19.11.16

Of dogs, jam and railways tracks

The start of a story. Worth continuing?
Of sticks and squirrels, from eltpics by Martin Eayrs

The dog at her feet hummed and heeee-ed in that way dogs do when dreaming of sticks and squirrels. The strawberry jam left on her plate was attracting dusk-time midges; oh how she wished they were fireflies, like in the bedtime stories she loved. She looked towards the fence at the foot of the garden and at the nettle-decked path beyond. Nettles in summer didn’t bother her, scuffed knees and nettle-stung elbows were all part of being an adventurer, a pirate, a swagman. Not that she knew what a swagman was, or a billabong for that matter, but it sounded like something exciting. She stood up and stretched, licking a fleck of jam from the corner of her mouth then followed her tongue with her hand. Close inspection convinced her there were no snacks left to be had. She stepped onto the warm grass and headed for the gap in the fence.
Through the gap and across the path, she could push through the nettles and brambles to the tracks. Underfoot, the rails would be warm in the evening sun, a tightrope to the other side! Balancing artfully, she thrust her arms out either side. Sway left, sway right, eyes on the rail, I am The Magnificent Molly. The rails began to tingle, a hum like the sounds when she swam under water. She kicked off her sandals and closed her eyes “I shall cross the canyon using nothing but skill and courage!” The hum was louder now.
Fidelius roused from his squirrel chase and sat up with a bark. Molly’s head skimmed the tops of the nettles. He barked again. The hum was noticeably louder. Molly continued across the canyon. A few more steps and I’m there.
Thru' the nettles, from eltpics by Carol Goodey
The train flew past, a blur of blue and windows. Fidelius ran barking wildly at the bending nettles and bouncing brambles, charging full pelt towards the rails and into a flattened patch of wheatgrass and weeds, where Molly lay laughing, her feet just inches from the sparking wheels. Fidelius sank down onto his human and licked the taste of jam.

12.8.16

Thomas Hardy got it wrong

And then one sunny day...     Image courtesy of HancockMcDonald at eltpics
August 2016. Twelve years since I lost two close friends. I wasn’t actually careless enough to lose them, but language works that way. They went, were taken, shuffled off, kicked the proverbial, passed. Their numbers came up. They expired. I can wander from the poetic-romantic end of the linguistic spectrum to the brutal but it is what it is. Their life ended. They died.

And twelve years later, in a year when Death has edged closer to me but (touch wood) had second thoughts, both these friends suddenly came to mind. While cooking curry. I’d rather not ponder the reasons for the association: both these friends and Death itself, while stirring two versions of ‘leftover curry’ – meat and meat-free. Yeah, but hey, Thomas Hardy was wrong. Death doesn’t creep up dressed in a cowl, bearing a scythe. Death doesn’t slide in through cracks in the door in the middle of a cold grey, winter’s day, while branches are weighed down and crack under the burden of icicles and melancholy; it doesn’t cause you to consider, as you stand solemnly, the ashen colourlessness of frosty leaves lying by a pond that cold winter’s day. It comes to you – and your thoughts - as you add spinach to your Pataks-and-cauliflower in the middle of August when it’s 35ºC out, and you still have to water your bougainvillea which is looking a bit peaky but ‘grey’ is hardly the right word. And Death can come in ways as different as my two friends. But like my two friends, at the end of the day, it’s the same.

Anthony was the first to go. He went on St John’s Day, the Midsummer Night of Shakespeare’s dream. 2004. If we’d thought about it, we knew it was coming. But of course we didn’t think about it – he was 36, so why should we? He’d had a tumour removed, one that was benign in some senses, but had caused his heart to race for so long it had used up a large number of its quota of beats. It was the heart of an eighty-year-old man, he’d been told. Somehow that had meant ‘take care’ or ‘don’t eat doughnuts’, ‘calm down and stop working like a thing possessed’ to us. The fact that eighty-year-old men don’t tend to live that long hadn’t really sunk in. He’d carried on laughing and working madly and drinking pints down-in-one and being Anthony but less stressfully. He was, anyway, a wonderfully colourful person who could down those pints with rugby player pals while comparing not-yet-fashionable-except-amongst-navy-military-and generally-sea-faring-folk tattoos on his upper arms one minute (Woah the lads, you should’ve seen their faces…..), and the next minute stand on the table singing Liza Minelli songs (what good is sitting alone in your room?), crowing ‘oo’er missus’ and discussing his friends’ silicone implant after-care. Some days and with some people, he was all pink and frosting, while with others he was D-I-Y and stainless steel. He played the piano and keyboards (and counted Marc Almond and Andy Bell amongst those who had benefitted from that particular talent – if you don’t know who they are, Google them and adjust your mental image accordingly), was his marvellous mother’s best friend, could probably tackle an All Black at least during a friendly, taught (and was loved by) many a happy English language student, was my fellow fan of our friend Leslie’s soups (I have to admit, we made a merry-but-odd, all singing, all dancing trio) and despite seeming as English as Elton and a Bakewell tart, was half Spanish (his surname being a popular brand of toasted sunflower seeds) but born in what is now part of Morocco. He could be mean (to mean people), mad, wonderful, theatrical, very nervy, generous, hilarious, obsessive (particularly when in love or lust), fantastic company, he could make you feel like he was your duvet when you felt down, enveloping you in caring, affection and unexpected warmth, he could drive you crazy, he was a natural. I remember him coming to visit me in Seville (in the 10 months I was there before he died, he visited twice) and I took him to visit a close friend of mine. It transpired that they had worked in the same place at the same time and had friends in common, and they spent hours and hours reminiscing. They hadn’t met before and I must admit I felt jealous, envious and happy all at the same time – I had nothing to contribute to the conversation and felt invisible, and, hey peeps, who likes to feel like that? – but I was also over the moon that two people I loved could just spontaneously ignite that depth of conversation. I still smile remembering it.

Anthony was a king and queen, and went way too soon. He felt ill at work, went home for a siesta, never woke up. A heart attack at 36. When our soup-friend, our third musketeer, Leslie phoned me at work to tell me, I didn’t understand at first, and then I did. My colleagues thought I was having an epileptic fit. The water they brought me flew out of the glass and down my front, rather than down my throat. I have never felt like that before or since, not even when my mother went. It wasn’t worse with Anthony, no, but it was so unexpected. And he was such a character. And so, so dearly missed. My pink sequined lager lout on adrenalin.

Here comes the sun....   Image by James Taylor at eltpics
A month after Anthony went, it was Enrique’s turn. They couldn’t have been more dissimilar, yet they were alike in various ways. At first sight, Enrique was the antithesis of Anthony and his effusion. Enrique spoke quietly, if at all, and was not an immediate lover of people. Before answering a question, he’d lower his head, consider whether you were worth his words, then raise an eyebrow and squint at you from under it. Not everyone got the words. He was small, and somehow grey, blue and white, sharp-edged sodalite to Anthony’s marshmallow. He loved photography, framing and family, and was discreet at all times. He took time to warm to you and kept his circle close – though ultimately not small. He was slow but sharp, thorough, efficient, respected by everyone who worked with him, and, as a great connoisseur of local eateries and drinkeries way beyond the level of ‘which bar sells the best two-pint mugs of beer’, was a great person to include in your social life. Along with three other friends – Silvia, Cristóbal and Ricardo – he was the perfect ‘conversation and dinner’ companion. Although it took a while to be allowed into his confidence, once there, he proved to be – like Anthony – a perpetual supply of unexpected generosity. Not unexpected because it was him, but because most people wouldn’t do the things he did. Small but important things. I remember I was due to give one of my first conference sessions, and was going to risk using pre-prepared transparencies – I’d only ever used an OHP and hand-written transparencies before. This was around 2001, so I’m not THAT much of a Luddite. For some reason Enrique found out – maybe we’d been talking about it at breakfast in the factory canteen where the five of us often had our coffee – and he colour-photocopied all my slides onto transparencies for me, giving advice on colour, layout, font-size and so on. That sounds like nothing nowadays, but then, and in the Canaries, it was huge. As cutting edge as a high-tech machete. He helped me with photography, he got hold of a stack of boxes when I moved, he even helped me choose my car. There was something about Enrique – like Anthony – that when you knew him, you loved him, you were genuinely happy that he had such a happy family life and marriage, because it was what you wanted for a friend like that.

At the end of August 2004, while fishing with his son-in-law, Enrique was swallowed by the Atlantic. The waves smacked into his son-in-law first and carried him away and Enrique tried to save him. Neither of them survived. The grandchild that he'd just met at the time will have recently turned twelve. Enrique was in his forties, and it was no way to go. Too early and no way to go. But death is what it is. No cowls or faceless skulls. Either your sell-by date comes into effect or somehow you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no romance, no poetry. If you get some kind of warning, you start to clear up, you write a will, make sure your debts are paid (if you’re that kind of person), you ensure that everyone you love will have what they need (and a bit more), you may even prepare a ‘nice surprise’ for them for afterwards. But no, Mr Hardy, you don’t go around writing ‘oh woe is me’ poetry or trying to leave your mark. Your Blackstar isn’t just a legacy for your fans, a donation to Art and History, a symbol of your perpetual capacity for creation and creativity, your V-sign to death – it’s a financial plan for your loved ones, insurance, inheritance, the mortgage paid, the school fees. It’s about them, not about you.

Death comes when it comes, when randomness or past excesses demand. It isn’t romantic or poetic or even vaguely melancholic, Thomas Hardy was wrong. It isn’t the end either – it lasts, oh, at least twelve years. It comes when you’re at work, during your siesta, when you’re washing your face in the morning, when you’re enjoying the last days of your summer holiday fishing with family. It comes when it’s 35ºC outside, when the sun is shining, while the ice cream melts. It comes when you’re making curry. And sometimes, just sometimes, it comes – and it pisses off again. 

12.6.16

Music was my first love: for Julia (and others)


Ten ‘significant albums’, albums that made a mark on my life. Seemed like a simple request. Especially for someone whose life is signposted by music. I began to think. And think. Out walking. Driving. Alone in the evening. And think. And feel frustrated. “The Sound of Music Original Soundtrack”, Lucio Dalla, Donna Summer and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, but most other albums came into my life post 1983. From then onwards, no problem: The Idiot (appropriately, and bought as retro), New boots and panties, Nirvana Unplugged, Jagged Little Pill, Superunknown, Vitalogy, Songs for Drella, Come away with me, Crazy Sexy Cool, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Diamonds and Pearls, Purple Rain, Sign o the Times, Chill out, The Right Time, Give out but don’t give up, Fragments of freedom, The Magnificent Tree, Document, Monster, El Camino, Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?, Shelter …oops, did somebody say ten? But I haven’t finished yet! There’s the various Bowie compilations, and …oh, but no compilations, Julia said. Hmm. So no compilations - that means no Marley, Bowie, Queen, Elton John (I confess to being a huge fan of his Greatest Hits Volume 2), no Blondie, less Prince….  PLUS the fact  I didn’t really have any albums before 1983. So the thinking continued.
But as I got lost way beyond ten, realising that it still wasn’t representative and was all after getting my first ‘proper job’ (ie not of the holiday or weekend variety), something else sank in: I’m a music addict. I sing it, dance it, drive to it, love to it, live to it….. but I’m not an albums girl. Albums didn’t form the backing track to my life’s song. I’m 52 years old and British, and I grew up with music-loving parents and John Peel and access to the biggest album you could hope to grow up with. The BBC. So here’s how it went.
I was lucky. My parents loved music, particularly my mother. The radio was on all the time. While thinking about this, Julia, I realised we must have had a car radio in the black Beetle in the ‘60s (unless mum took a ‘wireless’?), as I remember as a teeny rolling around the back seat in the Glasgow traffic, listening to the squish-weeek-squish-weeek of the Scottish-weather-battered windscreen wipers and asking my mother why all the bands on the radio were called after food. And therefore assumed that a Hermit was some kind of biscuit (which I believe it is), as apart from Herman, there was Marmalade, The Strawbs, Cream, Bread  – and some bunch called The Beatles, but they sang in French, ma belle, so they didn’t count. And Scaffold had Aintree Iron, which was about a griddle, and Lily the Pink mentioned Jennifer Eccles, who was a sort of biscuit too. There wasn’t much television back then, it started at 4pm with Playschool, which was for babies. And therefore not for me. Pogles Wood and The Clangers were cool, but spare me Hamble and Jemima and that dreaded arched window. So the radio it was. I was quarantined for a long time as a child, ill and at home, so music was indeed my first love and whether or not it will be my last remains to be seen, but there’s a fair chance. It's still the best way to fly. And the radio in Scotland in those days meant the BBC.
It wasn’t all radio, though, so before I get side-tracked - or mono-tracked -, I should honour that record player that had pride of place in our lounge. Not in the sitting-room, mind, in the lounge. The room I wasn’t allowed in unaccompanied, and which housed treasures like the nice settee, the boy frying fish and the slide
viewer, as well as the record player. Our carpet-fronted spring-clip lidded box was a textured duck blue on the outside, with an ivory-coloured interior, a heavy arm (I can hear the click..), a swingable hook that held the stack of records in place, dropping them one at a time, and it had four speed settings. I have no idea what the slowest one was for, but the 33rpm and 45rpm were used more than the 78rpm, basically because I’m not that old and neither were my parents. Tom Lehrer was the only one honoured with that setting. The stack of singles on the floor, next to the blue box was made up of coloured paper squares containing (mostly) black discs with a dog and a gramophone above names like Trini Lopez, Herb Alpert, Johnny Cash, Roger Whitaker, Elvis, Glen Campbell (Dad), and Ketty Lester, Dusty Springfield, Elvis (bis), Ray Charles, and Ray Stevens (Mum). My mother taught me, and then my sister, to dance, to jive and bop and groove. She sang, we sang. We sing. And as I grew, Radio One came along and so did our move to England, round about the time David Cassidy and assorted Osmonds hit the scene. I could not understand either option, even at that age, much as Coldplay befuddles me now. However, salvation and sanity came in the form of Mud, Sweet and Slade. Monosyllables were cool, poster boys were not. And TRex is a monosyllable if you read it wrong… My love of dance developed to the extent that I invented dance routines and taught them to my friends at school. The Bump by Kenny saw at least half a class-load of ten year olds gyrating and summersaulting at my command – and all because we had the BBC letting us discover what we liked. Who needed to spend pocket money on singles? Big brothers and sisters had collections that could be plundered. You just had to avoid the Cat Stevens fans. Life was about songs, not about albums and this did not change as the teen years rolled in.
If I look through my memories and my cassettes, so, so many are of the ‘taped from the radio’ kind, or compilation cassettes that friends made for birthdays or just because. Hazel O’Connor alongside Beatles, Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Gary Moore and Phil Lynott, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, more Donna Summer, BeeGees, more Dalla, Yvonne Elliman, Tom Robinson, Ian Dury, Ram Jam. The tracks indelible – Parisian Walkways, If I can’t have you, While my guitar gently weeps, Come together, How deep is your love, Across the universe, Long and winding.., Boys keep swinging, Will you… And while I’m here, Boys keep swinging was one of the seminal songs of my teens years (don’t giggle at the choice of adjective) – the video, the song, the courage of Bowie and the ambiguity in the images, they slapped me in the face and injected me with interest and electric joy. Suddenly it was alright to be different and ambiguous, it shocked but somehow validated. My mother had a rainbow of friends and I was also doing theatre at that time surrounded by birds of many feathers, but some of the people we considered our buddies seemed strangely ‘unacceptable’ to many other people we knew and loved (my father being one of the more uncomfortable though never unkind), and this video screamed ‘Yahoo! Shucks to you!’. It was a relief, and I still love the song. I still love Bowie, but that’s a different post. Songs reached me, reached us. Songs drew us in. Bow wow wow’s Annabella doing that squat dance to Go wild in the country – how many dancefloors saw me bounce down to ground level and ping up again to that? Peaches made me sit up and notice as squelching became appealing yet dark. Oliver's Army was played over and over until the tape snarled (boring my ever patient Dad in the car in the process). Let’s groove blasted around the lounge when no-one was home (intro-ed by more squelching - maybe I was a squelch fan). We are family and Le Freak had me wearing out the carpet. Kids in America intrigued me with its split track recording that caused the sound to whizz past me if I sat in the middle of the room. The jukebox in the Devon pub I wasn’t legally allowed into swallowed a large percentage of my summer holiday money circa 1977 so I could play Fanfare for the common man again and again and again. And John Miles. I grew up to songs. Not albums. 10cc’s I'm not in love – whether true or not, what a song. Vast and woo and billowy. Love is like oxygen, the return of my teenybop heroes with a sound that I found made me feel strange, I loved it…. I didn’t know why. Which is what love is about. You don’t need a reason for it.
I am lucky too for having coincided with a generation of women in rock, in music in general, in soul. My mother listened to Dusty, Ketty, Sandy, Billie, Aretha, Diana, Elkie, Helen Reddy, there was Carole and Carly, Dionne and Ella. For me and my generation, we had Patti Smith singing Because the night, which is, for me, one of the most significant songs in history. In my history at least. Like Bowie, she challenged what we’re ‘supposed’ to look like and her voice soared and twisted in a way no-one else’s did, unapologetically. In Pissing in a river, like Ian Dury though less whimsically, she allowed me to be me, rebellious, poetic, weaving words. In Dancing barefoot she gave me my anthem, the line I still live to. Hazel O’Connor, Lene Lovich, Siouxsie, Toyah, Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry and laterally Shirley Manson. Oh modern girls with your Beyoncés, Rhiannas, Gaga and Sia, how happy I am to be so much older than you. How could we fail to love music with OUR sirens?

So, Julia. Ten albums. Thousands of songs. Names, colours, soaring and falling, to be danced to, to make love to, to die to. My favourite albums were not sung by groups or singers, they were made or given to me by people I have loved, I love and/or will always be in love with. They were playing when he danced with me, when she sung to me, when we laughed. And they’re all here inside me. So thank you for the smile. And for letting me cheat. 

5.1.16

Green again: Shadowman


From an image by James Taylor at eltpics
The Art of Being Different: Putting Shadowman away

Three and a half years ago, I wrote that I was putting off writing the next instalment of my Green Days (that last instalment is here). I am now officially an expert procrastinator! But here it is. And as I sit on the edge of the page, right here, up at the top, I have no idea how it’s going to weave itself on the way down. Look out below. Literally, look out. And I’ll write the following instalment shortly after.

*******************
The girl walking along, nonchalantly proud of her new-found long, long legs and arms, which were brown (or at least a sort of orange) for the first time in their twelve-and-a-half years, was wearing a mint green dress. A rebel unaware of the existence of causes, her bottle green jersey was tied around her waist, her sandals happily scuffed, her battered old, half empty brown briefcase – how come it always reminded her of a floppy-jowled dog? - bumping the side of her leg as she walked. She’d have a bruise. She didn’t care. It had been a long, fun summer but that morning, she’d traded her annoying little sister in for her band of buddies, and gone back to school.

Summers were glorious back then. They were made of rope ladders and swings and bright polyester halter-necks and swimming-pools and orchards and wormy greengages and comparing bikini tops to see if anyone’s wasn’t flat, and mums that made iced tea because Robert Carrier told them how to. It was buffet lunches in British Home Stores and coffee in the Wimpy grill with friends and no parents and lying on your friend’s living-room floor listening to their older siblings’ records. It was Arthur Rackham posters and Liberty’s and tank tops and high waisters. It was Angel Delight and sliced banana with some friends, and avocado pear and vinaigrette with others. Queen sang to their best friend, Elton to Kiki, and Tavares was a band, not a beach. Young Hearts (ran) free and You should (have been) dancing. It was hiding under weeping willows and playing spies because boys were boring, and it was Jackie comics and green eyeshadow and wearing clothes chosen by your mum. The world was as big as it ever had been, bigger for sure, as the child world and the teen world merged and overlapped. It was yellow and orange and unsubtly sunlit, and it was as fragile as an egg shell on a speedway track.

The girl had grown rather spectacularly during the holiday, height providing a ridicule-shield, she hoped, and she had tales of Spain and of strawberries-and-cream sundaes, stamps with that Franco chap, and a tan to show off. There was no homework that day because teachers were glowing in the aftermath whilst battling back-to-work blues. Life was as bright as a Snowball with a cherry, and she might even have been humming as she walked home that day.

Thirty minutes separated the train station from home, on foot. First along some post-war streets of houses, then under the railway arch and past the first water meadows with their scruffy ponies. Into the filthy-rich Fisheries, where huge houses were ungated in the pre-paranoia seventies, and then along behind the cricket pitch to the village. Along the road without a pavement, and turn into the estate. Second house to the right, her arms were thin so she could push her hand through the letter box and open the door from the inside. Mum would be there, maybe at the sewing machine, maybe with juice and biscuits, sister would be… let’s not think about that for now. Don’t spoil the moment. Yes, she was definitely humming.

Partway along the last but one street of post-war pebbledash, a car pulled up alongside. A silver Capri with a black roof and an unusual number-plate. ‘Channel Islands or import’, she thought absent-mindedly. She liked cars, loved their shape, their sound, and a year of train travel with spotters from Presentation College had sharpened her nerd skills to ‘expert’. The driver had fair hair, that over-dry straw-fair that comes with bleached eyelashes. He had an unfamiliar accent too, South Africa? New Zealand? Somewhere that they played rugby and cricket, that much she knew, from Grandstand and Parkinson and being curious about these things. But there was no-one else on the street to give him directions. Annoying. Depending on mum’s mood, juice and biscuits didn’t always wait.

No, she didn’t know the way to Newlands School. Of course she knew it, all her friends from primary went there, but she’d never been. No, she couldn’t give him directions to her school; it was way too far away, thirty or forty minutes by car. The name? She told him the name. Yes, it was a nice uniform, if you liked that sort of thing. Nice tan indeed, she’d been on holiday with her parents. (The murmur of ‘don’t talk to strangers’ was growing louder.) Yes, her skirt was very short – she’d grown a lot that summer. Her mum had turned the hem down as far as it could go. Could he see the underside of the hem to see her mum’s work? Huh? Well, I suppose….  Could she squat down for him? So he could see….? Could she…… what? His voice like oil. His smile like melting brie, unfaltering, unpleasant. Squat? Eternity passed. No, she did not want a lift. No. No. No. Quaking. Throat drying. Holding back the tears but always be polite to strangers clashing now with the need to go. Fast. Get away. Someone coming. ‘Help this man, please, he’s lost’. And she ran. She ran faster than ever before or since. She disappeared down the lane at the back of the houses, the lanes that ran below the railway embankment, to the railway arch, the lane that was dangerous but was the safest place on earth just then. She ran. She was gone. Was he? Didn’t know and would never know.

The rest of the story disappeared in time, the details bleached and smudged. Police, yes, smiling policeman, policewoman too, long interview at the dining-room table, talk of other girls and her mother on the phone. Sitting under the stairs for hours and hours, perhaps days, sleeping on the gold coloured carpet. Father bringing a snack and sitting with her for a while. In his suit. Those details still hover. The rest, all lost. But you see, nothing happened. Not to her. Not that day. It happened to the man. And it happened to other girls who, unlike her, had got in the car. The car with the number-plate she’d noticed.

I’d noticed. And that event, and the association in my mind with my uniform, the sudden turning of my legs from a source of pride to a source of shame changed everything.

But dramas only become dramas if you let them. And this is just a story like so many others’ stories. Something the passing of time has pruned, blurred. And that I grew out of. It took until about ten years ago, but I outgrew it. And nothing happened that day. I remember the feeling, the emotions, fear, confusion but most of all the fight or flight survival energy surge. I remember all that acutely but the rest…. It wasn’t melodramatic, it was largely about my imagining what could be happening and what could go on to happen, and it was wise fear not crippling fear. If it had happened any other day, month, year, perhaps things would have been different. But it happened that day. And it was key on my route to becoming a teacher. Perhaps even more so a teacher trainer. That September afternoon I didn’t realise it, but my personal little train reached a set of points and the sandy-haired shadowman pulled the lever.

Twat.