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.



Popular Poetic and Peculiar

I’ve just finished David Hepworth’s excellent book, “Uncommon People: the rise and fall of the rock stars”. I mean, I read it from cover to cover, but it’s one of those rare books that you don’t want to shelve in a hurry. So you find yourself reading three chapters forward and two back. It’s stuffed with bitesize, quirky accounts of rock luminaries that will have you blurting out aloud, snippets and revelations, with annoying regularity.
Meanwhile, Sky Arts are offering “Rock and Roll”, a documentary series with ten themed episodes. I’m only up to number four, but so far there’s a reading of zero on the disappointment scale. 
Having been through ‘Death’, ‘Pain’, and ‘Love’, I guess ‘Poetry’ was inevitable. After watching and listening to various stars offering some context to their lyrical expression, a realisation dawned on me. Apart from the fallings out with disgruntled band members, record labels, etc. Apart from the drugs, booze, depression and money troubles, almost every interviewee could be said to have left a substantial part of themselves in their work. I don’t mean that they’d paid their dues, in the hard-life-on-the-road sense, although they probably had – some individuals, now in their 70s, are not wearing their years too well. Neither am I referring to the long, arduous business of musical composition. No, it’s the words and how they’re arranged and, ultimately, delivered.

The power is invariably in the message, and producing a poetic parcel for the point you want to make and, most importantly, make stick, is exhausting. Every letter has a piece of the poet attached. A piece that only travels one way. Little wonder, after years of treating us to new ways of viewing the oldest and most common human passions, puzzles, and predicaments, the best songwriters stand well apart from the rest. They have given so much of themselves, so much of their humanity, that they are clearly identifiable, not necessarily by a familiar face, but by shape and demeanour beyond the mere physical.

Maybe not poetic. But absolutely ‘Rock and Roll’.

Surely You Remember Me?

As undergraduates with the OU, a friend and I followed the same route for five of our six years journey. We both had an interest in European Humanities, although we went walkabout in 1993, to explore the world of Social Sciences, and in our final year, we went our separate ways. I took Philosophy of the Arts (Aesthetics) and he took the more dramatically entitled, Life and Death (Ethics).
One day, when we were exchanging thoughts on our respective courses, my friend said something along these lines: “You know, I have an identity. I have a name. I have family and friends, and they all know me by my name and by my past. I have a history. I have a sense of self.”
I remember how he paused at this point. The declaration of his sense of self hung a little uneasily in the air.
“But when I’m dead,” he continued, “when I’m dead, I’ll become a statistic, first and foremost. A number on a toe-tag will be how I’m known; at least to the mortuary staff, despite the intimacy of our newly formed relationship.”
That rather morbid part of our otherwise stimulating conversation has stayed with me. At the time, I was glad to be wrestling with questions about when music actually becomes music. Is it in the composer’s mind, manuscript, the rendition, the ears of an audience? You get the picture.
The thing is, once a solemn thought about personal identity has been planted, it doesn’t matter how much your head gets crammed with Barthes and Derrida, the question, “What about me?” begins to override all others. Clive Bell’s “significant form” morphs into “significant me”. I guess a psychologist might suggest that I’m just readjusting the frilly edges of my survival instinct, after having had them ruffled by the draught of mortality. Actually no psychologist would couch such a serious possibility in such flowery terms. But again, you get the picture?
I recently turned up to see a consultant at the hospital, only to be told that my appointment had been cancelled. That my local GP’s practice had screwed up the paperwork, and I would need to get another referral. “Don’t do your head in, trying to work it all out,” chirped the outpatients receptionist, “you’ll just end up going round in circles and get nowhere.”
For a brief moment, before leaving for home, I re-read the letter I had been sent. Yes, my name was clearly printed on the paper. It had been addressed to me, to myself. I had been identified, albeit via a cold and remote medical record. But it got me thinking, as I made my way out through the incoming human traffic. So many faces, so many lives, so many histories. Yet, in spite of a genuine willingness to connect, to empathise, to love, even; most of us are drastically relegated to mere statistical fodder as soon as we step beyond the circle of family and friends. I try not to take it to the introspective conclusion my old friend reached, way back. But I do try to remember that we are all names first. Numbers second.    

The £1m Question

I well remember a conversation I had with colleagues, over coffee, more than a decade ago, now. In the middle of the hubbub a question was posed. You know, one of those questions that hangs in the air for what seems like an age while the brain goes into overdrive in pursuit of a watertight answer.

“Who would consider early retirement if the opportunity presented itself?”
It was me who popped the collective thought bubble. While others were stroking their chins and imagining a life without work, my instant response was simply, “I would.”
Others weren’t so sure. No doubt they all had their own personal reasons for being apprehensive or non-commital. They never actually said. The talk just segued from the prospect of not working, to something work-related.
Eighteen months later, all employees received an email, with an open invitation for interested parties to discuss voluntary redundancy.
Before I scorched the carpet en route to my head of department, I spent around half a week communicating with the people in the university’s pension section. Me making enquiries about lump sums and monthly pension payments, wondering if all those AVCs would actually pay off. They, coming back to me with increasingly attractive propositions.
At home, we pored over the figures, calculated and recalculated. It would be a little bit tight, but totally possible. I could finish in 2006. Mags would properly retire one year later. By properly I mean, she would be entitled to a full state pension, plus her works pension. I still have a way to go before I qualify for state pension, due to the goalposts being moved by those who know what’s best for us. But that’s by the by.
The point is – yes there is a point – it’s entirely possible to finish work if you’re not planning to live extravagantly. It wasn’t too hard for us because we’re not big spenders. There would be no cruises or globetrotting adventures on the horizon, even if I had gone the full distance. Our only plan was to continue living simply, make the most of our surroundings, and give time over to some of those pursuits we didn’t have room for whilst we were wage slaves. We had abandoned any notion of ever being home-buyers, let alone home-owners a long time before abandoning the workplace. Tying ourselves to the purchase of a property was something we could never take seriously. Although we did dabble with a mortgage for a few short years, during the 90s.
Having said all this, for many the prospect of finishing with work only raises its head when someone asks “The big money question: would you quit work for £1m?” When The Guardian asked it a variety of responses came forth. I found myself nodding with Indi Jackson and Sarah Walbank, mostly. I guess my own outlook is somewhere between the two.
I eventually leapt into the half-light in June/July of 2006. Our first grandchild arrived in December of the same year, followed by identical twins in 2009. Being on hand to see them grow and develop has been better than all the cruises, meals at swanky restaurants, seats for blockbuster shows, and new cars all rolled into one.
All in all, it’s been a great journey, so far. Absolutely no regrets for either of us. When I shared the Guardian piece on Facebook, earlier, a friend responded with, “Quit in 1988 for peanuts. Wonderful.” My reply, “Me, too. Shackles off. Worth more than 10 million pounds to me.”

Black Album

I’ve loved the White Album by The Beatles since I first heard it played, shortly after release. The prized double album belonged to a friend’s older brother. While he was at work, we bunked off school and trawled – very carefully – through his vast record collection.
I couldn’t afford to buy my own copy, so I eventually settled for a swap. A handful of singles, complete with scratches and torn sleeves, for a Mono recording of the White Album. It was played over and over, until the grooves flattened, the needle slipped, and even the faces of the Fab Four gazed out from their individual glossy portraits as though they were about to break into a collective yawn.
I’ve still got the album – not the worn out one – in at least three different formats, although I never seem to get the time to play it through, these days. But that doesn’t matter too much. The tunes are sewn on the inside of my head. Ah, if only those crazy lads from Liverpool had patched up their differences and made more music, eh? Well of course, they did, individually, and without too much delay, after the divorce. 
So, when I noticed a Charles Hazlewood documentary on Sky Arts that referred to the Black Album, my attention was suddenly undivided.
Basically, Hazlewood – as others have apparently done many times before – chose tracks released by the individual Beatles, after the band broke up, and compiled a personal track list for a hypothetical Black Album. You can see his choices at Spotify.
This seemed like a fun exercise, although according to mood and availability of time, the permutations are many. Anyway, just off the top of my head, I spent a few moments putting together my own track list. I limited my range to 1973. That was when I was still collecting anything Beatles-related, that moved.
I thought some of you might want to have go, yourselves, preferably using 1973 as a cut-off point, as I did. 
Go on, give it a whirl, and to wildly misquote Lennon: those of you on Facebook, can clap your hands. And the rest of you; if you could just rattle your jewellery…in the comments box provided.
    
1.     Imagine – John Lennon
2.     Maybe I’m Amazed – Paul McCartney
3.     Who Can See It – George Harrison
4.     Out Of The Blue – John Lennon
5.     It Don’t Come Easy – Ringo Starr
6.     Run Of The Mill – George Harrison
7.     Photograph – Ringo Starr
8.     Smile Away – Paul McCartney
9.     Beware Of Darkness – George Harrison
10. My Love – Paul McCartney
11. Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)
12. Back Off Boogaloo – Ringo Starr
13. That is All – George Harrison