Wednesday, December 03, 2008

An Impractical Cat (cont.)

Alfred is not sleek, nor slender, nor graceful. He is a grubby specimen, a pigeon, but pigeons are like coalminers in that they are often grimy for reasons that are to do with their environment rather than to do with an aversion to washing.

He is a stoical pigeon, and a clumsy one. These traits were impressed upon his character by a single incident early in his life, in which he involved himself too intimately with a high voltage power cable. This brief encounter left him poorer, to the tune of two toes on his right foot and a wingtip. His flying, therefore, was erratic and his landings more so. But, he reasoned, he could still fly, and took great consolation in this gift from his Creator; many other creatures would have been completely incapacitated or indeed extinguished by such an adventure. So he feels lucky, privileged even, but this does not extend to pride. He is aware of his shortcomings.

Monday, October 06, 2008

An Impractical Cat

Midnight is a young, slender cat who is very happy to be alive. She is almost all black, as you might imagine, but has white spots on her heels, which you see when she is tip-toeing away from you. Her white heels are her way of saying goodbye (Her miaow is very quiet).

Her eyebrows are especially long and her bright yellow eyes, which would otherwise be terribly fierce, point inwards slightly, towards her nose, giving her a gentle, curious look.

She appears at the back window of Daisy's house in the afternoon. Not every afternoon, but when she feels short of fun or attention. Midnight and Daisy are always delighted to see each other. Daisy has treats and toys for Midnight to nibble at or play with. Sometimes Daisy wants to squeeze Midnight so tight that she'll hurt her, almost. It is a confusing feeling, but Daisy is a sensible girl, and holds Midnight gently against her, feeling the simple resonant joy of her purr.

Midnight gets confused too, though not very often (a tendency towards introspection is but an occasional failing). She wonders whether she wants to stay with Daisy, sometimes. But the idea of home is a powerful one, even for a creature as dilettante as a cat. So she returns to her family two doors along, to the house that smells like her. She is a beautiful creature, sleek and dark, with nothing at all to worry her.

Except Alfred.

Monday, August 04, 2008

I'm Your Man

A while ago I was very much in love with a girl called Elisabeth. We weren't well-suited, then at least. She was serious, I was glib. She had a career, I had a job. We didn't get along with each other's parents. She was a snob, I think, but not a bad one. We were both youngest children with much expected of us. We lived together for a while in a flat in Kensal Rise. She grew out of me or tired of me. Anyway she didn't want me anymore. I don't think of her that often.

She's with a soldier now. And I hope she's perfectly happy. Perhaps she has kids.

She came into my shop today, not her exactly, but a woman who looked like her, laughed like her. Same height and shape. Same age. With a little girl of a year or so who immediately became my best friend. I didn't speak to her mother really, it would have awkward, but as she left I asked her daughter's name. "Freya", she said. She looked straight at me without that distance you expect between strangers. "Say goodbye, Freya." Freya refused to comply. And then, curiously, so did her mother. She loitered, asking supplementary questions, trying to work me out. Eventually she left. Freya still refused to wave.

"She reminded me of someone," I told my colleague, Scott.
"Funny that," he replied. "She said the same thing while you were downstairs."
"What did you say?"
"I said you look like Orson Welles."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fighting in the Captain's Tower

What is a Renaissance Man? He is a soldier in the morning, a statesman in the afternoon, and a poet in the evening. What private time he has is given over to astronomy, and mastering the lute. He wears hose, of course, rather than trousers, and has a gift for constructing perfect, crystalline demonstrations of his considerable wit in everyday speech. His discourse, on just about any subject, sparkles with effortless erudition (though philosophy is his pet topic).

What does a Renaissance Man do? He reads, he invents, he woos, he intervenes in secret crises and in doing so secures the future prosperity of the nation. He tours his estates and wins the admiration and loyalty of his tenants. He plays tennis deftly with either hand (his second serve is an unplayable chimera of spin and bounce). He imports the finest oils and unguents from the Far East to maintain his appearance. He suspects that his hairline has begun a recession which no Oriental potion will halt. He encourages his older servants to cheek him, in a pretense of humility.

He is not real, and that perhaps, is his hamartia, that sense that everything, yea, even his very self is an illusion. His memories seem unreliable, his foundations unstable. Sometimes he wakes before the birds have begun to chatter in the eaves of his well-appointed seat and finds that the down of his pillow has been matted down by sweat, or tears, or both.

Philosophy, art, accomplishment, none of these things can save him, of course. These things instead broaden his understanding of the futility of human endeavour. He is hollowed out by that which ought to make him, anyone, whole. Even if he is not a myth he cannot exist.

"How handsome he was!" they will say. "He had so much to live for." That's how it seemed.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Inside The Park (3)

(Picture courtesy of the most excellent Kelly O' Connor at

Henry Chadwick, a stoutly bearded Devonian sportswriter, is the man credited with devising the box score, a summary of events on the field of play during a baseball game. His prose was as stiff as his collar, as straight as his spine, and now seems hopelessly outmoded. The box score has survived as a tool of reportage however, because of its simplicity - it is easy to compile and easy to interpret, it transcends language. If a non-Anglophone, somewhere south of Florida picks up a discarded English language newspaper and turns to the back page he will not be able to gauge the performance of his favourite player, a compatriot perhaps, from the paragraph of jagged-looking print describing the game. For that he'll check the box score. One thinks of Hemingway's Santiago, checking on Joe DiMaggio's injury-plagued 1949 season.

A full box score can tell you about extrinsic factors too; weather conditions, attendance, time of game, but it obviously, necessarily, omits more than it includes. A box score can't record a loud foul ball which bends the wrong side of the pole but rattles the pitcher nevertheless. It won't tell you about the fastball thrown under the chin of a batter which induces the weak pop-up to short right two pitches later. It offers nothing on the sensation of peanut shells beneath the shoes of the roaring masses in the bleachers or the sweet, suddenly renewed intimacy that twilight brings to a ballpark. Evening becomes Fenway.

And a box score does not discriminate. Its mathematics are blind to a player's colour or his relationship with the media. Scoring may occasionally be political, but the box score is a disinterested judge, observing the obvious double turned into a single by stodgy baserunning, and the misplayed slow roller to third leg hit, and treating those two impostors just the same. Similarly, the box score does not distinguish between two other related, but different outcomes. In the fifth inning, Manny Ramirez crushes a line drive home run to left, just destroys it. The ball leaves the park in less than two seconds. It happens too quickly for a distant spectator to appreciate it. It's a spectacular feat of strength and timing, but it's strangely unexciting. In the seventh Kevin Youkilis lofts a ball high into the night sky. Then something odd happens. Grady Sizemore, troubled by proleptic waves from the future presumably, fails to commit to the ball. It bangs off the bullpen wall and scoots out towards centre field. A cartoon pursuit ensues out by the shutters. Meanwhile Youkilis is belting around the bases. I'm queuing for beer, watching him, on the balls of my feet, like an impatient child. He rounds third and Trot has just hit the cut-off. The screens down beneath the bleachers are small, and though I've got a better view than almost anyone in Fenway Park, it doesn't seem real. He crosses home plate, standing. I return to my seat.

"Cyn, that was an inside-the-park home run, wasn't it?"

The box score records these two events drily thus: -

M Ramirez (8, 5th inning off C Lee 0 on, 2 Out), K Youkilis (7, 7th inning off R Hernandez 0 on, 1 Out)

And they are equal; solo home runs, but one feels like the product of effortless genius and the other like the product of quotidian toil. Presence has shifted my perspective, somehow. What once seemed invaluable now seems overpriced, the true value of what seemed cheap is now evident. This is where this experience hinges, for this Englishman. The deciding run belongs to Youkilis, even according to my ancient countryman, Chadwick, thanks to an aberrational flirtation with failure by the mighty Papelbon. I can't make sense of all this, of course. I've been drinking for ten hours. Schilling struck out ten. His son caught a foul ball in the player's box. Pedroia announced himself. The Red Sox came within a whisker of a triple play. Trot returned.
The Captain fell over catching a pop-up and issued a rare smile of embarrassment. There is singing, lots of it. The flow of fellow-feeling pulls me out of Fenway. I roll back to the hotel, back to England ultimately, drunk and happy.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Straight From The Source

I'm typing this in a pub, called, with admirable economy, “The Tavern” in the village of Kemble, Gloucestershire. There is manure on the road outside, and the people have accents. It's the countryside. I'm here for a site visit to the local manor house, which sounds exciting, professionally speaking, but in fact the contract is unlikely to be as lucrative as my boss was presumably anticipating when he agreed the £90 train fare for me to get here. It's a beautiful old house, the like of which one might imagine one of Jane Austen's moderately well-to-do families living in (it would have been a new-build, then, of course). I decided to walk from the train to Ewen, the adjacent village. That's what people do in the countryside, isn't it? Walk from one bit of countryside to another? They're not so big on pavements in this part of the world, so I was forced on more than one occasion to dive onto the verge to avoid oncoming traffic.

£3.05 for a pint of Lowenbrau? That'll be the “strangers” rate, at a guess. If I wanted to pay London prices I wouldn't have got on the train this morning.

Anyway, as I'm wandering towards the site I cross a small, picturesque stream. Nothing remarkable about that really, until I notice a wayside sign, a stake in the ground with painted arrows on it and the words “Thames Path” in relief. The stream is Old Father Thames, in infancy. Interesting but not an earth-shattering discovery, you might think. But the Thames has loomed large in my consciousness recently. I wrote this recently:-

The Thames rises in the Cotswolds, as a small spring which soaks through long grass down to some level lower ground where it begins to look like a brook, then a stream, but little more for most of its length. What begins as a bucket poured down a hillside flows out just two hundred miles later , coloured now by silt and sewage, bejewelled with every kind of floating rubbish, into the unremarkable North Sea. Yet this modest river was the most important in the world for a great chunk of the last millennium. The Thames brought life to London, the greatest of cities, and London brought fame to its river. This was the river on which Chaucer and Conrad worked... and besides which Spenser and Shakespeare wrote.

I mentioned my discovery to the architect I was meeting on site who said “You do realise you're about a quarter of a mile from the Thames Head?” And he took me there, after a couple of hours of ironmongery stuff. There's standing water everywhere here; persistent, heavy rain is making people's lives miserable. But every cloud, etc. We drove slowly past the place where a spring forces the river above ground and where the raised water table has created a marsh (the ground slopes more shallowly than I thought) from which the river snakes away and he told me “You're lucky – usually there's nothing to see, really.”

I've been to the Sagrada Familia, Stonehenge and Fenway Park in the last year, but this glimpse of the nascent river was up there in terms of exhilaration. That makes me odd, right?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ou sont les Dambudzos d'antan?

Rates of attrition at Birkbeck have become alarmingly high. Specifically in my seminar groups. It could be me. I try to be polite and understanding, and to nod where appropriate but I can't see my face when someone else says something which is neither intelligent, germane nor funny. (I, of course, have carte blanche to be unintelligent, off-topic and unamusing, because I don't have to look at me.) This wastage seems to be principally female in make-up, but there were more female students to start with, so this impression is unreliable. I could offer a generalisation about the sterling commitment of the men on the course, we happy few, but I suspect there are one or two dilettantes. And I know for certain that there are some rabid types amongst the lasses. It's a shame, that's what it is. Money wasted, time wasted, breath ill spent, in retrospect, at least. It's all my fault.