Oh Yoko!

I read, recently, about ‘The Riverbed’, a three-part installation by Yoko Ono. The mention of her name immediately filled my head with a collage of images. The full frontal nude pose with Lennon, the floating presence amid the death throes of those loveable moptops, her film no.4, ‘Bottoms’, the bagism, the bed-ins, the wailing and the screeching. But also, a music album.

At some point around 1975 I acquired a copy of of the Yoko Ono album ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’. It was very likely a gift. Exchanging gifts of music was still a thing then. Although I can’t recall the precise source, I do know that it was a secondhand copy. Probably bought by mail order from the legendary Cob Records, in Porthmadog – a cursory glance of their website indicates that they’re still in business. I used Cob almost exclusively back then. Selling off the stuff I got tired of, and using whatever Cob paid against bands that were new to me, usually on the strength of a single track or the recommendation of a friend.
I can’t honestly recall playing ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ very much. The excellent New York band, Elephant’s Memory, mitigated the wobbly vocals to a certain extent, but this was a double-album, for goodness sake!
So, how did I ever get a soft spot for Yoko? It certainly wasn’t her gift for delivering a song. Perhaps it’s her openness, her existence as an experimental entity. Perhaps it’s the enduring commitment to peace and love, in spite of everything that’s happened to her on a personal level. The mental health issues, the miscarriages, the pain of being separated from her daughter for almost three decades. Not to mention the cold blooded murder of her husband.
She continues to prompt and provoke us to a point just short of shocking. She makes us think, she forces an opinion. Avant-garde interloper responsible for the break-up of the ‘Fab Four’, or a conceptual pioneer who has challenged us for more than half a century?
Back to that double-album. There’s a track entitled, “What a Bastard the World Is”, and I get the feeling that Yoko has spent the best part of her life making every effort to counter that bleak statement, with love. The two-fingered peace signs have become a trademark of a sort. They are relics used as parting gestures during camera calls and interviews. However, idiosyncratic Tweets from her Twitter account – “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.” – may signal that, in her 85th year, her restless feet are happiest when treading the unknowable. Some forty five years after the release of that double-album, her mind appears to approximate an infinite universe of ideas.

Breakdown and Renewal

I used to get annoyed with shoddy customer service, but now I have some sympathy with those caught up in the career-crushing culture of the call centre. What prospects for those poor souls who spend their days anchored to a screen, stuck to a script, with little room for improvisation? Holding your nerve, under a barrage of customer queries and complaints, with only a meaningless mission statement for protection, must be hell. Every shift, a series of repetitions, punctuated only with beeps, clicks and, the occasional expletive.

So I was patient with the man who answered my call to Green Flag, today. After the obligatory security questions, he half-heartedly asked how he might help. I explained that the renewal price for my breakdown cover had shot up, and I had been forced to look around for a better deal.
“Yeah, well, you called us out this year, didn’t you?”
“Home start, yes. A duff battery.”
“Yeah. And your car’s 13 years old. More likely to go wrong.”
“Okay. So I’m being penalised for calling you out, and for owning a 13 year old car?”
“Yeah. What prices are you being quoted online, just out of interest?”
“AXA offers the same cover for less than half the price Green Flag have quoted me.”
“Is there a price for Green Flag, online?”
“Yes. It’s cheaper still, but with a £40 excess and a limit of only one call out.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t compete with that.”
“But you’re the same company, aren’t you? Green Flag is Green Flag?”
“Yeah, but it’s the internet, innit? Everything’s on the internet, these days.”
That was basically the sum total of the conversation. I chose not to renew with Green Flag, and I’ve gone with AXA, instead. I’ve nothing against the assistant who handled my call. He was probably struggling to stay awake. At least, that’s how it seemed. What drives me to despair, is the inertia. As consumers, we’ve been conditioned to seek out the best deal, go compare, compare the comparisons, and then haggle. Firms are waiting to oblige us with a service second to none. I actually wanted to stay with Green Flag…for the right price. Instead, a short way into an unremarkable conversation, I was only offered a rather phlegmatic take-it-or-leave-it option.
I’m only surprised I didn’t hear, “Yeah well, you’re just a consumer, and you’re at the end of a contract. It’s a throwaway society, innit?”

Face it

Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you. – Walt Whitman

Just fourteen short years after the war, Spitfires were still in action. While I was filling my head with times tables an entire squadron was parked up under the yew tree by the school gate, invisible to anyone who wasn’t equipped with a vivid imagination. The perfect camouflage. At playtime it was another matter. Engines roared into life, and after a little taxiing into position, we were ready for take-off. Our wingspans were short (we were only five years old) but it made no difference to the levels of determination with which we carried out our missions. Once airborne, we circled the school, looking for enemies to shoot down. If that failed, we made do with ‘buzzing’ small groups of girls, who often retaliated by lobbing tangled skipping ropes at our short trousered rudders.

Just as we were oblivious to how unlike Spitfires our little selves appeared, so we were generally oblivious to the way we appeared to each other. For instance, the fact that I, at one time, sported a strip of bright pink elastoplast on each side of my ointment-smothered face, during a ringworm infection, prompted little response from my school friends. Although one did suggest we might like to play cowboys and indians, and I could be the leader of the latter, as I was already wearing warpaint.
A few years later, my face played the willing host to impetigo. I was more self-conscious by now, and I knew I looked a mess. As I stood on the front doorstep of my friend’s house, I imagined, with increasing anxiety, the reaction of his mum when she would open the door, to be greeted with a florid array of spots and sores, complemented by my holed jumper and oversized trousers that barely stayed up, even with the aid of a tightly pulled elasticated snake belt.
To my great relief, she merely smiled sweetly, stooped towards me and said, “Hello. Have you called for David?”
“Well, come in, come in. David’s in his room. I’ll call him.”
And that was that. No fuss, no wincing, no wrinkled up nose, no excuses that David was otherwise engaged. He eventually appeared, half running, half tumbling, down the stairs. His plans for our time together, echoing across the enormous entrance hall, without a pause. My appearance was, seemingly, no big deal. No surgical masks required.
When I almost lost the sight in my right eye, due to a playground incident, the ambulance man who ushered me through the backdoors of my hospital ‘ride’, and into a nauseating haze of antiseptic and petrol fumes, simply asked in a cheery voice, “Blimey, what’s the other bloke look like?”
By the time I was about twelve, I learnt that it was entirely possible to obsess about the shape of your head. At fifteen, it was more about nose, emerging ‘bum fluff’ and teeth. Ah yes, teeth. Long before people in the dental profession launched themselves on a quest to crown everyone’s gnashers from ear to ear, a succession of orthodontists had endeavoured to straighten my rogue incisors by means of braces that, out of the mouth, resembled something more likely used to catch vermin, rather than a device to aid cosmetic perfection. In any event, the main culprit was eventually knocked out in a school punch up. The resulting gap drew few comments beyond the odd, casual observation that I had taken on the appearance of Alfred E. Neuman. Which was fine because everyone in my gangly group of friends was reading every available copy of MAD magazine, feverishly.
Funny thing, physiognomy. My gran used to tell me my face was an “open book”. Others have said my eyes are a dead giveaway. No one ever suggested my face was my fortune, and no one has said my features resemble that of an unmade bed, at least, not to my…uh, face.

Who are you, again?

I do enjoy a bit of Facebook. The exchange of news, views and general information. It’s a place for sharing, and it can be quite an education, in a social media kind of way. People love to share, and they love to share for a variety of reasons. Pure generosity, uncontrollable enthusiasm, loyalty to the cause, etc, etc. But nothing gets shared quite as quickly or widely as the news of someone’s death. It’s customary, when one of these announcements pop up, to react with a sad emoji, or leave a short comment by way of a condolence. Easy enough if the dead person is a name you know. David Bowie, Bruce Forsyth, Alan Rickman. More recently, Cyrille regis, Jimmy Armfield, Dorothy Malone, Bella Emberg, and Peter Wyngarde.

Then there are people you feel you should know, Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries, Jim Rodford, bass player with The Kinks, ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke of Motorhead. Ray Thomas of The Moody Blues, for goodness sake. He played the flute solo on Nights in White Satin! So, for these people, it’s just a sad emoji, and no comment. Which feels like you’re short-changing the poor souls, but there you go.
Finally, the individual luminaries that you’ve never heard of in your entire life, yet almost everyone else seems broken beyond belief at news of their passing. I’m holding my hands up and saying here and now, in the jigsaw of my existence, there are great gaping spaces where these giants should fit. Which means that recently, I have discovered an Ursula K. Le Guin shaped piece missing, not to mention the Nicanor Parra piece which would, I suspect, go a long way toward completing the Chilean poet part of the picture. Actually, that’s not true. Virtually all the Chilean poet pieces are missing or lost. Some may have been eaten by the ghost of Rin Tin Tin.
Well, I said Facebook can be an education. My education, these days, seems to consist more and more of Googling newly departed ‘names’, previously unknown to me. 
Eventually, I might be able to award myself an Albert Einstein emoji. After all,didn’t he claim, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”?

That’s settled, then?

Some of you will notice that the name of this blog has changed. It used to be, ‘The Label Fell Off’. I don’t know what I was thinking when I came up with that one. Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on it for too long, although I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day. It’s now called ‘From the Sticks’, which is a fair description of my origins, and an accurate reference to where I live. Not a little thatched cottage in the woods, however. But a rented first floor, two bedroom flat. A habitat, housing association style. A place we decided, 18 years ago, would be temporary, for three years, max.

It’s a comfy home. Plenty of room for two people to move about without bumping into one another. Small enough to ensure that a conversation can take place without shouting, even if we’re occupying different rooms. It’s our base. Our shelter, if you like. A snug retreat, made for withdrawing to. A utilitarian nest designed and built around 45 years ago, to accommodate over 50s and retirees who had previously counted on tied cottages for a roof over their heads. It’s an assured tenancy from where we can emerge into the landscape, at will. And it was the landscape that hooked us almost two decades ago.
The village itself has no definable centre. Although, if pushed, I’d say that our little cluster of social housing, bordered on one side of the Close with detached, privately owned dwellings, is as near to a beating heart as you’ll get, in terms of population density. We have a small pub that’s currently closed, a primary school, garage, village hall, and a telephone exchange that’s close enough to deliver broadband speeds comparable to “Infinity”.
Away from where we are, the rest of the village clings to the tendrils of winding lanes, occasionally blooming around a number of village greens, so cherished that they warrant, collectively, a preservation society – cue The Kinks.
Our Close is tucked away from view, and you’ll probably only wind up in this particular patch of desirable postcode, if you have a connection, or you’ve taken a wrong turning. For anyone passing through, the homes of those who make up the main body of the village population are invisible. A significant part of the community exists in a haze of anonymity. The kind that goes hand in hand with transience. If there’s an elephant in the idyll, that no one talks about, it’s the one that doesn’t blow it’s own trumpet, and is born out of class division. Yes, we have our share of thinly veiled resentment/snobbery. Usually on the part of those who feel aggrieved at having to rub shoulders with the precariat. A minority who have their sleep disturbed by theories about how it all went wrong. Their recurring nightmares of precious chocolate box images inevitably marred with dog-ends and discarded takeaway cartons, break a cumulative cold sweat. Visions of the place of their dreams buckle and descend to the late night echo of domestic disagreement, and drunken discord. Quite sad, and unfounded fears.
Several years ago, a TV company came to film a profile of the village for an episode of a series portraying the workings of a rural community. There were items about first responders, a man who fashioned walking sticks from misshapen branches, a woman who spent her spare time making corn dollies. There were bellringers and church wardens. But there wasn’t the barest mention of social housing, or the inhabitants. Yet if the researchers had bothered to knock a few doors, they would have discovered a treasure trove of people with an intimate knowledge of the area. People who live useful and interesting lives. Low profile individuals who modestly keep the community ticking along. 
Little wonder we stayed. It’s a privilege to be one of a number of ordinary people, living together in an extraordinary landscape.

Hey, Have You Read This?

A couple of days ago I read a piece in The Guardian, where writers were asked which books they would give to their younger selves. Newspapers and magazines seem to be awash with this kind of stuff, now, and I have to admit I’m a bit of a sucker, in that I can’t resist playing along.
So which books would I give to my younger self? Well, as a little kid, I didn’t read story books. Although I did have a healthy appetite for factual books. A child’s illustrated encyclopaedia, for example. A Pageant of History – a gift on my tenth birthday – still retains its magic more than half a century on.
After a bout of influenza, when I was about eight years old, my attention was grabbed by comics. A neighbour’s son donated a huge pile of them in the wake of my illness. A generous gesture, and a fine tonic. I remember sorting them by issue number, across my eiderdown. Then I read them in sequence, savouring every episode in every story, over and over again.
As I grew older, so my love of writing grew. Now perhaps you think that would make me an avid reader of children’s novels, but it didn’t. I was seduced by phrases and mesmerised by the descriptive power of words, but I didn’t have the staying power for a whole book, no matter how slim a volume it was.
I was probably twelve when I read my first book, cover to cover. After my mother remarried, I inherited a small collection from my much older stepbrother. I became a huge fan of Malcolm Saville. “The Fourth Key”, “Saucers Over the Moor”, “Young Jonnie Bimbo”. I can’t somehow imagine offering any of the Harry Potter books to my twelve year old self. When I fell for a particular author, my entire life was full, with no room for anything else. Weeks of Agatha Christie. Every Gerald Durrell book, over and over. Leslie Thomas, and Spike Milligan, the first two authors to render me helpless with laughter.
Most of the books I was enthusiastically recommended to read were a bit of a damp squib, with the exception of “Catch 22” and “Cider with Rosie”. Discovering for myself was where the joy lay. The thrill of jumping from Sassoon’s “The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston” to Henry Miller’s “Rosy Crucifiction” and “The Air Conditioned Nightmare”, to the complete works of H.E. Bates, and Graham Greene was like discovering one buried treasure, one after the other. Later, it would be Keith Waterhouse, Clive James, Kingley Amis, and Tom Sharp.
Today, I still hop from one thing to another. No particular genre, no outright favourite author – although there were passages of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” that were such a delight, I read and reread them, drinking in the magic and filling my head with widescreen images, and language in full technicolor – no real pattern or preference.
I’ve just moved on from David Hepworth to Robert Webb, and I’m looking forward to Cordelia Fine and Fiona Mozley, in due course.
No, I’m stumped. I can’t think of any book I would give to my younger self. Either there wouldn’t have been time or room, or I would have been going through one of my prolonged spells of having been distracted by something other than reading.  

The Unlikely Lad

In the week when Rodney Bewes died, just a few days shy of his 80th birthday, I find myself turning 63.
In a kind of “Oh what happened to you? Whatever happened to me?” way, it’s a time of weird observations and realisations. Sitting up in bed at 04:20, with nothing really planned beyond making that first cuppa, I think about my legs. How many miles have they carried me? My Eyes. How much have they seen? My ears. How much have they heard?  This is the 63rd anniversary of the day I was born. So many birthdays celebrated. So few that stand out, shouting me! me! me!
My tenth is one I recall in some detail. The first in double figures, the third with what family was left intact after my parents’ divorce. The first since we were evicted from a tied house, after my father gave up delivering bread and cakes, for a more adventurous career delivering letters and parcels for Royal Mail. The first birthday living in my grandparents’ house.
That year I gratefully received a book – A Pageant of History. My mother made a great fuss about how the title was embossed in gold. I was fascinated by how different our kings looked in the olden days. I also got a leather football, and some red and white striped football socks. Not because they were the colours of the team I supported, but because Rex Martin wore red and white striped socks, and he was the best football player in the school.
I haven’t made that cuppa yet. I am actually standing by the bed, but my attention is drawn to my legs once more. Hmm, no veins sticking out. Knees not too knobbly. I convince myself that if legs needed an annual MOT, mine would sail through, with no welding required.
As I make my way to the kitchen, I reflect on the way my knees changed colour more than half a century ago. When they weren’t covered in mud, they were usually purple from the cold, or covered with vivid orange/red patches from shinning up trees. Now they appear to pale at the mere thought of getting damaged, in any way.
The Unlikely Lad.
Me, as Terry, trapped inside Bob’s body.
People tell me not to keep looking back, but there are some places in our past that we ignore at our peril. I am attached to those places. All those years ago, as I marched out of childhood, and through adolescence, I put markers down. I unwound a string of memories as I travelled, and I won’t be put off  feeling my way back and revisiting, occasionally.
Perhaps innocent reminiscing is what some have identified as a symptom of a second childhood. The retrogenesis theory that we are once a man/woman, twice a child. I would argue that the inner child never leaves us. Instead, it’s likely to be off playing hide and seek, enjoying the freedom that comes from shouldering grown ups with the burden of responsibility.

A lesson that comes easier to some than others is this: the years gently twist the lenses of experience, bringing into sharp focus all the things that are truly important. Love. Respect. Kindness. I’ll let the Big Yin have the last word. He sums it all up much better than I can.