Evan Morgan. It is in a sense an extended introduction for those new to the man. Having said that there are some new, evocative snippets, such as for example Paris just before and after the First World War.  

The real joy of the book is to be found in the letters and articles from Evan himself. I wish there were more. There are poems too. Morgan fancied himself as the reincarnation of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poems though fail to support the theory.

So what for me were the highlights?

I’d have to include Morgan’s letter to the Western Mail during the carnage of the First World War: ‘War thoughts from Algiers’. It is too long to quote in it’s entirety but to cut any part of it would dilute its purple absurdity, its na├»ve sycophancy when he praises Lloyd George, and his ‘Geddin down wid de people’ as his article reaches its climax. Perhaps a short quote then: ‘…Do we all fully appreciate him, we of the old country of the mountains? He is one of us…. We are his countrymen, have seen him, have watched him make the name of Wales ring throughout the world. What reward, what show of gratitude can we give back in exchange, we Welshmen…’
We Welshmen—this man who avoided Wales whenever possible in search of sun and young boys.

There are newspaper articles and accounts of his attempt to win a seat for the Tories in Limehouse, with another wonderful ‘Geddin down wid de people’ moment in his lyrical description of the ‘neat’ and ‘smart’ ‘inhabitants’ of Limehouse. He even boasts about dancing with them. As for his purple prosed rhapsody on the eternal glories of Catholicism… Well, the church is a vessel for sinners and navigated by them, too. So no doubt there exists a lifeboat somewhere for the generous, bitchy, idealistic, pompous sexual predator and Satanist: Evan Morgan.