Five foot two, eyes of blue, yellow bags – and a grand tea, too

‘Diddly diddly diddly doo’ – hard to imagine, if you’re not there, but that’s the audience participation bit – along with ‘ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!’ – to the song, Delilah.

It’s a strange song, Delilah. Creepy and jaunty – how can that be?

Anyway.

P1010830The song made famous by Tom Jones is being rendered here by the Wigan Ukulele Club.

It’s a sunny Sunday in Southport. We’ve parked pearly white Issy (our new car) in a field. And there’s steam up ahead.

The bowl's fora little black dog - it seems the bigger the engine the smaller the dog

The bowl’s for a little black dog – it seems the bigger the engine the smaller the dog

Yes, it’s that yellow-bags-of-steam-coal time of year.

There’s a wintry nip in the air despite the sunshine – but I’ve come prepared. Thermals, duffel coat and scarf.

All around, men from the Rotary club are doing their utmost, ensuring the day goes well, with a toot and a hoot and a hiss and a chug.

P1010795

So British – always time for tea

But despite the happy crowds and gleaming paintwork, the steam and tiny dogs, the men in dark blue overalls and the women brewing tea, there’s a touch of melancholy in the air.

The man who was a driving force behind the annual event, a big local farmer, has died of leukaemia since last year’s event.

P1010764

This 4th generation family farming enterprise (now Huntapac) was founded in 1942 by one William Hunter and still operates with fleets of red lorries today.

A row of gleaming red vehicles bearing his name forms a fitting memorial. And his family’s honouring his name by keeping the tea rooms running – named ‘Aunt Nellie’s’ after his auntie Helen – inside the marquee.

All across one side of the tent, starting beside the customers queueing for tables, sit the ukulele strummers.

P1010835

The most excellent Wigan Ukulele Club

We walk past them to table 24, guided by a smart man with a bow tie.

The place is thronged with people of all ages. Waitresses in black clothes and frilly white aprons dodge from table to table with china pots of tea and jugs of milk.

It has the feel of a rather casual, very jolly, wedding reception – if you could imagine such a thing in this age of take-out-a -mortgage weddings.

But the tables aren’t those round things that ten people who barely know each other can sit around, failing to become better acquainted. They’re ordinary tables, laid with paper cloths topped with plastic lace.

The man with the microphone encourages young and old alike (how do we all learn these songs?) to singalong. Choruses ranging from the Kinks’ ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ to, ‘has anybody seen my girl’ (‘five foot two, eyes of blue’, it’s not me, that’s for sure).

Neon kazoos butt in now and then, sounding vaguely rude, like a raspberry blown by a ten year old.

Pink faces, fresh from the outside and warming up nicely, boast happy smiles – when they’re not eating. A baby at the front table, held up as if to glimpse the queen riding by, is loving it. Though it doesn’t seem to know the words – well, it’s not reached the speaking stage yet.

P1010832 P1010833Since all the proceeds go to charity and all the food’s donated, we use it as an excuse to opt for the full tea and (crikey, times have changed) a glass of prosecco with our china cups of Rosie Lea.

Sandwiches and vegetable crisps, scones with jam and cream, Victoria sponge and fruit cake – it’s all too much. We leave a little and waddle our way past the band, with regret.P1010841

But outside the big wheel is calling her siren call.

Last year I was a big wheel virgin, this time I’m prepared for the ‘ooh’ as we topple over the turning point. And this year there’s a brand new view – we’re facing the other direction. P1010807

P1010820

Austin’s Little Gems as explained on the sign

P1010813

All the way from the USA, 1949

P1010818

 

P1010814Wind-burnt and exhilarated, back on terra firma, it’s time for people watching.

P1010763 P1010767

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bright yellow vehicle catches our eyes. Two men chat in broad northern accents about the engine. The owner lifts the bonnet. Within seconds a crowd has gathered, men hovering around the yellow engine, like fruit flies round a decaying banana.

P1010848

Water pump as ordered by the Royal Navy in 1944

There’s a chugging sound coming from something part wood, part brass, as it pumps water. One of several ordered in 1944 for the Royal Navy its job was to pump fresh water from tanks in ships to feed the boilers. The owner opens up the firebox for my picture – I’m embarrassed I can only point and click, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

Which is such a typical reaction.

It’s an odd event – one I both love and find confusing.

So many men – supported by many women and not a few small dogs – bring along their bit of engineering pride and joy, no matter how small or superficially uninspiring, and, in the chill of early spring – just sit.

P1010849

People stop to chat, sometimes. The big beauties, though, are what really draw the crowds – and the attention. A bit like life. But, also like life, what’s overlooked is often as interesting as the showy stuff.

As we wander round I feel the usual tug: I wish.

I wish I had a hobby this enthralling. Wish I were one of a crowd that met at steam fairs, entranced by steam and brass. By shiny paintwork and crank shafts, by moving parts needing constant love and attention.

Well, I think I wish.

Next year, there’s no guarantee the show will return. Not because of the sad demise of Mr Hunter, but because the caravan park’s expanding.

P1010851

A steam powered milk float – the cylinder on board looks very like the pump the Navy ordered in 1944 to me … well, it’s wood and brass!

It wouldn’t be just the loss of the spectacle, but the potential loss of tens of thousands of pounds for charity. And of a chance for men in boiler suits or tweeds, hats or flat caps, vintage Rolls Royces or milk floats, to get together.

For crowds of people to give the lie to the impression that the whole world is glued to mobile phones.

I didn’t see one head-bent-over-a-smartphone, totally-distracted social-media-addict.

A good enough reason for hoping the steam fair continues.

That, and the view from the big wheel.

P1010808

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miranda the intake nymph

“I’ll just set it back to zero.”

It’s not what you’d expect in the middle of England. But then, the middle of England’s probably not where you’d think it might be.

According to its inhabitants, the tiny village of Dunsop Bridge, Lancashire, is England’s middle. It has a Post Office-cum-café and a picturesque bridge. Under the bridge a shallow river burbles over rocks and stones, ducks quack – and on this sunny April Sunday we’re trying to buy ten pounds-worth of unleaded petrol.

It’s worth paying a little over the odds in return for the experience.

P1010732A man leaves his shop, stocked with excess household goods masquerading as curios. Takes the front off the petrol pump and, using his thumb, sets each counter back to zero. Pushes a lever, sets the fuel gurgling through the nozzle.

Quarter of a tank for now – and a glimpse of a long-lost world to last us until next time.

We’re heading back from an outing that’s been a spring clean for our spirits.

For six weeks (I can drive again now, hooray) my long-suffering chauffeur has also been doing the shopping and cooking and washing and cleaning for both of us. So I’ve been loath to make selfish suggestions for drives out into the countryside.

Today I suggested art. In Liverpool. Which went down well.

But …

As noon arrived, temporary chauffeur changed his mind.

‘I’d rather go to the Trough of Bowland’.

Yay!

It was like a piece of Swiss milk chocolate when I’d been promised a boiled sweet.

The sun of Sunday morning was already retreating behind a grey coastal blanket by the time we set off. As we neared the end of the worst bit of the journey – the motorway – a light rain even toyed with us. But I wasn’t fooled, there was enough blue sky up ahead to make a fine pair of sailor’s britches.P1010668

We took a new – for us – road into Lancashire’s semi-secret paradise. It wound its way past a swanky country inn we once stayed at for a birthday treat. Already swanky then – our room had an open fire, a large bathroom and overlooked the river – now, at £198 per night, it’s become swanky in the extreme, by northern English standards.

So we squeezed past the in-your-face, shiny black Range Rovers, the Jaguars, Mercedes and Porsches lining the narrow lane – and drove on by.

Our goal was a place that’s been special to me for as long as I’ve been a conscious being. A lay-by off the side of a road that’s so narrow, in places, with such a steep drop off the side, that it scares me witless.

The special place nestles at the bottom of a hill where it’s traditional to see a few gleaming motor bikes parked, along with some family cars.

There should be the sound of a very few, well-behaved children and dogs splashing in the stream.

P1010730But, most important of all, the tea wagon must be there, its flag waving hello as we coast down the hill.

And it was all just so.

Secure in the knowledge that a big mug of tea would reward us when we get back, we walked through the avenue of trees to the water intake.P1010677

P1010684

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a catchment area for a local water utility. Dating back to 1871, it channels clear water from the hills to a stone-built works. And the original engineer gave the place a very special guardian.

A nymph.

Miranda.

She’s elusive, Miranda. Even if you know she’s there (they’ve put up an ‘interpretation’ board since last we were here) she’s hard to spy.

P1010709But there she was, her naked back and bare bottom turned coyly on passing walkers and their dogs.

On we trod. Skylarks twittering high above, dippers dipping in the stream, a little way off the mellifluous warbling of – what? – a curlew?

The chortle of the water as it frolicked over the rocks was almost hypnotic. I stood on a big rock – one crutch clutched tightly for safety – transfixed.

P1010700Hills, sky, birds and the restless stream – almost too much to bear.

So beautiful.

So spring.

So England.

P1010706Back at the tea wagon was a small disappointment – no Chorley cakes. But there were scones.

A biker with a Dumbledore beard, skinny in leathers, stepped up to the counter.

‘’Ow you doin’, then?’ the cheery chap making our brew greeted the biker.

‘Not so bad, could do wi’ getting’ a bit younger.’

As we supped our mighty brew and wolfed down scones, a small dog fetched a large log from the stream – again – and again – and again.

Two girls, still in puppy fat, wobbled on jagged rocks mid-stream – but somehow stayed upright.

Back on the road, we puttered along past gambolling new-born lambs, in spring-green fields spattered with bright yellow celandines.

Returning to urban world.

To a leg of lamb (oh dear) slow-cooked in milk. Seasoned with bay leaves and clove-studded onion, with thyme, orange peel and garlic.

To mashed red potatoes and tasty chopped carrots. To pink local rhubarb, sweet with Welsh honey.

To gorse in bloom and to trees in bud.

To robins nesting – and wood pigeons mating.

Sunday in springtime.

What more could you want, even in urban world?

And paradise less than an hour away.P1010703

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Balls. Or, to be more specific, men with balls

Groan.

Not another feisty feminist-y thing, do I hear you sigh?

Well, no, it isn’t. Hold on a minute and all will become clear. Well, clearer. And, please, stick it out to the end, it’s really, really not all about men.

Or women.

Or balls.

OK. To start with, here’s part of a definition from the Oxford Concise Dictionary.

“Amusement. Diversion. Fun.”

I can see where men with balls – and wheels – and legs – might fit into that definition. But mostly balls. Some round, some a bit pointy, some dimply, some fuzzy. Some white, some brown, some yellow, some red. Yes, they play with balls of many colours, men.

Now here’s part two of that same definition.

“Pastime. Game. Outdoor pastime.”

Do you see where this is going?

The big clue in the definition follows that last ‘pastime’:

“hunting, fishing, racing, cricket, football”.

Men in Zambia watch football

Men in Zambia watch football

Two of those activities involve balls.

But the others are also part of the definition of, ‘sport’.

I’ve had time on my hands these last few weeks, such that I have occasionally, in desperation, looked at the ‘Sport’ section of our newspaper.

I suspect they’re all pretty much of a muchness in what they cover, sports sections.

And I find it very helpful that it comes as a separate section – I can set it aside without bothering to look – unless I want to work out when’s a good time to go to the shops (answer: when one or all of Liverpool/Everton/Man Utd are playing).

One Sunday recently, though, I must have had a funny turn. Because I not only looked at it, I counted the number of pages devoted to ball sports in a 20 page section.

The answer was 19.

Of those 19 pages about one third of a page was devoted to a black, female footballer, the rest to male balls – footie, rugby and cricket. (Footie meaning British football, ie, real football).

The remaining page was mostly horse racing fixtures.

It bugged me. And that annoyed me.

Me – being bugged by the sports section?????

I know it’s a time of year when there’s not much in the way of tennis or athletics or what have you, but even so. It was spherically-fixated. And almost totally male.

This last week it’s been like a nail sticking through the heel of my shoe. Irritating and unwanted.

In an attempt to get the shoe off, metaphorically speaking, I’ve been flicking through the sporty bits on an ad hoc basis. When I remember. Or when I am very, very bored, to be honest.

I can now claim, in an utterly unscientific manner, that if you were an alien who could read English and wanted to work out what ‘sport’ was by using the newspaper it would be:

football, rugby, cricket, golf, horse-racing – with the occasional spot of cycling.

And almost exclusively done by men.

Last weekend there was a small item on the female Oxbridge boat race winners. But other than that and the female footie player, it’s been men, men, men all the way.

Now, that’s fine – have a stand-alone, male, ball-oriented section by all means.

But why call it ‘sports’?

Even men do other things with their spare time. One of my nephews, for example, is a bit of a hockey nut. Some men play badminton, squash, or darts. Water polo,  bowls, or shove ha’penny. (Oh, pipe down! It could be a sport. Remember that definition? Pastime? I rest my case. And what a great way to pass time in a pub.).

Now that's a nice pastime - sheep dog trials in Wales

Now that’s a nice pastime – sheep dog trials in Wales

Swimming is the biggest sport in terms of regular adult participation in the UK.

And what about fishing?

Pigeon racing?

Tug-o-war?

Women also play football. Three boys of my acquaintance who live in a house backing onto a local football pitch climb the tree in their garden to watch – who do you think? Not the local team, but Everton Ladies. The best football they’ve seen. Worth risking life and limb? Ah, the daredevil young!

Women also play netball and lacrosse, they swim, run, hurdle, throw javelins, play badminton and squash and bowls and cycle – they tango…

What I’m trying to say is, why not make the sports section a sports section? A great long section with all sorts of interesting pastimes and games – not all competitive in a cut-throat way.

Then footie fans (football is second to athletics in the participation league) would have to thumb through other things and maybe, just maybe, find they’re hooked on bowls or ferreting or hill walking. Or marbles.

I said maybe.

Advertising would pay for it – pet food and fishing rods and running shoes and tennis rackets and sports bras and cameras – and elastic bandages.

When the streets are thronging with many heads, bowed over many mobile phones, when couches are no longer groaning under just potatoes but also slobs and blobs, why not encourage more activity, more diversity, more sports?

More FUN! :-)

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Hidden. Easter Sunday mirages at the beach

A skylark rises, invisible, like the gentle, irregular whistle of a barely boiling kettle, singing on the hob. A good day to be a skylark. The merlins and sparrowhawks will be flummoxed by the clammy sea-mist that’s swirling in the air, like steam from that same celestial kettle that’s powering the songster.

P1010615In the distance, shapes that could be human walk along the sea-line – it’s nearly high tide but the water’s still a long way out.

This is the beach of my childhood memories, the ridged sand underfoot, the sea a distant, unfulfilled promise.

We park on the hard sand and stand, taking in the mysterious world around us. Well, mysterious except for the football-kicking boys behind us – but they’re soon lost to view.

A seagull’s garish cry is the loudest noise around, the mist wrapping everything else in a muffling, moist blanket.

It’s as if the world has been roundly admonished, for staying out late on Saturday night. This Easter Sunday morning, for a while at least, everything is very subdued.

Even the dogs are on their best behaviour, no frenzied rushing around, just chasing their exercise balls and coming straight back.

P1010637A ribbon of seaweed marks a line where the last tide turned. Razor clams crunch beneath our feet as we – at last – catch sight of the sea. It’s still coming in, but sliding gently, not breaking. Like everything else, a shadow of its stormier self.

A few huge mussel shells lie empty, cleaned out by canny gulls, perhaps, and here and there lie the miniature remains of a rather less common marine creature – a masked crab, or a sea potato.P1010624P1010635

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind us the profile of the dunes rises, like so many dromedaries, behind a veil of a mist which curls and rolls but never clears.

P1010631The tea wagon sells lemon drizzle cake – it’d be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

We sit, English style, in our car, sipping hot tea-bag tea from polystyrene cups, nibbling half a slice of cake each, watching the stalwart kayakers unpack their rental van and head out to oblivion – let’s hope just temporary.

A dilapidated old horsebox, pale pastel blue, reminiscent of old-fashioned, town-council colours, of park gates and buses, disgorges a leggy chestnut creature. Skittish, but itching to trot.P1010638

The mist is still in charge. It’s cold and damp and it’s the longest walk I’ve done so far –and I feel it. Time to go.

One last long look at the view – or lack of it.

The sky and sea, humans and horses, dogs and seagulls all blended into one steam-coloured smudge of day.

As we leave I can still hear the skylark. But of course, it’s nowhere to be seen.

P1010625

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The rabble roused


[This is an extract from a work in progress, a crime fiction novel set in Liverpool. Father Gerry Carroll, unintentional amateur sleuth, is attending a lecture given by an old friend, a radical philosopher. The novel’s working title, ‘The Thirteenth Station,’ refers to the penultimate of the fourteen Stations of the Cross which depict Christ’s journey to death by crucifixion. In the thirteenth station, the cross stands empty after the body of Jesus has been removed. The Stations of the Cross are particularly important for Catholics during Lent, the season which culminates in the hopelessness of Good Friday and Easter Saturday but is followed by the joy of Easter Sunday. This lecture takes place in the fifth week of Lent, just before Palm Sunday, a commemoration of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and being acclaimed as a king.]


‘Gerard, you’re not going out like that?’

There was no point arguing, he’d tried and failed. ‘Male’ and ‘fashion’ were two words his mother believed should never go together. Especially if you were a priest. And he knew exactly what she’d say, heard it often enough.

‘It may be a black t-shirt to you but it’s still a vest to me. And no decent man goes out with his vest showing.’

He grinned, ignoring his absent mother.

Trotting down the stairs Gerry yelled a quick goodbye to Father Alex and hurried off, past the pub on the corner, down the cobbled street lined with Georgian houses and old-fashioned street lamps. In London they would be worth a fortune, here they were mostly cheap student flats, their sash windows pierced by ugly ventilation fans or obscured by dingy net curtains.

The lecture was in a large room with tiered seating. Gerry’s heart sank as he made his way to a row at the front. No escape. He had left it late and had no other choice.

The title was up in big letters on the screen:

‘Murder Most Democratic: Crowd-Sourcing the Ultimate Crime.’

No wonder it was packed.

A blast of music settled everyone down as Jimmie walked in wearing a top hat, a wing-collared shirt, red-lined tails and a red bow tie. Gerry had to bend his head over the desk in front to stop himself from cracking out laughing.

It was, with hindsight, a predictable choice of music – the Kaiser Chiefs and ‘I predict a riot’ – but it was new and strange to many in the crowd. Among the mass of students a sprinkling of silver hair rippled across the auditorium, like whitecaps on the sea, bobbing as they asked each other what this noise was all about.

The music died down and an air of expectation filled the room. Jimmie whipped off his top hat and flung it on a hat-stand in a gesture worthy of Fred Astaire.

‘Riots. Remember them? Well I predicted the bloody riots,’ he began, determined to shock from the start.

Or was he?

Gerry squirmed as he settled in his seat. No-one else seemed to be muttering or tutting, not even the silver-hairs. Maybe he was the one who was conservative in this crowd.

As Jimmie warmed to his theme Gerry’s misgivings fell away.

The audience was not just alert, it was spellbound.

Mulhearn was a shaman.

As he shouted his way through despair and disillusion, spat out anger and resentment, Gerry could feel the crowd fizzing, bubbling with energy.

He looked around. Everyone else was looking straight at Jimmie. Everyone except one person. Anne-Marie, the shy, postgraduate student whose thing was dead languages. She sat staring at the door, as if waiting for someone to burst through it.

The young woman must have felt Gerry’s eyes on her. She turned, saw him watching her, blushed and bent over an open notebook, hiding her face from view.

Gerry wondered. But not for long.

Jimmie was winding up. Really winding up. He was getting people to yell back at him.

‘Justice, Isn’t that what we want?’

‘Yes!’

‘Fairness?’

‘Yes!’

‘Equality?’

‘Yes!’

Boy, he had chosen his targets well. Students – so easily becoming a rabble. And Liverpudlians – whatever their age, or sex, or class. Always on the side of the underdog. Except when they weren’t.

Gerry realised he had missed something as he assessed his fellow humans. Jimmie had moved on.

The man was talking about Pilate.

About Jesus.

About Barrabas.

What was he up to?

Every muscle in Gerry was taut, so taut his teeth hurt from clenching his jaws.

‘Come on,’ bellowed Jimmie, ‘what did they say, the people in that crowd? Crucify him! That’s what they said. Come on, yell it out. Yell it like you mean it. Crucify him!’

The man looked like a hungry lion, pacing, staring.

‘Come on, try it. It’s an experiment. You don’t have to mean it, just yell as if you do.’

There was an uncomfortable silence.

‘No?’ He paused. Looked around.

‘Too scared of divine retribution? Is that it? I forgot how Catholic this place is. Don’t worry, we’ve got a priest here to forgive us, eh, Father Gerry?’

He turned his gaze on the front row.

‘Well, Father Carroll? Will God smite us for yelling this, just to see how it feels, so we can begin to understand what drives people to do things they don’t intend to do?’

Gerry stood and addressed Jimmie.

‘I’m sure God will understand.’ Then he turned to the crowd whose ranks rose behind him. ‘And anyone who’s going to be at Mass on Sunday will be doing it anyway, in the Palm Sunday readings.’

He turned back to Jimmie, before sitting back down, ‘I think it’s an interesting suggestion. Go ahead. Let’s see what happens’.

‘Come on then.’ Jimmie waved his arms about as if whipping up a storm.

‘Crucify him!’ He waved his arms again. ‘Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!’

A few of the students were laughing. Then, hesitant, the few joined in.

‘Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!’

Then a few more.

Then more.

Then louder.

Eventually the whole audience – or so it seemed to Gerry, was not just yelling, but on its feet and yelling, teeth bared, arms aloft and pumping with aggression.

‘Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!’

Gerry remained seated, bowed his head and tried, for a moment or two, to pray. It was no good. He turned to look at Anne-Marie. She was up on her feet and screaming with the others, waving her fist backwards and forwards.

Gerry looked up at Jimmie. The man was exultant, no other word for it. His eyes roved around the auditorium, like some mad dictator storming home to victory, against all the odds.

Jimmie glanced down at Gerry, grinned, then looking up to the back of the room, pulled a finger across his throat, the gesture the sound technicians needed to do their thing.

A mighty drum roll roared from the speakers and everyone fell silent. It was if their strings had been cut. People wobbled, sat, slumped into their seats.

Jimmie whirled around on his podium and clapped his hands. The music started again.

‘Thank you, everyone, thank you. You were fantastic. Now you understand. Now you know. You have been at the heart of the darkness, you have stood at the eye of the storm. Politicians know nothing. This is how revolutions happen. This is how riots happen. And that’s how I, Jimmie Mulhearn, could predict,’ he paused, took his top hat from the hat-stand and placed it on his head, ‘a riot.’

He removed his hat once more and bowed a deep bow, like an old fashioned magician. A few people started clapping, then more and more till it broke like a wave of approaching thunder across the room.

Gerry eased his way out of the hall. Outside, in the foyer, he was just in time to catch a glimpse of Anne-Marie as she ran into the night, as if the very devil was after her.

Posted in Detective fiction in the pipeline | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Blame and shame – an unhealthy game

‘I’m sure it all started when I fell off that bus,’ said a friend who’d been diagnosed with a serious cancer of the digestive tract.

This was a long time ago. More than twenty five years since.

The friend, a middle-aged smoker, spent all day sitting in her flat, upstairs from mine, with her de-clawed cat. Watching television and eating unhealthy food.

She took no exercise except walking to catch the bus into town. And even then, the bus stop was right outside our front door.

You can see where this might go, can’t you?

Fast forward more than a decade and I’m sitting in a family home in Texas when the phone rings. When pa-in-law returns it’s with bad news. A relative – not one of the immediate family but still, only a couple of degrees removed – has cancer.

Being the empathetic person I am (and I’m not claiming that as a praiseworthy virtue, it’s just how I am, I can’t help it), I am instantly sympathetic, sad on her behalf and ready to console.

Imagine my discomfort when there was no, ‘Poor Evangeline’ (I made up the name) but instead an instant recitation of the many reasons why she had brought this on herself.

Pa-in-law was not, I should stress, a monster – and he was far from alone in this attitude. It is an all too common phenomenon.

We don’t want to think we’ll get X, Y or Z illness so we reach for reasons someone else has drawn the short straw.

Crisp, hot, hand cut chips with salt and vinegar - all in recyclable boxes

She ate too much – or just the wrong things. She was too thin – anorexia, that’s vanity for you. She smoked, drank alcohol, didn’t exercise enough. She was too stressed out, worked too hard, didn’t work at all. Spent too long watching daytime TV.

Something is always to blame.

I think this is one of the worst aspects of our western ‘civilisation’ today.

Nothing is an accident.

Nothing is beyond our control.

Nothing is down to the random throw of the dice, to sheer bad luck.

For many, many years (as the poor chap married to this serial hypochondriac will testify) I would say, ‘If I get a serious illness don’t tell your mum and dad.’

I knew all the things they could pull out of the blame bag. I’d got there first, had a list ready-made.

Yes, they’d also come up with the latest medical news, ideas for treatment, possibly even money to help – but I couldn’t stand the thought of my dearly beloved having to face, ‘Well, after all, she did…’.

It crops up too, this kind of attitude, in the media.

There’s a brash woman, fit as a flea at well over 60, who writes a column for a daily newspaper. People who drink alcohol or smoke or are obese or indulge in dangerous pursuits, she says, should have to pay our wonderful, free-at-the-point-of-delivery National Health Service for their medical treatment. Because they’re to blame.

Take that to its logical conclusion, please.

What would we do about, say, having babies?

Effective contraception is widely available. Having a baby, therefore, is arguably a choice.

So, being somewhat rational and allowing for straightforward reproduction, if you had more than two, you’d have to pay for all your medical treatment.

And if you were proved to be partial to bacon and fried egg sandwiches, you’d have to pay for treatment for any heart problems you might develop.

One of the side effects (trust me, there’s research) of these attitudes is defensiveness and evasion among those who have symptoms. Because it becomes yet another competition, with winners and losers.

I’m healthier than you. I’m stronger, fitter, better than you.

Or (jauntily) I’m older than you but I don’t need a hip replacement (that was a 70 year-old in-law on this side of the pond, just to be even-handed – and he’s not a monster either.)

When someone is sick, injured or suffering from depression, the last thing they need is to be blamed – they’re probably torturing themselves enough as it is.

And, let’s face it, bad diets and so on aside, sometimes people are just plain lucky with their health – but sometimes people aren’t.

DSCN0464

Start my blame list here

I parade down the road on my crutches, angry that I have a problem, but in the next breath, I’m ashamed that I dare think of it as unfair. My life so far has been remarkably pain and disability free. My bones will mend, are already mending.

As I struggle to use a contraption for putting my socks on – there’s no way someone with weak arms could do it – and as I grow increasingly impatient with the fact I can’t drive for another two weeks and 3 days – I think of the lonely and the neglected.

Blame may make you (or me) feel good – in a ‘phew, I’m all right’ kind of way – but it makes someone else feel like a failure.

People with cancer, people with arthritis, people with HIV Aids or manic depression are not failures.

Apportioning blame is not just superfluous, it’s cruel.

And, no matter whether they’ve done something that contributed to their problems, shame won’t help.

Pain, misery and curtailing of ability is bad enough.

So, why not just be nice?

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The ruder world. Some random thoughts on spring, joy and harsh reality

Come, luscious spring, come with thy mossy roots,
Thy weed-strown banks, young grass, and tender shoots
Of woods newly-plashed, sweet smells of opening blooms,
Sweet sunny mornings, and right glorious dooms
Of happiness, to seek and harbour in,
Far from the ruder world’s inglorious din.

From ‘The Robin’s Nest’

by John Clare* [1793-1864]

Friday morning. The moon slides between us and our sun, an eclipse eclipsed by clouds. And our world turns cold.

As the mis-timed dusk takes hold the birds fly hither and thither – not up, not down, but side to side, as if looking for an emergency exit. It’s odd.

Saturday dawns beautiful and bright, as if the moon’s wiped clean an unseen, misted window on the sun. The perfect day for our outing. A drive across town to a special place.

Churchtown Botanic Gardens aren’t what you might expect from the name – yes, some of the trees are labelled, but it’s more like an old-fashioned park, the kind I grew up with as a child.

Taking the scenic route, along the coast, I’m treated to a sight I’ve never seen before. The sea is in. Right in.

As a child, a trip to Southport was always a mixed pleasure. The seaside, yes. But the sea? My little legs never once carried me all the way to the sea, it was so far out.

But the moon, it seems, has filled our local bucket, as well as wiping our solar windows.

My chauffeur drops me by the Gardens’ gate and goes to park. I ply my way on crutches, gingerly, looking out for omens.

P1010528‘Museum’ the first sign proclaims. But it’s closed, its treasures all dispersed.

Some flowers, mostly daffodils, nod hello in the nearer reaches of the park. People sit on benches. Chatting, waiting – or simply passing time.

A band strikes up – the oompah of the brass like a great big grin on the air.

Plodding my way round to the greenhouses, the peacocks in their (soon to be closed) aviary squawk their whiney, ‘waah, waaah.’

Plants for sale sit in ranks of spring-fresh colour, but there aren’t quite as many as usual. Inside the greenhouse, potted plants too tender for our still-wintry nights keep warm beneath the glass.P1010541  I spy two members of staff. Two of the three who may soon be the last, of many, to go.

P1010542Beyond the ‘Staff only’ gate stand rows of empty glasshouses. There, council staff once grew bedding plants – and not just for the Gardens’ own famed flowerbeds.

P1010538

Victorian fernery in background

Back outside, steps that should lead to a stunning horticultural display instead open onto grass disfigured with gashes of bare brown earth. People sit, as usual, in the wooden benches around the edge, but their joy is gone.

The Victorian fernery – with its refurbished glass roof – looks blind and closed.

The ‘train’ that children could ride is gone.

P1010554

No boats, now

The boats for hire on the water are gone.

The wild birds remain.

The trees remain.

Three members of staff remain. For now.P1010546

P1010545Fifty pence lets us into to the Chrysanthemum Society Show. The campaign to save the gardens has colonised one corner, I pay my dues and offer help with words.P1010547

P1010550

Outside, the oompah’s been replaced with a chorus of men in black. Their rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band is fun, but a new little pain tells me it’s time to go.

P1010561

On the way home we talk about our world and how it’s being diminished.

Is it better that flowers, three gardeners and a museum are lost than something else?

What use, after all are flowers?

The morning’s lead editorial in that renowned publication, The Times (of London), tells us we have not really noticed the cuts to local government spending.

We beg to differ.

Our local council’s funding has been curtailed quite harshly. According to one measure** it’s down by 7.8%. It’s a lot, but Liverpool (10.7%) and Manchester (10.5%) fare much worse – and the worst of all, poor, disadvantaged Knowsley, bottoms the table at -10.9%.

This in a world where Tewkesbury (of the famous Abbey) has a budget up 3.2%, Cambridge (of the famed university) is up 2.3% and Winchester (with its cathedral in genteel Hampshire) is up at 1%.

P1010578We live in the north of England, on the boundary between two communities, each of around 12,000 inhabitants. We’re just about equidistant between two buildings that, until a couple of years ago, were libraries. Both are now shut, the books all gone.

A couple of doors along from one of the libraries was a neighbourhood police station. Its doors are locked to local people.P1010580

Our borough now has two police stations officially open to the public. One in the north opens 7 days a week, one in the south six days a week.

There are many more – and arguably more serious – things, like the cuts to social services.

But I want to stay with flowers.

With gardens.

We don’t all have trees. Or gardens, or flowers, or boats to row or toy trains to ride.

P1010559

The aviary

We don’t all have acres of crocuses to carpet the floor around our feet, or peacocks to nag us, or love birds to coo for us.

So many people use that park.

People invisibly wounded, whose eyes say it all.

People finding a rare patch of peace for lunch in a stressful day.

People teaching their children how birds sing and swans swim.

People falling in love.

Should we lose all this for budget cuts?

I suppose the answer would be yes, if I felt the cuts were either fair or necessary. But it’s not just my instinct that tells me we don’t need to cut our public spending as if we were Greece. Several respected economists tell us our economy was already recovering in 2010, that swingeing cuts set it back.

And common sense tells me that if interest rates are close to zero it makes no sense to go to extremes to pay off debt.

But I’m not a politician, nor an economist. Just a citizen.

I want police and teachers, clean streets and libraries.

I want lonely people who are stuck in their homes to get more than 15 rushed minutes of a  carer’s abysmally paid time each day.

I want flowers to bring joy to a miserable day.

I want a world that knows the value of everything and the price of ending up with nothing.

P1010555

*John Clare died in a lumatic asylum. I saw a television programme about him when I was a teenager and could not believe such a tragic life could be the lot of the poet who wrote such delightful verses about the wonders of nature. My copy of his bird poems (a Folio Society edition) is illustrated by Thoas Bewick. Two masters in one volume. Sigh.

**Figures from Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, Lancashire and the golf coast, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

A Beatles kind of day

Nights are a bit of a trial at the moment. Sleep comes in shifts, my body grumbling every few hours, forcing me to grab my crutches, prod my way upstairs, then poke my crutch-supported way back down to the bedroom while it recovers.

Despite the recent surgery, it isn’t pain that’s keeping me awake, but discomfort.

Sleeping on my back is usually my last-gasp gauntlet flung at sleeplessness.

After I’ve gone through the alphabet finding book titles, authors, or films to match each letter.

After I’ve consciously relaxed every muscle I can identify, one by one.

After I’ve dredged from my memory some dimly remembered techniques – that could loosely be called mindfulness – to try and sedate my brain. (Given I gleaned them from a free introductory pamphlet, it’s no surprise that this one rarely works.)

Lately I’ve been waking far too early for a natural owl’s metabolism. But today’s was a somewhat later, rude awakening.

Yanked home from the Land of Nod, when day had already dawned, a curtain noisily pushed back on the world robbed me of my sleep.

While my open eyes adjusted to the light my mind struggled.

Did I miss a spectacular storm in the night? Surely not, I was up four times, I would have noticed a howling wind and lashing rain.

Were my eyes blurred, some unknown side effect of who knows which of the drugs I’ve been taking?P1010519

Coming together at last, my vision and mind began to recognise the truth. The veil hanging between me and the morning was not a film of wind-borne salt on the windows, it was fog.

Fog upon the hill. Feeling very still. Better not quote much more or the remaining Beatles might sue me for plagiarism. But there were no Blue Jays out and about – and this fog was not the sinister kind. No, it felt cosy, comforting, kind.

P1010522I lay, for a little while longer, on my back. A cup of tea, I knew, was sitting on my bedside table, a biscuit in the saucer.

It could wait.

Relishing the feeling I slid back the years – because, after all, what was out there?

No day. No world.

No noise. No time.

Just now, just here, just me.

A cup of tea and a memory.

I could see the fabric of my new winter coat. The mohair that would have itched my neck if it weren’t for the soft, furry collar. My strapover shoes, brown as polished mahogany, worn for the first time with ivory knee-length socks. An Alice band holding back my hair.

It was cold in our car. It was an icy world, and foggy. The windscreen carefully defrosted by hand, we drove down the hill at the end of our avenue and joined the main road. Stopped. Defrosted the windscreen. Drove on. Stopped …

In the end the freezing fog won. We all turned home, my mother, my father, my sister and I. It would have been the last time I saw my cousin Anne until my mother’s funeral, thirty years later.

Sindy 001Beautiful and black-haired, she was the reason my Sindy doll was raven-haired not blonde. And it was her wedding day. Over the hills and far away.

But, for us, it was not to be.

The memory seeped away. Discomfort, like the freezing fog, had won. I manoeuvred my way up in bed and leant on a stack of pillows while I sipped my tea.

Not a needle of the pines, not a twig among the budding branches stirred. I felt as if a feather quilt had been wrapped around my little bit of the world – and the rest thrown away.

No need to bother about outside, it wasn’t there.

A plump wood pigeon docked on the garden fence. The only thing moving as it dipped its way through yet another attempt at a courtship with some potential mate beyond my field of vision.

As if we need any more of the things.

The transporter planes of the bird world, their lumbering, clumsy bodies lurch around on short legs and splayed toes. Squashing green shoots as they amble around picking up seeds and nuts dropped below the feeders carefully designed to elude their pecking.

A change came over the light – and the fog closed in. It could have been menacing, I suppose, but it wasn’t. It just felt as if the blanket of seclusion had been wrapped a little more tightly around us – and I could see no reason to move.P1010520Why face a day that doesn’t exist?

But.

My long-suffering carer had to catch a train – and I had to shower before he went, to be on the safe side.

A bowl of porridge with golden syrup later I was settled in my chair with the newspaper – and the easy crossword. Engrossed in the clues, two still left partially filled, to my exasperation, I looked up towards the window and smiled to see the colourful posy of flowers in our old green vase. Sent by a friend from the other side of the country to cheer me. Which they did – and do.

Since Sunday three lots of flowers have arrived. Tulips and pale, scented narcissi. Stately roses in red and white and pink. Spring-fresh forsythia with jaunty vivid gerbera. All set off by evergreen foliage.

A new, colourful plant from our neighbours says ‘welcome’ in the hall.

How lucky am I? It feels like there are hugs everywhere I go, pretty, happy hugs.

But back to my morning’s armchair.

There, I lifted up mine eyes to the heavens.

Ah.

Here comes the sun, sang the Beatles, in my head. And as they sang, I thought – it’s all right.

The world was back. And it was beautiful.

Posted in In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Taking morphine with Martin Amis

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. And why, I ask myself, did I knowingly introduce Martin Amis into the nightmare?

I can only blame it on the drugs.

Martin Amis, in case he hasn’t crossed international boundaries of name recognition, is a novelist. He would hate me for this status locator (but that’s fine): he’s the son of an earlier, famous British novelist, Kingsley Amis.

Amis Senior had some memorable titles in his stable, including Lucky Jim. It took me a long time – about two thirds of my life so far – to get around to reading that and I can’t say it was time well spent. For me.

Amis Junior is one of those authors that certain people criticise a lot. Partly because he’s been successful. Partly because he sounds like an irritating person (and spent a lot on his teeth – so un-British). Partly because he’s a conspicuous member of the ‘male-critics-review-male-writers-aren’t-we-all-wonderful’ club.

Sorry. Blame the drugs. No, blame me. Thanks.

Anyway, I’ve always known I would hate his work without reading a word.

But that’s not a fair stance to take, is it? And even if I’m well aware that life’s not fair, there’s no reason I should collude in the injustice.

A couple of years back a friend argued that I should read at least one and then I could venture an informed opinion. And he (yes, he) suggested that if I only read one it should be Money.

This friend, who’s German and bald, plays music with a fellow bald German. The same evening he issued his challenge re Amis, he asked for ideas on a name to get the duo noticed.

The friend has a sense of humour, chirpily takes responsibility for a stray bomb that dropped nearby during World War II.

Wine was drunk and chicken eaten. It was all jolly convivial.

Two Bald Krauts,’ I said.

My flash of brilliance didn’t even elicit a response.

I tried to say, ‘do you want to be noticed, or not?’ but he just wasn’t hearing.

Anyway.

Money has been on my Kindle for well over a year and I haven’t even looked at it.
My Kindle is the place I keep books I don’t really want to read.

A few days ago, the only reading matter I had to hand after finishing an effortlessly wonderful Anne Tyler novel in paperback, was on my Kindle.

That narrowed it down. Was it going to be Thomas Aquinas? Dark Night of the Soul? A dictionary or two? An ancient copy of a daily newspaper?

Glum, resigned, downcast – and, recovering from the work of a skilled sawbones, learning to navigate with crutches in brief sessions out of bed – I started it.

Glum, I persevered.

Glum became despondent. Irritated.

OK. The writing’s pretty good, I’ll grant you.

I just don’t like what it says. And the way it says it. And how it goes on.

I soon got the hang of the story and where it was going. Understood the protagonist. Was immersed in the life of an exaggerated caricature of a man, which said nothing new to me, just exasperated me.

I’d had enough. But the wretched e-device told me I’d barely notched up 30%.

I plodded on, interrupted by cups of tea, insertion of intravenous drips, pulse readings and bloodlettings. I became impatient. Flipped through e-page after e-page. Inducing nausea. I presume it was the flipping – could have been the book.

And then.

I reached the bit where* the protagonist meets Martin Amis!
Aaargh!
*[I don’t care if this spoils it for you – the whole thing spoilt a very long and already trying day for me]

OK. I get it. Chinese-rings-trick kinda writing.

Featuring famous novelist M Amis.

As written by famous novelist M Amis.

Oh, for heavens’ sake.

And yes, it all pans out how I thought it would when I’d endured less than 30%.

It made me so miserable.

And I wasted how much time on this?

OK. So I should just accept it. It was a rubbish experience. Time to move on, yes?

Thing is, I wasn’t very well. And by the time I’d finished it I felt sick at heart and in body.

As if I’d been swimming in warm, greasy dishwater sloshing with soggy food scraps.

It’s taken a while to sluice the muck out of my head.

And so yesterday I picked up an extremely slim volume of poetry to help clean it out.
Poet Wendy Cope is an alumna of my old college. She writes poems that some people – the kind of people who sneer at anything common folks understand (the kind of people who like Martin Amis novels) – find too funny, touching, human. Accessible.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of hi-falutin’poetry, when the time is right, but wouldn’t you be intrigued by a book of poems entitled Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis?

I was. And when I read a few of the short verses in the collection, it felt like I’d brushed my brain with fresh minty brainpaste. Swilled it round with the brainwash of normality. Rid myself of the lingering odour of a blocked drain outside a cheap restaurant.

Did I say I didn’t like the book? Perhaps you guessed?

What a relief. Now I can tell people I don’t like Martin Amis. Even when I’m off my head on morphine.

Posted in Reading, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

No comment.

Something happened this week that makes blogging seem totally trivial. Bad news from a friend. I won’t share it, there’s enough bad news in the world without me foisting my small part of it on you.

But I’m feeling rather strange. Uncomfortable, even.

Despite a sadness that’s settled into my heart, my blog – this site – has been lurking just past the corner of my eye. Floating in the ether, saying, ‘feed me’. And feed it I must.

Or must I?

Why?

And why today, of all days?

The answer’s hard for me to fathom.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading about the effects of social media, online sharing and mobile phone usage on attention spans and behaviour. Stuff everyone seems to be particularly antsy about at the moment. Including me.

I even read a whole book: ‘The End of Absence. Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection.’ (Author, Michael Harris.)

Blogging is (ostensibly) about connecting – and over the last two years eight months, the process of blogging and following others has made me reassess what it means to know someone. To relate to other human beings.

Does it matter that it’s intangible? After all, when I was young we had penfriends – it just took longer to send and receive the messages.

But I do feel, somehow, it’s different. And it’s been perplexing me.

I’ve been asking myself, why do bloggers blog – and why do readers read?

Do ‘real’ relationships develop (I think they do, see my post about Tess Ross) – and what are they, those relationships?

Are they mostly between bloggers and non-blogging readers – like newspapers and commuters, say? Or are they mostly between member of the  ‘community’ of bloggers, souls reaching out, in some individual way, to others?

I suspect that many readers – whether bloggers themselves or not – read out of simple curiosity, learning about new places, people, cultures and so on. I do.

Some have an especially serious reason for following a blog about a shared illness, or other challenge they are facing.

And then there are the ones who know the blogger in real life.

I don’t know if I’m a rarity, but I feel a tad uncomfortable following people I know in the flesh. And some people I know in ‘real’ life are the ‘followers’ who puzzle me the most.

The ones who follow, but don’t ‘follow’.

Who read but never ‘comment’.

Who don’t ever click the ‘like’ button.

People who tell me, ‘I do read your blogs, you know. I enjoy seeing what you’re up to, even if I don’t comment.’

Are they just inquisitive, plain and simple, but afraid of that great, identity-stealing, bogey-person in the ether?

Afraid of committing to a view in the full glare of – me? Other readers?

Afraid of the thought police?

The latter I’d understand. I’ve been visiting some ‘interesting’ websites lately by way of research – in fact, maybe you’d better stop reading right now if you’re paranoid.
(Thought police, if you’re reading, I’m only trying to write fiction.)

A young academic of my acquaintance has an interesting take on this type of behaviour, this anonymous blog ogling. [Bloggling?]

So much is free online, he posits, that some people feel no need to square the circle.
The content’s there for them to enjoy or not, they feel no need to pay in any way. And that dispensation from making any kind of ‘payment’ includes any acknowledgement they have read it, liked it or – just for the sake of argument – disagreed with it.

I’m glad they do read it, don’t misunderstand me – it’s reassuring that friends I don’t see very often (you know who you are) keep up with my antics – and phobias – and rants – this way. Don’t stop!

But that absence of payment is also interesting if you come at it from my perspective.

I was a journalist of sorts, on and off. Paid for writing things that people then read, in order to be better informed, or (I can’t really lump telecommunications in with snooping round glamorous houses) just amused.

Over the last couple of months there have been several occasions when I’ve written one of my thought or rant pieces only to find a ‘real’ writer saying much the same thing in a national newspaper a week or two later.

I mentioned one such to the new Brit in the house, gratified that my argument had been published by a real hack in a national newspaper.

‘See,’ I chirped, ‘that’s just what I was saying last week. So I am doing something useful.’ (Even I can see the flaw in that statement.)

Anyway, the point is, we’ve had many discussions about the usefulness or otherwise of my blogging. Other than some things being better out than in, as far as my psyche’s concerned, I mean, which is patently useful.

‘But,’ he says, ‘you don’t get paid for it.’

I restrain my innate instinct for the confessional, which wants me to say, ‘No – and on top of that, I pay for my site so that it has a proper address and doesn’t have ads. So, in effect, I’m paying people to read what I write.’

Is it worth it? Is it useful? Why do I do it?

No comment.

A recent frost, for no particular reason

A recent frost, for no particular reason

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments