Milkman Out, Brilliant Friend In

There was a time when I’d beat myself if I abandoned a book part way through. These days, not so much. As a general rule, if it hasn’t grabbed me in the first couple of chapters, I close the pages and move on. The fact that my latest rejection is Anna Burns’ Booker winning novel, ‘Milkman’, makes no difference. It’s back on the shelf. Maybe I’ll tackle it another day.

Unlike the challenge presented in Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’, Burns’ book has strained rather than stimulated. I was constantly losing track of the story and rather than being drawn closer to the characters, felt myself floating away from them. The colour, which I sensed to be vivid and intense, became obsurred by lingual layers. In a review, one of the Booker judges encouraged readers to persevere. The view from the top would be worth the steep climb. Sadly I got out of breath about 60 pages in.

On the flipside of this experience, I’ve discovered the most wonderful TV adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend”. I never got around to reading this one, and in a way, I’m glad. This miniseries is proving to be one of the best things I’ve watched this year. If you have access to Sky Atlantic, I urge you to take a look.

When I Get Older…

It was my birthday last Friday, and ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ took on a little more weight for a day or so.

It was an enjoyable, low-key event. A few cards, a box of liquorice allsorts from my granddaughters and a couple of books: China Dream by Ma Jian, and To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing.

The eldest granddaughter baked a wonderful cake, long since devoured (the cake, not the granddaughter).

In the evening I kicked back and watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a thoroughly entertaining Coen brothers film.

And to top it all, I hear that Blac Rabbit just released ‘Seize the Day’. If you don’t know the band, check out their Beatles covers on YouTube.



If ever there was a deterrent to the pursuit of physical fitness, “no pain, no gain” has to rank pretty high on the list. It’s a phrase that’s been appropriated and given a twist by motivational speakers, life coaches, and advocates of extreme dieting regimes. It’s the mantra that drives those who should know better into bungee jumping. Who knows, it may even, in some circumstances, have brought about an early demise, in the quest for the perfect holiday selfie.

Personally, I’ve always thought that people who claim to be happiest outside their comfort zone should be avoided at all costs. Apparently I’m not alone in my thoughts. See Melody Wilding’s, Please stop telling me to leave my comfort zone.” I mean, call me unadventurous, but why would anyone want to constantly drive themselves into anxiety or humiliation in order to find a side to themselves that they may ultimately wish had remained hidden? Unless you have masochistic leanings, how is this the route to an agreeable existence?

I have a lifelong aversion to public speaking, but no matter how persuasive the arguments for making me a more rounded person, I have resisted in determined fashion. I even had my career prospects curtailed due to what was perceived as a “bad attitude”. Or, as I would put it, more fittingly, non-compliance in the interest of self-preservation. In short, I already knew where I was most at ease; and it didn’t entail leading huge gatherings of students, repeatedly, through the ins and outs of database interrogation.

Of course, people may say that my fascination with art – I’m no expert, by the way, so don’t ask me – must inevitably present the odd challenge or two. Yes, of course, but therein lies the thrill of provocation, the testing, the questioning, the interpretation, the working out. All these things I can achieve in relative ease, allowing myself time to process and evaluate. I can get into a special place, right enough. It’s a flexible expanse; the horizons of which stretch out further with each passing year. To call it a zone, comfort or otherwise, would be far too limiting.

This week I happened upon the work of Felice Hodges (not a relative, to my knowledge) on Instagram. I was immediately smitten. How about you?

Brush Regularly, and Keep Your Album White

As a fourteen year old, I’d had it with school. In point of fact, I’d had it with school ten years earlier, from the very first time I entered the sit-down-shut-up-do-as-you’re-told world of education.

“I used to get mad at my school

The teachers who taught me weren’t cool

You’re holding me down

Turning me round

Filling me up with your rules”

Just over a year away from leaving the classroom for more interesting ways of killing time, a little occasional bunking off could be easily justified as preparation for the big leap. I wasn’t a regular truant, but when a pal invited me to his house, one lunchtime, to hear his older brother’s newly acquired White Album, I didn’t give it a second thought.

Around this time, like most lads of my age, I wasn’t wholly into taking care of myself. I was well fed, had a place to sleep, clean clothes magically appeared in my absence. Life was sweet. As were most of the ‘extras’ that passed my lips. The sugar took its toll, but appointments with the dentist – a severe Scot, called Mr Black –  were avoided by the creation of increasingly fantastic excuses. None of which convinced the old grouch for a single second.

So, half a century on, bunking off has caught up with me. Another tooth extracted this week. Although how it held out for so long is a mystery. More importantly, the re-release of The Beatles’ “White Album” (Super Deluxe). I’ve been enjoying it for the past few days via Spotify, and with a birthday around the corner, I have my fingers crossed that a copy will appear magically, just like my clean underpants did, all those years ago. I don’t have to bunk off to enjoy it. Retirement is a kind of approved truancy, anyway.

I really should be sharing “Savoy Truffle” with you, but YouTube doesn’t have it. So here’s “Glass Onion” instead.

I Got Rhythm

Awake in the early hours, to the sound of fireworks exploding. We get our fair share of sleep disturbance, even though we’re buried deep in the Hampshire countryside. Two or three months ago it was Elvis at 03.00, explaining how he couldn’t help falling in love. Before that, it was the police hammering our door at 02.00. “Sorry to disturb you sir, but we’ve had a call about a domestic distrurbance.”

“Not guilty, officer. Can I go back to bed now?”

Usually I can slip back into slumberland with ease but, when I can’t, it means the thought processes move quickly into overdrive. This morning I started drifting off, vaguely thinking what goes around comes around. Then my mind is full of rhythms. The rotation of the earth, the hands of the clock, the seasons, Trump’s Tweets, the regular repeat showings of Dad’s Army.

I must have dropped off and, when dreamtime eventually came to an end, I kicked off my day by idly checking the news on my phone.

Despite all that’s going on in the world right now, it was an article about llama’s blood that caught my interest. I had my flu jab a little over a week ago, so the fact that scientists have been checking “…llama blood for the most potent antibodies that could attack a wide range of flu strains” made we sit up straight. I paused for a while, imagining the vaccine I received from the Superdrug pharmacist, working its way into my system. What goes around comes around. Then the revelation that llamas produce incredibly small antibodies, compared to those in humans. Then back to the rhythms again. The huge, indisputable, wobbly recurrences that we unconsciously keep in time to…or not. And between, those rhythmic layers? Unpredictable and unforeseen changes, that’s what.

Mutation, as favoured by the flu virus, is ever present in our daily lives. Things that have the power to shock and surprise. A sudden change in someone’s behaviour – “well, I would never have thought he had it in him”– a spin on the news, a fall from grace, triumph over adversity, a miracle cure, unexpected debt, a windfall, babies arriving ahead of time, loved ones departing before reaching what we’ve come to consider as being an ‘good’ age. And, of course, the detonation of pyrotechnics at 01.30 in the bloody morning!

Free Fruit and Bare Breasts

We usually get out and walk two or three miles a day. Sometimes more. It’s good to be in the real world, to feel the wind on our faces, and the watered down warmth of summer that still has the power to soothe.

Whichever route we take, dog walkers are guaranteed. Some we know, some we don’t. Some acknowledge us with a wave of the hand, others stop and chat.

Most of the time we amble along in near silence, but there are occasions when walking becomes a kind of therapy, and we tread the landscape in animated conversation. You can find any number of good things written about Shanks’s pony, from stress-busting, to maintaining regular bowel movements. But the one thing that always comes to my mind is something I read a few years ago; a piece written by someone who was about to embark on a round-the-globe walking adventure. In his article, the author mentioned how we process information at approximately 3.5 mph. In other words, average walking speed. This may or may not be scientifically proven.

It was precisely because we were ambling along this morning, that we couldn’t fail to notice a large blue bucket filled with fallen cooking apples. On top, was a note: ‘Cooking apples. Please help yourself’.

So this was a pleasant experience in the real world. Meanwhile, in that other place, where some of us spend far too much time than is good for us, information rains down relentlessly, in both volume and speed. However, I freely admit to making my own contribution. I love to share things that I think might be of interest to my ‘friends’, and with this is mind, I clicked the Facebook ‘share’ button for yesterday’s Guardian piece: Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance review – spells, smoke and taboo-busting. Almost immediately, I received a notification that a line had been crossed, and that this article went against Facebook’s “community standards”. I guess it’s because there was an accompanying image which included women’s breasts. So I’m sharing it here, because I feel it’s worth bringing to the attention of others. Make of it what you will.

The social media giants might do better at policing their platforms if they worried less about what they consider to be offensive art, and concentrated more on curbing abuse. In short, employ the clever algorithms they have at their disposal to recognise when something – like those fallen apples– is beneficial and well qualified for free distribution. Quality control should be focused hard on all that is rotten and potentially harmful when consumed.

Think On, Grasshopper Brain

I’ve always valued thinking time. As a kid, I invested a great deal in the act of daydreaming and, with age, my tendency to get lost in thought has only intensified.

I don’t recall when I first heard about meditation. Probably around the mid-sixties, when The Beatles were exploring transendental delights in Rishikesh. Somehow, then, the music born out of the Fab Four’s collective experience was enough to soothe the soul.

Later, I may have have been sitting quietly with my eyes closed, but the route to discovering new induced states of consciousness often involved liberal amounts of alcohol in the company of like minded individuals. Recognising the benefits of a clear mind and calm emotions has always been on the radar, but actually getting to there has been like pushing against a heavy door on seized hinges.

As a mature student, studying philosophy offered a glimmer of daylight. Different ways of thinking about, and seeing, the world. Although, not necessarily understanding it any better. Possible explanations and perspectives were presented to me. Options and choices of such vivid colour and clarity, my mind was often spinning. I remember catching my mother thumbing through my copy of ‘Art: context and value’. “No wonder your brain’s addled,” she muttered, mournfully. That was when I realised that I had set off on a journey, and there was no turning back.

About ten years ago I discovered, by chance, Hariprasad Chaurasia’s Call of the Valley. I listened to it over and over. I enthusiastically recommended it to my late stepbrother, and whilst visiting him in Wales, handed him a copy before travelling home to Hampshire. Later that evening he called to say that he’d listened to the CD in the peace of late afternoon. At the end, his face was wet with tears of joy.

Despite all of these flirtations with ways of seeing, and ways of finding and focusing on my inner being, I have only come to practice meditation in the past two weeks. A particularly stressful period, that caused my blood pressure to rise, and my sleep to be seriously disrupted, pushed me to seek time out in a quiet space. Would you believe, I simply downloaded a free app to my phone – Insight Timer– and allowed the instructor to take me where I needed to go. It has now become a daily practice. I’m not beating myself up about not investigating meditation sooner. In spite of what life may have have challenged me with in times past, I obviously wasn’t ready for this until now. So, at the risk of sounding a little clichéd, the personal journey continues, and I’m enjoying the scenery.