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Grandparents’ Day…or what I did on the way. 1.

11 May

My little and lovely grandson Seb had invited me to his school, yesterday, for a special Grandparents’ Day. Despite the obvious and sugary PR intention of the exercise, I was all too eager to attend! The prospect of inspecting the work of a darling 5 year old, putative Einstein was delicious, as was the promise of tea with scones and jam.

Before embarking on the somewhat complicated route of car, train, tube, tube, bus, walk, a call came in from my daughter. I braced myself for cancellation but worse news was in store. She revealed that games afternoon had been cancelled to fit the old gits tea party into the schedule. Seb was distraught that his games kit had to stay in the wardrobe so Granddad could come and sip tea and scrutinize his scribblings. Meltdown.

With a slightly heavy heart I boarded the 11.50 from Staplehurst to Charing Cross. Only 4 coaches and rather packed with the grey-hair and blue-rinse brigade on the senior railcard jaunt to Fortnum’s. The tables in my carriage were taken and foiled packages were opened. Half-eaten sandwiches and, indeed, a couple of thermoses caught my eye as I made my way to a vacant two-seater. I settled in. I was looking forward to the last few chapters of A Station on the Path to Somewhere by Ben Wood, a startling account of a dark journey taken by a 12 year old boy, Daniel. In adulthood he attends a therapy group. The avuncular therapist advised the group to …stop viewing the present as a continuation of our past and see it instead as the beginning of our future. As I was mulling on the importance of this soundbite – slogan or profound? relevance to bloody Brexit, Manchester United, me?…a ringtone shattered the silence. Don’t Stop Me Now. Freddie Mercury boomed down the arthritic aisles as we chugged into Paddock Wood station. A woman under 60 behind me, fumbled in her bag. It took her until I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball before she found the thing. Then Yeah I can talk, I’m on the train. As usual we then had the benefit of a loud and self-important conversation about delivery schedules and office gossip. I sighed audibly. This was a time for my 65p i newspaper, not a weighty novel.

As the linguistic space around me continued to be dominated by the thick-skinned Yak behind, I skimmed the rag. Breakthrough in treatment of heart attack victims; Danny Baker; Farage; the queue of chancers lining up for Mother Theresa’s job when she finally falls on her sword; University funding set to slide after Brexit; Beckham banned from driving for using his phone while driving his Bentley. And so on. Only the heart story raised my spirits.

Already regretting that I hadn’t turned to the back page first, I turned over to page 19. David Schneider’s article: How to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. Schneider is an actor and comedian. He explains himself clearly and has the advantage of being Jewish which enables an authentic perspective in these tricky days of finger pointing in and at the Labour Party. Schneider basically says be careful and clear about what you say and mean when you talk about stuff. Example: Avoid saying Zionist or Zionism when discussing contemporary Israel/Palestine. The terms are too loaded and broad in their application, often used by anti-Semites to mean simply Jews. Benjamin Netanyahu is a Zionist but so are Israeli lawyers and peace activists fighting to achieve justice for Palestinians.

And so he went on in a clear and measured way. I felt better-informed. I don’t know enough about the middle east and I would be very wary of offering opinions without getting a better grasp of identities, what has gone on and what is going on.

In part what drew me to the piece was my recent readings from Seven Pillars of Wisdom. What an amazing grasp of tribe and culture and identity T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) developed in the time of the Arab revolt during the First World War. Are our politicians and their advisors at all equipped to make life and death decisions for those whose lives and culture they can hardly fathom?

The walking sticks were on the move. Charing Cross. I stuffed my paper into my backpack and head, with the creaking army, for the toilets. Such a joy that they are free, so no fumblings for change required. The many urinals were in heavy demand and there, in the middle of the throng was a spikey-haired woman, mopping the floor. She stepped aside as I shimmied to my bowl. I wondered, idly, if there was a man in the ladies doing the same thing. Doubtful. Looking around I saw no one batting an eyelid. Modern times.

I came out into the sun and, with time to kill, went for a stroll on the Victoria Embankment Gardens. The office workers were bathed in sunshine as they ate their tubs of tuna and sweetcorn salad or delved into goody bags for whatever had taken their fancy in EAT or Pret. I noticed that the park benches had been sectioned into three or four, so that you don’t have to sit next to anyone; you can be perfectly isolated with an armrest to left and right. I settled in one such, spurted diet coke over my trousers and watched the world go by.

Things fall apart…

5 Feb

I was enjoying the birthday party of a female friend recently when a naked stallion of a waiter offered me a canapé. His appendage was swinging beneath a skimpy apron. Most of the women present were taking detours to check out his buttocks and pecs. This burlesque seemed to amuse – and in my case bemuse – the party goers without shrieks of outrage bouncing off the walls. Recent stuff leapt to mind : The Presidents’ Club; #Me Too, in black dresses; Payback time at the BBC; Jenny Murray in overdrive on Women’s Hour; F1 dolly-girls losing their jobs.

Strange times. ‘Seems’, madam. Nay it is. I know not ‘seems’. Hamlet’s response to his newly remarried mother suggests that he knows the truth of the tangled web of human motivation but, as his tale plays out it is his confusion, the wrecking of order, which deranges him.

We tread on eggshells these days, a false word here or there draws disapproving looks – and worse. The abuse and shaming of headteacher Neena Lall and the sacking of West Ham’s director of recruitment, Tony Henry are examples of how our little corner of the world is closing in on us. All our sayings and doings must be cleansed and sanitized by the right-on police from the sex-politics-race-religion gestapo which seeks to root out and stone any voice which counters its one-eyed, sanctimonious and febrile self-righteousness.

 

Much as I like to snort with derision at Colonel Blimp-Rees-Mogg, the jostling and condemnation which he suffered last week is part of a growing trend to silence those whose views don’t fit with a militant concensus. Brexit and Trump and the instabilities across the world have given way to an intolerance of which only a fraction is worthy. It’s right to want equality for men and women, it’s right to support religious tolerance – but the way in which the good fight is fought is as important as the cause.

That means understanding and tolerating context, history, old and young, culture, national identities, ethnicity, sex, race…the lot. The mildest of views are condemned on social media. Truth has become something to fear in some cases – or at least shy away from. If I say that the Welsh are more passionate about rugby than the English, I am likely to get away with it. If I pass comment  on different ethnic, cultural, sexually oriented or religious groups, my views can be deemed illegitimate and I will be attacked, abused and might lose my job. Eggshells indeed.

Hamlet’s confusion at seeing his mother leap into bed with his father’s murderer, scrambles his mind. His grasp of reality and the values of decency and love and honour with which he grew are blown apart. His world has become virtual where nothing is what it seems. Something catastrophic has to happen for order to be restored. A blood-letting.

The title of this little essay is Things Fall Apart, taken from W.B. Yeats’s famous poem, The Second Coming. Yeats speculates on what sort of world Jesus Christ would find if he chose to visit us for a second time. Written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, the opening stanza seems prescient. In the post-truth age are we able to sort out the real from the unreal?

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Another reading year…

10 Jan

Here again my reading list for 2017. Fewer than previous years. I must have become distracted by the joy of world events. I still don’t get round to enough non-fiction but Martin Amis’s collection The Rub of Time is first on my list.

Friends of mine have done so well to publish in the last twelve months. I lag behind but 2018 may prove a watershed. Watch this space…

Books 2017

Poems of my Life: My Grandmother

2 Jan

Grandmothers. We all have them. The pair allotted to me were rather distant. One didn’t intend to be, the other did. Nanna was my English granny, my mother’s mother; Farmor my Danish one. The former was a kindly but self-absorbed depressive lady; the latter a rather cold Cruella.

So many years on from their deaths, I find Elizabeth Jennings’s poem the first to come to mind when thinking of my grandmothers. It has nothing to do with them – and everything. Were I to write a granny-verse, I’d focus on my Nanna. She and my grandfather (Poppa) lived in a flat above a gentlemen’s outfitters. The sense-impressions of that poky pad teem. The mustiness of granny-smells: Gifty the mangy dog; old-lady perfume; cigarettes and pipes; over-steamed vegetables; seaweed by the front door; barometer to tap by the stairs; outside toilet an Bronco paper fro big jobs; damp blankets and counterpane, brylcream-stained antimacassars; ashtray stands with spin-away push buttons to make the stubs disappear; spare teeth in a glass by the bureau; complete Dickens and Encyclopedia Britannica hiding in a glass-front bookcase; ash hanging precipitously from Nanna’s lip (she would set herself alight more than once before her time was up)….I miss that stale, musty, can-only-be-Nanna smell. Despite not really being that close to her in her self-absorbtion, there are times when I catch a sense of her in a Victorian print, the scent as an elderly woman walks by, a look of despair. And in this poem.

MY GRANDMOTHER BY ELIZABETH JENNINGS

She kept an antique shop – or it kept her.
Among Apostle spoons and Bristol glass,
The faded silks, the heavy furniture,
She watched her own reflection in the brass
Salvers and silver bowls, as if to prove
Polish was all, there was no need of love.

And I remember how I once refused
To go out with her, since I was afraid.
It was perhaps a wish not to be used
Like antique objects. Though she never said
That she was hurt, I still could feel the guilt
Of that refusal, guessing how she felt.

Later, too frail to keep a shop, she put
All her best things in one narrow room.
The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished. There was nothing then
To give her own reflection back again.

And when she died I felt no grief at all,
Only the guilt of what I once refused.
I walked into her room among the tall
Sideboards and cupboards – things she never used
But needed; and no finger marks were there,
Only the new dust falling through the air.

 

What are you thinking about? Nothing?

30 Dec

Here is an extract from my much-awaited first novel. Edwin is brushing his teeth on the morning of his birthday and thinking about not revealing his thoughts.

As he pondered mid- brushing, he digressed into that minefield of what thoughts and actions we normal people would never admit to. For example, at 11 this morning when his mother, keen to kill him with conversation,  would ask what he had  done so far today, would he include: contemplating masturbation and not shaving; putting plastic into the green bin; collecting his prescription for statins; the fierce argument with his ex-wife whose birthday call was a poisoned dart masquerading as a friendly pat; putting washer fluid in the wiper system of his car; chatting to Phil next door about how mossy his lawn had become; getting an earful from a hoodie whose snorting gob on the pavement he had tutted at? All these things were to happen in the next two hours but pass unremarked upon.  Ed recalled the times without number that mothers and lovers had asked the unanswerable ‘What are you thinking?’ The word nothing is a shortening of ‘Everything and nothing’ which is a further reduction from ‘Everything that is on my mind at the moment which is of private concern to me and nothing to do with you or anyone else – or if it is, it would be hurtful to say.’ Nothing is a much better way of saying ‘Mind your own fucking business’.

Most of what we think we don’t reveal – and we don’t want to. Practically it would be impossible to convey the information of the teeming synapses of our thoughts anyway. Much of thought doesn’t fit language either so explaining ourselves is clunky, hard. Most thoughts come unbidden and are wildly irrelevant to what we are doing, saying and thinking at the time. Inappropriate even. You know what I mean. With our nearest and dearest, in our most intimate moments, embarrassingly odd thoughts gatecrash the party and create a zeitgeist that’s impossible to share.

So my character Edwin is not alone in his reflections on his inner and outer worlds. And it is true that the most common answer to the question , ‘What are you thinking?’ is ‘Nothing.’ We can’t be bothered to explain the idiocy of our thoughts. We might upset and embarrass ourselves and others. We might reveal ourselves in an unflattering light. The reasons are endless but, perhaps, the main one is that we don’t want anyone to have unlimited access to our private world. We don’t like the idea that someone else might understand us as well as we do ourselves. So we hide, conceal, don’t reveal.

When I was masterminding an internal ‘audit’ of a school’s pastoral system, a pupil questionnaire included the statement: There is an adult at school who knows and understands me well and I would trust. Then the tick boxes ranging from strong disagreement to strong agreement. When we analysed the responses we found that almost all responses waxed lyrical about the school’s care – save for this one. When we delved a little we realised that 14/15 year olds don’t necessarily think adults know and understand them well. We changed the question of course.

We adults are no different are we? We like to think of ourselves as unique. Well we are because we don’t change too much from cradle to grave. My dear mother, who died this year, was an expert in asking the what are you thinking question when we were growing up. She used it at times to provoke; at times to show care. Just a few months before she died I was driving her home after Sunday lunch and to fill our companionable silence, I asked the question: what are you thinking?

She looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Nothing.’

‘Really?’ I asked.

‘Done enough thinking,’ she said and we continued on our silent journey.

2014 – My year in books.

29 Dec

Books 2014 Here is my 2014 list – 54 books in all. The Devil does find work for my idle hands and I have page-turned a-plenty. Less reading, more blogging in 2015.

I read the news today…oh boy

21 Nov

…..About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad:

The good and great of Rochester and Strood

Had caught the media-nation mood

And made their choice – a man called Reckless,

A turning coat, now purple, feckless.

From his Farage he has persuaded

That Brits of Kent shall be invaded,

Swamped, trampled by the  immigrant,

Such a silly, sad…compelling rant.

The aftermath..well let’s just guess…

Dreadful news for the NHS.

 

And on to the Shadow Attorney General

Whose cabinet days have proved ephemeral.

Her name suggests both sharp and sweet

But bloody stupid, too, to tweet.

 

And next the rapist wants to play,

He’s done his time is what some say

But moral hackles, rising high

Have writ quite large on Sheffield’s sky:

If  that bastard isn’t banned

We’ll rename Jessica Ennis’s stand.

 

No need to move from home work station

To find bad news from other nations

Lots to keep us weeping here

Ne’er mind Hammas, Putin, North Korea.

I read the news today oh boy,

Let’s hope the morrow brings more joy.

 

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