Re-Reading the Past

When I was young I developed the bad habit of nostalgia. We’re all prone to it but it’s not a good idea because it traps you in a past that, as George Orwell said of India, never was what it was. And when I started to keep a diary I developed the even worse habit of re-reading it over and over, to the point where I had to get rid of several years’ worth of notebooks because I was getting stuck in them.

This was a sad thing because I now wish I had them: it’d be interesting to look back on my early writing and see how much it’s changed and what my preoccupations were then: I wish I’d been able to lock them away in some kind of time capsule and then release them like government papers under the thirty-year rule. But no. Nowadays I’ve developed the desperately stern habit of Never Looking Back, and I think on the whole it’s a good one. I feel no urge to re-read my old diaries; I’m too involved in where I’m going right now.

But how impossible it is to see the past accurately! It’s like a dream that fades as soon as you try to describe it; even to think about a past event is to rewrite it. I am frequently reminded of how bad a witness I would make to a crime. Sherlock Holmes would have no patience with me because I see but do not observe; asked to describe someone who had just passed me in the street I would have great difficulty in giving anything beyond a vague impression. What were they wearing? What colour was their hair? How old were they? Nope, no idea. When I meet someone I can tell you a lot about their demeanour, their attitude, their voice and gestures, but ask me what they were wearing… um… Well, I guess everyone notices different things. But it has been shown that witnessing an event is no guide to describing it accurately, the reason perhaps that many people film events on their phone instead.

I wonder whether nostalgia is the product of an optimistic or a pessimistic mind? It might be either; a positive outlook might cause you to look back and see the best in what happened – then again a pessimist might see the present as dark and the future even darker, so might look back to a past when things were better. As I once did…

Ah, those were the days – when I had proper nostalgia!

Kirk out

What’s Going On?

Where does the week go? It’s Thursday already and yesterday was Monday – wasn’t it? Now that I think about it, there were events in between Monday and today, it’s just that they seem compressed somehow. There’s a time schmoosh (to use the technical term) and everything’s crammed together in one brief span. And now, to add to my woes, I keep thinking it’s Friday and I’m demanding that people send me links to programmes that haven’t aired yet.

I’m also thinking about my granddaughter, who’ll be one in a few weeks’ time. Her entire life is less than a year at this point, so how long must a day seem to her? If time perception is proportional to age then a day to her is like two months to me. That’s a very sobering thought and makes you reflect on the intensity of childhood experience – that we should always be wary of dismissing their suffering as short-lived.

I am a follower of this blog about C S Lewis and his legacy. Lewis was a man of many contradictions; a devout Christian and confirmed bachelor who ended up marrying an atheist, and a writer of excellent children’s books who was uncomfortable around children in real life. Although many of his attitudes were of their time I can’t think of another writer of that generation who wrote stories for boys and girls where both male and female characters took part in the adventures. It’s true that Narnian society is largely patriarchal; it’s equally true that he has a problem with women in positions of power: both the White Witch and the much talked-about Susan problem testify to that. But I can’t think of another writer of his time who writes such excellent stories for both sexes.

This article has some interesting things to say on the problem of Susan: I love the phrase ‘Renaissance fair cosplayers.’ And there are some further thoughts here.

Oh, and you’ll be relieved to know that I got my mouse sorted out. As Ratae suggested, it just needed its eye cleaned. It now has 20/20 vision.

Kirk out

Om Nom Noms

One of the things which always amuses me about Quakers is their disengagement from popular culture. This is not deliberate – we’re not the Amish – it’s just that certain aspects of culture like the obsession with celebrity or memes on social media, pass them by. They are quite as au fait with politics as anyone could wish, but when it comes to the latest trends – nada. Zip, zilch, niente. Not a flicker – so I have to be careful when texting Friends not to use abbreviations like k, btw or np.

So it’s unlikely Quakers would be aware of nom. Having had teenage children, I am only too aware that yum yum has been replaced with nom nom, or sometimes, if a meal is particularly delicious, om nom nom. It’s just as expressive and I guess every generation has to invent its own slang; but what amuses me is that the Quaker committee on which I sit is known as Noms. It’s short for Nominations but it always makes me think of eating something delicious. Yet I doubt anyone else makes that connection.

We had a Noms meeting last night, via Zoom (confidentiality forbids me to say any more) and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that in many ways I prefer Zoom meetings to real ones. For a start you don’t have to make the extra effort to get out of the house in the evening (which, since I’m obsessively punctual, means that I always overestimate the journey time and arrive too early) you can make yourself a drink without worrying whether your host/ess will have herbal tea or soya milk since you are an Old Fart who drinks no caffeine after midday and no cow’s milk at all; you can check out and go to the loo or scribble some notes or look at your email, all whilst pretending to be fully engaged in the meeting. It’s so much more restful. Plus, if you’ve forgotten to bring something you can just nip upstairs and get it. Then when it’s all over you can just kick back and flip on the i-player without having to drive or walk home. Zoomy bliss.

Sometimes I worry about what kind of person I’m turning into. I’m finding lockdown far too easy;enjoying sitting down of an evening to watch TV or play computer games with The Son; I don’t feel the need to travel or go to the pub or the cinema or a restaurant. Never in a million years would I have dreamed I’d be like this – and sometimes it bothers me that I’m turning into my parents: getting up early, in bed by ten, not going out. Then again lots of the things I like doing have been ruined. Travel is ruined by climate change – I can’t fly with a clean conscience, beaches are spoilt by pollution and litter (and too many people) and even my favourite beach, Southwold, is spoilt by guilt because half the town is now given over to holiday rentals. I love Cornwall but I wouldn’t go there now because a) it’s a long drive on busy roads and b) it’s too crowded. Where is there to go? How can one travel nowadays without causing or witnessing environmental damage?

Answers on a postcard please (now there’s a dated expression).

Kirk out

I’m Left-Handed in Mice

As if I didn’t have enough to contend with, my mouse has gone weird. Just like the mouse in the song it’s going clip clippety-clop all over the place; if I want to click on something it zigzags all over the page and then circles it like a drunken man trying to fix his gaze on the arresting officer. (Speaking of which, a government spokesman today said that a refusal to wear masks should be as taboo as drunk driving. Good idea – trouble is, that taboo took years to form: when I was young drunk driving was seen as a sort of occupational hazard and even decades later it was acceptable to drive after ‘a few ales’ as Withnail hopefully said to the constable who stopped him. But I digress.) The mouse is Well Out of Order, which is a bit of a bummer because it’s not just any old mouse but a wireless, left-handed mouse which, since I am left-handed in mice, is a real boon.

I probably should explain my handedness, insofar as I understand it. It was clear from an early age that I was left-handed in writing. I was lucky enough to be born in a more enlightened age and so escape the scourge of being forced into right-handedness (why this persecution of the left hand, to the extent of calling it sinister? I could probably write reams about that – with my left-hand…) The effects of this are vividly shown in The King’s Speech, where his stammer is largely attributable to being forced to write with the right hand. But what was not so clear to me was that, though generally right-handed, I am left-handed in things other than writing. A book, for example, feels quite wrong if held in my right hand. Then again, a mug nestles there quite neatly. It’s weird.

But to return to the rodent world – why, you may ask, since I’m having such trouble with my mouse, do I not use another? Like most houses this one is overrun with e-rodents in various forms but alas! most of them are wired and are either defunct or the wires don’t stretch from the USB to my left hand. Plus, they are right-handed mice and so not designed for me. The buttons are all wrong whereas the left-handed mouse is perfectly adapted to the shape of my hand: I fit it like a glove. I guess I could give in and buy another left-handed mouse but I’m trying to reduce the number of my possessions, not increase them, so I’d quite like to make it work. Maybe if I could find some e-cheese? Pep it up a bit?

In other news I enjoyed last night the televised version of the making of Alan Bennett’s diaries, Keeping On Keeping On. They are full of reminiscence, political fury and – sadly – opera, but my favourite anecdote is one where someone approaches him at a train station and asks if he’s famous. Self-deprecating to the end, Bennett says ‘You could say so.’ The young man, failing to identify him, asks if he’s ‘a lookalike.’ Bennett agrees that this might be the case, whereupon the young man pats him on the arm and says ‘Be content with that,’ before melting into the crowd.

A refreshing lack of ego on Alan’s part, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I’m off now to give my mouse a stern talking to. I don’t know where you buy e-cheese – I may have to resort to Amazon.

Kirk out

My Rock’n’Roll Weekend

What is a weekend? For many centuries it barely existed as Sunday was the only day of rest and for most people, hardly that: church attendance was practically compulsory and then the women or servants had to have been up since 6 preparing the Sunday roast. Only once it had been eaten and the plates washed could you then grab a snooze for an hour or so. Sunday was hardly a day of rest in our house either since my father had to lead a minimum of three services a day and sometimes four – 8 am Communion, Family Communion, Mattins and Evensong. At one time, before the Great Rebellion of ’72, we were made to go to at least three of these which I think constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Saturday was not much better as during my teens I had a Saturday job of one kind or another, mostly in shops and generally involving being on your feet all day. My first job was in a greengrocers, the old-fashioned sort with sawdust and cabbage-leaves on the floor. A man used to stand out the front all day crying ‘All ripe ter-maaaar-ter!’ and I learned to shove fruit and veg in a paper bag, weigh it and then twist the corners all in one fluid movement. It was a very popular shop with long queues out the front and we were busy all day. I ate my lunch sitting on sacks of potatoes – a crusty roll from the baker’s with a thick wedge of cheese in the middle, followed by a Number 6.*

But later on a weekend meant only one thing: the pub! I considered the time wasted if I had not been to the pub for at least two sessions, Friday and Saturday night and preferably Sunday lunchtime as well. Sunday afternoons were for sleeping in front of the TV and sometimes a Sunday evening could involve a gentle folk session but the pubs closed at ten so there wasn’t any scope for much more.

But what of nowadays? Since I am deeply reluctant to come out of lockdown too soon the pub is the last place I shall be going, particularly after reports of people going mad after a few beers and completely forgetting to socially distance (well, you would wouldn’t you?) So nowadays a weekend involves first and foremost a rest from writing and thinking. Well, not from thinking exactly since you can’t stop the brain from working, but a rest from deliberately thinking. I don’t try to think about anything, I just allow the river of thought to flow gently along.

In any case since I am officially an Old Fart I don’t go out much at the weekend. Pre-lockdown a Friday night might have involved a political meeting or folk club, and on Saturdays OH and I might go out for a drink or a meal, though we’d usually be back in time to catch Casualty before bed. My rock’n’roll life, I’d think to myself as I swallowed my tablets and took out my teeth. I might have the occasional ‘proper night out’ – a gig or a party – though nothing compared to those of my youth as I’d still usually be in bed by midnight. Then Sundays are usually Quaker Meeting of course and I’ll usually do a few household chores, go for a walk and then sit in front of the TV for an hour or so. If I’ve got a good book on the go I’ll spend several hours with my nose in it.

All of this is very therapeutic. Most weekends I have nothing to do and I do it beautifully. You know what they say – don’t just do something – sit there!

Kirk out

*Number 6 were a brand of cigarette, the cheapest on the market. Just in case you though it was some kind of bodily evacuation…

The Play Wot I am Writing

During lockdown I’ve been writing mostly poetry but today I couldn’t get down to any of my usual routine stuff. I couldn’t come up with a blog post, I couldn’t get on with writing my diary or composing poems or doing Greek; I couldn’t focus on anything. But I know from experience that days like this which seem problematic at first, are in fact opportunities for something new to emerge. So I sat down with pad and pen and waited for something to happen. And lo! My radio play happened.

I’ve had several stabs at radio plays in the past and have even completed one or two but I’ve never been totally happy with them. And it came to me today that this is because I’ve yet to develop my own method. I have an idea in my head of how I want it to sound, but between the planning and the execution lies a great gulf which I don’t know how to fill. Even when I do start to write I get bogged down in stage directions and sound effects, all of which ought to come much later.

So I sat and thought about this for a while and then I went and fetched my flip-chart and post-it notes which contained The Story So Far. There was a gap at the beginning of Act 2 and it suddenly came to me what should fill that gap. An old flame suddenly comes back from the past! I filled in the gap and could see that from the post-it notes I was now in a position to evolve an outline of what should happen in each act. Having done that, I could begin to break it down into scenes – and then the whole thing would write itself. I’d do the dialogues first and worry about the rest – sound effects and stage directions – later. I then transferred this outline to the computer and for the first time I could really see my way ahead. I began to write Act 1, Scene 1.

And I saw that it was good.

So that was this morning – apart from the fact that OH, who’s a little confused these days, came in and asked me if I’d now decided to work weekends. ‘It’s Friday!’ I said, whereupon OH smote the forehead in remembrance, since we’d already had a conversation about this earlier:

‘What day is it today?

‘Friday.’

‘I keep thinking it’s Saturday.

‘Well, perhaps you could forget to phone your Mum a day early.’

Happy Friday. Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves.

Kirk out

Travels with my Yellow Man

It’s an interesting experience taking your little yellow man down from his spot, dangling him in the air, putting him down on a street corner somewhere and then exploring that corner of the world with him. I’m writing an epic poem at the moment and yesterday I was wondering about the places I’d lived in as a child and what they might look like now. When I might I be able to visit? I asked myself; then suddenly a little yellow lightbulb came on and I thought: Google! I can go right now!!! So I did.

I have written a series of poems which track a journey into the past. First we go to Leicester to the West End where I lived for decades, an area bounded by two bridges, close to where Richard III was brought after the Battle of Bosworth Field and not a stone’s throw from where he was dug up again. The poems describing this are The Ballad of the Bowstring Bridge, The Ode to the Upperton Rd Bridge and Richard III.

After this, we head to London and out on the Piccadilly line, the thin blue line that extends to Heathrow but used to stop at that great metropolis that is Hounslow West.

Hounslow West Underground Station © N Chadwick cc-by-sa/2.0 ...
Geograph.org.uk image removed on request

The station was once on the surface but has now burrowed underground, and as you come up to the street you glance up briefly to see what’s showing at the cinema before realising that the cinema is now masquerading as a carpet warehouse.* Then you turn and head to where the church spire pierces the sky.

Historic Hounslow landmark saved thanks to £249,000 grant - MyLondon
my London News image removed on request

Round the back the house stands just as it always did but the garden is now a block of flats (Vicarage Garden). But before any of this, the first thing you notice is the unbearable scream of the planes (Hounslow West.)

The shops have changed but the houses remain. My yellow man and I zoomed up the road and round the corner to my junior school – still the same though the buildings have been tarted up – and on up Sutton Lane to the Great West Road, that monument to post-war industry now a mere conduit from London to Heathrow fringed by abandoned factories. Before you get to Gillette’s corner there’s an alleyway called Quaker Lane which is closed to my little yellow man and me, but which took my green-uniformed friends and me from the bus stop down to school.

*OH was last night watching an interesting video about the current state of Hollywood which made me realise that the only good films I’ve seen in the last few years have been British. I’ll get to that another day.

The poems then head south to Sussex (Rye Harbour, Dungeness and Camber) but my yellow man and I took a trip to Edmonton to look at my second home (my first was in Hillingdon but I can’t remember where.) Again it was surprisingly unchanged – though the cars wouldn’t have been there the church still stands

St Peter, Bounces Road, Edmonton | London Churches in photographs
London churches image removed on request

with the vicarage next to it, the old tiled path still amazingly in situ – and my yellow man and I zoomed together down St Peter’s road where I once walked alone from the vicarage at the top to Eldon Rd school at the bottom. It seems a long way for an unaccompanied five-year-old but those were different times; the road was quieter and my mother stood and watched until I turned in at the gates.

These are iconic memories which I have turned into poems: the scream of the planes, the church spire sweeping across the lawn like a shadow of doom, the old air-raid shelter we discovered while playing in the grass; the red-brick church and consubstantial vicarage in Edmonton. Poetry is not Google. It’s the distillation of memory and its transmutation into art.

Kirk out

The Hedge-Priest Cometh

Two more books have flooded in: the Greek New Testament guide and the Funky Gibbon, so that’s only the atheist one to come, which I shall have to chase up. It is good to know that books can arrive; I was beginning to wonder if they’d got lost in some weird Covid-related sub-ether – not that I know what a sub-ether is, it’s just a phrase knocking about in my subconscious. As I write the hedge man is attacking our hedge with ferocious clippers. He has hay fever so his whirring and shearing is punctuated by loud and irritated sneezes.

We are quite concerned here about Leicester being newly locked down; not that it affects us particularly apart from my mother-in-law living in that catchment area, but because it’s an indication that lockdown is being eased far too soon and that we are in for another spike. I’ve generally always liked and respected the Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, but he has blotted his copybook somewhat by breaking lockdown to visit his partner and has now claimed that the number of cases in Leicester has been exaggerated. This seems irresponsible to me and his assertion that the numbers are higher because they’re testing more people is worthy of Johnson himself. Do better, Soulsby!

The hedge man being here makes me think of hedge-priests who were a sort of wandering Quaker before Quakers were invented (were Quakers invented? Or were we discovered?) because I guess George Fox was a sort of hedge-priest, travelling from place to place, sleeping rough and insisting on giving his testimony in the churches. I think he must have been something of a pain in the arse, but then lots of these people are – like St Paul, for example – because in order to start something new you probably have to be a grade A PITA. It’s hard to imagine nowadays the sort of bull-headed commitment to a cause which would lead you to sleep in the hedgerows and make yourself universally unpopular, but whatever it is, I certainly don’t have it.

I was reading this morning a testimony about living more simply, having fewer possessions, less clutter and so on. This is something I generally aspire to and fail at dismally: last night I kept waking up and worrying about the dishwasher which I thought might be blocked (it wasn’t.) I often think of this photo of Gandhi’s possessions when he die

All of Mahatma Gandhi's worldly possessions : minimalism
reddit.com image removed on request

and look around me at everything I own. I imagine Gandhi, for all his virtues, must also have been another great pain in the arse; however committed to non-violence, his wife must have found him a great trial. These great men, important though they were, rarely adopt a consensual approach to anything. But going back to possessions, I think it’s not so much about what you own as your relationship to it. Do you fear losing everything or can you contemplate this with equanimity? It’s an odd thing but I can imagine losing everything we’ve got in storage without being too upset – but take away my dishwasher and I’d be devastated. The thought of all that bloody washing up every day… ugh.

That’s about it for today. Happy Tuesday.

Kirk out

Eight Minutes and Forty-Six Seconds

Eight minutes and forty-six seconds has become shorthand for the killing of George Floyd by officer Chauvin (apt name!) in Minneapolis, watched by two of his police colleagues. It has become an ‘enough is enough’ moment for black people all over the world, and because it is their story I feel reluctant to say too much about it. But it is also our story; the story of white people confronted by one of their kind committing an unspeakable act. It’s the story of white people made to face our own racism; the story not only of the openly racist committing unspeakable acts but also of the silent prejudice which lurks within our own hearts.

I don’t want to do too much breast-beating about this; I don’t think it’s helpful. But what should we do? It’s easy to stick Black Lives Matter on your Facebook profile, to sign a petition, to write to your MP, to repost stories: what’s harder is to do the work involved in eradicating racism from our own bloodstreams – because I sure as hell know it’s in mine. I’ve caught myself thinking and feeling things I don’t want to admit, because I know my brain is full of largely unchallenged stereotypes. I’ve done the work in challenging sexist stereotypes because they affect me daily, but I haven’t done the work in eradicating racism from my subconscious.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I haven’t finished the work of eradicating racism. I’ve not been unaware of it, after all – and perhaps it’s always a work in progress. But work it most definitely is – and there’s the rub. It’s a lot of work to track down each of these thoughts and emotions, these ideas and stereotypes laid down over decades of film and TV and news and culture; these assumptions of whiteness Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about, meaning that we assume a person is white unless told otherwise (the example she gives is of Hermione Grainger being played as black in the latest Harry Potter and the Cursed Child giving rise to protest, but J K Rowling herself saying there was no indication that Hermione is white. *) To stop these automatic responses and tell yourself a different story: it’s all work.

And most of us feel guilty. We feel guilty by association, and we feel guilty because we know that all this stuff lies deep within us. But should we? If racism is for the most part unconsciously acquired, should we feel guilty – any more than we feel guilty about getting wet when it rains? I’m not sure that guilt is helpful in any case, because the first thing we do then is to start policing ourselves, to make sure no-one can accuse us of being racist. But policing oneself is not, in the end, a solution. In the end we must change the heart.

To topple a statue and fling it in the harbour is a powerful thing to do – but in the end the statue we must topple is the one that lives in the heart.

Kirk out

*as Lodge points out, it adds an extra dimension to the story of ‘pure blood’ and Hermione being Muggle-born.

Blake and Heat

It will not have escaped your notice if you live in the UK that it’s hot. When I lived in Spain there wasn’t much to say about the weather apart from in summer, Que calor! and in winter, Que frio! (I don’t know how to do upside down exclamation marks on here otherwise I would. I think they’re a very good idea because they tell you what’s coming.) A Spanish friend of mine, on visiting the UK, remarked on how much we talk about the weather. ‘That’s because it’s different every day,’ I explained. ‘Sometimes it’s different every hour. You just never know.’

Actually these days, thanks to more accurate forecasting, we generally do know. For example, today it will rise to a high of 29 degrees and drop at night to 17. Which means I shall have to start thinking in Spanish; go out for walks in the early morning before it gets hot, and have a siesta in the afternoon. I am generally someone who likes hot weather but if it’s too hot I do start to wilt a little; and whereas with the cold you can warm yourself up by exercising, there’s only so much you can do to keep cool. We currently have all the windows open and as few clothes on as possible; and this morning I practised this yoga cooling breath:

But what’s really on my mind this morning is Blake. William Blake is probably my favourite artist and one of my favourite poets. A visionary and a complete one-off, he openly declared that he spoke with angels and spirits. He was a great believer in equality, not only of the classes but of the sexes; a supporter of the French revolution and perhaps the greatest artist this country has ever produced. Yet where is he celebrated? Tucked away in a dark corner of the Tate, last time I looked, while we prefer less challenging painters such as Turner or Constable (not that I’m disparaging Turner, though Constable I could live without.) Why then is he so neglected?

I think there are several reasons. First, that he was a political radical, and we don’t tend to honour radicals in this country. We know the names of Henry VIII’s wives and the manner of their executions but we haven’t heard of Peterloo (watch the Mike Leigh film; it’s terrific.) Secondly, Blake was working-class. This brackets him with figures such as Lowry and Turner but unlike them his subject matter was much more challenging. To sit in front of a Blake painting is like putting your hand in a fire – consider this picture of Nebuchadnezzar:

Nebuchadnezzar, William Blake | William blake paintings, William ...

Or this, of Cain:

Sense of Sin - Creature and Creator
But perhaps the most important reason why he is not sufficiently honoured is this. Blake was a master, not only of painting but also of engraving – and he was a poet. Considered as one of the Romantics, though not much given to lakes or daffodils, he wrote and painted in equal measure and was master of both. Many of his poetry books are illustrated with engravings and it is hard to say which is more important. They are equal – and this we do not forgive. For an artist to master one medium is fine; for them to master a related medium, this we can also accept – but to be master of both art and poetry, this is unforgivable. It’s presumptuous: we come over all Lady Bracknell-ish and say that to master one medium may be construed as genius, to master two looks like hubris.

Yet Blake was the most modest of men, living simply with his wife in a couple of rooms in London. It was sad that he remained unrecognised during his lifetime; what’s sadder still is that he is even now underappreciated.

Kirk out