Sunday, April 3, 2022

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I never hear from), that C. was missing.

I clicked on the news site; police were concerned for her safety. Her distinctive turquoise Mini Cooper was found abandoned on a beautiful, windswept Cornish headland. She was never seen again.

Those few news snippets in January were the last we heard of C. There was no body found, no follow-up. The news sites moved on. The tide came in and went out and the cycle was repeated. The police now have other things to be concerned about, even in picturesque Cornwall, far from the monstrous anger of the guns.

These displaced pieces of my life still bother me, though. C was a colorful part of my old life once. She modeled herself on Audrey Hepburn with her cute fringes, although she was more like Bette Davis. C summed up an antique world that existed before my time, down to the classic British Broadcasting Corporation voice. C was fun company. In today's parlance, she was extra. She also suffered, more than we perhaps ever knew.

That story about how she smashed a bottle of red wine against the wall because she was so desperate for vino after a stressful day at the paper is legendary. It probably has disturbing undertones I never really considered. We were housemates for a while, thankfully not too long. Shockingly, C considered me messy and slovenly so off I went into the big, bad world to make my mistakes.

Still, we remained friends. I remember a traditional Easter event at Bideford Town Council. We left the gloom of the council chambers and walked over the cliffs at Hartland Point. I did not realize it at the time, but there are few more breathtaking places in the world than Hartland Point. It was a beautiful spring day that turned the meadows above the plunging cliffs a translucent green. The thrift was sprouting in patches of bright pink. The warm wind moved the grass and the restless sea sloughed, sighed, and smashed against the rock stacks below. It was the perfect distillation of a spring day to be captured in a frame and saved for posterity, although it never was.

It's painful now to hear, second-hand, of the decline of C. Giving up the world of newspapers and the death of her mother led to a downward spiral that would turn that day warmed by the first touches of spring on its head. I shudder to think of what happened on a cold January day on that same turbulent Westcountry coast, months away from the first rays of spring. Odd and poetic too that C who had always loved Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca may have succumbed to a similar fate on the rocks.

Still, C is gone and with her loss, a fragile piece of the old world clatters into the rocks and fragments on the sands of that dark beach that we dare not think of.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

On the Death of Charlie Watts


The death of Charlie Watts, the drummer with the Rolling Stones, this week affected me more than I thought it would.

It’s not that Watts was a powerful presence. The drummer, a man more comfortable with jazz than rock and roll, was the yin to Jagger’s charismatic yang, a quiet bloke who always seemed like he would be happier listening to his 45s at home than touring with roadies. Perhaps that’s why his death affected me; that and the fact that the Stones always seemed so invincible, like they could live for ever.

Still, Charlie slipped away quietly at the age of 80 with little fuss. His death made me think of the one time I met him, at a reception in a big house somewhere in the heart of North Devon.

I was a wet-behind-the-ears reporter who had just received the Siberia posting. After a less than stellar debut in Plymouth they sent me away to Barnstaple to quietly disappear into obscurity down country lanes and up and over towering sea cliffs. 

On the wet night I arrived in Barnstaple and felt the sting of approaching snow in the air before I surveyed my miserable bedsit which required coins to keep the lights on, I never thought I would find myself in the same room as Charlie Watts.

However, in keeping with the great man’s desire to shun the limelight, Watts bought a property in the heart of Devon, a remote place down lanes full of manure that holidaymakers seldom found. I can’t even recall the reason for the reception but another famous resident of middle-of-nowhere Devon was standing in the room holding court, the late poet laureate Ted Hughes. I recall then the strength of his presence. Hughes was a towering figure, with something of a bad boy Byronic reputation who marched across the hills leaving a trail of female suicides in his wake.

Charlie couldn’t have been more different. He eschewed many of the rock and roll stereotypes of his fellow Stones that gave the band an edge the Beatles lacked, although the reality was more nuanced. In interviews, he talks a lot about the technical aspects of drumming and, of course, his love of jazz. Charlie sounds like an instructor at a technical college as he explains the intricate machinery of the drums. He talks about touring with the band like it’s a chore he can take or leave. It makes him oddly endearing.

Charlie’s death wasn’t the only thing that made me recall my time in North Devon. I thought of J, a photographer who may or may not have been with me at that reception. The North Devon bureau had two reporters - Mark, who was affectionately known as The Rock of Barnstable for occupying that remote bureau for at least eight years, and his raw trainee. We used a photographic agency that Mark, not so affectionately, referred to as The Dolts. We could routinely rely on the agency to fail to show up at assignments or to take a picture that had nothing to do with the story. J was from the Braunton Beach surfer crowd. He had an eye for a good picture but could be hit-and-miss. In the days before cellphones, the disconnect between reporter and photographer was a wide as the panoramic beaches of the North Devon coast.

Years, later J is a successful photographer in L.A. In the same week as Charlie Watts died a curious story hit the newsfeed. Spenser Elden, the naked underwater baby on the iconic cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind” filed a lawsuit against the band claiming the famous artwork was child pornography. J recreated the famous underwater shot with Elden on the 25th anniversary of Nervermind in 2016. Thankfully, Elden wore shorts on this occasion.

The two events made me think of how all roads led back to an obscure part of rural Devon in the early 1990s. I missed it too, the subtle seasons, the fragrance on the air that heralds spring down those winding lanes, the long empty sands, and the russet colors that crept up on the moors with fall. Ted Hughes died of cancer. He never made it out of the 1990s. Mark died of cancer too. Charlie had, to use cricket parlance, a good inning. This amazing footage of Sympathy for the Devil from 1968 showcases Watts’ quiet genius, as well as a cameo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the audience.

It sometimes feels like we lose the brilliance and plod on with our mediocre selves. The Spenser Eldens and the Yoko Onos survive. Those of us who try our hands at things, fail, and move on.

It can leave what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described as a feeling of sadness and longing that is “not akin to pain, and resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles rain.”

I can barely remember what I spoke to Charlie about but I recall it was an obscure planning application near his home. I recall nervously asking the great man for a comment and his matter-of fact-response. “No, thank you.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Last Days of the Old White Guy

I seldom dream about politicians but I dreamed of Donald Trump on half a dozen occasions. Each time, the former president occupied an uneasy place in my subconscious reserved for the school bully or the corrosive boss. My life has been mercifully free of these dreams since January 20. It’s good to feel America slipping back to dull normal, even if those who run the media companies may be tugging out the last of their hair every morning. Although this seems like the America of old, it’s really not. Everything is the same but nothing is the same.

Last month’s inauguration was a familiar kind of ceremony on the face of it; one old white guy took over from another.

Old white guys have been running the United States since 1789, with the notable exception of Barack Obama. One of them, William Henry Harrison, was so decrepit, he died from a cold he caught during his long-winded inauguration speech.

Notwithstanding appearances, I have no illusions about the inauguration of Joe Biden. Although Biden, at the age of 78, is the oldest white guy to run the country, there are plenty of reasons to believe the age of the old white guy is coming to an end. I should mourn this as a (soon to be) old white guy, but I’m not going to stock up on guns any time soon.

The last four years have left the nation suffering from collective PTSD. The historians will surely see the era of Trump as the time the white guy transformed into something more sinister, or at least shed his fancy clothes to reveal a hideous body scared with the tattoos of hate. While Trump was shaped by his many demons and a loveless childhood he was also an embodiment of a terrible past that few of us wanted to talk about - at least until 2020.

We know 2020 will be remembered for many things, very few of them good. For me, 2020 was the year I felt ashamed to be white. Although 2020 will always be the year of COVID, the ugly face of 2020 was that of a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck and squeezing the life out of him.

Those who questioned the toppling of Confederate monuments in the wake of the death of George Floyd were once again concealing the big picture. Yet it was present at the inauguration in the words of its star, the poet Amanda Gorman.

In the poem,The Hill We Climb Gorman referred to her history.

“We the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny Black girl

Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

Can dream of becoming president 

Only to find herself reciting for one.”

Gorman finished writing her poem as the dust was settling from the invasion of the Capitol on Jan 6. A mob of mostly aging and angry white men had stormed the inner sanctum of government. Some paraded the Confederate flag. One of them wore a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt.

If 2020 failed to make us ashamed to be white, it should have.

As someone who grew up in Britain, I am still taken aback by the bitterness of the racial divide in America. Although racism is sadly alive and kicking in Britain just as it is in France and Germany, the British find it difficult to comprehend the horrors of lynching, the Clan, and all the paraphernalia of hatred and segregation that continued in the American south for so many years after the Civil War. We grew up watching the ugly apartheid-filled headlines from South Africa every night, oblivious to the fact our colonial past had helped create them. The journalist Gary Younge summed it up in a recent interview when he suggested the British were shielded from American style racial conflict because the worst excesses took place thousands of miles away in the colonies.

Whatever the explanation, it is surely time to break from the past and embrace the era of reality. I grew up in a world fashioned by old white guys and caucasian privilege. In those days, the heroes in the movies were always white. Cowboys like John Wayne were the good guys and the Indians were savages. Huggy Bear was a bit-part player to Starsky and Hutch. Black and Asian people were casually demeaned in TV comedies and minstrel shows were passed off as acceptable viewing. 

We shouldn’t be surprised that the entitlement of white people has got us to where we are today. There is nothing new about Donald Trump. He is J.R Ewing, the ruthless oil baron in the soap opera Dallas, minus street smarts.

I know many white people who argue the past is the past. Black people should stop harking on about it. Everything is OK now. They had a Black President and now they have a Black Vice President. Why are Black people so angry?

I tell people the past isn’t an obscure treaty. It’s not a one-off event when rebels threw tea into the water. The past is the wholesale ownership of one race by another due to the color of their skin. I can’t ever put myself in the position of the formerly owned but I’d be angry too.

Still, the white apologists persist. How ridiculous that they, want to pull down the statues of Christopher Columbus. Where will it all stop?

The Columbus question gave me a chilling reality check. As a kid I was taught about the Age of Exploration, of the daring voyages west, and how Columbus proved the flat earth people wrong. I was wooed by the idea of happy adventures against the odds. Instinctively we took his side against the uninitiated.

Finding out about the real Columbus left me uneasy at the lies they fed me. It’s like realizing your favorite uncle was actually a guard at the Auschwitz gas chambers. Columbus, states Vox, was a “homicidal tyrant who initiated the two greatest crimes in the history of the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic slave trade, and the American Indian genocide.”

Columbus forced the Indians of the Caribbean to collect gold or die. The Indians destroyed their stash of bread, ate poisoned roots, and jumped off the cliffs to escape Spanish rule. The island of Hispaniola had 300,000 inhabitants in 1492. By 1548 disease brought by the Europeans and the genocide had reduced that number to about 500.

America still celebrates Columbus Day.  We don’t celebrate Hitler Day or Pol Pot Day.

Still, these double standards are difficult to put in perspective because where do you stop? Columbus, a no brainer, but Jefferson and Washington? Both were slave owners but they also set us on the road to freedom.

We ignore the big picture because, quite frankly, it’s too big, frightening, and hideous.

Today, I teach the kids who are America’s future. The school division had a prepared response to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol in case students asked. Nobody did. During a previous lesson, they surprised me by having little knowledge of the events of 9/11. 

The new America is being forged virtually on tiny devices by animated figures who duck imaginary bombs and missiles. The new generation is learning to keep its head down in dimly lit bedrooms. I put the big picture to one side and teach the rules of comma use.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

I Was Born in a Bubble

A large Mountain Ash tree grew in the garden behind the house where I lived as a child. It wasn't a remarkable tree but it was a thing of understated beauty with its black and silver bark. As kids, we would spend the long summer months hanging off its flexible branches as climbing as high as the tree would allow us. These games were harmless fun until the day I jumped off a branch and over the wire fence into the neighbor's yard. 

The fear of the unknown seized me then as if I had crossed into the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. I looked left into the trees and right to the dark brick of the neighbor's home. I saw nothing. Then I heard her. Mrs. Stanton was every bit as fierce as a North Korean dictator, albeit a sanitized version adapted for the small screen of suburban Birmingham. Now she was moving fast out of her kitchen yelling at me. I ran down the side alley to safety but the episode still returns to mock me in my dreams occasionally.

The next-door-people weren't like us. The Stantons were a big family and the kids were loud. They took horseplay to a Churchill Downs level.

Steven Stanton informed me the Japanese cut off the dicks of their English prisoners of war and tied them to their noses during the war. I did not want to believe him.

Years later I still think about England in the Seventies. The colors seem muted in my thoughts. I recall the weeds pushing through the sidewalk and the bare-bones nature of the houses. Our place felt cold and sparse. We had few toys and my parents gave me a hard time when I tried to trade my new Matchbox armored patrol vehicle for Greg Spencer's beaten up Phanthom jet. It wasn't about quality. I just cared more about airplanes.  For other toys, we made do with wooden blocks and an old tire on the lawn was our personal flying saucer that would take us to sparkling new worlds.

Despite the bareness of it all, there was a sense of security. The Labour government continued to build the welfare state, promising those who could not afford it a house of their own for minimal rent. Old Mrs. Mill drove a distinctive blue buggy given free to her on the National Health Service.  These were the Invalid Carriages or Invacars, supplied free to thousands of disabled people in the 1960s and 1970s before they were phased out and replaced with an allowance. If Mrs. Mills appreciated the generosity of the state, she never showed it.

For our neighbors who wanted more speed, there was the Bond Bug, a nippy little three-wheeler available in no color except tangerine which was capable of speeds of 76 mph. I never understood the obsession with three-wheelers but this was an era when a wheel fell off the British car industry.

The flash of tangerine of passing Bugs gave a lick of color to our drab neighborhood with its closely crammed houses and warehouse-like pubs.  The same could not be said about TV. When our first box arrived it mustered up flickering, hazy back and white images on two channels - BBC 2 was often out of reach. My parents told me it was no great loss, comprising dull lectures and classical music recitals. BBC 1 was the real deal. Jon Pertwee with his touselled locks and air of an absent-minded academic was the third Doctor Who, a ma who battled monsters so ferocious we hid behind the sofa. The series persuaded our band of friends - sometimes wearing buckets on our head because it seemed so cool - to wander the neighborhood for hours in the vain search for a police box. All we found were the red phone boxes with their ripped up phone directories shacked to walls or thrown on concrete floors that smelled of pee and cigarettes.

The Seventies didn't feel too glamorous but there is something to be said for the old cliche. People did talk to neighbors over garden fences and looked out for each other. The state looked out for us too. In the 1940s, the Beveridge Report had identified the five "Giant Evils" in society as squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Healthcare, pension, and housing costs were taken away from corporations and given to the state that adopted the lofty aim of being there for the British people "from cradle to grave." The government created the National Health Service and a universal pension. It embarked on a vast program of social housing. Today, these policies would be derided as socialist in a world where terminology has become as black and white as the picture on our TV.  This thinking is deeply disturbing. England in the Seventies was far from Utopia and people wore unfashionably wide pants while men forgot to shave. But it was a world away from the countries of the Eastern Block, Cuba, or China where free speech would land you in prison or worse. Furthermore, the National Health Service remains intact to this day, ironclad from abolition from the right or the left due to its place in the hearts and lives of the British people. 

It's perhaps no coincidence that this peaceful revolution began after World War Two.  The conflict shaped so many events in those days. When we played soldiers on the streets, half of the kids were assigned to be dastardly Germans. During the awful spectacle of watching "It's a Knockout," we would all urge the Germans to lose as my father would bemoan the constant cackling of Stuart Hall. The Germans usually won but my father's disdain for Hall proved right. Like seemingly half of the people on TV when I grew up he was later jailed for sexually abusing schoolgirls. Still, my bubble endured. I was fascinated with Spitfires and the green and brown bombers sent over the Reich. I imagined myself in the tail turret of a Lancaster bomber - literally a glass bubble - shooting at enemy planes. I read books about great battles yet I never thought of the pain and the blood. I saw the war as a heroic playing field and would demand to know the good guys and the bad guys in Westerns. The cowboys were inevitably good and the Indians bad. All the comedies at the time portrayed stern but upstanding white men and feckless natives. Nobody told me about Wounded Knee or the railway line that stopped at the low-slung barn and tower that welcomed new arrivals to Auschwitz. I saw the struggles in South Africa on the TV without comprehending the burning injustice.

We all know what happened in the Seventies. The endless strikes and the Winter of Discontent gave way to the age of Thatcher. People were allowed to make big profits selling the council homes off so as future generations could no longer afford a home. The mines and steelworks closed, the Task Force moved to war in the South Atlantic. Over the subsequent years those relics of socialism, the nationalized industries were sold off. My father lost his job working for the electricity board. Utility bills went through the roof. Still, we had more TV channels in all the colors of the Rubrik's cube. People made money from dealing with money. It became unfashionable to talk about the helping hand. It's still unfashionable to talk about this in America. Affordable healthcare is derided as socialized medicine. The orange peril endures.

Today, we have repackaged the Seventies as the decade of bad taste - a time of wide pants, sideburns, and hideous wallpaper. Still, a part of me misses that garden and wonders what happened to the Mountain Ash tree. I still recall being pushed on a swing as the sun set in the west and dreaming of a landscape of cactus and wild horses, little knowing the American west would later be consumed by fire. It is strange to think,  things never really got better. Some of the answers were with me all the time on those weed-strewn streets.  We didn't lose paradise but we certainly lost something worthwhile.

Yet the world moved back and forth in its crazy motion like the Tardis and the worst thing imaginable happened; Jon Pertwee ceased to be the Doctor and became a talking scarecrow called Worzel Gummidge.  

Monday, April 13, 2020

Easter and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Easter is a time of renewal when the wind takes the pale pink blossoms from the trees and paints the sidewalks with polka dots. My thoughts of Easter travel back to the days before the crassness of plastic eggs and oversized bunnies to the pale and hopeful sunlight of Glasgow one Sunday morning.

I still remember that Sunday well, the morning sunshine as fragile as the shells of the hardboiled eggs, or the tiny brush in my eight-year-old hands. I painted fine details on the eggs, the ridges of a distant mountain range and the hint of a lake. The colors ran. Still, I was happy with my work.

We were never signed up to religion but neither were we immune to the poignancy of the Easter story. Church services are like Clorox wipes. They gloss over the gore and give us false hope. But it's impossible to gloss over the horrors of the crucifixion. How can you rationalize nails being driven into wrists and the sheer terror of The Cross, the thunderous skies and the roar of the storm? Years later, I stood over a glass panel and saw a few feet of that terrible place. Golgotha, the Hill of the Skull or Calvary. The terror seemed distant and obscure in the hushed atmosphere of that great church.

On the third day after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene, and some other Mary, according to the Gospel of Matthew, went to visit Jesus' tomb. They were taken aback by a mini earthquake and the appearance of a dazzling angel who amid "lightning, and his raiment white as snow."

They found a great stone rolled to one side and the tomb was empty. This rather eventful visit to the tomb gave rise to Easter, the idea of renewal and victory over death.

I'm not sure how it equates to us rolling our painted, hard-boiled eggs down the hill in the park, cheering from the slops for a winner as if they were thoroughbred racehorses. However, the feel of renewal in the streets, the breeze with a hint of summer to come, and the numbingly cold, fast rushing river, live with me today.

Today few of us are looking at the cherry blossoms, the bright pink magnolia and the dogwoods that dance in a dazzling pastel carpet above our heads. We are hunkered down and self-isolating and worse. We are broke and prospectless and eying strangers on the street with dread. We have beloved friends who have vanished. We stare at our phones for good news and salvation that never comes.

It seems like an age since we last heard children playing in the park.

I sometimes miss the cozy certainties of my childhood, the easy myths created by adults that we could get up and rise from the dead, that we could cleanse ourselves of the filth, the haunting memories and man's inhumanity to man. I mourn for the old me, for the old days when everything seemed possible.

But for now, we live the dreams of other people and think of the places we might have been.  Like everything else, this too shall pass.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Volunteer Cabin Work Week at Pocahontas State Park

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to take part in Cabin Work Week at Pocahontas State Park. I figured it would be interesting to hang out in the (semi) wilderness for a while and restore the old cabins to their former glory as the leaves turned russet and gold around me.

I hadn't realized it would be quite so cold or that a large grunting animal would hang outside my tent at 4 a.m. every morning.

I'm not intending to wax lyrical about Cabin Work Week in this post which is really a vehicle for posting the pictures. However, I feel the learning curve was about as steep as the roof I found myself on the first day. My happy visions of becoming accomplished with a lathe or other nefarious spinning machinery were not realized. On the plus side all my limbs are intact and I hope some scout in the future will one day look beyond his or her muddy feet to admire the great staining job on the deck.

Many of these structures are original Civilian Conservation Corps structures dating from the austere times of the 1930s. I have fond memories of such places from Fairy Stone and Douthat. I had no idea many of them come without snug fireplaces and kitchens. They have hard bunks and are often colder within than without. Pocahontas has vast armadas of them drifting away into the trees in areas off the beaten track.

I have nothing but admiration for the volunteers who tirelessly worked their magic on these cabins. They were in it for the long haul, toiling with stubborn shingles and plumbing for two weeks. One was enough for me. Many of these selfless volunteers are retirees who live in their RVs and ply a nomadic life across the country, flitting from site to site.

I was also grateful for the limitless supply of Twizzlers.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Outside the Dome

Like the Millennium Dome, my short story for James River Writers was dogged with delays and overwrought. The title was supplied. The rest was my own work without the assistance of opium.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 
A stately pleasure-dome decree: 
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran 
Through caverns measureless to man 
Down to a sunless sea. 

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Like Coleridge, Brett saw Mongolian emperors in his dreams. The desert’s long and level sands stretched away to an indistinct horizon of mountains folded into the dust, curiously beautiful but as hard as iron. Out there beyond the walls, the herdsmen carved their fleeting lives from the sun-dried mud. 

Not so the emperor. Every morning the lights of the walled city glittered above wasteland and the fires leaped high in the ruler’s vast pleasure dome where gladiators fought and dancers caroused while the screams of men and women at wine-fueled rituals pierced the star-hung canopy above.

Unlike Coleridge’s exotic opium-filled fantasies, Brett’s dreams were fueled by cheap lager from the King’s Head. On nights when he was feeling particularly daring he’d get a pickled egg. He still ended up outside the pleasure dome. 

He woke and clutched at the cold white sheets. He felt like an outsider now and he wanted a warm body. Acres of sterile whiteness stared back at him. Lynda had slipped out.

Two hours later, Brett was pounding the streets in his running shoes. There was no sign of his wife. That wasn’t unusual. He felt better now, pulling in energy from the street vendors and the mishmash of accents in Whitechapel. It often seemed sunless here. Tall buildings snuffed out the light in the narrow alleys and a green fog from the Thames claimed these streets for its own. The west end had been sunnier but nobody could afford to live there, certainly not a writer whose last big scoop had been a piece about musical Shih Tzu collars in Day of the Dog magazine.

Brett took it all in, the smells of coriander and cardamon in the street market, the distant hum or buses and the ragged man on the street corner. The Blind Beggar pub was streets away with its bullet holes where the Krays shot George Cornwall dead. Brett didn’t dwell on the past. He reached into his pocket and touched the tickets. His editor hadn’t wanted them. He had no intention of spending Millennium Eve in a “colossal white elephant” when he could be at home with his family. The tickets were Brett’s if he wanted them. Notwithstanding his editor’s reticence, he felt like Charlie Bucket clutching a golden ticket.

Two days later, Brett looked on as Lynda stood in front of the mirror. The lighter flecks in her raven hair danced around in the horizontal light of the lamp and the velvet shimmer of her blue dress set off her sapphire earrings. He was transfixed for a moment. He couldn’t recall ever seeing his wife this way before. Even his jangling misgivings about the cost of the dress subsided. Perhaps it was all worth it, he thought. Had he been wrong about everything? Still he wondered if he had ever taken time to know the woman behind the dress.

She turned and looked at him, a half-smile playing across her features. He smiled but realized her glance went past his shoulder to her reflection in the mirror.

“So you are looking forward to it?”

Her cheeks hardened. He thought how powerful she looked in the half-light, although her beauty seemed other-worldly.

“I still don’t see why we can’t go to the Chelsea gig.”

Brett sighed. “You can go to a house party every week. This is history being made.”

Lynda’s clipped words sent the doubts flooding back. What had happened that night at the party? Why were his friends looking at him so curiously when he opened his eyes? He recalled the way his wife looked at his friend Allen. The room swayed from all the cocktails but it wasn’t a warm and cozy intoxication. He felt left outside the walls of their conspiracy.


Brett had before never seen so many well-dressed people in such shabby surroundings. A long line of velveteen ladies and men in dinner jackets wound up the escalators from Greenwich Station. They crushed cigarette butts with the weight of their polished shoes. Even the homeless people on the margins of the station quit begging to look on in awe. This was no normal night on the Isle of Dogs. The scene was on the cusp of a New Millennium and a different world order. The gleaming canopy of white teflon had risen from a wasteland of toxic ash, tar pits, and unexploded World War Two bombs. 

The lines wound on into the night. Seemingly, nobody had thought about security. But this was a new world order, a world without war and bombs.

Only Lynda’s face harked back to primordial times. Her mascara ran a little down her cheeks. Brett thought her beautiful and severe. Striking bur raptor-like.

“God Brett. How much longer do we have to wait. I missed Chelsea for this?”

Brett was just happy to make it under the great canopy where sturdy steel gantries reached up to the spangled roof. An army of servers walked the floor. He found a glass of champagne thrust into his hand. 

He was relieved to see Lynda slugging it down fast. He hoped the bubbly would smooth over the sharp lines appearing on her face.

He was buzzing by the time they entered the Body Zone two more drinks later. A man called Jeff introduced them to the human body. Jeff was some kind of public relations guy. Brett wondered if he had been drinking too.

“So roll up for a fantastic trip into the human body; walk down the passages of the mind. Wind your way up the intricacies of the human arm.”

Brett stared at the giant plastic walkway up the arm and then at Lynda’s. He was more interested in his wife’s shapely arms but their beauty felt remote. She was an alabaster statue, a fragile Greek vase. He touched her to steer her up the walkway. 

Just two hours from the start of the Millennium the people were still filing slowly into the dome. Police officers rushed around the margins of the Dome and Brett overheard talk of a bomb scare. He saw an animated private secretary waving his arms at one of the police officers.

“We couldn’t possibly allow the Prime Minister in before this is cleared up.”

The Minister of Culture had no such qualms. Brett was due at a press conference at 10.30 p.m. He filed into the back of the Play Zone and witnessed the minister resplendent in a pinstriped suit next to giant Lego figures. He thought of a circus clown as the man conducted the guests under the big top.

“We have a show for you like no other. There are barges on the Thames positively loaded with thousands of fireworks. This is a young country again, a new country. When I was a child my parents took me to the Festival of Britain, We still bore the scars of the war in our buildings, our hearts, and our memories. The festival featured the largest dome in the world at the time, rising 93 feet into the South London sky. We know we are the lucky ones tonight. So many of our fellow countrymen and women are outside the dome tonight. But this event is being broadcast on TVs across the nation. We will spread the light, the warmth, and innovation of the Dome.” He couldn’t take it in. The promises were buses, coming into the bay, one after another. You don’t know which one to ride.

Nobody mentioned the cost overrun.

For a few dizzy moments, the minister’s words carried Brett’s thoughts high into the air, into the purple emptiness of the Dome. He wondered if it really would be a new era. His fellow news hacks next to him brought him down to earth. “Bertie’s clearly been taking something in the bathrooms.”

“And what terrible bathrooms they are too. Hate to see them by the end of the night.”

Brett felt light-headed. The bomb threats were unnerving but not serious enough for him to call his newspaper and ask them to hold the front page.

He headed to the Time Zone, his agreed rendezvous point with Lynda. He grabbed another glass of champagne in passing. He had doubts about the Millennium but it was getting better.  The walkways had filled up. He saw Lynda’s sapphire shimmer and found her pressed up against a giant timepiece, reading a note. The crowd blocked his view. When he saw her again she was empty-handed. He met her glance and they glided down the walkways together, gathering up glasses of bubbly to the left and the right. It was almost time.

They took their seats on benches overlooking the central arena. Away to the east Brett recognized the diminutive figure of the monarch. Her head wagged obediently at the Prime Minister. 

The speeches began. The speakers described how the Dome was far greater than a party venue. It was an inclusive space, a harbinger of a brave new world that would bring together the diverse elements of the nation in a “brave, new fusion.” The years of war, strife, and poverty would be banished. The IRA was a forgotten acronym. Trish McIntosh, the Environment Secretary, described how the Dome was a metaphor for renewal. The country would be populated by mini biospheres that would contain a wealth of diversity. They would develop new foods and plants impervious to global warming. The future would wrap them up in its soft, green arms. Still, a chill crept into the Dome from the mirky river left outside in the cold. Brett slipped his hand around Lynda’s waist and she moved obligingly. Midnight came and went and the fireworks flashed above their heads, high over the estuary.

“Do you ever think of Dubrovnik?” he asked.

“Yes. It was magical.”

The drinks had merged into one cheerful cocktail, the bubbles into a great overwhelming circular warmth. He felt closer to her now than he had for many years. Perhaps the distance between them had been illusory. He recalled the emerald green water of the Adriatic below their honeymoon suite a decade ago, the bell towers and the twisted alleys. The nights of love he thought would never end. They kissed suddenly and he caught his breath on the unexpected passion, as if the simple gesture captured years in the cold.

Yet even as Brett cupped her head, the outside world intruded. A small, red-faced man in a uniform was instructing the partygoers to clear the gallery.

“The party’s over folks. Go home.”

As zones dimmed, stewards ushered them towards the gaping flap in the tent that served as a door. Now the cold breath of the Thames reached out to them, ancient and foul-smelling. Two millennia ago the river had welcomed the blacked corpses of the Roman legionaries set on fire by Boudicca’s savages. Outside the Dome, the world in 2000 looked remarkably similar to the one they left behind in 1999. Trash blew past the brownstones and police sirens wailed across the city. The bold new world did not run to an improved train service. Hordes of drunken people pushed and shoved down the platform to the last train out west. They contemplated the grim prospect of finding an overpriced cab.

Brett spied a familiar figure in a sharp black and red dress on the highway. Trish McIntosh was arguing with a cab driver.

“Bloody hell. Cut the crap and just get me to Pimlico,” he heard her say.

Lynda punched his side. “Hold my bag, Brett. I need the toilet.”

He held onto the over-heavy leather appendage that cost half a monthly salary as she headed for the station toilets. The overhead signs flashed the word “delayed.” Groans issues from revelers camped across the station. If he called a cab it might arrive in a couple of hours. Brett remembered his wife had a mobile phone. He reached into the bag to search for it. Something hard nudged his fingers and slipped away from his grasp. Then a piece of paper came away in his hand.

Brett pulled it out into the orange light and read the words. They cut away at the fuzzy warmness; they scraped at the cocoon he felt earlier.

“Lynda. Sorry, we could not be together tonight. I wanted to see it in with you. Til the Mermaid.”

Always A.

Brett recognized his friend’s spike writing. He didn’t need to see the initial to know the letter was from Allen.  He knew the Mermaid too, a place of cheap beer and cheaper bedrooms.

Brett dropped the note back into Lynda’s handbag. Suddenly the street got darker as someone turned off the lights in the Dome. He looked again over that great surface of Teflon, more like a dead whale now than a place that ever lived and breathed. Although the light was dying in the Dome, another band of brightness appeared above it. Brett saw the first milky light of morning over the city to the west of the dome. Soon the dawn would bath the towers and Medieval spires.

Lynda’s fixed smile had returned. She was in set and hold mode as she took back his bag.

“When’s the train babe?”

“It’s later Lynda. Look, I need to visit the bathroom too.”

Brett passed her back the heavy bag and walked to the station. Instead of turning right at the turnstile and dropping in a coin, he kept on walking. A train struggled down Platform 5 but he walked on by. He left the station by the back entrance and a wide vista of the river opened up in the half-light beyond a jumbled of masts where seafarers had embarked on long and dangerous voyages for centuries. Now he felt the cold mud and grass on his toes. He knew there was a path here by the river. He kept walking, heading ever for the salmon-colored sliver of morning in the sky. The Dome grew small behind him. It shrunk into the bustle of the docklands, the old warehouses and the slums of the workers. By the time he arrived at Bishopsgate, the sun would be rising on the river and they would be brewing coffee at the Abbey.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Leaving of England

The days we leave are always the best of days. There is a pure shaft of sunlight illuminating the marble across the floor and a morning chill outside the heavy door.

Beyond the rambling houses and this comfortable suburbia the landscape beckons. It's a morning to lose yourself in deep lanes with high hedges and fields lined with beech trees and gleaming cowslip above the downs.

You feel the essence of England most keenly when you leave. There's a fresh smell to the air that's lost on the natives. There's a distant hum of planes in the fragile blue sky.  it's a day to find ruined castles clad in avenues of briars or to see the quicksilver of the Thames from a nearby escarpment.

I'm not sure if I'm alone in feeling this essence of paradise lost. I don't believe in Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land. But I realize now in the leaving that's it's the closest thing to home; England with all its contradictions, its subtle understatements, its hedge mazes that flatter to deceive and it's perfectly landscaped vistas. I feel I was always nomadic and destined to wander. Growing up, I had hated the claustrophobia of the mild hills that held me in; I had yearned for ruggedness, big horizons, and jagged mountain tops to climb.

Now I don't know anymore. I'll miss the cozy pub gardens, the stores that never change their names, the half-smiles and the memories of those high banked lanes we drove down as kids. Does the place we grew up define us or are we a reflection of the stops along the road?

Right now I'm not sure but I'm missing the places I never got to see and the people I meant to catch up with who slipped by because there was not enough time. England has gone on without me and better mortals. The vaults of Westminster Abbey are full of the learned and the powerful, yet today they have less influence than the men and women in red jackets on the tickets desk. We are just a moment in time but we should take the time to watch that shaft of sunlight play on the marble floor because it's part of this blessed plot, this earth, this England.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Stan the Funny Man

Random thoughts and images occur to me often. Today I had a vivid memory of Stan the Funny Man.

Stan knew my grandmother. Some kind of agency put him in touch with her. I'm not sure why or how or what agency would really want to put anyone in touch with my gran.

I remember Stan being tall with a large nose. He walked into the antique dining room, bringing his large nose in tow. He muttered a few inaudible things and stared at the clock. Then he continued to stare at the clock that ticked out the awkward seconds. After what seemed like an eternity, he walked out. 

My gran described him as a "funny man." I believe he may have shown up to perform odd jobs from time to time without any real purpose.

When I think about it "odd jobs" is a strange kind of British expression. It doesn't really mean odd jobs. An odd job is repairing a broken drain with a dead peacock. But odd jobs really means inconsequential or occasional jobs.

Anyhow, the description of Stan as a "funny man" and his strange presence instilled fear in us as children. I truly believed Stan was some kind of Sandman or character from Friday the 13th who would whip out a knife and hack us to bits. The subtext here was people with mental disabilities are dangerous folks and we should fear them.

Much of my grandmother's world view was shaped by the fear of people who were different. She would cross the road if she saw black men approaching, which means she must have put herself in a fair bit of danger by crisscrossing the roads of Birmingham.

Time really stood still at my gran's place. She resisted electric washing machines and Empire mugs and spoons lined the cabinets. This was the cozy world of the Britsh Empire and Queen Victoria where people with dark skin were kept at arm's length and far away in colonies like India. I've joked about the good old days when half the world was colored pink on the atlas without coming fully to terms with the evils of colonization and the ownership of other nations and other people.

The nature of Stan's disorder eludes me. Maybe he was born that way or he suffered shell shock in the trenches. I doubt if few people apart from me remember him now and he seemed to lack family. The dining room where the clock carefully chimed out the dawns and evenings of the days and the vanishing chink of light remaining in our lives is long gone. Stan and my gran are stencil memories along with the lavender wallpaper,  the faded blues and pinks of the hydrangeas down the walkway and the jars full of jam put out to trap wasps.

I worry sometimes that the vestiges of prejudice live on. Disorders didn't happen to us and our family. They happened to other people. Yet now I have a young relative with autism. I hope one day when he's picking his difficult path through the world nobody will ever call him a funny man.

Monday, June 10, 2019

P is for Positano

It doesn’t get much better than your first sip of strong Italian coffee on a patio awash in the morning sun overlooking Positano. I wondered if anywhere could look and smell more like heaven than the Amalfi coast? The villas fell away below me,  in a harmonious symphony of balconies and terraces, down to the dull golden cupola of the cathedral. The lemon grove was fragrant and the morning light slid across the moss-encrusted stones on the terrace. Each vista and even the shape of each iron chair was a work of art.

This would be paradise … but for these Americans.

It was a paradoxical thought that immediately marked me out as an ingrate. They had paid for this trip. Had it not been for the Americans I would be back at home staring at the bare ribs of a gas holder. But now I was here, I longed for solitude. Or different company. Or a bit of both.

The night before we had driven up to Ravello, perched high on the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. I was driving around the hairpin bends when I heard a series of high and pained signs.

“Ooo, ooo, ooo.”

I almost crashed the rental car. Was the MIL having a seizure?

“Gorgee, gorgee, gorgee.”

“What now?”

It was the MIL’s reaction to the sight of the moon over the water. I was relieved we didn’t have to get an ambulance up these roads.

Another day we were at cookery school. The terrace of the trattoria was high above the cliffs. Positano was a splash of the watercolorist’s brush below, inked against the sea. We made ravioli badly by hand and drank too much. I fell to musing on the nature of happiness. Was it possible to be truly happy? How could we feel such unease in Paradise? B became over friendly to the instructor. We laughed and drank some more Chianti. This inability to assimilate, to blend in with the cliffs that ran away like breakers is not just an American thing. As humans, we are always dissatisfied with our lot. We want what we don’t have. Even here in this postcard-perfect place, we feel ill at ease. Only later will we look back longingly to the terraces of Positano.

Today we are on the coast road. The sea below us is sparking but cruel. It is like the MIL. It would buoy the swimmer to the surface, bathe him in sunshine and drag his spine onto the backbreaking rocks. 

MIL is across the road. They are visiting a tile shop to plunder the goods for the yard back home. They want to create a little slab of paradise. The MIL is wearing her hair scraped back in the Italian style. She’s thinking Sophia Loren. I’m thinking Marlon Brando from The Godfather. 

They never bought that slab of paradise or shipped the tiles. Still, I like tiles. They are calming. One of my favorite museums is the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon, often known as the Museum of Tiles.

Their garden near the sound in North Carolina became a small oasis in its own way. There was a trickling fountain and a bird bath. It was a refuge from the angst and uneasiness their company brought. They are long gone from that place. My last memory of the MIL was white and lifeless and as detached as the statutes that stare out at the sea from the cliffs of Ravello, Positano and Amalfi. 

It’s true I felt some sadness but much of it was for what might have been. Why when our lives are so finite do we waste them in petty power struggles? Our stone is too brittle and time cracks our fine features. Why do we parcel out love in such small measures and take back what we give? We pass though Positano too fast and it remains for the rest of our lives a vision of loveliness in the rearview mirror.

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...