Monday, October 24, 2011

Dover - then gone

It occurred to me recently that I never did write the final blog about my visit to England. The summer seems distant although there’s no end to it really; no closure. My thoughts meander back and forth and catch on old thoughts and reminiscences and time no longer stands in line but leaps backwards and forwards like the flames around those camp fires when we were young.

There was a fire in the clearing of the forest at first year camp. I still recall the way the hot red embers ate away at the heavy dark log, causing fragments to topple and fizz into the white hot heat below; strange then that I can’t remember breakfast a week ago. I still recall the smell of rubber of those large drafty tents that we shivered in all through the night. I remember being poked: “wake up and watch this, wake up and watch,” – and the face of Andy and his wild eyes as he took me to the door of the tent. Across the dark and dangerous clearing a torch was playing on a tent and we could clearly see the silhouette of Miss Burr the music teacher – undressing.

Some time during the night I spilled coke all over my fellow sleepers but nobody noticed and I suggested it was someone else in the morning. The next day we trudged down an interminable roads that looped and lapped and lasted into the afternoon and while I was proud of my Gola trainers (sneakers) with their sharp yellow stripes, it soon became apparent they were cheap and giving me a big blister. Did that sense of betrayal we all feel from our parents from time to time begin with the Gola trainers? Still I limped up the road as it wound in a vast parabola through the trees of the Forest of Dean, past the strange old ragged mining towns of Cinderford and Coleford and lives only half remembered, places where people lived where their grandparents and parents lived before them, without knowing why.

One night we went on a night hike, our torches dancing off the ghostly branches and I saw a sight I have remembered for the rest of my life, horses running west as the last of the sunset slipped below the escarpment, untethered, their manes flowing in the wind as the clouds drifted to the oblivion of night. What if that was the highlight, if the rest was a sideshow? Deep into the woods we plunged with our flashlights flickering,  the commentary of the Arsenal Liverpool game crackling on Mr. Bartlett’s radio. But the result wasn’t going well; a groan as Arsenal scored and disappointment followed us down the dells and the hoary places below Offa's Dyke. Had it only been an hour earlier since the horses has ran against the clouds at sunset? Somewhere in a town forgotten by time a lonesome clock chimed across a shuttered square.

On another day nearby I surveyed the grey, flat muds of the Severn where the river oozed in the shallows and smelled faintly of sickness. The clouds were low and leaden and we surveyed a vast fossil stuck hard in the black mud. Mr Bartlett was always energetic, always looking for the next find but he seemed as flat that day as the river banks, as flat as the thin northern vowels of his new finance who had come along to see the fossils. Oddly plain and unedifying – not at all like Miss Burr.

I’m thinking now they are all old and the life has flowed out of them like the Severn at low tide. Back now to the same country, but another country. The day we went to Dover as far to the east as the Forest of Dean is to the west.

Time’s winged chariot was at our back, but a hurricane had given us two more days. The morning promised brightness and sunshine and I imagined the gleaming of the cliffs. But as we drove east a heavy banks of clouds moved in. My parents wouldn’t go along for the ride. When I mentioned Dover my father glazed over as if I had said Timbucktu and he didn’t have a camel in the fight. The roads would be clogged by folks going to France. Who goes to Dover these days?

But the motorways were clear. As Dover approached we looked for the perfect pub and were again reminded of how England flatters to deceive, of all the perfect pubs that flit by on the road when you are not seeking one and how all of the pubs you find when in need of pub look like the sort of places where you’ll end up with a dart in your head. Dover approached down, down the hill and down at heel and folks were scurrying between the rainstorms between the damp looking buildings, between jobs. So we drove back up the hill in search of a rural idyll that never existed and found a pub that was passable but not remarkable.

The room behind the pool table was cold – the landlord friendly enough but perturbed when we mentioned food.

“There’s a proper restaurant down the road, you know.”

“Really – this is fine.”

“We don’t take debit cards.”

"it's OK."

We persuaded the landlord to serve us and the food was surprisingly good. The landlord looked bewildered as we headed out without complaining.

So we did the White Cliffs experience but there was the normal family disagreement about where to park. The liquorish allsorts made up for it, but the cliffs were cold and slippery, although still magnificent and another rain cloud drifted into sight.

And we drove up to the castle just before closing and I marched around the ramparts with my daughter and saw the withered lighthouse, the last vestiges of the Romans that went out one day, some time after Christ but before the barbarians who headed across the Channel and the dark ages began.

The light was going out too over the castle and draining from the downs once luminous and green. The flags fluttered but the cold group of medieval reenactors were beyond acting, scowling as we tried to take their picture.

I wonder now if my daughter sees the world as I did back at the camp site, by the forest fire in the clearing. I wonder if we hang onto those memories like dying embers. Yesterday when I found my rain coat, I tugged at something in my pocket. I pulled out the allsorts, deformed and twisted as if reshaped by flame; but a fragment of a half forgotten world nonetheless. I hesitated before throwing them in the trash.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Anna Akhmatova and how art can outlive dictatorship

All our images from that time are gray and industrial - of seven year plans and cold intrigue in the Politburo; of weapons of war being paraded past a faceless leader in Red Square.
It's strange and unreal now to think of Russia in the 20th Century, of those totalitarian days when art, literature and religion were trampled under the jackboots of the paranoid Georgian.

But the land of Tolstoy and Chekhov wasn't going to give in easily to the plunder of its ideas and free expression, to the reduction of all that art and color onto one flat easel that bore the brutish features of Comrade Stalin. Even as the trains bore the dissidents north to the labor camps and salt mines of Siberia, as Collectivisation led to mass slaughter of the peasants and famine, so writers continued to write in the most uncompromising of places.

The life of Anna Akhmatova illustrates how art can triumph over oppression. The poet's first husband was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921; her son and second husband were deported to the camps. And yet her popularity with the Russian people meant even the all powerful Russian leader did not risk imprisoning her.

In the days since Stalin's death there have been seen many imitators. The Romanian leader Nikolai Chauchesku in 1989, although it appears he can still be friended on Facebook; Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006 and it appears the mob didn't wait for a formal execution in the case of Muammar Gaddafi.

So is this the end of the line for the dictators who paraded in dark glasses and outlandish uniforms while their people suffered. Probably not but it gives hope that art and freedom of expression will overcome in the darkest of places.

Everything is Plundered by Anna Akhmatova

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses --
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From Mitt Romney to Octomom - that's entertainment

By 5 p.m. sometimes distraction dogs me. There’s too much of it; too many faces, too many places too many names that pop up on the ticker. People we know, who we do not know. People we don’t want to know. What is the point of Lindsay Lohan; Octomom – why?

These are people who we can fool ourselves that we know, but we really don’t know them at all. Not any more than the audience in the Coliseum knew the Gladiators. But that’s entertainment in a way – and the Jam were entertainment but they haven’t stood the test of time as well as the Who and the Stones.

The Republican debates are entertainment too. Michelle Bachmann clearly had Star Wars on her mind when she showed up in Vegas dressed as a Storm Trooper. And there are few places that scream entertainment more than Vegas. Talking of entertainment and gladiators what about Mitt Romney and Rick Perry? That spat was top entertainment. You can rely on the Republicans for entertainment – so often dwindling and white and narrow minded something seems to have got into them with the tea party suddenly clutching a black contender to their tiny hearts.

At this rate America will soon have a black president. Scratch that it’s already got one. And I now have a photograph of the back end of his bus from my unsuccessful attempts to track him down today. But wouldn’t it be strange if the choice next year is between two black candidates? Nobody would have seen that coming back in the frightening and repressive days half a century ago when blacks were forced to sit at the back of the bus in the deep south. Strange then that we have two potential black presidents but no likely women in the field, although Hillary must feel a bit miffed and believe she could probably have done a better job.

Alas there is now little chance of Sarah Palin leading the free world after a researcher moved next door to her to unearth the dirt from the chilly Alaskan tundra by the spadeful. It was surely the most creepy research job in the world that – far worse than infiltrating the mafia. One hopes the walls were not too thin so as he could hear her weird northern exposure whine. Then again he probably wanted to. For research purposes.

So Palin disappears into the big out box of politicians and celebrities and celebrity-politicians, although an appearance on some woeful celebrity dancing show is, no doubt in order, along with Snooki from Jersey Shore, the more obscure Kardashians, Hulk Hogan’s ex wife, Ron the flaccid ex porn star and Lindsay Lohan, assuming she can put one foot in front of the other.

I’m not sure why this stuff seems so interesting. But, at the final reckoning – that’s entertainment.

Monday, October 17, 2011

More slender days, slim pickings

When I was at university I was rather scrawny. I was probably only 120 pounds which didn’t auger well for the hall rugby team. Unfortunately, we had so many people at my university hall who spent weekends getting over hangovers that I’d be drafted into the rugby team at times. Sometimes I was even asked to be second row, which is rather unfortunate because second rows are among the biggest meat heads in the game. They are the guys with cauliflower ears and legs as big as oak tree trunks.

I’m not exaggerating when I say in one game our scrum was pushed back just about the whole length of the pitch.

When people occasionally remind me of my former self by posting pictures on Facebook, it immediately becomes clear why my college days were rather angst ridden at times due to a lack of success with the opposite sex.

It didn’t help that one of my room mates Mr. P, had the boyish good looks of a catalogue model as well as excelling on both the rugby field and in the classroom. On one memorable occasion, a young woman asked me to meet with her at the students union. I thought my luck was finally changing until I realized she has invited me out to ask me questions about Mr. P and wanted me to act as a matchmaker of sorts.

Mr. P seemed to have it all going for him, even if he seemed to be rather over fond of his Garfield duvet cover. Even this piece of infantilism (is this a word?) from back at home, only served to increase his prowess with the ladies. And he even had a computer. Even if it was an Amstrad.

Needless to say there was a snake in Mr. P’s Eden – a girlfriend from back home called Pam who Mr. P was devoted to, at least up the point before he put down the phone receiver and was off to the dorm room of Miss. S. Needless to say it all ended badly. Mr. P ditched Miss S. after she became too clingy, she went on a bender and threw up on numerous times, thus winning the inaugural throwing up competition that we held amongst ourselves, in just one night. Then, in a spot of poetic justice, Pam went to another university and cheated on Mr. P and ditched him. We used the expression “packed him in” back in Blighty but this expression tends to flummox Americans. “Packed him into what?” my boss once asked. I didn’t bother explaining.

I’m not sure what happened to Mr. P. He may have ended up marrying Pam. They may have divorced. They may have lived an empty existence in an oversized house first. He may have lost his boyish good looks and become overweight.

In this way I gained my revenge on Mr. P, although he never knew it because we didn’t keep in touch. I never had any boyish good looks to lose, so had something of an advantage.

Then there was another room mate Mr. G, a product of a second tier private school who clearly lacked the self confidence to hang out with the proper Sloan rangers who permeated my class system obsessed university.

Mr. G lacked the boyish good looks of Mr. P but he made up for it with a winning arrogance that seemed irresistible to the ladies. Indeed Mr. G’s levels of deception exceeded anything Mr. P was capable of. On one occasion when his longtime girlfriend K. knocked on the door of the flat and he was otherwise engaged with a teenage friend of Miss S. he jumped out of a second floor window to escape the scene. On another occasion he drove the best part of 100 miles home with K. before she turned off down the road her parents live on and Mr. G promptly turned around and headed back to the university to be in the arms of the teenaged friend of Miss. S.

Later I heard through a rather fuzzy grapevine that Mr. P had, in fact, had a sexual liaison with K. which Mr. G would probably have approved of.

I feel I have meandered somewhat from the main point I was trying to make; namely that while I was puny back then, in later life I have struggled with the beer gut and recently signed up to rather an intensive YMCA program that sometimes takes me to a room in which guys with physiques like Michael Vick hang out and grunt.

In many ways I feel as out of place here as I did back at university in the presence of Mr. P and Mr. G. Still I’m not sure if the intensive course in which you walk around with a clipboard and enter your exertions into a machine is paying off much. I can’t say I always wanted to be a contender but I certainly always wanted to be a guy with a clipboard.

Still I wonder if I can keep my resolve after yesterday when I read that diet is more important than fitness in beating a beer gut and I should really be chomping on lentils and kale.

And get this – the skinnier you were when you are young, the more likely you are going to be to get a beer gut because there isn’t anywhere else for it to go. This really doesn’t seem to be fair. Is there anywhere to write this on that clipboard?

By way of disclaimer nobody in that picture is Mr. P or Mr. G, but one of them is me.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Reasons to unfriend - part 3

In a recent post on this blog I argued it was time to give Facebook the big heave ho and unfriend Mark Zuckerberg because he was trampling all over our privacy and generally being a smug and right royal pain in the backside.

Of course true to form I didn't totally kick the Facebook habit, although I have become increasingly estranged from the site. Needless to say I'm not principled like Lidia who gave Mark a swift kick in the goolies and never returned again to the scene of the crime.

If the truth be told I guess Google+ is rather lonely, Linkedin is too corporate and Twitter feels like a vacuum. I did an experiment this week in Tweeting live updates from a council meeting I was reporting on, without any discernible audience reaction.

Although I am still interested in the psychology of the social network as related to Pavlov's dog theory with a modicum of Newton's third law of motion, I am starting to get alienated by the unsociable nature of the concept. With this in mind, I have resolved to have more verbal conversations with folks. Today was a good start, although I might want to build on "A tall Pike Place, please," in terms of my day's conversational quota. Well we can't all write frightening verse to a buck toothed girl in Luxembourg can we?

But the point of this posting is really the issue of unfriending, which applies to social networks but has greater ramifications for society and, who knows, maybe the alignment of the planets.

If someone unfriends us a lot of the time we don't even realize who they are. However, this week I found myself needing to send an email to a photographer who recently departed my company in relation to an outstanding matter from an old story. She didn't depart the company in relation to an outstanding matter. That's why I needed to get hold of her. It's late at night and I don't have a life - OK.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I had been unfriended. This seemed particularly strange because we had normally conspired to squeeze a chuckle out of the bleakest assignment and we had spent a lot of time on godforsaken street corners looking at yellow incident tape.

Fortunately I had not been unfriended by this woman's husband, so I managed to get a message to her via him. Eventually I was able to ask that subtle question so few of us are able to ask, namely "um ... why did I get unfriended?"

The answer turned out to be an unorthodox one and not quite as bad for my self esteem as being told 'because you are a total jerk." I had apparently posted a few stories on my Facebook site and she had an ethical problem with work getting mixed up with social networking. Nevertheless, this is a very gray area, particularly when you work in the media.

I have certainly been unfriended by other people, although I know no official reason why. Still it may be no coincidence that a couple of Republicans unfriended me shortly after I pointed out the striking similarity between Michelle Bachmann and Morticia Addams. That should probably be unfiended.

According to a recent Time magazine article there are actually some good reasons for unfriending; great aunts who get on your case on social networks, people who send you Farmville invites, people who moan a lot etc.

One great reason is people who are in "lurrve" because this truly is the worst. There is actually a girl on my social network who continuously posts how she has the greatest boyfriend in the world, how he's taking her to Paris, how he's showering her with flowers how he even does the vacuuming. There's a limit to how much vomit you can get out of the gaps between the letters on the keyboard.

Will she please unfriend me if I message her to say "I prefered you when you were single, bitter and fed up."

Because let's face it - we know there has to be a downside to this guy; he probably has a crawlspace that makes John Wayne Gacy's look like the Magic Kingdom etc.

Another legitimate reason to unfriend someone is because you don't know them. This may sound obvious but I have people on my network who are total strangers. In fact there's no reason for them to be there. More embarassing still I have 'friends' who I have walked past on the stairway at work and thought they looked familiar before realizing that was, in fact, because they were Facebook friends.

Time to do something radical about my online existence probably.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Goodbye to the TV detectives

Oh there goes George Baker, better known as Inspector Wexford, dead at the age of 80 of pneumonia. Just weeks ago Columbo popped his cloggs, as they say back home, and Inspector Morse, aka John Thaw, went some time ago.

Sadly all the cops who I grew up with appear to be heading off to that great beat in the sky.

And they are taking a part of me with them; that part that watched a small flickering walnut framed TV below brown floral wallpaper in the 1970s. No night growing up was complete without Kojak or Starsky and Hutch, an all action duo who seemed to be incapable of opening the door of their Ford Torino.

Kojak was played by Telly Savalas and I missed some of the subtleties here. For example I realized he was bald but missed the fact he was Greek. Apparently he smoked a lot in the early shows and the trademark lollypops reflected a growing anti smoking sentiment in the American public.

His sidekick Kevin Dobson once recalled: "The lollipops scene took place in the fifth show, when we're in the office and we're about to do the scene, he said, 'I need something, you know?' And here's a guy standing over there with the Tootsie Pop sticking out of his shirt. Give me a Tootsie Pop, huh? Telly, they flipped it to him, doing it like this, unwrapped it, stuck it to him and his head, his mouth and became a lollipop cop."

The guy with the Tootsie Pop had quite a few things to answer for, the loss of Savalas' teeth for one thing.

Savalas died in 1994 which always seems like recently to me until I realize it's getting on for 20 years ago.

I was also a big fan of Cannon which the Thrilling Detective Web Site described as "Quite a good series, rising far above the gimmick of having a fat man as an action hero." William Conrad who played the role of Cannon also died in 1994, clearly a bad year for TV detectives.

Despite his girth, Cannon apparently didn't live in doughnuts while he staked people out but had a taste for fine dining and good wine; which is unusual in a TV cop or P.I.

The Rockford Files starring James Garner was also on TV a lot in the 1970s but it never did much for me. Only later in life did I come to appreciate the cult feel of the show. Back in the 1970s it lacked the childhood appeal of someone's skin turning green and ripping through their shirt.

James Garner is still around and the Files are inspiring fans across the world to keep buying dog tooth check jackets to the present day. But given that he was born in 1928 I doubt if Garner is chasing too many bad guys.

And another funny thing about the TV detectives is the actors never made much of themselves after these roles; just look at the guys from Starsky and Hutch, whatever their names were.

For me these cops shows also gave me my first glimpse of America; a place where folks raced round after each other in brown Pontiacs and other gas guzzlers. It made America seem very dangerous but also very exciting. And there was never a Wal-Mart in sight.

Yours in nostalgia.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

October and the last of the light

I'm not sure if April is the cruelest month. It seems to be October.

October is the cruelest month because it gives us a glimpse of what we have lost, because it gives us flashes of lost sunlight under yellow trees that weep leaves but plunges us into darkness before we can gain our paradise lost.

And the glimmers of summer warmth only remind us that we wasted the summer in some indefinable way and it's gone now for another year, swallowed up in mushrooms, devoured in brown leaves and echoing down this haunted tunnel to Halloween.

"I can't believe it's October," says my boss.

And it serves to remind me that another year has slipped by at the same place. But if it hadn't slipped by at the same place it would have slipped by at another place and who am I to measure my happiness in months and years that fall like weights on the scales?

"Where were you?" said the lawyer, and I made my excuses while skirting the fact I had sought solitude and lunch alone so as I could watch the weak sunlight play on the grass of the Town Center, although I still despaired because it was too new and the fountains wide open and without imagination.

In an obscure way I longed for Versailles and the fountain I photographed so many years ago in which gilded horses ride up and surfed the water spouts; I figured I didn't long for Versailles as much as Louis XVI longed for the place. In his rat infested prison as the crowds bayed for his blood he must have thought of the gardens that go on for ever and the Hall of  Mirrors. Like Joni Mitchell he had to get back to the garden but the guillotine waits for no man or monarch.

Louis must have thought the summer would go on for ever but October comes to us all. And while Keats boasted of his "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun," there's a transiance to his celebration. Keats was born on October 31 1795 and he died on February 23, 1821. He was only 25 years old but left a more powerful legacy than most of us could muster in 125 years.

Lives like his make me want to go out and do something and be something. But I have to load this dishwasher first and make this engagement and work on this project. And before I know it October will have slipped out of my grasp taking the last of the light with it.

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...