Of Rats and Men. Of Cabaret, Camus – and Ben

It’s a risk you take when you marry an academic – having worrying conversations over dinner.

I married an anthropologist. But it doesn’t really matter what his discipline is, as far as chit-chat is concerned. Because his daily toil exposes him to such a range of interesting research that you never know what the day’s topic will be.

For example, animal behaviourism.

The other night I cooked a mild, fruity chicken curry. I finished mine well before the anthropologist. He was too busy talking to eat.

A presentation that afternoon, on rat research, had made a deep impression.

The rats, he explained, were being put through various exercises, involving food, to explore their willingness to share and cooperate.

The rodents soon learned that they could obtain more food, not just for themselves, but also for their ratty friends, by pulling a lever. So they did. Cooperative behaviour was displayed.

In the first exercise the rats could all see each other.

The next step was to put up barriers so they couldn’t see each other but could hear and smell each other. And yes, they still helped each other feed their ratty faces.

Next, they circulated the air so they couldn’t smell each other.


The rats stopped cooperating.

At this point I was plainly supposed to say, ‘hmmm, that’s interesting’. Which I did. Then I added, ‘did the air being sucked out make a lot of noise?’

But what I should have asked – and what, because of the title, some of you might be asking – is, were the rats representative of both genders?

And the triumphant response would have been: no!

They were all female.

The next step, therefore, was to start testing male rats.

Well. Guess what?

Male rats are selfish.

Male rats don’t seem to want or need allies.

I suppose I wasn’t surprised but the thought began to worry me.

Because rodents – mostly it’s mice and rats – react like humans in many, many ways. Which is why they are so widely used for research.

If you follow the logic, then, this male rat behaviour might suggest that men don’t feel the need for networks of cooperation. For friends even.

Our dinner table discussion moved on to more familiar anthropological ground. With worrying examples of how in societies, as they become larger – too large for hunter-gather style group scrutiny to work – males can become more individualistic, uncooperative and … aggressive.

And yesterday, as I thought further about this analogy between rats and men some unwelcome images came to mind.

As if on cue a sinister cartoon appeared in one of our popular daily newspapers. A nasty portrayal of  refugees (some obviously Muslim) flooding into Europe, with rats scurrying between their feet.

The ‘Twittersphere’ went ballistic (yes, the military-industrial-complex reference is intentional).

Old copies of cartoons from Nazi era Germany were resurrected and pictured side-by-side with the new cartoon. A comment from a 1930s edition of the same paper was circulated, revealing that its xenophobic editorial attitudes had remained horribly consistent.

And I thought about a book I studied for a French exam at school: La Peste, (The Plague), by Albert Camus. A French book, set in France’s former colony, Algeria, written by a Frenchman born in Algeria.

The novel revolves around an epidemic of plague that invades the town of Oran in north Africa, carried by rats. It studies the effects of fear and isolation – quarantine – on the community.

It could hardly be more relevant today.


The foreigner, the other.

There seems to have been a perennial equation of rats with evil – with invasions, disease, disgust, fear, loathing.

But the images used in the cartoons depict hordes. And I thought back to the early findings of that research on male rats. They did not cooperate. Male rats did not, so to speak, need friends.

At which point, I’m afraid, a song popped into my head.

Do you remember a song called ‘Ben’ by Michael Jackson?

It’s a slushy, sentimental ballad and very, very odd.

I suspect I’m not the only one who wasn’t aware, on first hearing the song, that it was rat-related. Yes, the Ben to whom Jackson croons is a rat. A rat in a horror film.

Some of the words are quite unsettling.*

One line reminds me of a chilling moment in the film Cabaret, set in Germany in the last days of the Weimar Republic, as the Nazi party flexes its growing muscles. The creepy Emcee, played brilliantly by Joel Grey, stage-whispers about his gorilla girlfriend, ‘she doesn’t look Jewish at all’.

I’m mortified to admit that when I first saw the film I missed that line completely. Though, of course, the film stood without it. But now, as I think about it, it sends a shiver down my spine. Because, while it is always relevant, people forget. And now, we would do well to remember.

Among the anxious Western Europeans worrying about terrorists, some would have us believe ‘Muslims’ are all something other, something not like us.

That cartoon with the rats may have been intended to awaken those historical fears in a good way. To remind us that fear makes us do bad things. Or simply to associate evil terrorists with rats. I hope so.

But some will not see it that way. And it’s frightening to see the extremes to which some people will go.

Refugees are people.

Muslims are people.

We are one race, all of us, all people.

And, yes, there will always be bad people.

But if we isolate ourselves, like those rats in that experiment, it becomes only too easy to ignore others. To believe they are different. Even to envisage – or desire – the extermination of the other. Like rats.

I’m a lousy historian, but there are some lessons I never will forget.


*Read the lyrics here: http://www.metrolyrics.com/ben-lyrics-michael-jackson.html or listen to a poignant Oscars performance by Michael Jackson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1dAQN5QcZU

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Lady in the Van meets a surfeit of anoraks

There’s something disturbing about modern cinemas, y’know.

Have you tried shedding a surreptitious tear in one?

It’s light enough to see, that’s the problem. Yes, you can find your seat without crippling half the audience – or yourself – in the process, but the intimacy of the dark – it is no more.

I sort of imagined that, what with the crowd being predominantly beyond middle aged and more than 50% female, a few other folks might be blubbing, but no. So I held my breath and dabbed as unobtrusively as I could at the tears.

I was terrified I might actually sob.

But I was brave. I coped.

I loved the film. Maggie Smith is superb. But I was also skewered by the twin Alan Bennetts. A writer (Alan) and a person (Alan) living his life – or not, as author Alan jibed. Piercing as only self can pierce the self. (Well we are talking writers, here.)

I came out happier in an odd kind of way. Determined to finish my latest book (76,000 words now) and basking in the glow of a few kind words uttered by a few kind people over the years.

Yes, more than once my writing has been likened – I blush to say it – to that of Alan Bennett. And having seen the film, I shudder to think what would happen if a van turned up outside – I can just imagine …

And then, what would the neighbours think?

(Dear friend who’s contemplating buying a van and living in it – you know who you are. Please, don’t paint it yellow, with a dish mop, if ever you plan to visit.)

But, seriously, I think what those people meant, when they said it, was that I notice what ordinary people do in ordinary situations. I notice ordinary things happening.

And I suspect those people are also the kind of people who smile a small smile at the mention of Alan Bennett’s name – and categorise him as gentle. The kind of author one sets alongside tea and a toasted teacake, in a genteel tea room in Harrogate, at half past three in the afternoon.

Well, if they do, the might try reading The Laying on of Hands. I found it at the bottom of a box when we moved and realised I hadn’t read it. Cosy? Forget the tea and teacake. A little vial of vinegar, perhaps?

And as for me. Well, my book is giving me nightmares. I mean that – the sleep-related kind.

Causing me to reassess a lot of things I’ve quashed in mental self-defence for many years.

Warfare, nuclear weapons, protest. The people we trust and the assumptions underpinning the world of the everyday.

And that’s why this post is short. And why there haven’t been so many just lately. I think I should get on with it.

If ever it makes it to film (I, who should know better, the optimistic pessimist, still live in hope), then I doubt if the audience will be composed, as Sunday’s was, almost entirely of elderly men and women wearing anoraks.

I mean, yes, it was raining. But anoraks? Some, even, matching?

And yet – I noticed something odd amid the rustle of showerproof zip-ups.

Red – solid red – has gone.

Where once every ramble was punctuated by visions of mature heads nodding a greeting above matching red anoraks, now they are navy blue, fawn, or black.


What was I wearing?

I, dear readers, was wearing my expensive, resorted-to-in-desperation, navy blue raincoat with distinctive white buttons.

Fortunately, the pockets were full of tissues. I could have passed spares around if needed.

But they weren’t.

I wonder why no-one else cried?

Alan Bennett, no doubt, would know.

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Read all abaht it! (with a fluffy surprise at the end)

One of the first things I used to set up when doing any kind of PR campaign was a media monitoring service.

The next step was usually disagreeing with whoever was paying for it.

Because what the men at the top (I never had a female client) usually regarded as successful PR was featuring in, or on, the media they themselves read, listened to or watched.

Yes, what top men valued were the elite, small circulation, low-audience media. The ‘opinion former’ and ‘influencer’ media, not the ones that influenced a majority of the population.

I understand. It’s easy to ignore what you don’t respect or like. And social media have perfected the process. Just click what you like and block what you don’t want to see. Easy peasy. Erect a big fence round your comfort zone.

Someone related to me unfriended me earlier this year on Facebook. We’re polar opposites on the political spectrum but he assures me that’s not the reason – he just wants to restrict his ‘friending’ to family. By which I have to assume he means his own blood relatives.

I thought I might be offended, but I’m not. I must be growing up at last.

I tell you this because I’m interested in what we regard as normal, what’s acceptable in this cowardly new online world.

I’m interested in this all-devouring online society of ours and what it’s doing to our social tolerances. And to where we harvest our news.

I’ve found my own group of ‘friends’ on Facebook widening – for practical reasons – to include people even I find radical as my involvement in a refugee aid movement grows. So now I see more than I seek – but, I like it. I feel my boundaries shifting.

Which is why I decided to tackle the ‘echo chamber’ effect of Twitter. It’s so easy for me to agree with you and follow you; then you follow me; then we follow the same media, celebs, commentators, etc – so our shared opinions reverberate endlessly in the same selective space.

So I followed a load of people with whom I profoundly disagree.

Next I decided we needed to revise our choice of weekend newspapers.

For years we’ve been getting a conservative one and a lefty one each day, for balance.

Recently the lefty one left me (ha, sorry) sighing with frustration as it turned its back on the new, genuinely lefty, leader of the Labour party.

Plus, the items featured in its magazine are so hysterically expensive it has me foaming at the mouth. Not a good thing when you’re eating a croissant with strawberry jam.

So now, on Saturday, we take that old establishment standby, The Times, complete with ‘Court Circular’, and, for balance, the independent Independent. On Sunday it’s also the Independent, plus the supposedly lefty but anti-Corbyn Observer.

Weekdays I used to start the day with the radio, then Twitter, no paper. Then one day something hit me right between my surprisingly (to me) biased eyes.

The Morning Star. More accurately, @M_Star_Online.

The Morning Star, formerly the Daily Worker, was founded in 1930 by the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s now broadly left, reader-owned, but still retains Communist roots. Which of course in the normal world of middle class, middle aged, educated people translates into BAD.

And what really struck me like a wet fish as I scrolled down my Twitter feed, was this:
Yes, the Morning Star has a poetry editor.

Does any other national newspaper possess such a thing?

I don’t know.

But it was enough to set me off.

I decided to try it out, just Monday to Friday.

I did get into a bit of a hot sweat when I first thought about it.

Would everyone think I was a Trotskyist?

Would I be put on a national register of subversives?

If I was, would it matter?

After all, I’ve already lost one Conservative Facebook friend – and I’m feeling just fine ;-)

Well, my newsagent didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked him to order it (though he did keep his head bowed low over the counter).

DSCN1171But, just in case the country’s headlong dive into fascist dictatorship happens more quickly than I anticipate, I decided we’d get the i (a mini-version of the Independent) too. Make it clear that we’re just crazy, multi-newspaper reading eccentrics.

It has so far been, and I hope will continue to be, a fascinating experience.

I enjoy the i’s concise crossword when it arrives home, battered, from the daily commute into Liverpool.

And the breadth of coverage in the very small, cash-poor Morning Star is, genuinely, extraordinary and livens up my lunch break.

The word ‘comrade’ crops up now and again, it’s true – but the titbits I glean from all around the world are truly educational. And the points of view expressed are rarely seen elsewhere.

All of which is making me reassess those norms we all accept all our life. Or rather, norms I’ve accepted all my life.

As in:

Morning Star – ooh – scary – Commie – bad-unacceptable.

Daily Telegraph/Times – establishment- respectable – good -acceptable.

So the Morning Star has become acceptable – to me.

But what of the good, acceptable Telegraph? Well, look at this,  a political party leader ridiculed on its front page using remembrance day poppies … as exposed to non-readers by the Artist Taxi Driver (a performance artist, find his work on You Tube). artist

It’s a really interesting topic, this and way too much (already) for a short post.

But I’m going to leave you with a rather more independent view of our media. A fun one.

I decided to look up reader profiles for all the papers we’re reading now, here:


They all have one thing in common with the Daily Telegraph reader. Yes, even the Commie Morning Star.

Their profiled readers’ pet of choice is …

a cat.

We, by the way, have no pets.

And if we did, it would be a dog.

A Jack Russell.*

That’s radicals for you. You just can’t pin us down. ;-)


*Sorry, Elvis

Elvis, Texas's most idiosyncratic cat

Elvis, Texas’s most idiosyncratic cat


Posted in Britain now & then, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Romantic ruins and inner visions

I’m elitist and snobby. Unadventurous. Uncultured.

And worse.

They’re just a few of the things I’ve been accused of being. No, not by trolls, nor disgruntled readers. This is some of my friends I’m talking about.


Because I’ve not seen ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films. Or ‘The Hobbit’ films.

And you know what? I never, ever will unless someone handcuffs me to a chair, tapes my eyes open and forces me. And then, trust me, I will sing ‘la la la’ throughout and forever hate him or her, whoever it is.

When I was very young I read – and loved – ‘The Hobbit’. A little older and I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for the first time. The first of many times. So many times my original copy (all the books in one volume) fell apart and I had to buy a new one.

But it is a bit of a Marmite thing, ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Someone I know (you know who you are) calls Marmite the Devil’s earwax. There are probably people who think ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is … well, best not go there, perhaps.

But, it seems either you either love it – or think it’s sad, silly and childish.

When I was eight ‘The Hobbit’ was deemed appropriate. A children’s book, read by a child.

By the time I reached my teens and became one of many fans of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, a bit of a backlash was beginning, notably in the USA where ‘Bored of the Rings’ took off in 1969.

Even way back then, some merchandise was circulating – though I only recall posters. I had one, of Shadowfax. Still have it. But a poster of a white horse and generic wizardy bloke wasn’t enough to spoil my inner vision.

You see, that’s why I won’t see the films.

The book – its characters and its settings, its rugged mountains, dwarves and elves and Ents – has taken root in my imagination. I have my own vision of Tolkien’s Middle Earth – I don’t want anyone else’s.

So when, on Sunday, in Cheshire, I hear:

‘Tom Bom, Jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!’

the jolly, lusty voice in my head is the voice I imagine. The bounding chap in yellow boots – who isn’t there, but could be – he’s the figure I imagine.

The biggest of the many trees around me are not just oaks but Ents – my image of Ents.

We’re walking in woods. They’re wrapped like a scarf around the base of a castle mound.

I’m captivated by the ancient oaks. I don’t even try to take a picture. It would be an intrusion. The real image could never be captured.

It’s as if the Ents are making ready to speak.


Telling me their image is too slow, too old, too living to imprison in pixels and bytes.

I suppose it’s the castle making me feel all fairy tale and romantic. Ruins do that, don’t you find, when the weather is right? Misty, thundery, moonlit – or gorgeously autumnal, like today.


Climbing up to Beeston Castle

Beneath the jagged castle’s beaten battlements lie remnants of Bronze and Iron Age settlements.

Humans have long lived here – you can sense it. The site feels deep, dense with once-lived moments – and still alive.

Teeming with natural life, if not – any longer – with humans. Except for tourists.

Part of a gatehouse

Part of a gatehouse


The castle was destroyed in our civil war. Parliamentarians versus Royalists, the interpretation boards call them – I knew them as Cavaliers and Roundheads.

Whatever their names, they fought each other, there was a siege, the building was ravaged – and who knows who really won in the long, long run. Except nature.

As befits a fortress, the climb up is fairly steep – but nothing compared with drop beneath the bridge that spans the gaping defensive ditch to the castle itself.

That ditch goes a long way down!

That ditch goes a long way down!

‘Sheer drop’ says the notice. No kidding. It’s terrifying.

Eyes straight ahead, hand clasping the cold metal rail, I try hard to think of something nice. Like lunch.

DSCN1124 (2)






It’s worth the fear for the views.

A hazy day, but even so, there’s Liverpool, twenty two miles away and both cathedrals visible – just – to the naked eye.

There’s Jodrell Bank’s huge radio-telescope.

And there – the Welsh Mountains.DSCN1135

Vistas stretching in all directions.

A strategic location, close to a border – one of those invisible man-made lines on a map that tend to encourage conflict.

Dropping down, towards the base of the mound, the woods begin.

A strange, large black bird makes an odd call, impossible to describe. Then it clicks its beak, quickly, a sound like an expert knitter, plying metal needles.

Perhaps it isn’t a real bird. Perhaps it’s a witch’s familiar – or an emanation, a ghostly rara avis?

It’s this place. These woods. They’re enchanting, if not enchanted.

I stand, dumbstruck, before a vast oak. Huge, barrel of a trunk bristling with former branches. Dark, gnarled limbs bared by the dying foliage as it descends.


Off the path, a clutch of fungus

The path beneath our feet glows yellow and orange, leaves outlined in blackness – the dark soil. Created by centuries of leaves dying. Being eaten by worms. Excreted as a life-giving food for the greenery that will burst forth next spring.

Acorns crunch underfoot.

And so branches become trees …

Some trees have fallen – but are still rooted. Just. Enough so that what should be branches now shoot upright like small young trees. Seeking the sun above the birches and beeches, hollies and hawthorns.

English Heritage runs the site.

They’re losing Government funding and we decide to join. We’ll drop the National Trust. Seen plenty of stately homes.

We’ll make do (happily) with ruins and earthworks. Places imagination can roam free.

And who knows what lurks within

And who knows what lurks within

With isolated chapels and ghostly barrows.

Barrow wights? Yes, I’ve imagined them, too.

All of a sudden the world turns cold.

Imagination – a powerful, personal thing.

[And I haven’t seen Titanic, either, btw.]

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The customer is always – irrelevant?

Here in Britain one of our oldest shops is Marks and Spencer. It started life in Leeds, Yorkshire, as a market stall. By the time I was a child it had become a well-loved and respected chain selling knitwear and knickers – in which a label proclaiming its ‘St Michael’ sub-brand was sewn.

It was a proud boast that almost everything was made in Britain. Women (mostly) wanted to work there because of the employee perks – hairdressing, physiotherapy, chiropody and free uniforms.

Treating its staff like valuable assets paid them back in spades. Its reputation radiated out from its employees and their families, not just its products.

A little while ago I stood in our local Marks and Sparks (one nickname) in a queue for the checkout – because M&S does food nowadays. I was behind several people with large loads in their trolleys.

Just two checkouts were open, both with long queues.

To one side was a large area in which several slow-moving, confused people attempted to use the self-service tills.

In front of the self-service tills was a line of fast checkouts. They were all closed. I guessed they’d be opened at lunchtime to serve the snack-and-hurry-back brigade.

A slim young man in a dark suit stood watching, behind a desk with a computer monitor.

There were very few members of staff in evidence and their task was to help the off-peak shoppers, mostly elderly people, who weren’t able to cope with the new-fangled self-service payment system.

Perhaps like me, they had gone seeking the fast checkouts only to find they were closed and couldn’t – unlike me – face going back to join the long queues behind stuffed trolleys at the two open checkouts.

Being a bit bolshy when occasion demands, I approached slim-young-man-behind-desk.your-ms-logo-black

‘Why don’t you open some tills, it would save time and be much easier?’

He turned a gaze on me that could’ve turned a butterfly to stone.

‘We want them to get used to these.’

And turned back to his monitor.

End of.

In our local Co-op it’s much the same story. One till open. Four self-service tills. And two members of staff being called in every two minutes to help the people who almost always do something wrong and need help making their purchases.

But it’s not just food shopping – and before I leave it, yes, I know, some people like the anonymous self-serving option.

Anyway – onto other stuff.

I do my share of online shopping. I like being able to order four pairs of shoes for delivery to our local branch.

I don’t have to hope they’ll have my size, I know they will.

I don’t have to pay up front.

I can try them on in the shop, send them back if they don’t fit – and probably buy something else in the process.

But there are times when it just doesn’t work that way …

Autumn is here – and I need a new raincoat.

I want to see what styles are around, to try a few on, see what suits me best. Choose a colour.

I go to John Lewis – that much lauded middle-class establishment that shares its profits with its employees. But that doesn’t make it cuddly. Oh, no. It isn’t a cooperative, nor a charity, it’s a profit making business.

I drive seventeen miles. Park in an expensive car park.

And arrive to find they’re renovating.

I walk around the limited space allocated to ‘fashion’, assuming that the stock is limited because of the work.

‘Where are the macs* – please?’ I ask a nice person in uniform. (A member of staff, btw, not a police officer.)

She takes me to one furry parka. Um – not what I had in mind, no thanks.

One padded effort that reminds me of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. Um (again) – no thanks.

And one really smart raincoat that I like but won’t try on – it’s way too expensive.

‘Have they put the raincoats away for the time being,’ I ask, ‘are they coming back when the work’s complete?’

‘We won’t have a section of raincoats,’ she smiles condescendingly, ‘but you can see them all online. We’re just not going to keep them in-store [aargh hate that expression] any more.’

Reader, after trudging the shops for a further hour, gaining a blister (new shoes) and discovering no-one sells raincoats any more, I ended up buying the expensive mac.

It’s very nice.

It should be.

I was harrumphing about this yesterday as I stood, wearing aforesaid new raincoat,  outside a local bank that’s due to close its doors on 19 November.

People were readily signing the protest petition that three of us were proffering. Hopeless – but hey, it eases the frustration.

Almost everyone agreed it was a shame and that this – the fourth bank to close in our urban village – was likely to be very bad news not just for local customers but for the commercial life of the village.

One man said, ‘How much profit do they actually want? Why not spend some of it on giving their customers what they want?’

You know, I couldn’t have put it better myself.



Posted in Britain now & then, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

There’s a hole in my heart where Mary used to be

Saturday night. The last train home.

The station’s bright and light. The sound of squiffy silliness peppers the air.

There’s no menace, no riotous shouting. No spitting, or pissing, or – you know – any of those ‘I wish I’d gone home earlier’ kind of things.

The train pulls in. My friend from Leeds (I’ve known her 42 years – eek) and Anthro-man and I pile into a four-seater space and relax. Well, mostly.

The evening began at six in the bar at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel. A reunion of college friends. Since then much wine has been taken. And paella eaten.

Conversation between the fifteen of us has roamed around the world, bounced off politics, given religion a wide berth. Struggled back to earth again. And of course we’ve resorted to gossip – but shhh, don’t tell.

The three of us have left the rest digesting – making ready for city hotel rooms or adventures in late night bars.

And so here we are, three old friends, sitting in a metal tube with random, diverse strangers. Alert to intimations of imminent excess – of mood, of danger, or just familiarity.

This being Liverpool, we don’t have long to wait.

The train is blessed by the presence of some very merry people.

A young-ish man with a not-very-hipster beard parades up and down. He’s in a section of the carriage close enough for us to be amused – but also a little worried. Too close for comfort.

He sits on the knee of a woman with pale grey hair. She seems tolerant – and semi-amused – and keeps her hands well away. He tries other knees, as if it’s a game of squeak-piggy-squeak at a little boy’s birthday party.

Soon enough he’s bored and back to wandering round.

But at least he’s quiet, I’ll say that for him.

Unlike the two women – one of them plainly called Mary.

I can’t quite work out their age. Late thirties? Maybe forty or more?

They’re well beyond tipsy and into seriously inebriated – but mobile, laughing and somehow quite charming with it.

Not-Mary runs towards us.

You know how it is with a drunk – she starts off walking as if she can’t quite move her legs, as if they don’t belong, then suddenly they’re sprinting, with a mind of their own.

She staggers past us and slumps, face down, across the knees of two women sitting across the aisle, behind us. Stays there, her bottom sticking out into the aisle.


We’re laughing like drains now. And hoping we’ll carry on being the audience, not the cast.

Then Mary comes steaming down the carriage, chasing her friend.

Two men (with two more not-quite-hipster beards) sit side by side. Opposite – and presumably with – the two young women who make up friend-of-Mary’s human sofa.

Mary flings herself on the knee of the one by the aisle.

And a cry rings out:

‘Mary! Mary! Stop it – I feel defiled!’

It’s hard not to laugh, let’s be honest – and no one can help themselves. We’re all in stitches, the whole carriage.

Mary is sitting on his knee tugging up his top. We can all see his chest – and now she’s rubbing his chest hair.

The two young women who’ve ceased to be soft furnishings are now, amid gales of hysterical laughter, filming the whole thing on their mobile phones.

Is this a flash mob, we wonder? But not for long.

The train pulls into a station.

Friend-of-Mary raises herself.

Sways her way to the door.

‘Mary! Mary!’ she yells. ‘It’s our stop, Mary. Come on it’s our stop.’

Mary looks as if someone’s told her she’s been banned from walking and her legs have been removed below the knees.

She stands still – well, except for the rocking back and forth.

At last, she moves her feet. Stands facing the open doors.

Friend-of-Mary is out on the platform now.

Defiled-man is yelling at Mary.

‘Get out of the train, Mary, it’s your stop!’

But Mary can’t make her brain connect with her legs. (Yes, she does have legs again.)

As the doors shut she rushes up to them and stands, maybe seeing, maybe not seeing her friend laughing helplessly outside on the platform as the train pulls away.

Mary stays put. Topples out at the next stop as soon as the doors split open.

And the man with the beard, the chest hair, the defiled existence, yells.

‘Mary, Mary, Mary. Oh, Mary.’

‘There’s a hole in my heart where Mary used to be.’

Just another night out. In Liverpool.

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Liverpool | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments


No armchair for God today. Not even a paltry cushion.

No, I’m not having visions, I’m singing – in my head.

It’s an old song by the French singer, Charles Trenet, in which this line appears:

‘Et le bon Dieu dit boum, Dans son fauteuil de nuages’

a lovely image, don’t you think? God sitting in his armchair made of clouds singing Boum! with Charles Trenet.

This jolly live recording is from 1938 (yes, long before my time) if you fancy a listen.

It’s a song I learnt to love as a little girl, dancing around our ‘middle room’ – my dad’s study – where we had our gramophone. Not ‘record player,’ note – that, my father always said, was his role.

My mum would sing along to Boum!, becoming quiet and dewy-eyed as La Mer followed.

Ah – La Mer!

It’s a song with as many versions as there are raisins in a fruit cake. But the only acceptable versions are – I’m sorry, I’m firm on this – sung in French.

Anyway. That was my very long-winded way of saying – what a gorgeous, fabulous utterly marvellous day it is today.

DSCN0985So gorgeous I decide to wheel out the plum coloured bike without even thinking of rain.

Because the weather’s a fickle friend – today it loves me – but will it still love me tomorrow?

It takes me 15 minutes to reach the beach, belting along with chirpy Boum! on a loop in my head.

But as I tether up the purple bike and stroll down onto the beach, it’s replaced by La Mer.



I’m mesmerised by the lapping of the sea.

Sedate seabirds, like hundreds and thousands, spatter the shore.

Ugly jellyfish, charming gull

Ugly jellyfish, charming gull

Horses walk down, deceptively placid, on their way to a sweat-breaking canter.

The beach barriers are closed today – there’s no parking on the beach, it’s the end of the season.

And it’s quiet – so, so quiet.

A few dog walkers.

A man with big binoculars on the steps of the empty lifeguard station.

And me.

My mental batteries are soon topped up by sun, sea, sand and general gorgeousness.

Time to ride up to the bike café for a cup of liquorice tea.

DSCN1000Stop at the bakery for a high fibre loaf.

Cycle past the restaurant where we treat ourselves, now and then, to a special Sunday lunch.

And on – to the cemetery.

DSCN1004 (2)

I love cemeteries. Some people can’t even bear to look at them – which makes me wonder if it’s a bit on the weird side. But I’m fascinated by monuments to the non-celebrated dead.

This one contains Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves – stray foreigners, doomed to find a field of England forever their home.

DSCN1011DSCN1009I tarry a while, reluctant to leave the sun-kissed, ivy-smothered angels behind – but it’s time I headed home.

To wash the sheets.

To hang them out – it might be the last good drying day of the year.

And eventually, to work.

Well, no, to be honest, not to work. To write this blog post.

Do I feel guilty?

A little.

Is it a wonderful day?

It is.

Well, then.

Every now and again I won’t say I deserve, but I relish a Boum! kind of day.

And, being lucky enough to live within 15 minutes cycle ride of it, I’m able to go and refresh my jaded spirits with – yes –  La Mer.


Posted in Lancashire & the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments