Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Deep/Crisp/Even



Strolling up Brushfield Street this morning I encountered a figure synonymous with the festive season. Somewhat overweight, ruddy of complexion, dressed in a brightly-coloured, hooded ensemble and replete with a bulging sack, he was a sign, along with the advent of colder weather and the promise of snow, that Christmas was upon us. Darren, temporary postal worker, and patron saint of misdelivered cheques, was here! As I approached he was folding Christmas cards and complimentary calendars in order to stuff them unceremoniously through the wrong letterbox.

"Anything there for Handles with Care?" I asked him. After sifting through his hefty bundle he handed me a wad of envelopes none of which were addressed to me. My heart thus warmed like a Yule log I waited until he was out of sight - not wanting to imply that he was in any way incompetent - before redistributing the letters correctly.

* * *

Work on "The Recognitions" continues. The section I've just completed had more than a whiff of Grace Metalious melodrama about it, with nary a diversion from the thrust of the story. I am pleased that Recktall Brown, whose name is presumably a disgusting pun, has reappeared. He's a corpulent, Truman Capote-style Mephistopheles, and as compellingly black-hearted a villain as I've encountered in fiction. There's still a long way to go.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Enjoy The Silence



It's 1989, late summer. Ben and I are driving too fast along the B158 . It's one in the morning. I'm a little intoxicated and we're listening to "Violator". Childhood is receding. College, and all of its complications lie ahead, just around the next sharp bend. In the small red vehicle, hurtling across country, we are young and invincible.

Then it's spring in Prague, a couple of years later. Unexpectedly homeless I pretend to sleep in the waiting room of the Old Town railway station, sunglasses on, guitar held close like a tearful girlfriend, twitching at every shriek from every passing lunatic, vagrant and drunk. The cleaning staff ignore me. Perched on their carts are transistor radios, ancient clunky looking things which only seem to play the early hits of Depeche Mode.

Sorry Nancy, that's all I've got.

Lessons From Antiquity



"Happiness writes white." So said Henri de Montherlant . De Montherlant was a pederast with Nazi sympathies who killed himself in his seventies, so presumably the words flowed pretty freely. People tend only to remember him for this nifty little maxim, however, which will outlast the rest of his oeuvre and also perhaps the millions of words committed to paper by his more respectable contemporaries.

I'm in a good mood. Because it isn't yesterday; a day which was punctuated by disappointments, setbacks, reversals, third-party moaning and stress headaches. No-one wants to hear about that of course. Nothing's guaranteed to make you switch off quicker than someone else's tale of woe. Except perhaps someone giving you directions. Unless you can infuse your story with a heap of comic irony.

So yesterday a heavily pregnant woman 'phoned me every ten minutes for several hours to find out when her delivery would arrive. The delivery turned up while she was on the 'phone. She was not appeased.

"I've had to call twenty-five or thirty times to sort this out."

In truth that first 'phone call, the one where she found out that the goods were going to be with her on time and as promised would probably have satisfied most people.

No comic irony there, then.

I booked a courier at quarter-to-four to collect by five o' clock. I had decorating to finish at home so I was keen to get out on time. At quarter-past six, having been on hold for twenty minutes I'm told that my collection isn't going to happen because of an account query that has mysteriously arisen in the last two-and-a-half hours.

See? Not funny.

And in between I drifted from disaster to disaster like Candide, but without a friendly mentor to remind me that it was all for the best.

Today everything's copacetic¹, and even if it weren't I'd scarcely notice, because it's not yesterday.

I intend to spend this afternoon antiquing. It's soothing and makes me feels like a proper artisan. For the uninitiated the process consists of taking this:-


staining it with a tourmaline solution until it looks like this:-


Before relieving the surface back using a household cleaner (I prefer the lemon-scented variety) until you get this:-


Don't listen to dead French dudes. Happiness is an artfully antiqued doorknob.


¹In addition to the acquisition of Daisuke Matsuzaka by the Boston Red Sox reasons to be cheerful include the arrival of my T.M.... sorry, my daughter's T.M.X. Tickle Me Elmo in the post, Monty Panesar's Ashes debut and an invitation to free drinks at the Spitalfields Christmas do next Thursday. Hoorah for me.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Why I Don't Write About Sports

At about a quarter to five, one Saturday afternoon in May, things started to go wrong. Lionel Scaloni didn't kick the ball into row Z, Steven Gerrard scored a thoroughly predictable wondergoal; extra time, penalties, and the end of West Ham's FA Cup dream.

Up until that point things were looking good. There was the World Cup to look forward to, and an England team never better placed to win it all again. Our incumbent champions at fifteen-a-side were rebuilding, Jonny Wilkinson was uninjured. The Ashes rested safe in NW8.

It's all turned to shit now, of course. West Ham are sure to be relegated, John Terry's boys will fail to qualify for Euro 2008, we won't make the semis in France next year, and the Ashes are as good as lost.

Sport is depressing, and writing about it doesn't help. If it's a kind of proxy war then it's one where you're always, eventually, on the losing side. Unless you're Brazilian, or Australian. We're tribal creatures, I suppose, and we attach part of ourselves, the part that's intricately interwoven with our self-esteem, to these players and these teams. And most of the time they lose.

It struck me as curious that although sport is a big part of my life, as a spectator, and only occasionally a participant nowadays, I never feel driven to express what I feel about it. And now I know why. It's depressing, and it's incredibly difficult not to talk in clichés, because that's how we tend to process sporting information. And I read a lot of websites that are written about sport, and most of them do it better than I could.

My name is Tom Miles. I am not a sportswriter.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Great Big Book of Everything

I've embarked upon The Recognitions by William Gaddis. It weighs two pounds in paperback and runs to almost a thousand pages. Recently I've been struggling to get through anything, bookwise, to the point where I might have abandoned Bonjour Tristesse mid-sentence, halfway through, for fear that there was something else I should rather have been doing. Anyway, I'm confronting this sudden incapacity with a blunt object; a vast, sprawling, apparently difficult book stuffed with erudition on Early Northern and Flemish Art and Calvinism. Three characters have already died (one of them a monkey) and I'm only fifty pages in. It's terribly overwritten, in a sense, no noun escapes an (obscure) adjective and no action an adverb. The overall effect is surprisingly convincing, however, and one suspects that perhaps the author is either pulling your leg, or aiming to tune the reader in to a kind of mediaeval metaconsciousness , with the gothic layering of modifiers.

I've had to buy a new sofa on which to read it, which makes it a pretty expensive undertaking. I'm optimistic that I'll succeed. Finishing a big book is one of those things that I need to do to reassure myself that things will be normal again soon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In Which I Meet Another Slightly More Famous Actress and Am Alarmed By the Conversion of an Old Friend


Samantha Morton came into the shop today. She has a daughter a little older than my own. We talked about light switches, though, rather than parenting small girls, neither child being present. She was dressed down. I had WD-40 on my favourite cotton jumper - it's off-white so you could see the stain forming - which made everyone feel relaxed. Her husband-to-be might buy some castors from me. After she went I read about her.

Human chemistry is a curious thing. Morton has an edgy on-screen presence, her performances don't always seek the sympathy of the audience. The journalists who write about her seem to start off on the back foot, accordingly. Which perhaps makes her uncomfortable. Anyway she seemed jolly simpatico to me and not extraordinary in the least, which in itself is remarkable, because she is an extraordinary actress, I think.

The night that Tyson fought Bruno I was at Jake's house, not sleeping with a girl called Helen, whose face might have launched a small flotilla. I was at that cynical stage of late adolescence where I was prepared to overlook some serious character flaws in order to get some love during the holidays. Helen was slender, absurdly pretty, and deadly dull. No, not deadly dull, but not interesting to me other than in the way that any girl is interesting to a teenage boy. She had boring parents, so it probably wasn't her fault. If I'd turned out that way, or if my good friend Martin had, we'd have no alibi. While I'm busy not sleeping with Helen Jake has worked out that her sexy and interesting friend Jo who wanted to sleep with me but couldn't surmount my misguided crush on her prettier but decidedly less charismatic chum would probably make herself available to him just to spite me. (I found this out later). While we were talking about "Emma" and waiting for the fight to start Jake and Jo were upstairs fucking. Well, this is what we assumed. They rejoined us half-an-hour later. Jo was barefoot, and a pair of tangled knickers fell out of her turned-up jeans and rested on the tiled floor like an accusation.

I thought about that evening earlier today, so I googled Jake. He's a monk now, in the Army of Jesus, he's been celibate for years, and wouldn't you know it, he has a blog. Life, truly, is rich and strange.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It's Not My Home, It's Their Home...


The house is up for sale. That'll be the house where I was born. Where my sister was born. Where I grew up. Where I slept with my first two girlfriends (and some subsequent girlfriends - the ordinal details are a little hazy). Where we all got terribly sick last Christmas. Where we held wakes for two departed parents. Just when you think everything is final some new finality comes up and smacks you in the face. My sister has cleared the place of much of its clutter and doubtless some of its charm. It looks different in the photos, apart from the shed, bastion of banished males - my father and I, essentially - on Sunday afternoons. We'd go down there and burn things. It was beautiful.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Twilight approaches


It got cold in a hurry. The skin on my hands and lips is drying and rupturing in protest. My bladder is confused. I am obliged to wear either a rollneck, which makes me look old and chunky, or a scarf, which makes me look affected and possibly homosexual. Not that I think there's anything wrong with that, necessarily, as long as you are. Gay, that is. Apparently my brain is feeling the chill too. There are some obvious consolations, of course. You can retrieve your winter coats from the dry cleaners, there are fireworks, which last a month, it seems, nowadays, and the dipping sun in a clear sky casting fabulous shadows on the buildings around where I work. Sometimes, as the afternoon turns into evening, I get five minutes to watch the light creep up the church and disappear.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Barceloneta


For the past few mornings I've woken up and walked perhaps a hundred yards to paddle in the Mediterranean before breakfast and rinse my feet under a boardwalk shower as the sun climbed over low cloud. I've climbed the narrowing, steepening stairway to our apartment with groceries that taste sweeter having been bought in a foreign currency. There's an old joke about a guy hitting himself over the head with a hammer; when asked why he's doing it he says "It's great when it stops." I don't think I was ready to come home. It isn't great now it's stopped.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dirty Protest

Our premises, despite their location on one of London's more picturesque streets, are decidedly low-rent. There's no heating and the water supply is limited to a pipe projecting crudely from a wall downstairs. I'm obliged, therefore, to cross the market to the public toilets when nature calls. I went in there earlier, and in one of the cubicles someone had stuck yards and yards of paper to the walls using their own excrement as paste. A can of Tennent's Super stood empty, presumably, by the bowl. The whole thing was a tableau of hopelessness.

Which is not to say that my own attempts at self-expression here are of any greater value. But I am at least trying to communicate my sense of anomie without getting shit under my fingernails.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Arson, considered as a method to expedite probate

I'd love to burn it all. Carpets, linen, white goods, furniture, everything. Leave just the bare stones or better still knock that down and shift the land only, and see what that fetches. I hate the whole business and once again wish it could happen without me. It's irresponsible. It's not the way things are done. But I'm pretty sure, given the circumstances, that I'd get away with a few hours of community service. The back lawn never took; an intense fire, fit for Guy Fawkes, wouldn't matter at all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Suppositious Angler

Izaak Walton, Freeman, Ironmonger, my Stuart counterpart (if you'll permit the conceit), looms large in my consciousness today, as if the imaginary catgut that somehow connects us down through the centuries has been tweaked by an unseen hand. This weekend I shall venture out into the Hertfordshire countryside and perhaps breathe the air on Amwell Hill. Then I'll contemplate a stream, and look for a flash of pike or grayling. The stream is life, flowing endlessly. I will strive for a gentler, more pious life. I will live long and well. I will accommodate changes of rule without compromising the core of myself. I shall not be a scoffer, witty or otherwise.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Ignorance

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.


I once attended a lecture given by Noam Chomsky, but he wasn't discussing the iniquities of U.S. foreign policy, he was talking instead about his main sphere of expertise, linguistics. He used words I was familiar with and discussed concepts I thought I understood (I had some grasp of the structure and development of language, or so I believed.) However it was impossible to follow what he was saying. My friend, Ian, attended the same lecture. Emerging from the auditorium into a bright Oxford afternoon that seemed to mock our own lack of brilliance we realised that we had shared an experience. We were unused to not getting it. It was too hard. Ian said "Every time I thought he was saying something I recognised and agreed with he would dismiss it as an example of inexact or idle thinking." It felt like we'd been reprimanded, but neither of us were sure what for. Ian completed his degree and is a partner in a firm of patent attorneys. I never fully recovered.

I click on Big Bang on the Wikipedia home page. I should explain - I used to take an interest in physics, in the wondrous massiveness of it. Astrophysics, cosmogony, the whole thing. My interest shifted to particle physics, practical physics, if you like, as I progressed through my twenties. There were enough external factors making me feel insignificant, I didn't need further reading to reinforce the idea that I was no more than a blip on a blip and that all my endeavours would disappear into the baseless fabric of this vision like footprints in wet sand. What's new, I wonder, in the world of extraordinarily clever men trying to figure out why and how the universe became, what gives?

It's a depressing exercise. I get halfway through a series of sentences but keep having to click on further links to ensure that I've understood the concept of the sentence from which I've linked. But the new article often contains ideas that are beyond me. It's like looking up an unusual word in a dictionary where the definitions employ still more obscure words. I descend, spiralling into an inescapable pit of unknowing. Philip Larkin, whose great facility was to communicate the panic and despair of the 20th century with a degree of calmness and well-concealed optimism comes to mind.


Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed,
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,

Even to wear such knowledge - for our flesh
Surrounds us with its own decisions -
And yet spend all our life on imprecisions,
That when we start to die
Have no idea why.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Last Goodbye


We went down to the river. Sons, daughter, mother, sister, grandchildren. We threw the ashes in. It was early afternoon, but as autumn gathers the sun never gets very high. As we tossed handfuls of the burnt remains into the water the dust caught the light from the low sun. The stuff itself isn't very dusty, it's surprisingly coarse, and somewhat crystalline in texture, but I suppose that the crematorium consumes things at very high temperatures, producing this strange matter. Only her sister was too squeamish or perhaps too sensible to join in. The grandchildren all grabbed a handful, threw it as far as they could and threw a flower in afterwards. My grandmother, old but still not frail exactly, made her way out over the edge of the riverbank. "Goodbye Sal," she said, quietly, unhysterically, and threw away the last grasp of her daughter she'd have.

There was enough of it for another dozen mourners, but we were in a public spot, and unsure of the legality of what we were doing. The last third or so of the container I upended over the water, enjoying the dust surrounding me. That would wash off. Self-evidently you can't wash away memories. The river ran clear there, and you could see the ashes colouring the river bed.

The whole scene had a kind of awkward suburban beauty to it. My wife took a picture. Then we went to Ikea. Life will go on, so you may as well go with it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hurt

I stabbed myself in the chest with a chisel. This was not some Gothic exercise in self-harming as therapy, you understand. I was carrying out some basic joinery work at home, and the blade of the chisel, which I was too idle to sharpen, failed to bite into the wood and bit into me instead, just north-east of my breastbone. If you've ever wondered what it feels like to stab yourself with a chisel-type object, perhaps even considered trying it, I'd say:- don't bother. It's an unpleasant sensation. It leaves you feeling winded, and a little panicky. There wasn't a great deal of blood - it's not a fleshy part of the body - just a gentle rusty seepage. I wondered about getting a tetanus booster, but then couldn't be bothered. I have had enough of all things medical recently to last me into the next decade.

The loft is almost finished. This is a good thing because we'll get our house back, but I'll miss the excitement of coming up the stairs to see what sudden reshapings of space have occurred while I've been at work. What I love most about what's been done so far is that it hasn't really altered the character of the place. It's still somewhat shabby, somewhat chic, and it's still home. Once the builders depart, of course, the real work begins; dealing with my daughter's prolonged and irrational grief at their departure, decorating, flooring, moving furniture and all the associated DIY injuries I'll inevitably sustain.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Kid Fears

When I was a child I was convinced that a nuclear war was imminent, that the entire Northern Hemisphere would be destroyed, and that the only sensible course of action was to move immediately to New Zealand. You couldn't drag me there now, of course. Unless I could go there in stages. London-Boston-Seattle-Hawaii-Auckland or something along those lines. There's no way I'm spending 26 hours on an aeroplane. Looking back Carter and Brezhnev were a pretty stable pair to command their absurd respective arsenals but it didn't feel that way to my eight-year-old self. I was not sophisticated enough to appreciate the niceties of Mutually Assured Destruction, but I knew that hiding under a table would not protect me from a nuclear winter. I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction - The Chrysalids, I remember, made a particular impression - and worried away in bed.

So, how do I protect my daughter from the night terrors? She is too young to recall the events of 9/11, but was affected by the London bombings in an oblique, childlike way. Kids don't forget anything of course, but I hope that once she becomes aware that the "Bombs" don't set themselves, and aren't an abstract evil, she won't grow suspicious of the Muslim classmates she now plays with without prejudice. I hope that she'll communicate her fears so that we can reassure her that they have no foundation. (This is a kind of hypocrisy, of course. When her godmother is away in Iraq or Afghanistan we fret about her, although she is probably more likely to sustain serious injury crossing the road in Sunbury.)

I'll tell her that it's Martians she needs to worry about. That'll do the trick.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What If We Give It Away?

I have a new profile photo. I'm still looking irritated, because the passing years have not been kind to me. A couple of weeks ago I went to give blood at the Bishopsgate Institute. This is not an exercise I enjoy, it hurts, and the rewards are somewhat abstract, unless you count the biscuits and weak squash available after your donation.

The phlebotomist asks me my name and date of birth.

"Tom Miles, third of May, nineteen seventy-one," I tell her. She's young and attractive and slightly offhand. She has short dreadlocks which she swishes for emphasis.
"Three days before mine," she says. I laugh a small uncomfortable laugh. She looks young enough to be, well, my significantly younger sister. If I were black. I can't help but ask:-
"Nineteen seventy-one?" She nods. Having already, actually stabbed me in the arm she has now poked a metaphorical needle into my heart. I murmur something feeble along the lines of "You look very well on it," and she smiles in a way that makes it perfectly clear that she's thinking "And you really don't." She doesn't say it aloud, at least. She swishes off instead to attend to another donor, in that young, attractive, offhand way of hers.

I pout at her when she comes to remove the needle, but then thank her (for hurting me and siphoning away my lifeforce!) and hobble off towards the refreshment table, silent and aggrieved.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

God Save The Green


There's a magazine called Golf Punk, I saw it on a newsstand, as I hovered between trains. It's marketed, presumably, at that sliver of society which enjoys an archly alternative lifestyle and, well, golf. Alice Cooper and Jesper Parnevik, essentially. Seems unlikely they'd actually purchase the magazine as they must appear in it every month, or so you might think. It turns out that Golf Punk distinguishes itself from other, more earnest, golfing publications not through a distinct anti-establishment editorial policy, but by including a section on "Bunker Babes" (scantily clad) interviews with female golfing celebrities, or "Swinging Sirens" (scantily clad) and a regular clinic with the "Golf Nurse" (not wearing much). Golf Punk then, is not simply a golf magazine with a new angle, it is instead a dreadful chimera; part hobbies periodical and part Lads' Mag. I've never understood this sort of thing. It's not that I'm prudish, it's just that for me golf and pornography make for an uneasy mix. It's the same with fast cars and motorbikes. Do you want to fuck the girl or the Kawasaki? Cindy, 22, from Eastbourne, or Colin Montgomerie?

I could get precious about the subversion of the meaning of "Punk", but as "Punk" at least in part was about this kind of subversion I'd be arguing against myself. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

Printed media will dwindle, I hope, to a sensible level. Golf Punk will disappear. I read a novel recently, for the first time in weeks, and enjoyed the experience, but generally any piece of prose I read, under 3000 words long, and over 50, I will read on a PC. The more abstruse ends of printed publication are losing their legitimacy in the face of the internet, I think. I hope. Golf Punk will disappear.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

It's not easy being a nice guy

If enough people shout "Killing people is wrong!" at you, often enough, and for long enough, I don't care if you're Gandhi, you're going to want to kill someone.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Autopilot

I need a fucking good cry. Some snotty hysterical sobbing, complete with inadvertent dog noises. Because the numbness is starting to trouble me. I have forgotten how to be in a mood. I'm neither upbeat nor downbeat. I'm just beat. And it can't continue. I need somehow to access the little pocket of pain that I've squirreled away just beneath my consciousness. Because, I suspect, you can't get over something without getting it in the first place.

I am Martin Blank. It's not me.

Gin hasn't worked. Imagining how robbed my grandmother must feel is now an intellectual exercise. I should be in pieces; in fact I feel pretty together, but at the same time take no pleasure in this sensation. Perhaps, at thirty-five, I'm turning into a hard-boiled little orphan. I hope not. I'm too old to start smoking other people's dog ends and throwing stones at empty buildings - I don't think I could carry it off. Anyway, let the tears rain, because it's not me.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Home Improvement



It's raining in my living room. Like in the Outkast Miss Jackson video. I thought that perhaps the tarpaulin protecting the exposed roof had shifted so accordingly I confronted my vertigo and climbed the scaffold ladder. I get vertigo on a horse, so climbing forty feet up in a storm was no small endeavour. It was a futile one, however. The tarp hadn't moved. The tarp has holes in it, rendering it useless. A tarpaulin with holes in it should be called something else. A perfaulin, perhaps. Or a roofaulin.

The builder is not returning my calls.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Eulogy



"If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly."


I've decided to keep it brief (thus minimising the possibility of me breaking down while delivering it), not too mundane, not too poetic, we'll see.


Our mother loved us hard. She couldn’t help but do so. Not that we were easy to love, with unwashed faces, and the chartered disobedience of children who are free.

And her love was steadfast, in the face of various small disasters and disappointments; bloodied knees, torn clothing, unsatisfactory school reports.

Her love was with us everywhere, mindless of removals, upheavals, or the breadth of oceans.

And her love was timely, buffering us from the reversals of romance and sporting endeavour, reminding us that the job we didn’t get was the job we didn’t want.

Her love was proud, proud of our quick-wits, our strong teeth, and our sense of right and wrong.

Her love was grateful, for the grandchildren we had who ran around her feet and whom she could love as fiercely as she loved us.

Her love is never-ending, so while she can’t put her arms around us anymore we should all remember that she still loves us hard, because she can’t help but do so.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Friday, July 28, 2006

All Things Must Pass



Sarah Helen Miles (née Chalkley) died today at around 12.30 in the afternoon. I got the chance to see her for the last time yesterday. Her hair is still brown, uniquely, amongst the women in the hospice, which suggests that perhaps she died too soon, but if you'd seen her, unconscious and struggling for breath you'd know that the end couldn't have come soon enough.

Cancer has a bad reputation. But while it has taken both of my parents from me I have been spared much of the heartache that this disease can cause. My father was pretty much himself the day before he died, and I am lucky that I can remember him like that. The secondary tumour on my mother's brainstem meant that she was significantly incapacitated the last couple of times we were together. But again I can count myself fortunate that less than three weeks have passed between diagnosis and death. Enough time to prepare oneself, and to say goodbye. "Oh well," she said to me, after we got the bad news but while she was still compos mentis, "a short life, but a graceful one."

Whether or not she led a graceful life might be open to debate, but I truly hope that she believed that she had. She was a good mother, and she loved us all.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What You Will



Jacques, Shakespeare's great pessimist, details man's seven ages in theatrical terms. The final age is bleakly detailed thus:-

...Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

They took my mother to the hospice yesterday. While she sleeps, or rests fitfully, I can believe that she's just drowsy because of the pain relief. When she's half-awake, half-alert, the whole inescapable nastiness of it is hard to bear. She sat up to take a drink of lukewarm pineapple juice, just as we were leaving. The juice comes in one of those little cartons, meant to fit in a lunch box. She is a large, flamboyant woman, but she looked tiny and helpless on the bed. It was about the saddest thing I've ever seen. How terrible, to be a child again, without any of the attendant joy and innocence. We took my grandmother home. It is impossible to imagine how she must feel, and impossible to comprehend the resilience of spirit that keeps her from breaking down. I am so proud of her that even to think of it brings me to tears.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nobody loses all the time

I try to avoid the familiar territory of a journal - Woke, brushed teeth, travelled to work, worked, took lunch, worked more, returned home, watched The Usual Suspects very carefully hoping to discover plot holes - that kind of thing, but I have to say that today was a winner, so I'm ignoring previous practise. I spoke to my mother this morning while she was in the garden, managing a little breakfast, with grandchildren somersaulting around her. She sounded pretty weak, and I was at work, swallowing hard at times. But it was a good call, to the benefit of both parties. I need her to know that I am thinking of her all the time and I know that she appreciates that my capacity for dealing with the nitty-gritty of serious illness is startlingly limited. So we small-talked, and told each other things we already knew. There will be no new good news, not now. Whatever your theological position I suppose that what we all seek at the end is peace. We found a little bit this morning.

My last day at work, for a while at least, passed without incident. Paul is a little tentative around me, understandably perhaps. We speak about our kids, mostly. Neutral stuff. I invoiced all the people who have yet to pay us, which felt good, as the completion of an uninteresting but necessary task often does.

I waited 45 minutes for a bus. No matter, still a good day.

The London Tecumsehs, well, they were extraordinary. We may lack consistency at the plate, but we're a team, a family, a happy breed. Unstoppable. Today we won, and I caught a good game.

The hire car is nice, although my daughter is already fretting about having to return it next week. It didn't get us home for the end of the Red Sox game. No matter, they won. The Yankees lost. This is an absolute good. Life continues to supply these nuggets of joy, to prevent you from withdrawing altogether. Life says:- look, there are acorns and hazelnuts here, as well as large swooping raptors who want to feed you to their offspring.

Thank you, Sunny, for your sage, yet still flippant advice. You're almost as good as a ZOOM.

Thank you too JD, Josh and Mishi. I've read your kind words and I still think you're all full of shit. Kidding. I'm bewildered by your kindness. How strange to have friends you've never met! Brave new world.

Friday, July 14, 2006

i thank You God for most this amazing

The primary site of the cancer is in the lungs but there are secondary tumours in the liver and brain. We saw her, my wife and I, yesterday morning. It didn't feel, as I expected it to, that there was someone else in the room, whom we had to ignore, as he sweated beneath his black hood, sickle glinting. Partly because there was a real person there most of the time. My sister, the District Nurse, the dogwalker, the Doctor.

She is home, our home, where two of her children were born, where she spent her last night with my father, reunited with the spaces and objects she loves.

My sister has borrowed a wheelchair from the Red Cross. I observed, in passing, that it was easy to fold away and assemble. "Of course it is, Darling," said my mother, "those things are generally propelled by stupid people." Her faculties may not have faded yet, but they will very soon. The consultant seems to think that two months is a reasonable expectancy. I didn't know they did that kind of thing anymore; it seems like a General Hospital cliché. I keep thinking of Lady Bracknell:

To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

But I don't think I'm careless. Disorganised perhaps. It's a hard-knock life.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Moon's a Balloon



My mother is ill, perhaps very seriously ill. I don't deal with these things well. My brother called me early this afternoon. I am mean to him because he let me down when I was eleven. De profundis, I believe, I understand him better than anyone. Anyway, I love him very much but I never, ever tell him so, because of what happened a quarter of a century ago. He and my sister have decided to be present when the consultant explains the results of my mother's MRI, tomorrow morning. I can't be there. I have builders coming and it's my daughter's school sports day. Moreover, I don't want to be there. I hate hospitals, doctors; I can't take them seriously. My mother told me (I have, at least been to see her) she'd been referred to the oncologist and might have to be moved to the cancer ward. This prompted a lame joke about Solzhenitsyn. I've never even read Solzhenitsyn; that's how shallow I am. Fuck it all. I am relieved that my father doesn't have to put up with any of this, having long since succumbed to his own batch of aggressive cancer cells.

Here's some other news. I'm a shit father, impatient and inattentive, but my precious little girl just got her school report, which really couldn't be any better. The headmistress has written "I am proud to have you in my school" at the bottom. Who knows, perhaps she writes that on every report. It had the intended effect, even if so. Which is to make slapdash parents like me grab their occasional offspring and say "Well done on not letting me ruin your life thus far." She is an absolute fucking marvel and I wish I had a Jiminy Cricket around to punch me in my fat head when I forget this. I will try harder. And I believe in fairies.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Of The Abyss



Jack London thought Spitalfields the worst of places, "a welter of rags and filth". That was a century ago, and the properties he describes with disgust have been cleared of sweat-workers and are now occupied by wealthy Bohemians, west of Brick Lane, or have been razed by the Luftwaffe and the LCC to the east, where post-war housing projects stretch out towards Stepney, populated in the main by Bangladeshi families. There are still homeless people on the streets, however. They are a filthy, curiously ageless group, mad, or alcoholic, or both. Some faces come and go, some have been here for ever, it seems. Other shopkeepers know them by name.

"Do you know Susie?" asks the woman from the picture framers. "She used to sit by the cashpoint opposite you."
"No," I tell her, "I've never noticed her."
"She's dead. Died in the street."
I feel nothing but a mild annoyance that I've had to hear this bad news. And almost immediately I wonder "What's wrong with me?"

I walk on by. I avoid eye contact. There's a big black guy, "The Maddest of the Mad" we call him, but in fact he's not as intimidating as some of his peers. I think of him as a kind of Socrates, because he doesn't ask for money, he just tries to share his confusion. "Why have you got cash?" he'll ask passing city workers. "Why am I so thirsty?" he'll wonder aloud. This morning I find him sitting on the step next to the shop when I go out for rice crackers. "I'm hungry," he moans. For once I stop and look at him. "I can't help you," I tell him, and it feels true. His eyes are wild with something other than hunger. I can't rescue him. He has fallen too far.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Penniless and Sunburnt

It was completely unprovoked.

We were talking about something else, something neutral, something innocent, when my wife pointed out to me, à propos of nothing in particular, that I hadn't sold many books recently.
"I just can't find the time to buy new stock," I explained to her.
"Well, why isn't the old stock selling? What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing, other than that no-one wants to buy it."
She laughed at me in a way that undermined me somewhat. This happens fairly frequently and you get used to it. You adapt to the lowered regard and expectations of your loved ones.

Anyway, I have resolved to make her proud of me once more by exhibiting some entrepreneurial spirit ("The trouble with the French is...") and selling some Borrowed Philosophy merchandise.

So, hypocrite lecteurs, mes semblables, mes frères, if you really love me you'll buy a t-shirt, so that I can regain some sense of worth, and so that my daughter can hold her head high in class again.

I'll make time to trawl the charity shops of South Woodford for unconsidered literary gems which will sell immediately for many times their cost price, we'll be able to afford the car hire for our forthcoming sojourn to the South Coast (there's a wedding to attend on the way and our aged VW looks more like a stock car), and harmony will be restored to the Miles household. Isn't that a price worth paying?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Debt to Pleasure

Is there anything nicer than a ZOOM lolly? I'm not saying that they're better than sex. But I've had sex that was less pleasant than eating a ZOOM. And I've never had a ZOOM that was anything less than exceptional. Even one that's been in the freezer too long and has permafrost around the base. Still wonderful.

(In a future world, where men and women are truly free, you will be able to combine the two activities, mating copiously with an icy confection in one hand and a knot of your lover's hair in the other.)

They are available on demand and cost around 50p. The packaging is fully bio-degradable, they're low calorie too, unlike a Magnum, say, and accordingly can be consumed without guilt. And who's ever had sex without a little stab of conscience, before, during or after? Perhaps the most exciting thing about a ZOOM is its Proustian capacity to transport you back to a simpler time, when your thoughts and actions were driven by your taste buds, rather than your reproductive organs. Frustrated people everywhere should treat themselves to one of these marvellous moments of frozen delight. It may heal what ails ye.

Next week: the fab...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rainbow Day


According to the Isihara test (above, if you can see the 6 you're normal) I suffer from garden variety red/green colourblindness. This means, amongst other things, that I am unable to fly fighters for the Royal Air Force, or to distinguish between certain shades of green and yellow. Colourblindness is a misnomer, evidently. It's not that I don't see colours it's just that I see them differently, anomalously, to use the opthamological term. I came across this quote when reading about the subject:-

From a practical standpoint... many protanomalous and deuteranomalous people breeze through life with very little difficulty doing tasks that require normal colour vision. Some may not even be aware that their colour perception is in any way different from normal. The only problem they have is passing a colour vision test.

I am deuteranomalous people. One in every twenty white European males. You'll see us in Top Shop juxtaposing hopelessly ill-matching shorts and shirts and thinking we're Fonzie. We're a happy-go-lucky bunch, because the only problem we have is passing a colour vision test.

I mention this excuse for a genetic defect because tomorrow, at my daughter's school, they are celebrating "Rainbow Day". I assumed that this was some kind of multicultural festival. The school is a model of multicultural interface, with the colours of the world all getting along in prelapsarian innocence. My daughter then explained to me that she was "Fry", and would have to wear purple. And that some other members of her class were "Lister". She didn't know what colour they had to wear. So it seems that Rainbow Day is a colour-coded celebration of Eminent Victorian Quakers. This was confusing enough a concept without me having to deal with the purple business.

Red
Orange
Yellow
Green
Blue
Indigo
Violet

See? No purple. Or is purple a blanket term covering all those high-frequency colours? I asked my wife. Her response was unhelpful. "Purple is purple," she said. "And our daughter doesn't have any purple clothes."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Brighter Later


London, having sweltered for almost a week in the high twenties and low thirties, is now darkened by monsoon conditions. Right now it's raining so hard that vehicle alarms are being set off, storm drains are overflowing, and it's twilight at four in the afternoon. Everyone is much relieved, although the temperature has only dropped marginally, the storms have at least brought a breeze to ease the inescapable stickiness of a city heatwave. It's that same kind of unique big city heat that Nick Carraway describes in The Great Gatsby. As I stroll to work in shorts, flip-flops and a crumpled gingham seersucker shirt I am almost moved to pity the suits sweating into their white collars, loosening their ties, admiring my pedicure (I'm considering a sarong for tomorrow). The suits can keep their six figure salaries, here at Handles With Care, where we work for the love of it, Wednesday is "Bring an Item of Your Wife's Clothing to Work Day".

Monday, June 05, 2006

Imagine

My daughter's godmother has made it safely out of Iraq. She now faces a twelve hour stopover on a runway in Kuwait. It's 45° C there, and it was hotter in Basra. There are a thousand keyboards clicking around the world, as people register or rationalise their thoughts on the Iraq war, and I'm convinced that there is nothing fresh I can say about it. I'll make this observation, however, in the light of widespread whispering that Tony Blair is about to convert to Roman Catholicism. There is no God. God is a voice in your head. We shouldn't pretend that our brave boys (that's what they are, whichever way you look at it) are on some sort of Crusade out there. They've toppled a dictator, but, as happened in Yugoslavia, the nation has fragmented without the binding energy of that dictatorship. Oppressed people are thirsty for very specific freedoms.

So while it's utterly unacceptable for politicians to say "We are fighting for our way of life" when they are, in effect, colonising a country whose extant government posed no real threat at all to their way of life, you could argue that this idea is at least grounded in the real. There is such a thing as "a way of life", and if running a V8 on inexpensive gasoline falls under The Pursuit Of Happiness then you could even make a case that Bush Jr is constitutionally obliged to protect American oil interests in the Middle East.

Take God out of the equation and it's even more difficult to know what the rebel Iraqis are fighting for. Settle the sectarian issue, stop blowing people up, and Bush will have an exit strategy. He'll be able to withdraw, claiming to have established a democracy, and you can tell yourself that you've seen off the infidel.

Take God out of the equation and you have half a dozen middle-aged men standing around, pointing at each other and saying "I'm right and you're wrong". It's not as naive an idea as it might at first appear. Coalition forces went into Afghanistan with the express goals of destroying Al Qaeda bases, removing the Religious Maniacal government (taking God out of the equation, effectively) and capturing Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders. Resistance remains, but the operation, which was not blurred by political doublespeak, was a success, even if Bin Laden is still at large.

No-one mourns the passing of the Taliban, indeed the liberation of Afghanistan may prove to be the one positive to come out of the events of 9/11. But I hope not. Peace reigns in the Balkans, after all. It's a given that people everywhere should enjoy religious freedom right up the point where it impinges on someone else's civil rights. Tolerant, secular democracy is an ideal for Westerners, an ideal born out of The Enlightenment. The enlightened view is this:- you can believe in God all you want, Mr Blair, Mr Bush, Mr Al-Zarqawi, you can pretend that he informs your decisions, but God does not exist. God is a voice in your head.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

But I've Been Seen With Farrah

Today I missed an appointment with the dead, and embarked on a relationship with a movie star. Nothing much else to report.

A little blue, after drinking too much - for shame! - and half a night of contorted sofa sleep I resolved on the train to drop in on Miles, C R (dec'd). What this involves, as I have discussed elsewhere, is visiting the small Catholic church hidden behind Liverpool Street and lighting a candle for him. The church and the candle are props, really, Prospero's baseless fabric, or what you will, which allow me to access that part of my subconscious occupied still by the rather more Falstaffian figure of my father. Whilst I am aware that nothing real happens, when I stare hard into the flame I can kid myself that some kind of communion is taking place, if only in my mind.

Reader, I failed him. Various factors, among them the time difference between Uttar Pradesh and London, kept me from the altar. I am fortunate that my father is an affable angel in the Henry Travers style, because, let's face it, you don't want to mess with one of those Old Testament dudes. I'll go tomorrow and I'll light two candles.





Her name is Meredith MacNeill and she's the best thing to come out of Canada since, um, maple syrup Leonard Cohen Larry Nelson Larry Walker Margaret Trudeau and The Tragically Hip.

We're taking things slowly. Like Lee Majors, I'm not the type to kiss and tell, but I think that she digs me. Or acknowledges me. Or could pick me out of a line-up from behind a two-way mirror.

I'm being falsely modest, of course. We are on smiling terms, as of today. She gave me a little, shy, Mrs Gaskell sort of smile which wrongfooted me somewhat. When I saw her later I gave her the old Hungover Lost Boy Wince. If you're female and you know me you might recognise this as a variant of the Drunken Lost Boy Simper.

I have since analysed these two incidents with Derridan vigour. She smiles at me because she walks past my shop two or three times a day (the shop is between her home and the tube station) and I'm invariably standing around acting nonchalant. I smile at her because she's beautiful - here I don't discriminate, I smile at all the beautiful women - and because I believe that she is within spitting distance of superstardom.

So, another resolution for tomorrow. I'm gonna talk to her and tell her I'm her number one fan.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Monday, May 22, 2006

If A Thing's Worth Doing

I've been working on various side projects...

It's so difficult to find time...

The dog ate my homework...

I'm considering abandoning Borrowed Philosophy. Last week a teammate described it as "a kind of public mid-life crisis". And just now I feel more committed to the softball and fiction blogs. This is why I could never have an affair. It's not that I lack imagination, it's just that my imagination lacks duplicity. And I'm a terrible liar. My poker face is positively elastic, in the Rowan Atkinson mould. Note: Rowan Atkinson - much bigger than you'd think, widthwise, and painfully shy.

Anyway, glory be to God for dappled things.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Buffalo Bill's defunct

Has it been so long? Were I sufficiently deluded to believe in an audience I would by now presume that they had left their seats and demanded a refund. Or unBookmarked me. Anyway they'd be gone, so I'd talk about them behind them behind their backs.

x was impatient.

y was disloyal.

Don't get me started on n.

I feel okay. I sat down last night with a bottle of Havana Club thinking I'd empty it. I had about a quarter of it. Which is good news. The bad news is that CCTV footage reveals me looking like this:-



this morning. I am three days shy of my thirty-fifth birthday. I quit smoking years ago. I haven't ingested anything illegal since my daughter was born. I can't drink anymore. And still time marches on, and I look more like Marie Curie everyday.

Jane Seymour, the newsstands tell me, is Still Fabulous At Fifty-Five. Tom Miles, I can tell you, is Already Fucked At Thirty-Five. There's a fine line between looking distinguished and looking wizened, a line which I'm not close to straddling. But I feel okay. I keep a portrait of myself in the attic and do you know what? It doesn't look a day older than when it was painted, some surface dust notwithstanding. My joints are pretty good at the minute. I've lost some weight. I feel okay. I just look like a dying man.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Regarding the Efficacy of Veiled Threats

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for your e-mail.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

We confirm that we have cancelled the membership.

We trust that this now clarifies the matter for you.

Regards,

Customer Services

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Books For Children

I'm having difficulties with my membership of a book club that I've never joined. They're threatening to sue me. For £7.98. I tried ringing them to sort it out, as instructed. It's a completely automated service. But I managed to find an e-mail address so I wrote to them.

I have received a letter from yourselves threatening me with legal action because a "Miss Tom Miles", an entirely imaginary person, has not paid for some goods which he or she never asked for and indeed, never received. It is impossible to speak to a human being on the number given on this letter, giving rise to the suspicion that your organisation is also imaginary.

How's this for a scenario:- the imaginary "Miss Tom Miles" drives down the M4 and torches the imaginary building which houses the imaginary employees of the imaginary organisation pursuing payment for the imaginary delivery.

Please instruct your recoveries department to credit the membership number above for any outstanding balance and then delete the account or face the imaginary consequences. I await a prompt response.

The idea was to elicit a reaction. They came back to me in a matter of minutes.

THIS IS AN AUTOMATIC ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. PLEASE DO NOT RESPOND TO THIS E-MAIL.

Thank you for your e-mail enquiry, our team will respond as quickly as possible.

Thank you.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Dislocated Thumb of Ian Kinsler

I'm glad that I didn't delineate any rules when embarking on this blog; rules about regular posting or subject matter. It's a long weekend, the baseball season is under way, we're redecorating. I offer this as an apology to an entirely imaginary public. Must stop using "entirely imaginary". And hello to Claire, sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, if she sees this. I hope that thirty-five is treating you well. I have new spectacles, and paint on my knuckles. And so to bed.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Mending Wall

It's beautiful title, isn't it? I've appropriated it from old Robert Frost, who specialised in finding the significant buried within the mundane, something I'm obliged to do too, given the relative lack of incident in a typical week. It's a cheat, though. I've mended a fence. And while doing so I wasn't moved to reflect wryly on the way that the boundaries we erect to keep others out often imprison us. Instead I thought about the cold beer in the fridge that awaited me upon completion of the repair, more Ferlinghetti than Frost, that. Or perhaps it's William Carlos Williams I'm thinking of. Meanwhile, around the world other people were falling in or out of love, planning for their futures, or their immediate ends, shopping, fucking, being born or dying. The fence is finished, it shivers in the wind, looking impermanent and not a little sad.

I confess that I am jealous of the journals I read of globetrotting Twentysomethings and their fabulous, unexpected lives. It isn't a question of the grass being greener. If that were so then these kids would write about their yearning for the stability of a suburban family life. And I would not could not swap what I have for what they have. I am jealous because I never risked anything. I never lived abroad, I never immersed myself in another culture. I never took a chance on my own adaptability.

Still, I have my family, my four walls, my tiny garden and the fence that surrounds it. I should remember that that is enough.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Departures


Mindaugas Ramonas, the bandy-legged Lithuanian bricklayer who lives downstairs, is moving out. He's waiting for FO passports for himself and his wife Olga and has asked me to keep them somewhere safe until he can retrieve them if they arrive after he's gone. I asked him where he was moving to. He pointed eastwards and said "Odessa", with a noncommittal air. I was a little confused, but remembered that there is an Odessa Road down towards Forest Gate, and surmised that it was to there, rather than to the port on the Black Sea that he was intending to relocate.

Odessa has always interested me because of its historical status as a Free Port. One imagines the streets peopled with misplaced citizens from everywhere on Earth; exiled poets, war-sundered lovers, deserters, agitators, people running away from their old lives and towards an uncertain future. But it is not these streets that await Mr and Mrs Ramonas, not for now at least. The flat roof above their bedroom is leaking rainwater and they are having trouble with the letting agents. It's time for them to move on. To E7.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Shimata!

Mr Thomas came out of the loo. He was wearing a grey blanket to which flakes of pastry adhered. He gave a sobbing cry. 'My house,' he said. 'Where's my house?'

I worked something out earlier today, on my knees, replacing the lids on felt tip pens scattered by my daughter. Youth is an exploration of the possibilities of chaos; age is a quest for order. As children we resent any control, any delimitation of what we can do. Adults require a robust police service funded by reasonable taxation.

Let's say I'm playing a computer game, my daughter is watching and the character representing me within in the game falls to their death or is otherwise thwarted by a glitch or developmental quirk. As the on-screen me spirals towards oblivion I'll attempt to wrench the joypad into pieces cursing the game for its non-linear reasoning and general shittiness. My daughter will pull her knees up to her chest and giggle irresistibly. For her, the fun starts when things go wrong.

I can't train myself out of the problem-solving habit, nor should I, not now. It's part of what a father does. But it wouldn't hurt to swim with less caution in the choppy waters of the unexpected, I live comfortably in a affluent democracy, after all.

This is an oversimplification, of course. Most children depend on routine and are wary of the unknown. And grown-ups dream of a job where they do something different and exciting everyday. The difference lies in how we respond to a setback, perhaps. If she writes a number the wrong way round my daughter won't mull over her error, she'll raise her eyebrows and write it again correctly. She says "Oh, sorry," sotto voce, to herself. She is still at that age where failure can be spun as an opportunity to do something again and to do it better. As I approach middle age I am struggling to hold on to my belief in the perfectibility of human nature. But I want to believe. That we can get it right. Meanwhile small children everywhere are hoping for the worst, for bombsites to play amongst, for rubble to sculpt.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Lesbian Novel and Me

Just up the road is Jeanette Winterson. She has a flat above a shop, but does not, presumably, count herself among the common people as she owns the shop, the flat, the entire crooked building and paid for it all in cash, by (and from) her own account. She doesn't seem to get out much. I wonder about her, if she spends the daylight hours hunched over a William and Mary bureau scribbling in tiny copperplate, if she's shy, or nocturnalised, if after years of front and forthrightness she's rethought herself as an inner city recluse. It's a strange, though gorgeous spot to choose for the pursuit of a quiet life. When I have seen her, climbing the stairs with a glass vase of lilies, or looking out of her crooked house windows at a commotion in the street, I've been jolted somewhat. Writers are people that we encounter through their work, and it is unnerving to see them engaged in private pursuits, interrupted, distracted. And Winterson belongs to, or rather comes from an entirely other England than me. Northern, God-fearing, gay. I am glad that she has been around, being Jeanette Winterson, for the last fifteen years, even though I struggle with her fiction. There is an iconic quality about her, that goes beyond her hair, or her nose. I remember that the tendons on her forearms would stick out when she squeezed some emphasis into a fist on late night discussion programs. She always seemed convinced, and as a result was often convincing, in her arguments. Now she has a shop, albeit a very special one. She is Roger of the Raj.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Better Living Through Chemistry

There is an Indian folk tale about the tiger and the tiger's child. It's a parable about domestication. The tiger is distracted by the tiger's child and lets his fire burn out. He sends his child to the man village to bring back fire so that he can cook their food; he cannot go himself as the people in the man village are afraid of him. The tiger's child reaches the man village where he is admired and spoiled by the people. He falls asleep in front of a fire and turns into a cat, forgetting why he came to the village. Since that time the tiger has always eaten his food raw. And the cat has always lived among people.

I mention this only because my wife and I were in the kitchen earlier and while she danced around in her nightwear, a bottle of wine to the good, I admired the effect that the descaler I was using was having on the grimly geological deposits around the base of the mixer tap.

I was once a tiger. Now I am Bagpuss. Emily loves me. If I could just find out where she lives I'd be set.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Wonderboy and Waxgirl

It has been seven days since my last confession. I have, of course, sinned in thought, word and deed without interruption since then. But not in such a way as to make the world a worse place, so I'm giving myself a mulligan. The swearing and the lusting are par for the course (end of metaphor) but I have been surprised by the gluttony. If it is gluttony. I am really hungry all the time, like Roy Hobbs in "The Natural".

What am I so hungry for? Will this hunger ever be satisfied? Will I have to sell my soul at any point?

The ENT consultant discharged my daughter this morning. Her hearing is normal, although he did remove an impressive clod of wax from her left ear before she took her test. It's a relief to know that she has simply been ignoring us, on and off, for the last five years. When I was young and deaf among the apple boughs audiologists were crabby, disapproving women of a certain age. Nowadays, based on recent visits to the soundproof booth, they are young, exotic, friendly and hot. I am considering feigning some flutter and wow in order to get tested.

The consultant was "a funny man" according to my daughter. Which is funny ha-ha. He was fantastic with her and reminded me of a chap from school, Mike, who I always liked, but never got to know. His father was a bit like mine, but with money. Mike had a lovely girlfriend who wouldn't let him sleep with her but he claimed never to masturbate. I, for some reason, chose to believe this; I think I was the only one who did.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Death To Police Pigs

You arrive in the grey, tatty bus station, on a cold afternoon. You are seventeen years old, you have just spent twenty-four hours on a coach as old as you are and you are lost in Central Europe. Your sister, Miranda, has failed to meet you. She has gone to Dresden for the weekend although you do not know this yet. You wait around for half an hour, your body temperature steadily declining, hoping that she'll turn up. When she doesn't you walk up the most civilised-looking street and change some money at a casino. You 'phone home. Your father, as distracted as you expect he'll be, answers.

"What? Hello."
"Daddy, it's Dickie," you say. That's your name.
"Hello sunshine, how's Prague?"
"It's terribly cold," you tell him. "And Miranda's not here."
"Ah yes," you can sense his attention wandering, "I think we know about that. I'll get your mother."

You hear a series of noises apparently unrelated to the retrieval of your mother, punctuated by the familiar barking sound that your father makes when he's not getting his own way.

"Dickie, it's Mum. Miranda's gone to Germany with her boyfriend, I'm afraid."
" --- " You still don't swear in front of your mother.
"She says you’re to go the English faculty at the University and ask for Josef."

You thank your mother, consult your guide book, and head off as instructed. On route you buy from a roadside vendor a beer and a wurst both of which are remarkably good and inexpensive. This cheers you somewhat. The English faculty is closed when you get there, however, and you resign yourself to a premature death, slumped in a Czech doorway. This the only fate that awaits you. You have another beer, and another.

Hours later you find yourself huddled for warmth between two amply proportioned Australian girls on the concourse of the main station. They are trying to persuade you to follow them to Munich. They leave on a 5.30 train, before it gets light. You wander slowly back towards the University. You are ineffably tired. There is a warm waiting room outside the faculty office and a sour-faced security guard defies your expectations by letting you wait there. You fall asleep. No-one disturbs you.

"Dickie? Are you Dickie?" A frog-faced man with excitable hair is shaking you awake. A large camera swings from his neck. "I am Josef, I expected you yesterday."
He takes your rucksack and leads you outside. "We'll get coffee," he says. "And then we'll find you somewhere to stay."
"Okay." The idea of finding a bed is extraordinarily appealing, and you are content to follow this man, this stranger, anywhere, if he can secure you somewhere comfortable to sleep. You emerge into a Prague morning that smells of spring. The overcast skies have been replaced by blue brilliance and a fierce, low sun.
You have some indifferent coffee in an underground restaurant and Josef argues about the bill. Eventually the proprietor waves him away and you leave without paying.
"Now, accommodation!" Josef pulls you onto a tram and within minutes you are back where you started, at the bus station.
In a backstreet office the two of you sit down opposite a long-legged woman with a severe haircut. She sounds, you remark to yourself, like the villain's plaything in a James Bond film. There's something transfixing about her. Josef stares at her with accustomed blatancy.
"I have a place in the Jewish Quarter, but it's expensive."
"How much?"
"Sixty deutschmarks."
"I can't afford that, I'm sorry." The long-legged woman looks a little perturbed and Josef kicks you in the back of the ankle.
"That price is for the week?" he asks. She nods and you feel foolish, and a little cheap.

Your new home has twelve foot ceilings, a grand piano, pictures of Masaryk, creaking bookcases, chandeliers of the finest Bohemian crystal, views outward over the Vltava and inwards over a broad atrium strung with washing lines like streamers. You experience a strange sensation, when Josef leaves you alone here for the first time, that the owners have only just left and will shortly return. You, Goldilocks, find the largest bed you can and fall asleep on it.
For the second time today you are woken by your diminutive guide. He is knocking on the door of the apartment and shouting, in different voices:-

"Dickie, Dickie, DICKIE!"

You struggle into an upright position and realise that you have been wearing the same clothes for more than two days. You let Josef in.
"Come, come," he says. "There's to be a demonstration."
"About what? I thought everything was okay now. I thought you had your revolution."
"They're protesting against the Police."
"Why?" you ask.
"The cops are like a secret society. Lots of them who had senior jobs under the Communists are still working there."

You make your way towards the New Town. Protestors are gathering at the bottom of a broad thoroughfare. "Wenceslas Square," Josef tells you. The crowd swells quickly, but everything still seems relatively good-humoured. A brace of jittery policemen, who seem to be about your age, study the crowd palely. They are armed, you notice. The crowd, five or six thousand, at best guess, begin to move. A banner is unfurled up front, it reads something like - DEATH TO POLICE PIGS - according to Josef. It occurs to you that such a message isn't really in the spirit of the Velvet Revolution. You turn towards Josef to make this observation but he is off, snapping away. The crowd has begun to chant and punch the air. He returns a few moments later, still taking photographs. You mention the banner and he laughs.

"Of course a lot of these people aren't Czech," he explains. They're international anarchists here to start trouble." As if to illustrate this assertion one protestor, his face half-covered by a black neckerchief, tries to snatch Josef's camera. "Polizei?" he demands. You step between them, walking backwards, as Josef spins the camera around to his back. He waves his press credentials over your shoulder into the German's face. "Photographer," he shouts. "Czech photographer."

The march moves forward. Depressingly, you realise that once again you are heading back towards the bus station. But the crowd are getting angrier now, and the whole thing, you admit to yourself, is exciting. People join the crowd from side streets. Josef is struggling to contain himself. "This is going to be good," he says.

The police station is in one of the older buildings in this part of town. When the protestors get there they balloon outwards around the main steps and raise the volume of their chanting. You and Josef climb the wall beside the steps so that you're looking down slightly at the crowd.
A coin is thrown by someone, you can't see who. The crowd exhales. Then more coins, you can't see them hitting the windows but you can hear them clacking against the glass before they fall to the pavement. People are looking for stones to throw but there are none. The coin throwing stops and Josef and you go down into the crowd. A man in a peaked cap with epaulettes on his uniform has appeared in a second floor window. He is appealing for calm but sounds angry himself. The crowd, quietened initially begin to shout again.
"Golf balls," says Josef. He points at the entrance to the department store on the other side of the small plaza, he stuffs some notes into your pocket, deutschmarks. "Get as many as you can." His amphibian face is infused with an irresistible glee. You nudge your way through the mob. Inside the store everything continues in serene disregard to the events taking place across the square. Muzak plays. Scents are sampled. You walk briskly towards the sporting goods department, laughing. You buy around two hundred golf balls, emptying out the deutschmarks. The assistant thanks you, in English. You run back downstairs and onto the street. Josef finds you before you even see him. "Great," he says. "Now give them to the Germans." You don't move. "Trust me," he says, and you decide to do so. The same German you saw before seems to be in charge and he thanks you, again in English, for the ammunition.
The balls go up, harder, flatter. Again they're aiming at the windows, and this time the windows are smashing. Many of the balls miss their target, however, and ping back at unpredictable angles from the aged masonry onto a cowering crowd. By now you’re back on the steps, watching this happen. Josef is cackling like a madwoman and it is now that you appreciate the genius of his idea. From where you are it looks as though the police are attacking the crowd. Golf balls are retrieved and hurled again. The crowd grow still angrier. Soon the police really are throwing the balls back at the mob. Eventually someone fires a shot in the air. The crowd flinches, retreats a step, and then roars again. Josef has run out of film and he grabs your shoulder and begins to direct you away from the steps. "In case things turn nasty," he explains.

Later the two of you are drinking in a small bar in the old town. You are falling in love with the waitress who is only a little older than you, and who keeps ruffling your hair when she goes past.
"You can teach me good English" she says, bringing you gin and tonics. You laugh and she looks offended, just momentarily.
"What did you do today, little boy?"
"Another drink and I will tell you, I promise." Josef laughs. But he is shaking his head.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Sea, The Sea

We found time to get to Southend yesterday, and the winter sunshine was enough to temper the essentially desolate feeling that you get in a seaside town, out of season. My daughter had fun, and my wife and I realised that we could never, ever, live somewhere like that, somewhere so very white and otherwise socially homogenous, somewhere opposite, in fact, to where we live now. The reasons behind this conviction are probably different for the two of us. I was brought up in a medium-sized town that was almost exclusively white and middle-class, and if the experience hasn't scarred me exactly, it must have hampered the development of my sense of community and of personal and social responsibility. My wife was raised in the Babel of the East End, however, and has never left it, and would miss it terribly if she did. We had an expected house-guest the other evening, a friend of my wife's who had missed her train. When quizzed by a third party about her stay in Stratford she was broadly disparaging and pointed out that, after all, she was from the country. To us, the country is somewhere you might want to visit, but not somewhere you might conceivably want to live. Southend, by no means uniquely, has neither the obscure charm of the country, nor the diverse delights of the city. It has the sea, though, which is what took us there, and not against our wishes.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Maryland

There's a guy who I see at the station most mornings, he's slight and pale, his hair's a little long. I believe he's Irish, but I don't know if this is because I overheard him speaking once, or if it's because of his appearance. He has that wistful, Irish look. His wife is short, round, black and looks annoyed whenever I've seen her. They have two daughters who are, through a happy coincidence of apparently unremarkable genes, very beautiful. They are always very well turned out, in blazers and boaters and are usually carrying musical instruments. The family as a whole is a kind of advert for reproductive diversification. I'm not jealous of the father. Although I'd like another child I have one surprisingly wonderful daughter. Our relationship is very different from that which the Irish guy seems to have with his daughters, which seems friendly, if a little formal. I've never seen him hug them or wrestle with them and that seems a little alien to me; my daughter spends most of her time trying to injure me in one way or another. It's her way of telling me she loves me, or hates me, or that at least she concedes the unfortunate fact of my existence.

It occured to me the other day, Wednesday in fact, as we stood on the platform waiting for a city-bound train, he was with his elder daughter, that it may just be that in so proper a household the kind of rough and tumble that most fathers have with their kids just doesn't go on. And then I thought, noticing once more the small tonsure of recession that his wistful Irish hair might possibly conceal from the rest of his family all of whom were a head and a half shorter than him, it could be that they don't know he's bald. Maybe they don't know.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Girl in the Decorated Room

Finch, returning to the small town where he spent his teenage years, falls under the spell of a young student, home from Oxford for the summer. He becomes a mentor to the girl, who is struggling to put an end to a strange and damaging affair with another older man, the proprietor of a shop selling antiques and knick-knacks, for whom she is working during the holidays. Finch investigates the other man and is disturbed to discover the true nature of the relationship between the girl and her employer.

Finch uses this information to keep the shopkeeper away from the girl, forcing him to sell up and move away. The girl discovers Finch's actions, though not the reason for them, and confronts him. Finch refuses to reveal the shopkeeper's secret, and he too is obliged to leave town. Driving back to the city he reflects that one can never really know what's going on between two people who live together, and that often one or other of them may not know everything. He resolves never again to involve himself in such things.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Last Night

I saw The Strokes. At the Apollo, Hammersmith. The tickets were a present from my wife. The Strokes, unfortunately, are one of those curious bands who prove to be less exciting live than they are on record. Their studied "we're too cool for you" pose is a little insulting, face to face, when you've paid £80.00. Musically the band are tight, if not dynamic, but perhaps the problem is that at a concert, specifically a rock concert, you want to wail along with the vocalist, and you can only really mumble along with Julian Casablancas. The specific difficulties of the venue, which is neither intimate nor JesusChristLookHowManyPeopleCameToSeeTheseGuys-grandiose and which is seated throughout, added to the sense of disconnection between the audience and the group. When Julian mumbled

"...my feelings are more important than yours"

I didn't feel as though I was in on the joke.

So we didn't see the end of the set. The bit where they played all the crowd-pleasers and Nikolai did a little stand-up routine. We left early, the wife and I. She pointed out, as we made our way back to The Glasshouse Stores for the rubber match of our one-day bar billiards tournament in which she ultimately proved victorious, that she had never seen the bars of a venue so busy while the headline act were on stage. Which was reassuring, in a way. Wisdom of crowds, and so forth. Of course she wasn't prostrate adjacent to the Strongbow concession at the Fleadh in '95 when Bob Dylan was halfway through "Hey, Mr Tambourine Man".

On reflection it's possible that they're right. The Strokes are too cool for me.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Christ Church Spitalfields (continued)

Spring arrived, unexpectedly, in the East End this morning. And while a historic snowstorm spiralled on its prevailing path across the Atlantic towards us we took our coats off and went for coffee. It's a false dawn, obviously, but there are crocuses coming into bloom around my front lawn, the temperature has crept into double figures, and, for the first time since October I've stopped yearning for Spain.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Christ Church Spitalfields

It's a foul Sunday. The sky is a sludgy, featureless dome leaking unremarkable rain. I get to work early, hoping to hear the bells from Christ Church. There are no bells this morning, and the brilliance of the tower's stone is dulled by the rain. Everything is slightly less beautiful than it ought to be. Slightly less beautiful, those people trailing past my window than any other weekend.

In New York it's snowing, really snowing. It's quite a storm. The city will be quieter than anyone can remember it being. A certain wonder, and a sense of mischief will sometimes pervade a city unused to snow.

In London the rain continues.

Friday, February 10, 2006

St Mary Moorfields


Richard Finch, a man adrift in what he believes is a godless universe, drawn by an impulse he does not understand, stops into a small Catholic church hidden between shops in the heart of the city. There he lights a candle for his late father. He feels immeasurably sad, just for a second, and then his heart is filled with a strange, swooping gratitude. The sensation remains with him out onto the street. It's a clear cold day towards the end of a London winter. Finch walks back to work. The urge to give thanks recurs intermittently throughout the afternoon but his established lack of faith does not allow him anyone to thank. Eventually he tells himself, out loud:-

"That was a good thing that you did. It made you feel and remember good things. You should do it again."

Finch is not a stupid man, and he realises that this behaviour is an odd kind of rationalisation. Later he will find arguments, parallels that explain away, at least in part, what he has experienced. An example - If you were to visit a bar in a foreign city and you found yourself having a great time you might resolve to revisit that bar when you are next in that city - but nothing in his existing understanding can account for that itch for praise, for thanksgiving.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Be Here Now


I abandoned the struggle to live continuously in the present some years ago, finding the present wanting, and needing something to look forward to. I planted a camellia, and decided to grow my hair. Il faut cultiver notre jardin. I cast off several habits towards the end of my twenties but they are all related to this decision. I stopped buying cheap shoes and writing poetry. I stopped contradicting people just because I disagreed with them.

Now. There is beauty in the idea that because something is ephemeral it is itself beautiful, but the idea is flawed. A piss stain on the pavement is soon washed away by the rain. Safer to affirm that the beauty of a flower, say, is enhanced by it's transient nature. Freud wrote a charming and often overlooked essay on this theme - "On Transience" - in which the great humanist is troubled by ghosts from the Great War. You could look it up.

A very few things can distract me from fretting or reminiscence: the arc of a truly struck softball; my daughter's uninhibited laughter; girls. But perhaps, if you have built a life of relative comfort it is difficult to appreciate what you have.



Edit 10/02/06: The essay referred to above

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Six Months, Mr Tippet


I came across this earlier today. I presume that it's for real, but even if it isn't Mrs Tippet could be a Mrs Dalloway for the 21st century. I love the way clues are scattered throughout the prose, but I feel guilty, prurient even, reading it.

**edited 07/09/06 picture of me swapped for Ginny Woolf**

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Notes towards a new morality

When you can wear your hair as a scarf it's time to think about a trim.

"He means well, it's just that he's not well..."

It is always possible that you might be more handsome with a beard.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

On Beauty

The Sony Bravia commercial is old news perhaps, but my daughter's enthusiasm for it has yet to wain. For the record her favourite bit is when the dustbin gets knocked over (she's five). She responds to the ad because it is beautiful; an excellent idea expertly executed. Is its beauty sullied by its commercial association? No. Shakespeare and Rembrandt, one might sensibly imagine, born in the late twentieth century and anxious for exposure might have taken the shilling and worked in a similar field, there being little in the way of feudal patronage on offer. Nicolai Fuglsig, the ad's director would not, presumably, count himself in such elevated company, but it is likely that his signature work has created a fuzzy feeling in more souls than The Tempest and The Nightwatch combined. I have a feeling that I will remember the bouncing balls long after the text of Prospero's apology has escaped my elderly recollection.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Everlong (acoustic)

Kindly hosted by someone I have never met

Because it's late and there's no gin in the house. And because the whale unbecame. I will kiss my daughter and sleep.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

By Heligoland

In which the security officer of a cruise ship, who somewhat resembles Edward G Robinson, solves the mystery of a missing necklace to the satisfaction of all parties before, in a final twist, and once the matter is beyond recall, realises that said necklace has been stolen once more by the eccentric British noblewoman from whom it was initially recovered.

Monday, January 23, 2006

T. S. Eliot joined the ministry

My grandfather, who died at the beginning of World War II, is a hero. He was awarded the George Cross in recognition of a act of selfless bravery which saved a number of lives. His citation appears here. Thirty years separate his death and my birth so his gallantry is something of an abstraction to me. I have the diary he kept, sporadically, between 1920 and 1928, and there is scarcely a clue there of future derring-do. My grandfather seems a little priggish, somewhat romantic, idealistic even. But there is no evidence of boldness. He criticises his shipmates for sloth and drunkenness, but never confronts them. He is hypersensitive to issues of right and wrong. And this is the only foreshadow of his end that can be traced. He kept doing the right thing until it killed him. You could argue that leaving a wife and two year old son to the mercies of the state because of some reckless impulse for correctness was not the right thing to do, but there was a war on, and the great majority of us can only imagine how falling bombs might alter one’s perspective.

I have thought about this a great deal and I believe that it is unlikely that I would have done as my grandfather did. I can’t say for certain, of course. I am the sort who gets involved if a unfair fight starts, or if someone right in front of me needs my help. But I will never travel the world to succour the starving, or do voluntary work with the homeless, or tithe my income to deserving charities, nor did my father. I think, however, that we have both striven for a degree of moral rectitude, if only of a reactive kind. When a situation presents itself I try and do the right thing, and my father was the same. The premature death of my grandfather might suggest that this is an inherited strain of behaviour, but it’s more to do, I think, with the example that our respective fathers have set. I try to help people because that’s what my father would have done. My father had the unfortunate responsibility of growing up in the shadow of a man he never knew, could not consult and could never hope to emulate - my grandfather’s heroism was rubber-stamped and signed by the King, after all – but found his own way of interacting with the world which rewarded him with the affection of everyone who met him.

Heroes are made by circumstance, so the French say. Perhaps they’re right.