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.

Sublime and Ridiculous

Just finished rereading David hepworth’s excellent ‘Never a Dull Moment’ when my eye caught an online piece about Iggy Pop’s Totally Bonkers Contract Rider for Concerts.

I confess I came to Iggy Pop late. Too late, in fact. I quickly reached the conclusion that I should move along, nothing to see here.

But back to Hepworth’s book, which marks out 1971 as being a most significant year in music, on a number of levels. Aside from the compilation of fascinating facts and insider snippets, the book has the magical ability to make time travel seem real. So I found myself thumbing through the pages with one almost 64 year old foot in the present, the other, that of an almost 17 year old, feeling for places that offered a secure perch from where I could survey and enjoy the rock landscape of almost half a century ago.

I highly recommend the book and, while my mind remains unchanged with regards to Iggy Pop, I do have a soft spot for this collaborative effort, ‘China Girl’.

The Mark of a Man

When I heard about Mark Radliffe’s cancer diagnosis, my heart sank. I’ve had a fondness for his taste in music and the manner in which he presents it, since he played Veruca Salt’s ‘Seether’ for my daughter, on his radio show, in 1995. In fact it was the opening track on the playlist. His opinion? “Corker!

I love his sense of fun. Like the time he did an impression of Liam Gallagher between acts, during coverage of a Glastonbury Festival. Stood there at the microphone, knees bent, head tilted upwards, shifting his weight from leg to leg whilst whining, “Glastonbury? No, it’s shite. (pause) It’s alright.”

Despite his natural effervescence, his upbeat tweets and positive demeanour, he must have been fearing the worst. I had a lesion on my tongue investigated in 1996. Who would have thought that such a short, inoffensive word like ‘biopsy’ could induce such a severe loss of balance, but it did. It was lucky I was sat down. Luckier still, that I drew the benign ticket, unlike Mark Radcliffe.

A good decade after the Veruca Salt request, I had the pleasure of having a brief chat with him at the Cambridge Folk Festival. He was enjoying a glass of Bombardier in the late afternoon sunshine, and I was after an autograph for the cover of my newly acquired Family Mahone CD.

The man is a delight. I wish him a full and speedy recovery, and a return to banging the drum!

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.