A Civil Tongue

When Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ first aired on BBC2, in 1969, it completely passed us by. It just wasn’t the kind of thing we watched, either as a family, or individually. It wouldn’t have been on the menu in the same way that university wasn’t mentioned beyond the name of the ‘University Challenge’ host, Bamber Gasgoigne. His moniker was part of the same limited household lexicon of exotica as aperitif, souffle, jodhpurs, debutante, etc. You get the picture.

In light of what might be regarded as a 49 year old missed opportunity to enjoy a cultural televisual feast, I was delighted to discover that the entire 13 part series is currently available in the iPlayer archive section. It’s a bit stiff and starchy but I’ve warmed to Kenneth Clark – a lifetime Labour voter, by the way– and his kindly method of presentation. It’s as if the programmes had been tailored for the benefit of working class families like ours, and I wonder what collective thoughts and opinions might have been aired in the living room, if we’d given it half a chance?

Religion, and Christianity in particular, is ever present as Clark explains his personal views of civilisation in the west. By the west, he means Europe, specifically. I guess he would have been given short shrift from a family who usually switched ‘Songs of Praise’ off every Sunday, barring Christmas, when carols were sung.

Not that we were an intolerant lot. I mean, we kept quiet while The Cliff Adams Singers sang something simple, and in return, there was no adult moaning while Pick of the Pops was on. All very civilised really, I suppose.

Purged Posts and Digital Dust

The clearing out of my digital drawers – not the wrong trousers – continues. Beware the perils of Facebook, as if the more sensible among you weren’t, already. I discovered that I can’t leave. At least I can’t leave without pulling the plug on various thriving interest groups that are inextricably locked into my personal account. The only thing for it is to delete as much personal data as is possible until my timeline reflects a long list of nothing. Some may argue there’s nothing new there.

Actually, even the laborious process of expunging six years of posts, shares and tagged items, manually, has its benefits. If nothing else it’s a good exercise in getting to know yourself better. For every “blimey! I didn’t realise that happened five years ago”, there’s a “oh gawd, did I really say that?”

Anyway, whilst taking a break from purging, deleting, wetting my virtual finger and rubbing out the errors of my online ways, I discovered something wonderful. A haunting collaboration bewteen Marianne Faithfull and Nick Cave on “The Gypsy Faerie Queen”.

Waiting at the Egypt Station

After Wings at the Speed of Sound I stopped buying Paul McCartney albums. I still enjoyed some of the hits and collaborations, but my general reaction to his work could largely be measured in yawns.

Last weekend I read this favourable Guardian review of Macca’s latest release, Egypt Station. According to Kitty Empire, the man was back in the groove.

So I sat down, selected play on Spotify, and listened for just shy of an hour, 16 tracks. Hmm… sadly the only groove I detected was the one carved out by repetition and predictability. It just didn’t seem to get going. The battery was obviously fully charged and the starter motor was turning, but there was no real spark.

I hear a lot of people say fair play to the man, still doing his thing at 76. I wonder if this sentiment is largely born out of affection, or wishful thinking. A nod to past achievements, or a deep seated longing for one more masterpiece?

I was/am a loyal Beatles fan, and I still play McCartney’s first three albums from time to time. I probably would have drawn the line after Wings Wildlife, but the next three albums made up the bulk of the Wings set, on their 1975/76 tour. I saw them on the first night, in Southampton, and again at Wembley Empire Pool on the third but last gig on their itinerary. They were sensational. They weren’t just in the groove, they were scratching deep and leaving audiences with all the right kinds of scars. The kind you never attempt to cover up.

As for Egypt Station, this is the best of the bunch, for me. Have a listen. See what you think.

Air Pressure

Sometimes, when the skies are cloud-free and the sun has risen just enough to bleed its light into a new morning, we sit in bed and watch the pale blue being slowly and elegantly slashed. An anonymous, odyssey-driven hand making long pink incisions that heal slowly before our eyes, leaving only the faintest of scars.

At the leading edge of each graceful gash, an aeroplane, not short of company in the complex cat’s cradle of flight paths. Yet it looks, for all the world, to be a distant and lonely object. It’s hard not to think of the passengers and crew. Each separated from someone they love, by speed, trajectory and altitude. Some carrying the undeclared weight of loneliness, others immersed and at home in their own turbulence.


It’s been an odd few months.

I’ve undergone – and fully recovered from – invasive surgery, placed my faith in fellow human beings who would render me unconscious and safely return me to the real world. Ever the realist, I found myself making preparations for the worse case scenario. One where I don’t have a voice to be heard. I put my house in order. Made a new will, left instructions, wrote down a zillion passwords so that someone could access my digital world and methodically shut things down. Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? But it’s little more than coming to terms with that frail, not always clearly defined line that separates our being here, and not. In the event a defective part of me was removed and disposed of. A miracle of modern medicine was performed, at no financial cost to me, courtesy of our treasured NHS. In short, I feel fine.

So, what have I been up to, since May? Well, I just haven’t felt like blogging all that much. I have wanted to write. In fact I have written briefly and far too often, on Facebook. Although I share more than I write, because the shared items carry a message or opinion more keenly observed and better articulated that anything I might spend hours cobbling together. But I’m currently doing a digital detox – anything I write here doesn’t count. I have issued sternly written notes to self about wasting time on social media, getting embroiled in pointless debates that lead nowhere and solve nothing. I’m trying to turn myself around to face what needs doing, some proper writing. A good friend, currently residing in Baltimore, pointed out that if I have enough discipline to hang out on Facebook with such frightening frequency, I should be able to re-channel the effort required for multiple posting, into something more substantial. He’s right, of course. So I’m trying really hard, and the word count is rising, slowly but very surely.

Image: Hand’s-free by Martin Hodges

When I’m stumped for something to say, increasingly I turn to creating images. Usually something snapped on the phone camera. I find that images can be extremely effective in bridge-building toward the words I need to continue writing. I’ll bet I’m not alone in this.

Aside from writing, I’ve been catching up on my reading. A few days ago I saw an article about Violette Leduc, which got me thinking about the number of female authors now sitting on the bookshelf here at home. I’ve just finished reading Crudo by Olivia Laing, and enjoyed it immensely. Before that, I devoured Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem after watching a Netflix documentary about the author, herself. I would highly recommend the documentary even if you don’t read her wonderful writing. Currently, I’m devouring My Name is Leon, by Kit de Waal.

It’s my intention to blog more often. As I say, it’s been an odd few months.


Keep Calm and Carry On to the Theatre

You know how it is, when you haven’t heard news of an aviation disaster for months, then, just ahead of the date when you or loved ones are due to fly off on an adventure, everything with wings seems to have been repainted in the livery of vulnerability. You save up for a new household appliance, and on the day it’s scheduled to arrive you read a sobering piece in the paper, about how the model you’ve chosen is prone to catching fire or exploding without warning.

On a personal existential level, the last thing you want to hear is that the wonder drug you’ve been taking for more years than you care to remember, is suddenly banned in some countries, on the grounds that long term use can cause irreparable damage to the very parts you were hoping to preserve. Similarly, with surgical procedures, I don’t want to be confronted with nightmare scenarios ahead of my own imminent operation. I’ve read the ‘literature’ about anaesthetics, risks of infection, risks of bleeding, risks of tissue damage, risks of DVT, etc, etc. I’ve read and inwardly digested. That obligatory information is now stored away in a securely locked cupboard, in a room of my mind that only gets used on very special occasions.

So I should not have let my curiosity get the better of me when I spotted George Monbiot’s update on his own health. In a few brief sentences, poor George’s experiences were unravelling much of the goodwill and reassurance I’ve received from family and friends, ahead of the big day. He stopped breathing in the recovery room. He had a nasty post-op infection, and muscle spasms so violent, he found himself “…curled up on the floor, nails hooked into the carpet.” I have to stress at this point that George’s reasons for being subjected to the surgeon’s knife are in no way related to mine. But even so, a surgical intervention is a surgical intervention.

The truth is, I haven’t had an operation under general anaesthetic, for 57 years. Yes, that far back, when a tonsillectomy was commonplace among young children. When hospital wards were cavernous and intimidating, and parents were requested to leave their offspring with a starched uniform before melting away quietly. It was for the best, you know.

The nurse who conducted part of the pre-op assessment for my 2018 theatre trip smiled when I recalled my childhood trauma. She went on assure me that things have changed a great deal over more than half a century. Phew! Actually, one interesting fact she shared with me, was this: cataract patients used to spend five days on their back, following surgery. Each day day they were raised a little until, eventually they were sitting upright.

I have to say, this nurse’s light touch and and caring manner, not to mention her many years of experience, brought my stress levels pretty much back to normal. Raised, yes. But not through the roof.

These times in our lives, when our fate is effectively in the hands of strangers in masks, are full of imponderables. But these things I do know. My surgeon is Greek, and he graduated at University of Athens Medical School. Also, things have progressed, largely for the good since a nurse, in 1961, straight out of the Ladybird “People at Work” series, administered an insipid pink pre-med which left me fully conscious all the way to theatre, where I delayed proceedings not once, but twice. First, with a request for the loo, and secondly, with earnest enquiries as to what would happen next. What happened next was, a rubbery appliance was placed firmly over my nose and mouth.

And then I woke up. That’s the one thing I sincerely hope will remain unchanged.

The Beach is Back

Call it coincidence, a sign of the times, whatever. But in the past week or so, there has been a spate of articles centred around so-called ‘bullshit jobs”. When the words of people like David Graeber reach my eyes and ears, they are actually preaching to the converted. In fact, I’ve been banging on about invented jobs for years. I know about such things. I have form. At least two posts I held whilst working in an academic institution, were literally made up for me, by senior managers, on the hoof. Or should I say, on the back foot? How can we honour his permanent contract without paying him too much? Graeber would have recognised them, instantly, as “bullshit jobs”. He has much to say on the matter, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a flavour: “Support staff no longer mainly exist to support the faculty. In fact, not only are many of these newly created jobs in academic administration classic bullshit jobs, but it is the proliferation of these pointless jobs that is responsible for the bullshitization of real work — real work, here, defined not only as teaching and scholarship but also as actually useful administrative work in support of either.”

So when I hear that 70 tonnes of sand is going to be dumped outside the Southampton Guildhall, to recreate a 480 square metre beach in the city centre, guess what I’m thinking. Yes, what kind of starved imagination dreams up a menu of beach soccer, foot volley, sumo wrestling, tug of war, art workshops and sand castle competitions to be played out in the city’s ‘Cultural Quarter’?

According to the Daily Echo, “…a “deckchair trail” around the city will offer the chance for sunny selfies leading to the giant beach.”

Look, I’m not a party pooper, honest I’m not. It’s just that, HELLO, Southampton is a port on the south coast, and there’s a lot of easily accessible where-the-land-meets-the-sea. Plenty of places where you can enjoy a paddle, seashells, salt water, wildlife, and a temporary escape from bullshit, while you’re demolishing a Mr Whippy.