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.