Where to next?

We only ever spoke once. He was rescuing the family trampoline from some common land we have to cross, to get to the village shop. While he and his family were holidaying in Cyprus, high winds had lifted and rolled the giant springy platform across two sizeable fields, setting it down in a clearing, ready for use.

We stopped for a while, as he and his son calculated the feasibility of getting the thing home on a trailer. I had my doubts, as the trampoline was wider than the lane through which it would need to travel. We wished him good luck, and continued on our way.

After that, he always nodded and smiled whenever he passed us in the lane. And that’s the kind of relatonship we had with him, as we do with so many people in our stretched and straggled village: a nodding acquaintance.

A little over a fortnight ago, he passed us in the lane. We pressed ourselves into the hedge and he offered his usual wave of the hand. An easy smile lit up his ruddy face. It was around 10.00. At 13.30 he was dead. Heart attack. Aged 58, the life that generated the friendly wave and a warm grin left him with little warning.

After receiving the news from a neighbour, I tried to recall when I was last shocked at learning about the sudden death of someone I knew. It was before I retired, a full twelve years ago. The death of a colleague is always distressing, but particularly so when they are people you work with, closely. The casual “Have a good weekend. See you on Monday,” can seem like a curse when Monday never arrives for those you have wished well. An aneurysm for a funny, lively, kind woman in her forties. Suicide for a hugely intelligent, innovative, high-flyer in his thirties. Who knew? Nobody.

The fine line comes into sharp focus each time a familiar face leaves the stage, doesn’t it? The news is always sad, but as the years pass, less and less shocking. It would seem that the skin of acceptance is tailored to fit more neatly, with age.

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.