Thursday, September 22, 2016

Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and the Elusive Secret to Happiness

Here's something that has been troubling me. Not to the point of waking up and pacing but it's certainly a strange thing.

If we could be anybody who would we want to be? You can bet nine out of 10 guys would say they would want to be Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, due to one or more of the following factors.



1 - Dashing good looks
2 - High octane careers as movie stars
3 - Unimaginable wealth
4 - Ability to pull just about any woman on the planet and probably quite a few on Mars or elsewhere.
5 - Innate coolness.

Yet when we read the accounts of the bitter break-ups between Depp and Amber Herd and Pitt and Angelina Jolie, some disconcertingly spiky words are dropped into the smooth mix - words like violence, alcohol, threats, drugs, and anger. Anger features rather prominently.

There's a cell phone video - admittedly used by Herd to obtain a restraining order - that appears to show Depp in an unintelligible rage. There are claims of an attack with a cell phone, drug abuse and Herd suffering bruises.

All of this should be viewed in the light of a Hollywood he said/she said kind of tussle.

However, there are well-documented instances of Depp losing it such as when he caused $10,000 of damage to a hotel room during a bitter argument with ex Kate Moss in 1994.

Meanwhile, all is not well over at Brangelina. Indeed, it has split apart and things got very unpleasant with the claims by Angelina that Brad Pitt was physically and verbally abusive to their kids while on their private plane, reports USA Today. He's now being investigated by the FBI.

Brad was reported to be wasted on a plane, verbally and physically abusive to a couple of the 20 or so kids and even tried to leave the scene in a fuel truck on landing. As one does after a mile-high bender.

So here's the kicker. You can have everything. You can be Brad Pitt. You can have the world at your feet and yet your life can descend into one long drunken trailer park brawl.

This is not without precedence. Think Elvis Presley killing himself on junk food and shooting up TV sets. Think Whitney Houston dying in the bath.

I'm a bit concerned about the electricity bill this month but now I'm not so sure I'll be much happier if I find the $100 to pay it.

I can't tell you the elusive secret to happiness. Maybe it's just be unremarkable.







Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Sinister Clowns of South Carolina and Other Tales

These are frightening times to be alive in America. Ignoring the bombs in New York, there's the small matter of the scary clowns who are terrorising parts of South Carolina.

In Greenville County, SC, children have been telling adults about creepy clowns who hang out on the fringes of dark woods and try to entice them into the trees. The children talk about a house by a pond that's so deep in the woods that its windows afford no light. We're not sure if its walls are made of gingerbread. Police have visited the house but found no sinister evidence like stick-on red noses or bulbous shoes. Nevertheless, it gets the imagination going. I'm thinking of a nasty Ronald McDonald walking in the woods to the tune of The Cure's The Forest.



Personally, I think this is the last straw. As if terrorism, North Korea and Vladimir Putin threatening nuclear war wasn't enough, people are now dressing as scary clowns and trying to lure kids into trees.

There's also a rather sinister looking orange clown who's down to the last two standing to become President of the United States. Just gag me with a sneezy flower thing now.

It hasn't been as bad as this since 2014 when creepy clowns were showing their ghastly faces across America, including one who was seen standing balefully in public places clutching black balloons.

I noted then how the World Clown Association became concerned that these incidents were giving clowns a bad name. To echo the prophetic words of Father Ted "Down with this Kind of Thing."

I also noted there is a word out there for the fear of clowns - coulrophobia. Make sure not to spell it coolrophobia. Clowns aren't cool kids. And whoever thought they were funny in the first place was probably on hallucinatory drugs.

If you are as old as me you might remember the days when the circus came to town. Not today's pale imitations but the big top stuffed with trapeze artists and lions, elephants and tigers.

Now ask yourself this question. Was there ever a kid who exclaimed to his parents 'take me to the circus to see the clowns.'?




Monday, September 5, 2016

The Last Day of Freedom

So this was it, the last day of freedom. We went to the pool on Labor Day early because we thought it would be packed but the lifeguard maintained a lonely vigil. The signs of impending closure were everywhere. The dirt and debris from the storm still lay at the bottom between the blue facade and the lifeguard apologized when he fished out a dead frog. Those lazy afternoons are over until May.

It seemed only last week when schools closed for summer and the kids faced long, sultry days free of testing and classrooms and the constant clatter of bells.



I knew I had felt sadder when the holidays were at an end and that joyous day when we threw our school ties in the hedge was a distant memory. In the interval, there had been long summer days by the lake, adventures at the disused railroad line and the obligatory family holiday.

We never went anywhere glamorous but the memories lingered in a deeper color than so many others. The cottage with the strange smelling 'garlic sausage room' and the thick leather chairs we would spin in, the garden alive with buzzing wildflowers, the hint of purple on the mountainside and the sgulls that cawed and wheeled high above the whitewashed alleys of St Ives. The simplicity was curiously powerful. Miles away there were kids whose parents never thought, or cared or just walked away into the deep vermillion Wild West sunset like the one we saw once simmering over the farm tractors of a Devon field.

I have tried to do the same. I took the kids to New York and the mountains of upstate New York. The trash blowing down the New Jersey street outside the motel was a light year away from those cliffs and bays of childhood memory but I hoped the experience would make a difference. They saw buildings that soared away from the pavements and dreams in stone and glass. I hoped one day they would look back in the way I do.

So it's back to school tomorrow and perhaps I'm more sad about the loss of their freedom than they are. Perhaps they don't even see it that way. The world has changed a lot and it's been more years than I care to remember.





Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tangier Island - A World Apart

I have always been fascinated by islands. They are like a microcosm of the mainland but there is something different about them. They are marooned and cut off. They offer wonder and terror and a glimpse of something else.



I have written about islands before in I is for Island. We don't need to retrace our steps in the sand, although it's true that the thought of islands takes me back in time to the humming of the boat, the screeching of the gulls and the trip across rocking seas to the desperately remote Farne Islands off the coast of
Northumberland.

Out fascination with islands is rooted in the tale of Robinson Crusoe. Desert islands are places of fascination, dipped in the sweetness of coconuts with an edge of fear to them. Plays and films have depicted people wrecked and trapped from Lord of the Flies to Lost.



Recently, curiosity took us to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Tangier doesn't have palm trees or pristine white beaches or mountains shrouded in mist. It's low and flat and being relentlessly eaten away by global warming. The people on the island talk with a strange dialect that's meant to resemble old English but didn't sound that way to me. In fact, the people are descended from the Cornish who were ever a race apart, although it's hard to see why they would exchange those magnificent soaring cliffs for this brackish flatness.



On the day we visited Tangier the rain was falling steadily and the Chesapeake Bay was as dark as iron and as unprepossessing. But the rain slacked off as we arrived at Tangier and the sullen clouds gave the place an edge. The first thing you see are remote crabbing huts perched on wooden walks above the water, places where the solitary menfolk shell crabs above the slick waters of the bay.

Given the twin threats of pollution and global warming, it's a tough existence and many of the homes on Tangier Island are ramshackle and showing their creaking bones against the onslaught of the elements. There was water, water everywhere on the gravel paths fringed with oysters and the pooled yards of homes.



Even today Tangier Island seems far removed from America. It supported the British navy in the war of 1812 and feels somewhat cast adrift.

It was fascinating to walk about for a couple of hours but the alarming proliferation of Trump signs and the fact Tangier is a dry island meant we made doubly sure to catch the last boat out of the place.



Friday, July 29, 2016

Sluggish July

This summer is icooking my brain. The coffee turns my mouth sour but I still slug on it, drinking to the base, hoping to revive myself and to conjure up an original idea. It's late afternoon. I think of stagnant ponds, and rivers thick and sluggish with oil in a flat and industrial landscape. The heat out here is too thick to breathe. Heat index is the most over-used phrase. That and triple digits. There's no getting clean from it. Shirt and pants stick. Skin burns, necks ache.



It seems too long since we lay on your bed and looked at each other steadily.

There are too many words, too much traffic, too many Tweets, too many bombs and knives, too much anger.

The people gather under Neptune. They interact very little. The look into the small screen - not the TV of yesteryear but the portable small screen. They catch Pokemon on the screen. They jabber with an other worldly language about squirtle. Squirrel, I say. No Squirtle - get with it, Dad. Where have you been? Under a rock? Under the sea bed like Neptune who frowns steadily at the storm-laden sky.

But I was with it some time ago, in another place and another era. There was a crowd in white, winding from the bridge at Magdalen and all of Oxford was coated in the glory of morning and unfilled potential and gleaming things to come. I saw them then, young and bronzed and lithe across the water meadows and the domes and the spires,  jumping with abandon in the water. I thought of Brideshead and imagined them now; fat lawyers and accountants behind dust-filled desks.

I wondered lazily if the bridge was blocked again and I thought of you - looking at me steadily across the heat haze, distilling a perfection out of all this imperfection.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Reviving the Unfinished Novel

It's true to say Reportage is a bit of a mess. Today I finally went back to it after a long time away and tried to make some sense of it. One reporter was working on an incident of police brutality. The other human trafficking in Cambodia. It probably needs some pixie dust sprinkled on it. That or a little less reality. There were chapters in various takes that seem to overlap. There are people doing unexplained things because the chapter that gives it context has disappeared and I don't even like the working title. By the time I finish it the newspaper industry may be ancient history.

Or perhaps not.

After I copied and pasted sections, I found I had almost reached 50,000 words. So only 50,000 more to go. I should be able to crank that out at Starbucks one lunch time. At least I'm back on the train and not hanging out drinking beer in the unpleasant station cafe.



Here's the prologue.

Laurent Bourgonville closed the curtains earlier in the day even though sunlight was still barreling down the street. Linda was ill again and being unbearable in the way only Linda could be when she was ill. He finally sat down in the pleasant semi-darkness and sunk into the old sofa when he heard her hollering again from upstairs, her voice sounding like one of the sirens he heard on the ships in his navy days.

“Lori, Lori. Where’s that damned herbal tea?”

A spasm of pain shot down Laurent’s leg as he stood up and hit his head on an ornamental owl on the shelf above him. He silently cursed Tracy and her barn owl fetish.

“Good God I’m coming woman.”

He shuffled through to the kitchen and momentarily considered the tea would be enhanced with a well-aimed globule of spit, just a small, neatly crafted one lovingly swilled around his mouth that blended in with the greenish murk.

He was standing on the bottom stair when Linda ordered him to stop in his ponderous tracks. “Lori. What’s going on outside?”

“I’m not a clairvoyant. Do you want your tea first or do you want me to look out of the window?” He knew the real answer would be both simultaneously, but even Linda wasn’t going to articulate that thought.

“Look out of the window, quick.”

He felt like telling her he didn’t do anything quickly at the age of 78, but he moved to the window and tugged on the carpet. “Good Lord.”

“What is it, Lori? What is it?” her voice had risen about 10 octaves like a miner bird’s, and he wanted to torture her then. The best he could do was slow delivery.

“It’s a few police cars.”

“We don’t have those on Beaumont Avenue.”

“Well, we do today?”


“What was that Lori?”
“I was saying there are quite a lot.” He counted six cars and a large truck that had the words “Mobile Command Unit” on the side.

There were flashing lights from ambulances too, and the street was cordoned off with yellow tape. Laurent had driven past many scenes like this in Chicago but never here on his street. 

It felt like another city had been transplanted to this respectable street in Seatown.

“I think I see body bags Linda.”

“Aww no not for dead people, surely.”

Laurent wondered if the cops had one to spare.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Battle of the Somme - A Grim Anniversary

A long time ago I had to drive down to Paris late at night in my battered Renault. In the early hours of the morning, I was getting sleepy and pulled over to a rest area to get a 20-minute nap. There was a slight chill and I tugged my jacket closer to me. Outside a thin mist was creeping across the flat treeless fields and clinging to the rivers that crisscrossed them. I remember the bleakness of the place and then I saw a sign that chilled me to the core. It read "River Somme."

I slept fitfully but decided to wake and get back on the road. The name had unnerved me and I thought of all the ghosts of the anguished souls who once struggled and died in these fields.





The first day of the infamous Battle of the Somme was exactly 100 years ago today in 1916. It still stands as a monument to a barbarity that is almost unparalleled in the last century.

The bloody mechanized war that pitted France, Britain and Italy against Germany, Austria and Turkey was in its second year. For months on end men lived and died in waterlogged and rat filled trenches on the front line, in constant dread of hearing the order to go over the top.

At Verdun, a 300-day offensive as the Germans battered the French lines had left 800,000 soldiers dead. 

In an attempt to relieve pressure on Verdun, the British army launched a massive offensive further north on the Somme. In the week before the battle began 1.7 million shells were fired by the British at the German lines to break up the barbed wire and demoralize the enemy.

Yet on July 1, when 100,000 British troops  were sent over the top, they found most of the wires still intact. The soldiers were out in no-man's-land being mowed down by German machine guns. There are many accounts of the terrors of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, of men missing arms and legs who suffered drawn out deaths as the life bled out of them in shell holes. On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,000 casualties including 19,000 men who lost their lives. It was the bleakest day in the history of the British army.

At the end of 141 bloody days on the Somme, the British, French and Germans has lost 1.5 million men and the British had gained a few miles of waterlogged soil that would be recovered by the Germans in 1918.

Today the Battle of the Somme is just another obscure piece of history like Waterloo or 1066. I had a great uncle who was a stretcher bearer during the battle but he never spoke about it and is long gone. 

On the way back from Paris, I returned to the Somme in daylight and drove down deserted roads until a thickset and brutal structure rose from the ground. It was the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, the 72,000 plus British Empire servicemen who never came home. The Somme remains an eerie landscape forever overshadowed by the Great War. Neat cemeteries of simple white crosses dot the dark hills here and the towns of Picardy seem mean, strained and cowering.

Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the Thiepval Memorial. The architect is better known for his country houses and his work in New Delhi, settings for cocktail parties and polo on a sunny day.

Yet by the time the monstrous guns finally fell quiet on the Western front, the days when Britain ruled half of the world were over. The aura of invincibility had been swept away in a few hours as the smoke cleared over the Somme and a generation was cut down. Those who lived went home but many of them were never the same. The blooded ghosts of the battlefields followed them to the quiet country lanes of old England. Thousands suffered shell shock, including the poet Wilfred Owen who was killed on the last day of the war but whose lines lived on to give it a frightening poignancy to later generations.

Unlike World Wat Two, the Great War was not a clash of ideologies and it's difficult to portray it as a battle of good against evil. Rather, a complex set of treaties led the great European powers into a war that nobody wanted to fight. The terrible global conflicts of the early 20th Century were the catalyst to the European integration that has unraveled of late. It's a stark testimony to how quickly things can go wrong.

Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 
Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle 
Can patter out their hasty orisons. 
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, 
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 
What candles may be held to speed them all? 
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. 
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; 
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.