After spending most of the summer in Broadstone I’m now back London. My return was delayed by the petrol shortages which are already seeming like a distant memory but which were very frustrating for motorists only a month ago. Broadstone was no bad place to be stranded but I was missing my COVID and flu jabs and the next installment of my cancer treatment, and there were other things that needed dealing with, so I was getting rather twitchy as the time to return approached.
This recent summer has been a whole lot better than last year’s, however, when amid the double isolation of lockdown and shielding I underwent a course of radiotherapy, which was torturous in itself and which didn’t work. I still have cancer, and it’s spreading. This wasn’t helped when my next-door neighbour in London played a cruel trick on me for her own amusement, which wasted a lot of my time and work and thoroughly humiliated me. Before she did that we’d been quite friendly, but that killed any possibility of future friendship and has made the neighbourhood into a very unfriendly place for me.
There have been good things happening in Broadstone, however, apart from getting together with the much better neighbours there. Celia’s caponata was a real treat, but the reason I went there in the first place was to meet up with a visitor from New Zealand, my neice Juliet’s husband Gerard whom I’d never met and who had wangled a visit to see his father and Juliet’s father, my former brother-in-law, both stricken with cancer. The damn thing’s everywhere. Gerard proved to be a very nice guy. I hope to see him and the rest of the tribe again one day.
Another nice thing that came completely out of the blue was a request from a publisher to reprint a piece I’d written on my blog — this very blog — in a collection of new writing that they were bringing out. I said yes, of course. They’ve moved quickly to get this done and I’ve now received a copy of it. It’s the latest volume in an ongoing series called Emanations, and I can’t deny that I’m chuffed to bits. It’s the first time my name has appeared in print for about 20 years, and it’s encouraging me to write more and maybe try my hand at drawing again. Emanations 9, with a lot of fascinating writing in it including a new Jerry Cornelius story from Michael Moorcock, is now available from Amazon here, but the original version of my piece (with illustrations) is still here to be read for free.
I got some other things done in Broadstone, like writing a whole lot of stuff about vegetables for reasons that are obscure even to me and getting my car through its first MOT, but most of the time I basically flaked out. After nearly two years of near-isolation and inactivity perhaps this was what I needed to do. Eventually I felt better for it, and returned to London somewhat energised and ready for the fray.
The fray in question was likely to be the next assault from my horrid London neighbour. Last time I returned I found that she’d been making complaints about the somewhat overgrown state of my garden — not to me, however, but to the estate agents representing the freeholder of the flat she lives in with her husband. She’s well aware of my health problems. Her complaints were soon dealt with but the fact that she had made them and in such a devious way has soured the atmosphere even more. I’ve been wondering what I can do about this as it’s been bugging me, and I was somewhat heartened by a newspaper story that I came across here while I was away, about an incident that happened not far from Broadstone. It was good to see the other neighbours rallying to this poor woman’s defence and getting together to help her with her garden, and while I can’t quite imagine the same thing happening in trendy North London I think a bit of naming-and-shaming of my persecutors might not go amiss. I can’t imagine what makes people so self-righteous, judgemental and mean-spirited. Some of the charities dealing with the problems of older people are now speaking out against such abuse and may be able to help me and perhaps speak for me, since I’m not always very good at speaking up for myself. We’ll see.
In the meantime I’ve returned to something of a financial crisis, partly my own fault for not dealing with the agreement on my car while I was held up in Broadstone, but all the relevent documents were in London and in my semi-comatose state I let it slide. The problem’s solvable but is taking a good deal of phoning and emailing and running around to banks, and until it’s solved I’m just about broke. Not starving, but broke. Gerard’s now back in New Zealand after a longish period in a quarantine hotel in Auckland where he didn’t want to be when he was longing to get home to Tauranga. The rest of the family seem fine, and now Gerard is too. I’ve now had all my jabs and despite all the problems and the cancer I’m feeling quite optimistic. Again, we’ll see.
As an inveterate reader with very eclectic tastes I often come across odd scraps of information and things that simply please me or interest me in one way or another, and sometimes I remember to note them down as well as odd things I’ve noticed in real life. Here’s a fairly random selection.
Advice: Never stick your hand in a pike’s mouth [–Daily Mail last weekend]
Antisimile: Raymond Chandler once described Los Angeles as “a city with all the personality of a paper cup.” If a simile is an explicit likening of one thing to another, an antisimile — my own proposed term — tells us that something does not possess a particular attribute by likening it to something else that lacks it, usually in a sarcastic, wisecracking way, as when Dorothy Parker wrote that a book by Margot Asquith had “all the depth and glitter of a worn dime.”
“Welcome as a snowflake in hell.” [–anon, 1920s]
“Denis Quilley played the role with all the charm and animation of the leg of a billiard table.” [–Bernard Levin]
“She informs us that she moved to Italy in order to escape an incestuous passion for her brother –- but relates it with all the excitement of someone describing a head cold.” [–from a review in The Guardian]
“… about as useful as an ashtray on a motor-bike” [–Spike Mullins]
and a late entry heard on tv the other day:
“Gordon Brown: a man with all the carefree joie de vivre of a haunted cave in Poland.” [–Cunk on Britain]
‘Build back better’: A slogan much used by politicians in recent months to indicate a determination to reform after things have gone wrong in one way or another, even when they’ve caused the damage themselves. Joe Biden is using it to describe his proposed stimulus package. A variation on it, #rebuildbetter, has been used by the US solar industry in a joint letter to congress asking for an extension of the Solar Tax Credit. And it’s being used by governments elsewhere too. The UK, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, and the OECD have all used the phrase in reference to green recovery plans. I wonder if the Taliban are now saying that they’re going to build Afghanistan back better. [Thanks to Paul Petzold for drawing my attention to this phrase].
Censorship: It was still rife in the late 1960s particularly where sexual matters were concerned when I started to get my stuff published, but I suffered from it only once when a speech-bubble in a comic strip I’d drawn was altered by a cowardly printer:
I’ve always wanted to change this back when the strip has been reprinted but never had the opportunity to do so. I think the customers should get the fucks they’ve paid for.
Churchgoing: “Went to church by myself. The clergyman preached an odd sermon. Said the devil laid eggs in us. An unpleasant idea.” —Mary Gladstone, from her diary (31st March, 1872)
Diastema: “Diastema refers to a gap or space between the teeth. These spaces can form anywhere in the mouth, but are sometimes noticeable between the two upper front teeth.” (–Healthline.com). Elvis Presley had this condition as an adolescent and had his teeth capped as soon as he started making serious money. Marilyn Monroe sufered from diastema too and had a tiny bridge made which she inserted when she was being filmed or professionally photographed. The candid photo on the right below, taken during the filming of River of No Return (1954), shows the gap and also that she was a secret smoker.
From some website: “If you have a gap between your front teeth, you’re in luck – at least according to the French. They call the teeth on either side of a gap dents du bonheur or dents de la chance. While many cultures consider the gap unattractive and something to be fixed, chez les Françaises it’s fashionable and alluring.”
Dieting: Philip Larkin pointed out that we put on weight by eating food that we like, but he didn’t make the corollary suggestion that if we ate only food we don’t like we’d soon get slimmer. If I had to live exclusively on beetroot and sardines I’d be as thin as a whip, and very miserable.
Double-entendre: Curiously, the French don’t use this term. There are a few other French-sounding terms in English that are scarcely known to the French, e.g. cul de sac, cause célèbre, encore, fait accompli, negligée … and their expressions for what we call a double-entendre — mot/expression à) double entente and (mot/expression à) double sens — don’t have the same suggestiveness.
We Brits seem to like our innuendo more than most other nations. There was recently an entertaining article on the subject in The Guardian [read it here], and I personally don’t think the #MeToo movement will make any difference. We’ll carry on sniggering at soggy bottoms and tenderized rumps regardless as we sink slowly into the sea.
Elephants, dead: Reading Steve Aylett’s Lint — wildly funny and highly recommended — I came across this affecting little poem:
an elephant mended
is a tusker befriended
an elephant dead
is as big as a shed
which reminded me of the elephant-funeral sequence in the movie Santa Sangre when the circus folk have an elaborate ceremony for their beloved elephant carrying their late chum to his rest in an enormous coffin, which is indeed as big as a shed, and quite a large shed at that. It’s a sequence that’s both hilarious and quite moving, though the rest of the movie wasn’t so good.
Entropy: This concept was central to New Worlds magazine during the time that I was involved with it (I wrote about it here), and I was interested to come across this ancient text showing that such concerns go back a long way:
“… the world has now grown old, and does not abide in that strength in which it formerly stood. This we would know, even if the sacred Scriptures had not told us of it, because the world itself announces its approaching end by its failing powers. In the winter there is not so much rain for nourishing the seeds, and in the summer the sun gives not so much heat for ripening the harvest. In springtime the young corn is not so joyful, and the autumn fruit is sparser. Less and less marble is quarried out of the mountains, which are exhausted by their disembowelments, and the veins of gold and silver are dwindling day by day. The husbandman is failing in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp. Honesty is no longer to be found in the market-place, nor justice in the law-courts, nor good craftsmanship in art, nor discipline in morals. Think you that anything which is old can preserve the same powers that it possessed in the prime vigour of its youth? Whatever is tending towards its decay and going to meet its end must needs weaken. Hence the setting sun sends out rays that hardly warm or cheer, the waning moon is a pale crescent, the old tree that once was green and hung with fruit grows gnarled and barren, and every spring in time runs dry. This is the sentence that has been passed on the earth, this is God’s decree: that everything which has flourished shall fail, that strong things shall become weak, and great things shall become small, and that when they have weakened and dwindled they shall be no more. So no one should wonder nowadays that everything begins to fail, since the whole world is failing, and is about to die.” [—St Cyprian (circa 250 AD) translated by Rebecca West, from St Augustine (1933)]
Epenthesis: During the recent spell of football mania here in the UK I’ve repeatedly heard Wembley spoken as Wemberly, and in recent months have heard athaletics, arthuritis and even emberlem (for ’emblem’) too. The rhetorical term for the insertion of an extra sound into a word is epenthesis, from the Greek ‘putting in’. According to some linguists, “vowel epenthesis is often motivated by the need to make consonant contrasts more distinct” (–The Handbook of Speech Perception). I think it was Tony Gubba back in the 1970s who abandoned any notion of pronouncing ‘hat-trick’ as two separate words, opting instead for hatrick, rhyming it with Patrick, and most other sports commentators have since followed his lazy example, though I suppose hatrick is better than hattertrick.
Fan mail: Here’s a letter received by John Lennon at the height of his fame with The Beatles, though whether the writer was really a fan is debatable:
I should have written to you years ago. I might have avoided a great deal of suffering and unhappiness if I had. As you know very well a brain operation was carried out on me by the Queen in 1959 whereby a person was enabled to pick up my thoughts in his head. From the very start I was writing songs and he put them on tape and sold them to singers, songwriters, and recording companies who copy-writed them and recorded them. As you probably know it was my idea to form the Beatles; I chose the name and specified that the group should come from Liverpool (as close as I dare come to Belfast). Needless to say when I suggested letting Lennon & McCartney claim to have written the songs, I really didn’t want to be famous — I did want the money. Over the years I have probably written songs worth hundreds of millions pounds but have received not a penny for them. I am at present living on £11.35 per week invalidity benefit. Do you not consider that this is grossly unjust? I don’t need to write a list of the songs, — you will know very well which were written by me. I presume that all the songs which he sold to you were mine although he might have written a few himself. When I wrote “Give me money” I meant it. I intended to get a fair share of the massive profits which were being made and expected to be offered a just cut of the takings. I thought I would complete my education first and worked hard to get to Cambridge where my ambition was to become a History don. As you know the results of the man in my mind were that I got very depressed and lost my concentration and was lucky to get a degree. I stopped writing songs — “Vincent” was my last. He proceeded to operate again on me — this time in an attempt to kill me’
I am trying not to blackmail you although I gather that blackmail has been very very rampant and understandably. I don’t want to recover that money — I am prepared to write it off, as long as I get 50% of the money still around. I write to you because you are the most intelligent of the four and I hope you I will not have to write to them or even to you again.
Do reply and I will burn your letter. As I say only want ½ million from you. The rest should come from him. If you cooperate the whole agreement should be sewn up in a few weeks and I will never bring it up again.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Ferrets: I recently posted this on my Facebook page: “In the newsagents the other day there was a young woman with a small furry creature scurrying about on the end of a lead. It didn’t seem to be a dog or a cat so I asked what it was. It’s a ferret, she said. I’d never seen a ferret before and asked if it was friendly. Oh yes, she said, and picked it up and let me stroke it: such a beautiful creature, much like the one in the photo, and indeed very friendly and very happy to be lead along the pavement as she continued her shopping. And now I’m seriously thinking of getting a ferret of my own.”
This produced an astonishing set of responses offering advice about ferrets as pets, some against the idea (“they stink”) and some encouraging me to go ahead (“They’re lovely friendly creatures,” “Get two,” etc.). When I post about serious social or political issues the reaction is usually tepid at best, but when it’s about cute furry creatures …
Heliotrope: “… the only flower whose name sounds like a Victorian flying machine” [–from Lint by Steve Aylett]
Japan: has a Penis Festival. It’s called Kanamara Matsuri, which means “the festival for the phallus of steel”. It’s celebrated every year on the first Sunday of April. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, is reflected in illustrations, confectionary, carved vegetables, decorations, and a parade with a mikoshi (portable shrine). I’ve never been to Japan and it’s unlikely that I ever will, but if I did go it would be to see original prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, to see Mount Fuji itself and perhaps some exquisite gardens, and by way of diversion maybe take a ride on the bullet train — but I certainly wouldn’t want to get caught up in any penis festival. Nothing against such things, of course, but definitely not for me.
Kudos: Recently I’ve come across several websites which invite me to click on a button which grants them one kudo by way of approbation. I don’t, because I know that kudos is a singular noun from the Greek, like chaos and pathos, and it’s pronounced koo-doss, not koo-doze. Just as there is no such thing as a chao or a patho there’s no such thing as a kudo.
Spaghetti, on the other hand, isn’t a singular noun: a single strand of spaghetti is a spaghetto.
Lucy Mangan: I’ve been a fan since first reading her in The Guardian some years ago, and she continues to hit the nail on the head, as in her column last Saturday:
Somehow, as one looks at the empty supermarket shelves as food rots in our fields, the growing shortage of medical equipment, the increasing entrenchment of mask and vaccine refuseniks, news of Christmas supplies being threatened by the 90,000 lorry driver vacancies, McDonald’s running out of milkshake, companies asking to use prisoners to make up for the lack of labour, it becomes harder and harder to keep the faith about anything at all.
–Exactly how I feel myself. I greatly enjoyed her reminiscences of childhood reading in Bookworm too — and on her Guardian recommendation I’ve just started watching Kevin Can F**k Himself on Amazon Prime. Seems promising, though so far it hasn’t actually made me laugh much.
Marilyn Monroe: For my previous post [here] I found a picture of Marilyn eating a carrot but I’ve now found the better one above, showing her not only wielding a carrot but also reading a book. She was a keen reader and in a future post I hope to show that she was by no means the dumb blonde she was often made out to be.
Neighbours: I’m fortunate to have two places where I can stay. At one of them the neighbours are friendly and when we get together we’re relaxed and have a nice time, but at the other my neighbours treat me as a pariah and make things unpleasant for me in various ways — yet I’m the same mild, inoffensive person in both places. This puzzles me and weighs rather heavily on me, and I don’t know what to do about it.
New Zealand’s finest export: undoubtedly Eric Partridge, the lexicographer, who compiled dictionaries all by himself long before the age of computers, the internet and whole departments busily monitoring the English language. His Slang Today and Yesterday is one of the most diverting books I possess, with expressions like these (from the Yesterday section) which I reproduce verbatim:
Admiral of the Narrow Seas — a man spewing into another’s lap
Bag of Mystery — a cheap sausage
Dine Out with Duke Humphrey — to go dinnerless
Eel-Skins — very tight trousers
Ferricadouzer — a knock-out blow, a thrashing
Little Grey Home in the West — vest
No Milk in One’s Coconut — brainless
Rhinocerical — rich
Think Tank, Have Bubbles in One’s — be crazy (motorists)
Tulip-Sauce — a kiss
Umble-Cum-Stumble — to “rumble”; understand, suspect, detect
‘Oblivious’: Oblivion ought to be about forgetting, from the Latin obliviosus “forgetful, that easily forgets; producing forgetfulness” via the French oublier, to forget, but to forget something one has to have known it in the first place so it really makes no sense to use the adjective oblivious to mean ‘unaware’, as here:
You know the person who’s walking down the street, totally oblivious to the fact they have bird muck on their shoulder?
Until a serious event occurs, such as a heart attack, many people live life oblivious to the fact that they even had high cholesterol as it does not present warning symptoms.
This usage is now very widespread so should I stop bitching about forgetfulness when I come across it? With a sad little sigh, yes.
Rhyming slang: I recently came across the suggestion that scarper, meaning run away, leave, scram, might be rhyming slang from Scapa Flow (=go). Could be.
Satanists, unexpected: Sammy Davis Jr. was one: “… for a time, I became a Satanist. I was introduced to some very interesting people, including the head of the Satanist Church in the States, and became fascinated by their philosophy. I actually joined the church to find out what I could about their beliefs. As it turned out, it was a short-lived interest, but I still have many friends in the Church of Satan. In Amsterdam, for instance, the Satanists are very strong and they never fail to send a deputation to see me as soon as I get into town.” —from his autobiography Hollywood in a Suitcase (1980)
Serial killers: Almost twice as many are born in November than in any other month. (I was born in May.)
“So”: Why do young people begin nearly every utterance with this word? I’m tempted to reply “So what?” but of course am much too polite to do that.
“So fun”: an Americanism that seems to have spread to these shores, replacing our own more grammatical ejaculation “Such fun!” — or so I thought until I happened to look at the text of The Tempest for a piece that I was writing about Shakespeare and found this:
Ferdinand: … for several virtues
Have I liked several women; never any
With so fun soul, but some defect in her
Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed
And put it to the foil: but you, O you,
So perfect and so peerless, are created,
Of every creature’s best!
Sootikins: A sootikin is a “small, mouse-shaped deposit formed in the vaginal cleft, usually of poorer women who did not wear undergarments — common until the nineteenth century. A sootikin built up over several weeks, even months, of not washing. It was composed of particles of soot, dirt, sweat, smegma and vaginal and menstrual discharge. When it reached a certain size and weight it tended to work loose and drop from under the woman’s skirt.” [– from The Dictionary of Disgusting Facts by Alan Williams and Maggie Noach] I’m glad to say that I’ve never come across a sootikin — my intimate friends have always been very clean, though not everyone is so fastidious: remember Napoleon’s letter to Josephine (“I’m on my way home. Don’t wash.”).
Symphorophilia: Sexual arousal from causing or witnessing disasters such as car crashes. J.G. Ballard explored this phenomenon in his 1973 novel Crash long before the term was coined.
Tabasco: A word of Mexican Indian origin meaning “damp earth” or “place where the soil is humid”. Such earth is favourable for the cultivation of the peppers that are made into the famous sauce.
“Tuh”: Current pronunciation of “to” by posh people, tending to linger on the vowel-sound as in the first bit of turd. Boris Johnson is a major tuh-er, as we’ve found during his many tv appearances during the recent pandemic. You’d have thought they’d teach them better pronunciation at Eton and Oxford.
Vegetables: I spent more time than I care to admit researching my previous blog piece Vegetables of the Rich and Famous and its successors (there are going to be successors). Why? I’m not a vegetarian, though I might be heading that way, and not especially star-struck. I suppose it’s because I’m eating less meat these days and looking for new ideas and getting a bit obsessed with it. Luckily these obsessions don’t tend to last very long though this one is proving more resilient than most, and other people are now sending me recipes and suggestions, which is nice. I plan to include some contributions from non-famous chums in the next piece, so if you, dear reader, have a particularly good vegetable recipe do send it along,
Worst line in a movie?: “Fish, I love you and I respect you very much.” spoken by Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea (1958), script by Peter Viertel from the story by Ernest Hemingway. I think that auditioning actors should be asked to say this line with as much conviction as they can muster.
Yorkshire pudding: “My mother would make a Yorkshire pudding the size of a football field, and my father and I would tuck into this Sunday feast: Yorkshire pudding with gravy, Yorkshire pudding with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding with treacle.” [— Michael Parkinson in last Sunday’s Observer]. That’s how it was in my Yorkshire childhood too, though my sister and I were sometimes allowed to have jam instead of treacle on the last course.
Zoophobia: a fear of animals. Most of the time, this fear is directed at a specific type of animal. [–Healthline]
I was going to write about what’s happening with the pandemic here in the UK, but this piece from the latest Private Eye summarizes the situation better than I could.
Whether you think it is a good or bad idea, the UK is now living with high levels of Covid. This is down to a combination of a carefully planned and executed vaccine programme, which has given many adults the confidence of double protection, and a carelessly planned and executed border control programme which needlessly imported the Delta variant in very large numbers.
It is now spreading through those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, but the harm it is causing is more from short-term malaise and long Covid than widespread hospitalisation and death. Even the doubly vaccinated are not immune to (re)infection, and some will also suffer disabling long Covid.
Covid deaths and hospitalisations will inevitably rise as restrictions are lifted, particularly among the elderly and most vulnerable who had vaccinations last December and January, the protection from which start waning after six months. NHS workers are similarly being re-infected after early vaccination. The last thing they — and the UK — needed was a huge Delta wave before the autumn booster jabs. But nothing can stop it now.
By cock-up or design, we are letting hundreds of thousands of people catch the Delta variant, and crossing our fingers that the long-term consequences won’t be too bad.
Am I woke? If I am woke is that a good thing or a bad thing? If I’m not woke should I be? What is woke anyway?
From Wikepedia:Woke is a political term that originated in the United States, and it refers to a perceived awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice. It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression “stay woke”, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. First used in the 1940s, the term has resurfaced in recent years as a concept that symbolizes perceived awareness of social issues and movement. By the late 2010s, woke had been adopted as a more generic slang term broadly associated with left-wing politics, social justice activism and progressive or socially liberal causes such as anti-racism, LGBT rights, feminism and environmentalism (with the terms woke culture, woke politics and woke left also being used).
I became aware of the word last year. I missed Erykah Badu’s song ‘Master Teacher’ in 2008 which apparently popularized it with the chorus ‘I stay woke’, but the Black Lives Matter movement last summer brought it to much wider notice, including mine, while the recent accession of Joe Biden to the US presidency provoked a lot of questions along the lines of ‘Is he Woke’? and the right-wing media have seized on the term with stories like these, all from the Daily Mail in the last few days:
Why NO ONE is safe from the woke warriors trying to stamp out free speech
REVEALED: How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare because of his ‘white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism’ – and are instead using his plays to lecture in ‘toxic masculinity and Marxism’
Black Country residents have slammed ‘woke’ Facebook rules after a local history group was threatened with a ban for discussing the local delicacy – faggots and peas.
It’s reminiscent of the scorn which greeted the Political Correctness movement a few years ago when people ridiculed the more extreme examples with cries of “It’s political correctness GONE MAD.”
From what I’ve learned I think I’ve been woke ever since I first became interested in politics and social issues in the early 1960s when nearly all of my generation were lefties. Some of my friends went to extremes, becoming Trotskeyites and even Anarchists and looking forward to the Revolution that seemed imminent as the sixties progressed. One of them told me that he and a few fellow radicals had been practising with home-made Molotov cocktails on some waste land somewhere, and many of them attended the anti-American demos in Grosvenor Square; Graham Hall (now dead so I can name him) boasted of having knocked over a police horse, which disgusted me as I didn’t think that horses held political views.
I never bought into any of that stuff. As a jazz fan I knew about Jim Crow from an early age and was horrified by the accounts of what had happened to some of my heroes: Lester Young having an appalling time in the army, Billie Holiday not allowed to sit with the rest of Artie Shaw’s band, Duke Ellington having to buy sandwiches for his band because no restaurant in the South would serve them … and as the 1960s progressed there was much talk of Revolution, but I knew that there wasn’t going to be any such thing. For one thing, the people planning it were so incredibly inept, but we did what we could on a local level, starting adventure playgrounds for disadvantaged kids, getting involved with ‘alternative’ publications, supporting the Labour Party etc. — but this isn’t a recital of my own woke credentials, such as they are. I did a bit, but nowhere near enough.
I think I’m woke, though I hope I’m not sanctimonious about it and definitely not a woke warrior. Which takes me on to the next key question of our times: am I a Snowflake?
I had my first one yesterday. The summons came out of the blue by phone on Monday evening, and the appointment was for Tuesday afternoon. I’d hoped that these Covid-19 innoculations would take place at my GP’s surgery which is easy for me to reach, but no: I had to go up to Tottenham and the first problem was how I was going to get there. A few minutes online research told me that parking my car anywhere near the centre would be impossible, and the nearest tube stations and bus stops are further away than I could walk even if I dared used public transport, which I haven’t for months. It would have to be a taxi, then.
The local taxi service that I’ve been using for hospital visits were busy with many more such calls but said they would take me there and bring me back again — I’ve been a good customer of theirs and a generous tipper — so at 3:40 off we went. Our destination was the Lordship Lane Primary Care Centre which has been hastily adapted for administering hundreds of jabs, and the place was seething with mask-wearing seventy-somethings. Checking in, I was given a ticket and found that I was No. 60 in the queue. As I sat down No. 32 was called, so I sat down and waited.
There was only the vaguest attempt at social distancing, and many of the waiting oldies were getting increasingly agitated and distressed as the numbers were called. Some of them were in wheelchairs or on crutches. We were asked to write our telephone numbers on a form that each of us had been given to fill in, and the woman in the chair next to me couldn’t remember hers. Like me she had a taxi waiting outside to take her home and the cost of it was bothering her as we waited and waited as the meters ticked over. The room presented a distressing scene.
The book I’d brought with me proved less than gripping, and as I waited my mind started to wander. I started to see the place as a field hospital in a future war in some dystopian science fiction story where old people are conscripted and treated as expendable cannon-fodder, while the younger ones sit safely behind enemy lines in bunkers operating their computers and managing the conflict. This might make an interesting movie, I thought, since there are so many famous actors now too old to play action heroes or romantic leads. There would have to be a rebellion of the old against this appalling treament, of course. I wondered whether Clint Eastwood is still alive …
My reverie was interrupted when I heard my number called. I was ushered into a corridor and told to follow the green line on the floor which led me to another corridor. The jab itself was very quick: sit down, roll up your sleeve, dab dab, you’ll feel a bit of a prick (stop sniggering at the back there), didn’t feel a thing, then we’re done and follow the green line out again, which led back through the still-crowded waiting area to the observation room, where jabbees have to wait for fifteen minutes in case there are any immediate side-effects. None of us seemed to be showing any.
It was dark by the time I got away. My taxi-driver was still there and remarkably good-natured about the long wait he’d had to endure. He’d been hanging about for more than an hour. I gave him a very decent tip. At home with a large mug of strong tea I turned on the news and learned that during the course of the day 1610 people had died of Covid-19: a new record, so despite all the hassles I’m very glad to have had the jab. By my very rough calculation I’m the four million, two hundred and sixty-six thousand, five hundred and somethingth person to get the jab in the UK. When I’ll get my second one is anybody’s guess, so I’ll just have to sit around for a while longer waiting for the call.
I wonder how many old folk missed out because they couldn’t manage a trip to the Centre, or couldn’t quickly find £40 or so for a taxi. I hope that local charities and neighbourhood networks are mobilizing to help them, but full credit to the authorities for getting the innoculation programme organized so quickly even if the organization isn’t always perfect — and we must suppress the resentment many of us feel about them getting us into this mess by acting too late in the first place then relaxing the rules much too quickly. The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme seems almost suicidally stupid in retrospect. Some of us thought so at the time, and said so, and I was appalled at the speed with which some people immediately started socializing and even going on foreign holidays as though there had never been a pandemic. So foolish, so appallingly selfish.
Only another twenty-five million jabs to go, then we have to do it all over again for the second jabs, and after that there are the kids to protect — if the jabs are effective.
My previous post was uncharacteristically upbeat and even jolly, but now it’s time to get back to normal with a quick look back at some of the year’s nasties together with a few perennial grouches.
ALCOHOL: I enjoy an occasional drink myself and don’t want to be hypocritical about this, but having had to watch two of my closest friends succumb to alcoholism and eventually die of it and quite a number of promising young writers ruin their talent and their lives because of booze I’m very wary of it. I’m not being preachy here, but I’ve seen some dreadful things and been unable to help.
‘ALBATROSS’: We booed Fleetwood Mac for selling out (as we thought) when they played this at a free concert on Parliament Hill Fields one Sunday evening long ago, and since then I’ve become really sick of hearing it played as a party winds down. Try this instead.
BEETROOT: Nature’s most unappealing vegetable. Dear friends, If you’re kind enough to invite me round for a meal please don’t let it be beetroot-based and especially not borcht. It has happened.
DIGITAL ADVERTISING: Does anyone actually like all the pop-ups, cookies and trackers that dog our every movement to try and get at our money by selling us things we don’t want or need? Mac-users might like to install Little Snitch and run it for half an hour, and if you don’t already know you’ll be appalled to see the dozens of unidentifiable creeps that are accessing your computer whenever you go online. It’s especially nauseating when this insidious business is targetted specifically at children, as it increasingly is. I could name names …
DRAG ACTS: I’ve never liked them, and the current popularity of Mrs Brown’s Boys depresses me beyond belief. I find the whole thing demeaning for men and insulting to women. Dame Edna might be an exception.
FISH: Can’t eat it. I say that I’m allergic, which isn’t quite true as fish doesn’t put me into hospital with anaphylactic shock, but if I eat it — and I do try from time to time — it disagrees with me so strongly that I’m confined to the bathroom for hours or even days afterwards, which is a real nuisance as it reduces my personal menu by about a third. And it looks so good!
THE HONOURS SYSTEM: As I write this the New Year’s Honours List is just being announced, with its usual slew of cronies, Civil Service time-servers, sportsmen and sportswomen, and showbiz veterans, most of whom have already been amply rewarded with fame and money. The politicians keep saying that the whole thing needs reforming but they never do it. A quick doff of the hat, though, to the splendid people who have turned honours down, especially Alan Bennett who has refused the offer of a knighthood on three separate occasions, and our friend Herbert who turned down an MBE because being from Nigeria he wanted nothing to do with the British Empire.
‘IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’: I never saw this movie when I was young and only caught up with it at a time when my business was in trouble thanks to the bank panicking unnecessarily during John Major’s recession — and did my authors, clients and suppliers rally round to support me like the townsfolk do in the film? With a couple of exceptions they did not. The movie lies, people, and I hate it.
LONDON: It used to be a magical city but for me it has shrunk to a few dismal streets and a couple of hospitals. Now unable to enjoy its pleasures I long to get away but — for the time being anyway — I can’t, damn it.
MEN’S PONYTAILS: Don’t have one, guys, unless you’re actually aiming to look like an arsehole.
MY BODY: A wreck. ‘Nuff said about that horror, and definitely no …
SELFIES: A psychologist studying the phenomenon of social media generally and Instagram in particular called the phenomenal number of people continually posting photos of themselves ‘vanity validation’, which seems spot-on. Have we really become so narcissistic? From what I’ve seen, yes. But I hadn’t realized that the selfie could be used as a cruel taunt until I received one from someone who had avoided a get-together and sent me a photo which seemed to be saying “Here I am having fun scoffing fish and chips at the sunny seaside while you’re stuck in London trying to cope with gruelling cancer treatment on your own, ha ha. And by the way, aren’t I cute?” If there’s a good-natured way of responding to something like that I’m afraid couldn’t find it.
TIME: It goes by too quickly, and this sure as hell isn’t how I wanted to spend what I have left of it.
TRAVEL: I’ve never been a keen traveller and wouldn’t want to make a virtue out of not travelling since I can’t anyway, but I’ve been a bit miffed by people lecturing me about not recycling a few garden clippings when these same people jump on a plane at every opportunity, which is about the worst thing anyone can do to our poor suffering planet. The photo on the right shows me on a camping holiday in Spain in a rare moment when it wasn’t raining — but we drove there. Did I just get a bit preachy? Oh well.
WEEDS: Hey Science, when you’ve got rid of the coronavirus could you please turn your attention to producing a really effective weedkiller? The bottom of my Dorset garden is infested with deadnettles which have resisted my efforts to dig them up and burn them and this year they’ve come back stronger than ever while the London garden is overrun with brambles, to the annoyance of the neighbours on both sides. Sorry, neighbours. I’ll have another go when I’m able.
I sympathize with you, Science, when the politicians disregard your warnings and blithely lead us into a second wave of a pandemic that’s even worse than the first one, and I do realize that eliminating the virus is a priority — I’m not completely selfish — but let’s not forget that the world also needs a chemical that will get rid of weeds completely and permanently.
YODELLING: You know those people who can turn their eyelids inside out or bend their fingers right back and insist on doing so just to revolt you? Yodelling is like that to me. Some so-called singers evidently have some throat malformation that enables them to yodel, and by god they do. A bootleg of Bob Dylan when he was young revealed that can yodel but he doesn’t. He deseves the Nobel Prize for that alone.
ZOOM: During 2020 I got sick of being told to clear off because an important Zoom meeting was scheduled. So rude! So humiliating! I’ve never Zoomed myself, and I hope I never will.
Sorry about all that folks, but it’s been good to get a few things off my chest and where else could I have done it? I’m afraid that many of these things will still be around to annoy us in the New Year, but perhaps I can be less of a curmudgeon. Resolutions don’t usually last very long, but mine is a big one: to try and find a role for myself in the post-lockdown world when it comes. I’ve gone on far too much about illness and have been feeling like a burden on the state and to my friends, and urgently need to find a way of making myself useful somehow. What will it be? Charity work as a volunteer. raising money for good causes, being more generous with my limited resources, writing the novel that’s been buzzing around in my brain for ages? We’ll see.
Do you feel as if you’re hanging by your fingernails to the crumbling edge of a cliff?
Have you been worn to a frazzle?
If the answer is yes, congratulations are in order, says my horoscope in The Daily Mail — I hate their politics but buy it on Saturdays for the weekly TV Guide — and it’s as if the paper’s resident astrologer Oscar Cainer knows me personally. It certainly has been a tough year, for you as well as me I’m sure, but I’ve done enough moaning in this blog so let me take stock and look at the good things of 2020. There have been a few.
FAVOURITE ANIMATED CHARACTER: Brian from Family Guy, for about the seventh year running.
FAVOURITE BLOG: M. John Harrison’s ambiente hotel here. Mike and I collaborated on various things back in the day when he was a struggling writer and I was a very amateurish artist, and it’s been a real pleasure to see Mike’s career blossoming since then. His novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again won the prestigious Goldsmiths Prize this year. His blog is elegant, always interesting and of course beautifully written.
FAVOURITE BOOKS: I read a lot and it would be tedious to list all the books I’ve enjoyed, but I was pleased to discover the short stories of Miranda July and am currently reading her novel The First Bad Man. I was also delighted by David Nobbs’s autobiography I Didn’t Get Where I am Today, full of hilarious anecdotes about his career in comedy writing, and while sorting through old books with a view to getting rid of some I found myself re-reading Viz annuals, following the surreal footballing saga of Billy the Fish from beginning to end.
FAVOURITE CANCER NURSE: Jingle: lovely, friendly, funny and super-efficient. When we were out on our doorsteps applauding the NHS I was clapping louder than anyone — and why did we stop doing it? These wonderful people are still working their asses off and taking great personal risks to keep the rest of us safe and cared-for.
FAVOURITE CAR: I hate my own current car and hope to replace it with a better one next year, so my choice of car is my long-term favourite, the Duesenberg Model J Phaeton. This was Jerry Cornelius’s car in Mike Moorcock’s novel The Condition of Muzak (1977) which I illustrated, and not having access to the real thing and with no internet in those days I bought a plastic construction kit which I carefully assembled and painted in Jerry’s colours (cream and chocolate brown), and drew the car from the model. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize that year, but I doubt whether my illustrations had anything to do with that.
FAVOURITE CHAIR: My Lazyboy, like me very scruffy and fraying at the edges but still more comfortable than any other.
FAVOURITE CHEESE: Wensleydale, but it has to be the real thing made and perfectly matured in Yorkshire. The plastic-wrapped stuff in the supermarket’s chill cabinet isn’t the same.
FAVOURITE DEATHS: A tie between those of the Moors Murderer Ian Brady and of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. The world is better off without those two, and now we no longer have to pay for their decades-long upkeep in jail. Also, I wasn’t too distressed by the death of Des O’Connor, who told me to fuck off when I asked for his autograph as a shy and acutely self-conscious 13-year-old.
FAVOURITE DOG: Lady, next door’s elderly Red Setter, now deaf and arthritic but still a sweetheart.
FAVOURITE DOWNFALL: Harvey Weinstein’s. We had some very unsatisfactory dealings with him when I was running my publishing company and we knew he was a wrong ‘un long before news of his sexual shenanigans emerged. He’s currently serving a 23-year jail sentence, his company has gone bust and he’s tested positive for the coronavirus. There is a god.
FAVOURITE DRINK: Heaven’s Door [see my earlier post ‘Heaven and Hell’]. Runner-up: Marston’s Owd Rodger which my friend Bob and I discovered in a country pub we used to frequent, and being less mobile these days I was pleased to find the bottled version for sale in my local Kwik-e-Mart. Not quite as good as the keg but still a wonderful relaxative when needed.
FAVOURITE DRUG: Levothyroxine. A daily dose keeps me alive.
FAVOURITE FILMS: It’s years since I visited a cinema so I have to make do with what gets shown on the multifarious tv channels that I get.
This year I particularly enjoyed How to Build a Girl starring Beanie Feldstein, having read the novel by local author Caitlin Moran. Also good was The Constant Gardener, viewed on DVD as I’d missed it first time around and was reminded of it by the recent death of John Le Carré.
FAVOURITE FOOTBALL TEAM: Leeds United, always and for ever. 2020 was their first year back in the Premiership after a very long and dreary absence, and it’s been a huge pleasure to see them holding their own in the upper tier and playing some superbly entertaining football.
FAVOURITE FRUIT: Pineapple. A surprising late entry this, as for my previous 73 years on this planet I’ve had a sort of ‘I can take it or leave it’ attitude to pineapple, but in recent weeks I’ve found I can’t get enough of the wonderful yellow stuff, and when I haven’t got any I’m thinking about how to get some. The recent hormone treatment I’ve been undergoing has done peculiar things to my body and my metabolism, but I wasn’t anticipating such a strange craving. I think I might be pregnant.
FAVOURITE GARDENING IMPLEMENT: Draper’s telescopic soft-grip bypass ratchet-action loppers with aluminium handles, bought just before the radiotherapy put me out of action for a while. Next year I hope to be able to use them a lot more. Lopping is fun!
FAVOURITE GARMENT: Not much clothes shopping this year because of the pandemic and various misguided online purchases, but a baggy pale grey top by Tu bought on a grocery-shopping trip to Sainsbury’s is very comfortable. I no longer care what I look like.
FAVOURITE HEADLINES OF THE YEAR: “FA confirm Wembley is NOT being turned into a giant lasagne”; “Monday Night Toilet Roll Fights: sport in the age of coronavirus”; “A Man Whose Parents Threw Out His Porn Collection Wins Lawsuit Against Them”; “Bad Sex In Fiction award cancelled – as people have suffered enough in 2020”; “Adolf Hitler elected in Namibia’s local council elections – but has ‘no plans for world domination'”.
FAVOURITE HERB: Oregano, now that I grow my own.
FAVOURITE HOLIDAY: No holidays this year. No big deal as I hate travelling anyway.
FAVOURITE INTERNET MEME: Wojak.
FAVOURITE JOKE: Q. What’s the difference between COVID-19 and Romeo and Juliet? A. One’s a coronavirus and the other’s a Verona crisis.
FAVOURITE KITCHEN THINGIES: A pair of little rubber grippers, Poundland’s re-invention of the oven glove. They do the job and are much smaller and easier to wash than the quilted cloth things I’ve been using up to now.
FAVOURITE LOCOMOTIVE: Union Pacific 4014, reputedly the world’s biggest working engine. All of the other surviving Big Boy class are in museums but over the course of the year I’ve been avidly following the restoration and testing of this one on YouTube, and the sight of it now running under its own steam is a wonderfully stirring thing.
FAVOURITE MEAL: A pasta dish — don’t know its name — made by Celia-next-door. Her mushroom risotto was really good too. Much appreciated.
FAVOURITE MUSIC: I love music and in recent years I’ve been listening mostly to classical stuff, but I’ve always been a bit deaf to the charms of opera. Finding this on Youtube started to change my mind and I developed a bit of a thing for Elīna Garanča, so when I learned that she’d starred in Carmen I bought the DVD and am entranced by it.
FAVOURITE PIZZA: ‘Garden Party’ with extra cheese, from Papa John’s.
FAVOURITE POEM: If I was trying to impress I’d choose something by Donne or Eliot or Larkin, or something really obscure, but ’Jenny Kissed Me’ by Leigh Hunt (1838) has been popping into my head lately. I’ve always found it rather charming, and with advancing age it has taken on extra overtones. Here is someone reading it quite nicely. I’ve had only one kiss this year and was as delighted by it as the guy in the poem.
FAVOURITE POTATO CRISPS: Vicente Vidal plain crisps. Quite hard to find and rather expensive when you do find them, but as something of a crisp connoisseur I’ve found these light and fresh and much tastier than other brands.
FAVOURITE PUNCTUATION MARK: The colon: I know that I over-use it.
FAVOURITE RADIOLOGIST: Bridgid. It’s been quite a while since an attractive young woman fiddled about with my dangly bits but she did it chatting merrily the while, then retired to a safe room to watch x-rays of my guts while the raygun did its work, so it’s very encouraging to find that knowing me literally inside-out she still wants to see me.
FAVOURITE RELATIVES: The Tauranga mob, and not only because they’re now my only living relatives. It’s rather touching to know that a new generation on the other side of the world knows me by the nickname that my nephew and niece called me when they were children. Yay, I’m still Uncle Whiskers.
FAVOURITE RESTAURANT: I’ve been to only one in 2020 and that was the one at the Whittington Hospital, where the food is rather good with (currently) plenty of social distance between the tables. Their chicken kebabs served with rice and salad are very tasty. No booze at a hospital, obviously.
FAVOURITE SERIAL KILLER: I don’t actually like them of course, but having written and edited and published several books about them I try to keep up with the latest developments in Serial Killer World, and this year I was pleased to learn that they might have finally caught the so-called Golden State Killer, a particularly nasty specimen. He’s currently in jail awaiting trial so I’d better say no more except nail the bastard.
FAVOURITE SLANG WORD: Flart, an old fart who is something of a flirt. Have I been a bit of a flart this year, particularly in the Radiology Dept? Possibly.
FAVOURITE SOAP OPERA: Coronation Street, which I’ve been watching on and off ever since it started and the only soap I’ve ever watched. It’s pretty dire these days, relying far too much on overheard conversations which were a cliché in Shakespeare’s day, but a large part of the pleasure is discussing the preposterous plotlines as they unfold with fellow cynics on the Digital Spy forum.
FAVOURITE SOFTWARE: Photoshop. Yet again.
FAVOURITE TRANSSEXUAL: Darcie Silver.
FAVOURITE TREE: The aspen at the bottom of my garden. It was growing rather lop-sided as a sycamore — in my view the weed of the tree world — grew up alongside it, but men with a chainsaw and a digger got rid of the intruder, and over the course of the year the aspen has balanced itself. I love to see its leaves shimmering in a light breeze.
FAVOURITE STEELY DAN TRACK: We lost Walter Becker this year but much of the Dan’s music is on my perennial playlist, and I’ve been listening to ‘Deacon Blues‘ a lot recently. It seems to speak to me personally, as a good song should.
FAVOURITE TV SERIES: Killing Eve, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, I May Kill You … If pressed I might admit that I’ve also watched a couple of episodes of Naked Attraction — purely for its sociological interest of course. I had no idea that so many young people have so many tattoos.
FAVOURITE US PRESIDENT: No contenders this year.
FAVOURITE WEAPON: My antique swordstick, probably illegal to own these days but I sleep more soundly knowing it’s by the bed in case another burglar appears in the bedroom in the middle of the night.
FAVOURITE WEBSITE: Facebook, which I joined a few months ago and which has put me back in touch with lots of old friends and colleagues, and brought some new friends too.
FAVOURITE WORD: Adomania: the fear that the future is coming too quickly.
Let’s hope that next year will bring more of the good stuff and much less of the bad. Oscar Cainer thinks that for me it will: “The Solar Eclipse heralds a welcome (and positive) change. There’s no need to try to hold on to anything or fight against an invisible force. You’ve done enough. You can let go and flow with the tide. You’re being taken on a course that’s heading towards a safe and welcoming destination. Wonderful opportunities arise that are going to energise your life.”
That’s good to know, and I hope that 2021 will be wonderful for you too. In the meantime may I wish all my readers a very
Autumn is my favourite time of year. I have no patience with those who complain of cooler weather, falling leaves, the nip in the air, darker evenings etc. I love these things and this is England, for heaven’s sake. Sun-worshippers should live somewhere else.
Summer was a bummer. For many it was a season of uncertain weather, travel restrictions, masks, social distancing (ignored by lots of young people, with the consequences we’re now seeing) and the general frustrations of a pandemic-stricken world. For me it was an even more joyless time with much of it devoted to a stepped-up course of cancer treatment. Strong prescribed laxatives played a large part in this.
The daily drive across North London to the hospital was no fun at all, consisting of rat-runs, speed bumps and white vans which seemed to be on a concerted mission to clip off my wing mirrors. Once there the staff in the radiology department were as wonderful as NHS staff always seem to be, overworked but friendly and gorgeous and very tolerant of a sometimes difficult patient, but there was an awful lot of just hanging around, waiting. There were unpleasant side-effects of the treatment too, depressing to manage at home on my own and not helped by a quarrel with someone I thought was sympathetic to my situation but who turned out to not to be. To some extent it was probably my own fault for poking my nose in where it wasn’t wanted, or simply being old and sick and boring when there was fun to be had elsewhere, but it was painful to have my friendly overtures spurned so callously and in the process to be made into a laughing-stock. Nasty stuff, and being somewhat autistic• I found this more than usually difficult to cope with. Still do.
After that shitstorm I was desperate to get out of London. Driving south down the motorway and leaving the suburban sprawl behind I felt my spirits gradually lifting. The trees were still green — no autumn colours just yet — and speeding through the gently rolling countryside gave me a feeling of freedom and exhilaration that has been on furlough lately. I stopped at the services to buy some food for later and a couple of cans of a lager called Hells, which seemed apt for the occasion. I thought that if I could sink that and expel it in the all-too-familar way it might act as a sort of symbolic purging of a rotten time, but it didn’t.
Broadstone was looking a bit sad even before the pandemic hit, and every time I approach it these days I find Iris Dement’s ‘Our Town’ running through my brain. I first heard this as it played over the closing credits of the very last episode of Northern Exposure, maybe my all-time favourite US tv series, when it actually brought a little tear to my eyes. Listen to it here. Seems to suit the general mood. What has been called The Death of the High Street has hit such places hard as people increasingly shop at trading estates or online, and lockdown made things even worse in Broadstone with many of the long-established shops and cafés now closed and the premises vacant. Gone are Irené’s dress shop; Pampurred Pets where we bought things for the cat and who found her a new home when my mum had to go into care; The Owl’s Roost where my parents often went for morning coffee; Harris and Nash where we got our electrical goods and who mended them on the premises when they went wrong; McColl’s the biggest and best newsagent’s with a fine array of magazines … and I’m particularly sad to find that the Oxfam shop has now closed, where for years my mum worked as a volunteer doing the accounts and generally helping out. This sort of thing is happening all over the UK but it’s especially sad when it’s your own patch, which holds so many bittersweet memories.
Even so, I’m more than glad to be here. The house is looking better than it has for some time thanks to the gardening skills of Raymond who has been loaned to me by my neighbours and has been looking after the place while I’ve been away, so the lawns are neatly mown, the bushes pruned and the hedges clipped. It’s been raining almost continuously since I arrived but I don’t mind a bit. There have been no mists and no fruitfulness, mellow or otherwise, since a deer got into the back garden and ripped the leaves off the little fruit trees that I planted a couple of years ago — a beautiful creature but in gardening terms a pest — but there may be hedgehogs, which would be welcome. They eat slugs. Celia next door has found evidence of them in her garden though she hasn’t actually seen one so far (neither have I), but ‘ghost hedgehog’ signs can be spotted around the area, and I’ve joined The Dorset Mammal Group to try and do my bit to help.
I’m still reeling from the effects of the treatment I’ve received. I’ve been taking things quietly since I’ve been here and have been feeling better day by day, and have even managed to get a few things done: a new computer, a decent-seized bed at last. My neighbours here have been such good friends, inviting me round for meals and drinks, listening patiently to my moans, and gently setting me straight when I seem to be going astray. Their daughter Michelle, who knows about medical stuff — she’s just got her Ph.D — bought me a bottle of tonic to help with my depleted energy levels, and it works! I’ve ordered further supplies, and since we’re all Bob Dylan fans we’ve been sipping from a bottle of Bob’s personally blended bourbon, Heaven’s Door, which helps in other ways.
Broadstone isn’t exactly Heaven but for me it’s the nearest thing and I’m very fortunate to be able to spend time here, but I have to go back to London in a couple of days and I’m dreading it. It’s a long time since I was able to enjoy the things that London has to offer and I’ve been living in the same house and locality for much too long. It has all become over-familiar and boring, and there’s no reason for me to be there except for the cancer treatment. There are indications that it may not have worked too well, with the damn thing spreading into other parts of my body. This is what killed my beloved sister over ten agonizing years and I know all too well how it may progress, so the next round of tests and scans may not be the routine things that we expected, and as I’m now feeling like a pariah in my own neighbourhood I’m finding it difficult to be positive and brave, let alone cheerful — and a new lockdown has just been decreed. Fucking hell.
Meanwhile I try to live in the moment. At the bottom of the garden are two lovely trees, an aspen and a huge beech. Next time I come here their branches will be bare, but today I’m very happy just to sit and watch the leaves turn from green to gold.
I’ve wanted for a while to write about being autistic but found it very difficult to do without sounding self-pitying. which on the whole I’m not. If I can find a way of doing it I’ll post it on this blog.
For anyone who likes to waste their time on pointless puzzles here’s one, and it’s even more pointless than most because I can’t supply the solution. If you can you’ll be saving me from even more grief.
In my sorting through old papers I came across a single typed sheet headed NON ALIAS PLOT with a list of various names which I soon realized were all anagrams of each other. The typing was done on what looks like my old Olivetti portable and the paper size is quarto, not A4, which would seem to date it back to the early 1970s. But what does it mean, what on earth was I thinking? Above all, what are all these names anagrams of?
At that time I was doing illustrations and writing various things for some of the more adventurous (meaning small-time and unsuccessful) periodicals of the day, and it looks as though this might have been an attempt at some sort of avante-garde piece. Perhaps these characters were to feature in a story or playlet; I can imagine Pat Lion Sloan as the very posh p.a. to a top executive and maybe Alan Tinspool as a rather self-important manager in the grocery business, but after them things take a more bizarre turn. Lon (‘Piano’) Salt is obviously an itinerant boogie-woogie piano player, perhaps in a vague partnership with Pliant Alonso the eccentric dancer, while Spain O’Tallon, Nina Last Loop and Lopo Slantani seem to be denizens of the US underworld, but I can offer no clues about Polliana Sot or Alan T. Loopins. Maybe the denouement of my little tale was to have been that all these characters were actually the same person. I was always trying to be clever in those days, with little success then and not much more now. J.G. Ballard I was not.
I’ve spent more time puzzling over this than I want to admit. The letters in these names obviously came from something, some key name or title or phrase — I wouldn’t have just chosen them randomly — but searching what’s left of my brain produces absolutely no memory of it. I’ve also tried feeding the letters into various online Anagram Solvers but the solution remains a mystery, although they did come up with a few amusing variations: the onanist Pallo making a mess on the post-anal lino and getting a notional slap from his indulgent mum. I feel that the answer is staring me in the face, that with a bit more effort it will reveal itself, and when it does I’ll cry out “Of course! Why didn’t I see it?”
But so far it hasn’t. If one of my devoted readers can figure it out please post the answer in the Comments and put me out of my anguish.
A few day ago I decided to try and make contact with my relatives in New Zealand. There’s been a family feud going on for years but as I get older I realize how stupid these things can be so I sent what I hoped was a conciliatory email to my niece Juliet half expecting her to ignore it or to tell me to get lost — but no: her reply was welcoming and forgiving, and she also put me in touch with my nephew Andrew whose email address I had lost and who has proved equally accepting.
They live close to each other in Tauranga and both now have families that I’ve never met and whose existence I was only barely aware of. Now we’re friends again and they have sent me photos, everyone looking so happy and healthy, and the little kids so damn cute:
I’m as proud as if they were my own, and I’m tempted to print off copies and take them to the park to shove under the noses of complete strangers. I won’t do that, of course, but I’m so damn pleased. It’s a lift I needed because last weekend I was very upset by the antics of … never mind. Finding that I have this amazing family and am not totally alone in the world far outweighs such nastiness. It also means that next time the hospital asks for the names and details of my next-of-kin I’ll be able to tell them, and maybe bring out the photos. I’m finding it hard not to wander about with a great big grin on my face.
Naturally I’m tempted to hop on a plane to New Zealand right now to go and give these people a big hug and possibly do the Lord of the Rings tour as well (would the kids like to come along? I’m determined to be a much better uncle from now on), but alas that’s not possible at the moment. But it’s something to look forward to, something indeed to live for.
Back to Stroud Green, the beating heart of North London, with distinctly mixed feelings. I know that in the next few weeks I’ll have to do a lot of work if I’m going to get the house here a bit further along the way to selling it, but I’d been looking forward to seeing friends again and getting out and about a lot more now that lockdown has been eased and for many completely junked. I had pleasant visions of strolls in the park, pub lunches, outings to garden centres, evening drinkies — shopping! — and generally getting back to a more normal life, but as the new reality bites I realize that it’s not going to be like that at all. Not for a while, anyway. Not for me.
As an extremely vulnerable old person (cancer, chronic asthma and a few other jollies) I must continue to shield myself as best I can; I don’t trust the Government’s chaotic and contradictory advice on this as they seem much more concerned with refilling the Treasury’s depleted coffers than with looking out for sick fucks like me, especially when independent scientists with no political agenda are telling everyone to be much more cautious, wear masks, keep well apart etc. A message arrives in my inbox from the (non-Governmental) Coronavirus News and Service Updates which reads in part:
We’re not back to normal yet. It is vital that you continue to keep a safe distance from others. Don’t put your loved ones at risk. In situations where you can’t keep two metres apart, stay at least one metre apart while taking other extra precautions.
and Professor Susan Michie from UCL (my alma mater) goes further:
The change [from two metres to one] is a disaster waiting to happen. Opening indoor areas in pubs is probably the top of the level in the hierarchy of riskiness. If you look around at people trying to keep two metres apart, most are actually more like one-and-a-half metres, which is significantly safer than one metre. If you go down to one metre, actually that is about the distance that people you don’t know and are not intimate with are distant from each other just generally going around and about their business. So basically you have lost the whole concept of social distance. And once you have lost that, you really are in trouble.
Most of my family and old friends are now either dead or widely dispersed so I wasn’t exactly living in a giddy social whirl anyway, but I did manage to maintain a few contacts and find ways of enjoying a bit of social life now and then. All that now seems like a distant memory, and as I’m following the scientists rather than the Government my life will certainly not be back to “normal” any time soon. I know that catching the coronavirus would almost certainly kill me.
Two weeks later
Pippa Kent, a sufferer from cystic fibrosis who has been shielding since the start of lockdown and whose experience is not unlike my own, writes in today’s Guardian:
“I have only ventured out three times in the first week and remain cautious. The guidance almost suggests that we should open our doors, simply forget the rhetoric we’ve had drilled into us over the past few months and get back to ‘real life’. But for those of us whose pre-existing medical conditions greatly increase the risk from Covid-19, we are naturally a little hesitant to embrace this sweeping change.
“Speaking to other high-risk shielders it seems experiences have been mixed. While a few have felt safe sitting outside cafés and restaurants or popping into shops, the majority are yet to take these steps.
“Some have had outings to normally quiet coastal locations, now crowded as people holiday in the UK, where social distancing seems completely non-existent. Others, during essential trips to a car mechanic, have found they needed to make several requests for staff to comply with putting on masks and gloves.
“Unlike at the start of lockdown, when most people seemed very willing to support those who were shielding, the reality is that many seem to have virtually forgotten the last three months; hugging for pictures on social media, crammed into bars, flouting the use of masks and ignoring ongoing guidance around distancing. They seem oblivious, or indifferent, not only to the risks to themselves, but potentially to those who are more vulnerable around them.”
As for me, in the intervals between the cancer treatment there’s gardening to be done, or I could just stay indoors and get on with the fucking plastering. My hair needs cutting again. It’s great to be home.
Yesterday the MP for Brent, Dawn Butler, was stopped by police while driving across North London to meet friends for lunch. Ms Butler is black. In the US it seems that black people are often prepared for such unpleasant encounters by what is called ‘the talk’.
Just about every teenager gets copious safe-driving tips from their parents when they get their first driver’s license. But for black teens, the freedom and independence that comes with driving necessitates an added conversation — one often referred to simply as “the talk.”
This one offers advice for safely navigating potential encounters with police.
Dwayne Bryant was inspired to write his book The Stop: Improving Police and Community Relations after having a positive encounter with an Indiana state trooper. Bryant says the talk is necessary for black children and teens in particular because they bear a greater risk of harm in those interactions.
“The reality is the community can do 100% of everything the officer says and they can still get killed,” he said. “That is the reality of being black in America. So what I do is I talk to them about many things, from understanding their rights to being respectful, but also understanding what their future is, because ultimately you do not want to have a 20-minute encounter derail 20 years of your life.”
Child development specialist and Erikson Institute adjunct faculty Angela Searcy says “the talk” should not be just one talk, but a series of open-ended conversations throughout a child’s life — and not only black families should have them. Searcy, the author of Push Past It: A Positive Approach to Challenging Classroom Behaviors, says it’s important to prepare all children for a world that often perceives black children differently from other children, and that having those talks can empower children, rather than scare them.
“Learning about racism and racial violence is not as scary as experiencing it … Just like a tornado can be scary, or a fire drill can be scary, if you know what to do when there’s a fire, you actually feel empowered,” she said. “Also not just talking about how black children may feel, but also including all children within this conversation that some children feel unsafe, what we can do about it, how we can support them, and how we can respond when there is a situation that is scary. This doesn’t lead to mental health issues, this actually stops us from having mental health issues.”
Reuben Jonathan Miller, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and the author of the forthcoming book Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, says his studies of criminal justice policy and mass incarceration primed him for these discussions with his own children.
“Black children particularly and black people have been stripped of our innocence. The research tells us this, we know that police officers view black boys as older [by] four years on average, it reports them being [perceived to be] less innocent,” he said.
Along with advising compliant and respectful behavior towards police to his children, Miller says it’s “very important for me to let them know, sometimes, in fact often, you’re stopped for nothing that you’ve done at all. You’re stopped for just being, just hanging around. So it’s about working very hard to make sure they don’t internalize that it’s their problem, that it’s something they’ve done.”
And though black families have extra reason to speak to their children about police encounters, Miller says that when it comes to criminal justice, white families have every reason to have “the talk” too.
“Mass incarceration does not stop at the threshold of the black family. Thirty-nine percent of white boys will be arrested before they turn the age of 23 in this country,” he said. “So this is a national problem of epic proportions. Black folks are stopped at a much greater rate, but white families are not absolved from needing to address this crisis.”
I have books the way some people have — what? I was going to say mice but who has 2000 mice? Every feasible wall in my house is lined with bookshelves and every corner has a bookcase in it, but the books have long ago overflowed these and they lie in piles on the floor, on the stairs, all around the bed and sometimes in it. I have an awful lot of books.
There is some excuse for this. My career was in publishing, and publishers do tend to accumulate books as well as spawning new ones, but I think it would have been much the same whatever I was doing. The fact is that I like books. A lot. I could read before I went to school at the age of three and have been reading voraciously ever since. My very first reading memory is of Mary Mouse, one of Enid Blyton’s early creations, and soon after that came Rupert, Molesworth (did you know that Hogwarts is a place in one of those still-funny books?), Just William and The Beano … but this isn’t a nostalgia trip: it’s about books as physical objects and what the hell I’m going to do with them all now I’m moving to a smaller house.
I give them away when I can. Lots have gone to charity shops and freecyclers, and I’ll press a few books onto anyone who seems even vaguely interested, but this is like chipping away at an iceberg with a penknife: it makes no discernible difference to the vast bulk of the thing.
When I’m driving down to the new house in Dorset I load the car with boxes full of books, and I’ve been fitting as many bookshelves as I can cram into the place to house the books I want to keep. It turns out that I want to keep quite a lot of them, but there are very many left behind in London.
I’m looking to sell the London house, so I need to clear it out and most of the remaining books have to go — but where? If anyone out there knows of some charity or organization that would welcome a lot of books, all good and all free, please contact me.
Today has been the hottest day of the year so far, and like a fool I got tangled up in traffic for three hours during the height of it.
I’d spotted a post on the local Freecycle network1 offering a pair of beds for nothing, and since I hope to have guests to stay here when I’ve got the place sorted out I thought I’d like those beds. Although there are two bedrooms in this small house there is at the moment only one bed: a small single bed for myself when I’m here. In London I have a big double bed — a relic of happier times! — which I was planning to bring down, though with the state it’s in I think it’s probably fit only for a bonfire, but what was on offer here was two single beds that could somehow be combined into a double, which seemed ideal to accommodate guests in whatever combinations they might arrive, or me when there are no guests and I feel like stretching out a bit, and I wanted them.
So I phoned the Freecycler, Debbie, and arrangements were made and directions given. I would drive over to her place at Bay View on West Cliff, Bournemouth, to pick up the beds at one o’clock. I set off from Broadstone at 12:30 as I like to be punctual — Bournemouth isn’t far away — and thought I’d take the coastal route which in normal times is a pleasant, quiet road affording fine views of the sea. Big mistake. Huge mistake. A mistake with poison-tipped spikes all over it.
When I got to Bournemouth it was already getting hot and the road leading down to the beach was jammed solid with cars which showed no signs of moving, and the drivers were getting impatient and sometimes aggressive, so I did a three-point turn — tricky in the circumstances, and not a popular move with the queuing drivers — and drove up a side-road away from the coast. I suffer in hot weather anyway, and being stuck in the car on a day like this was becoming distinctly unpleasant. I drove around the maze of quiet residential streets for a while with an increasing sense of desperation, looking for a sign or any clue that might get me to West Cliff and I realized that I was going to be very late for my date with Debbie. The heat was now sweltering.
Eventually, and more by luck than judgement, I came to the big roundabout that Debbie had described on the phone and by taking the second exit as she had suggested I thought that I’d soon find Bay View, the newish development where she’d said she lived. Oh yeah? There was a Bay View Lodge, a Bay View Tower, a Bay View This and a Bay View That, but nothing called just Bay View. I was getting seriously hot and bothered — I was now more than an hour late, and these roads were very busy — and realized that I needed help, so I pulled up outside one of these Bay View places and asked a passing youth if he knew Bay View itself.
He didn’t, but he was a nice bloke and looked for it on his iPhone, and was able to give me some detailed directions. Since he was on his phone anyway and mine was packed away I asked him if he would ring Debbie and tell her that I’d be there shortly, which he kindly did, with me yelling “Sorry!” from a socially-acceptable distance away. But the detailed directions just took me back to the jam-packed streets that I’d already been round several times, and when I braked only slightly too hard it caused the driver behind to rear-end me. These sun-seekers are fucking maniacs. The damage wasn’t too serious but it took another half-hour to sort things out with Mr Impatient Suntanned Bastard — and at this point, with sweat running in rivulets down my face and desperately thirsty, I decided that I’d had enough. I wanted to phone Debbie to apologize again but realized that the helpful youth had walked off with the bit of paper that had her telephone number on it, so I turned the car round again, wound down all the windows, and headed home by a fast inland route, with no beds and a shiny new dent on the rear fender of my car.
Once home I glugged down a pint of orange juice, showered, drank more juice and turned on the TV news. The Sky cameras were showing hordes of people thronging the Bournemouth beach and the lockjammed roads where I’d just been, with the reporters deploring such irresponsible behaviour and the police declaring it a Major Incident. Now, in the late evening and after some stabbings have been reported the TV pundits and politicians are giving it their two-pennorth. Appalling, Irresponsible, Dangerous, Police are some of the words I’m hearing. Yes, but this is more than just relief after the easing (not the end) of two months’ lockdown. It may be partly that, but there’s also some sort of herd instinct at work here. From my days as a psychologist I recall a book called The Madness of Crowds.2 Must look it out.
I phoned Debbie to apologize for my no-show and she was very nice about it. We thought we could maybe try again next week when it might be cooler. I suggested that very early in the morning might be a good time, when there would be none of these demented sun-worshippers about. We got chatting, and it emerged that before moving to Bournemouth recently she had worked in the Crouch End branch of Barclays Bank in London, where I’ve been a customer for donkey’s years. When — if — we eventually meet we’ll probably recognize each other.
Small world. Small, horrible, crowded, stinking, sweltering world today.
1 The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 5,327 groups with 8,926,497 members around the world and next-door to you. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns and neighborhoods. It’s all about re-use and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Join us now!
2 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841)
As I write this the TV is showing pictures of the demonstrations in London, the cameras hunting about for outbreaks of violence and destruction that they can show on the news later. This is in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a cop in Minneapolis three weeks ago and here in Britain the toppling and proposed removal of several statues of notable men deemed to have been racist and Not OK in various other ways.
That black lives matter I take as obvious, self-evident, a no-brainer. Of course they matter, as all lives do, but some black writers are saying things like “If I hear one more white person say ‘Black Lives Matter’ I think my head will explode,” * so I won’t bang on about my own patchy white-bred credentials in this regard, though I hope one day to be able tell you about my experiences when helping to run an adventure playground in Notting Hill in the 1970s and 1980s, which proved to be a very practical education in racial tensions and much more complex than I’d ever imagined.
Have things changed since then? Check out this song from 1971, with a new video made last year, here.
About the statues I was undecided at first. I understand the argument that removing them can be seen as erasing history, destroying our heritage etc., but I also understand that some people find them very offensive, and I personally don’t particularly want to gaze on the features of Cecil Rhodes or Edward Colston — though one of my fondest memories is of bunking off school to go to a concert by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the Colston Hall in Bristol — an event fraught with ironies in retrospect. Maybe they can change the name and keep the hall.
I live most of the time in London but at the moment I’m taking a break in Dorset after two months of lockdown, and a couple of miles down the road there’s been a kerfuffle about the statue of Baden-Powell that stands on Poole Quay. It’s there because Brownsea Island is just offshore in the harbour, and this is where Baden-Powell (B-P) took twenty boys camping in 1907 and thereby started the Boy Scout movement. I was a Boy Scout myself once, and apart from the marching I greatly enjoyed it and have always regarded the Scout movement as broadly speaking a pretty good thing. I can still tie several different kinds of knots. I never knew much about B-P but have learned a lot more about him in the last few days as the local and indeed national media have argued his merits and demerits to and fro, and think that he’s not quite as bad as some people have painted him.
But I’ve decided that I don’t care much about statues, unless they’re by Michelangelo or Bernini or Rodin. They are just lumps of metal and stone and if people want them removed that’s fine with me, though I hope it can be done without violence. The important thing is to get beyond the symbolism and try to deal much better with the reality. I hope that the politicians will soon stop pontificating about the violence and see the point: that things need to change, which amongst other things means that we honkies have to get more involved with our local communities, and if that’s not possible we can make a donation to one of the organizations that are trying to change things for the better. Here are a few:
Driving down to Broadstone is like travelling back in time to the 1950s. There are no black people on the streets here, while Asians are to be found only in the newsagents’ and restaurants. Muslims? Burkas? Don’t make me laugh.
I think most of the residents like it this way. The whole area has been staunchly conservative for decades: stopping for petrol at Rownhams services on the way down I made a scathing remark to some people in a queue about Dominic Cummings, and was surprised to find them springing to his defence (“He does a very useful job actually” etc.). So I have to make some big mental adjustments when I’m here and keep some of my more insurrectionary thoughts to myself.
So why do I want to live here? Mostly because of the house and the garden, but also because my neighbours here are terrific, the same age as me, and sharing many of the same tastes. Music, movies, food, gardening etc. When I arrived neighbour Pete happened to be wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt, which made me feel at home straight away. We have formed a little Yorkshire enclave, and they assure me that there are other decent (not necessarily Yorkshire) people around who I’ll discover when I’m permanently here. They tell me that the local restaurant, which is literally a stone’s throw from my front door, has recently changed hands because the previous owners were busted for having a cannabis factory upstairs, so I guess not everyone’s True Blue.
The garden here, which I love, has completely gone to hell in the ten weeks that I’ve been away (the photo above shows it before the lockdown). The grass is now knee-high, the hedges are massively overgrown and there are weeds everywhere, some sprouting vigorously through the tarmac on the drive. Pumped-up superweeds. A few of the newer plants have died through lack of watering, though most of the others have survived and are ready to bloom. I missed the brief flowering season of the weigela while I was gone, but the hydrangea looks nearly ready to roll. It will take a lot of work putting everything to rights. I like gardening but this is rather daunting, so I’m thinking of borrowing the gardener that Pete and Celia have in once a week. They say I can. And if you’re thinking that I’m lucky with my neighbours, believe me I know it — and I haven’t yet told you about my London neighbours who during the lockdown have been absolutely … I’ll save them for another time.
Despite these challenges it’s good to be back here in Broadstone, reunited with my lovely big iMac after weeks of pissing about with the nasty little laptop I bought to use when travelling — I’m really just camping out when I’m in London these days — and with my La-Z-Boy which though rather scruffy now is the most comfortable chair I’ve ever known. Zzzzz.