Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Homeopathic Ancestry

The face of hard times: my great-grandmother Mary Mabbitt,
listed here as receiving "parish relief" as a pauper family in 1906.

I've been thinking about the past a lot recently. Not so much my own personal past (although that does inevitably acquire prominence as one gets older) as the historical past, and in particular those dark but densely-populated stretches of the 19th century where most of our family histories lie. This is territory I've covered before (for example here), but I've been helping a friend with his family-tree researches, and it's remarkable how familiar so much of the ground has been. True, we come from very similar working-class backgrounds, but then, don't we all? Any trawl through the records of the 19th century will reveal how the general prosperity of the later 20th century is built on the compacted foundations of generation upon generation of hard grind and poverty.

One of the great insights of pursuing "family history" (a rather inflated term for the dogged pursuit of the paper-trail one's DNA has left, or failed to leave, in the bureaucracies of church and state) is to discover how very quickly you leave behind a familiar world of electric light, cars, fridges, and free schooling, and enter a crowded, dark, damp, unhappy world of struggle and short lives, where births, marriages, and deaths were signed off with a wavering "X": the "mark" of some illiterate forebear. The censuses show large families sharing small houses with other large families. Children vanish from the records, presumed dead, living with relatives, or in service somewhere. Widows serially marry men who die far too young, creating rival tribes of siblings. Families constantly split, like amoebas, into parallel strands of cousins, each bearing the same cluster of names, occupations, and ages, often living close nearby, making it impossible to tell one Henry or Hannah from another. Illegitimacy, and occupations and living arrangements that fell outside the law or the state's ability to categorise them would be glossed over with lies and euphemisms. Surprisingly often, people didn't really know how old they were, with the estimate varying, sometimes wildly (or perhaps wilfully) between each census and the various other required forms of certification.

The other day I was looking through our family photographs with my daughter, and was struck by the self-evident truth that her eight great-grandparents – just three of them familiar to me and all unknown to her – were born into a world that had yet to see cars, aeroplanes, electric lighting, or indeed any of the conveniences of modern life. It was no wonder I found them so hard to talk to: by the time they were the age I am now, which would have been around the mid-to-late 1950s, they were probably in a permanent state of PTSD, their once-familiar planet having been invaded and taken over by an alien species. I don't think many grandparents today have that problem, perhaps because rapid change is a condition we have come to expect and, to an extent, enjoy.  The pursuit of family history itself, once a time-consuming and expensive slog through scattered archives and graveyards, has become an almost trivial matter, carried out by ordinary people from the comfort of home on a machine and over a network that are far beyond the imaginings of even their most recent ancestors. It takes an act of true contrarian political will to reject the conveniences of globalised modern life, from out-of-season vegetables to dirt-cheap flights, on the grounds that their real price is too high. A price that is being paid by other families, in other parts of the world, where "modern life" as we understand it has yet to arrive.

I suppose the other main lesson of family history is the simple maths of the geometric progression of reproduction: every direct ancestral generation of every individual doubles in size. To which can be added siblings, cousins, and multiple marriages, although illegitimacy – far more common than we might think [1] – does tend to truncate some branches, genealogically if not genetically. Given that in the UK official registration of births, marriages, and deaths goes back to 1837 (and parish records much further), a child born today could reasonably expect to trace a family tree going back at least seven or eight, possibly even nine or ten generations. That's an awful lot of individuals to track down who have made a direct contribution to a single child's genetic pool; well over 1000, in a family with a conscientious attitude towards registration with officialdom. And yet, obviously, the further back you go, the more homeopathic is the contribution of any one individual. So, now that we're aware of the direct inheritance of "Y Chromosome" and "mitochondrial DNA" from male and female lines respectively, a lot of people choose to trace just those two direct lines of descent. But that is still a lot of work, and not so cheap if you do the thing properly, and buy a full suite of B/M/D certificates for each individual. It is also a lot of different sets of historical circumstances to take into account, even over a mere 180 years.

That last is, in many ways, the key. The old debate about "nature versus nurture" is always relevant. You don't acquire attitudes and behaviour from your genes, as far as anyone knows, although you may inherit certain aptitudes and predispositions. You acquire your attitudes and behaviour from the environment in which you grow up, which in turn is heavily influenced, positively or negatively, by the environments in which your parents and grandparents grew up. What is missing, in most family trees, is any sense of what sort of people your ancestors were and what sort of world they inhabited. You may have identified an individual living in 1841 with some precision, but probably only have the vaguest, most generic idea of the things that truly matter. What clothes did they wear? What food did they eat? Were they kind or cruel, churchgoers or notorious scofflaws, crippled by hard manual labour or people of private means? What did that street look like in 1841? Was it a hive of respectable conformity or a thieve's rookery? More research needed.

My own investigations illustrate this. On one side, I can trace my direct male line to a shepherd in Scotland's Lammermuir Hills, living in the late 18th century (Scottish records really are superb). It was only when I sat back, having succeeded in following this dry paper-trail, that I thought, "Holy shit, this guy is a contemporary of Robert Burns and Robert Adam, and his grandfather may well have been at Culloden". But I doubt very much that this romantically remote personage has had any influence at all on who I am [2]. On the other side, my maternal grandfather was illegitimate, the child of an unknown father and a woman who abandoned him into a Liverpool foundlings institution, lying about her name, age, and marital status on every official record, thus rendering herself invisible to posterity. In other words, an entire quarter of my genetic makeup is completely unknown and untraceable. But I'm pretty sure that my grandfather's experience of growing up without parents in the care of a late Victorian Poor Law Union, followed by service in WW1, had a profound effect on him, which will in turn have had a similarly profound effect on my mother. Certainly, it may explain why the taciturn old devil used to toss worms at me when gardening, which he knew I hated. "Tough love" would be the charitable interpretation, I suppose. Nature may deal the cards, but nurture plays the hand.

"Look, Ma! Posh folk!"
Queen Mary visiting shipyard workers, Sunderland, 1917
Tyne & Wear Museum & Archive (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/6/14/1/4)

1. I was impressed and quite surprised to learn recently that George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, the great art collector and patron of Turner, Constable, and others, filled Petworth House not only with art but also with over FORTY illegitimate children.
2. Although on a visit last year to a friend's smallholding near Inverness, I did discover a certain affinity with handling sheep. So who knows?

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Bun Fight

I was in the Royal Academy on Wednesday with a couple of old friends, exploring the new extension and admiring the various exhibitions it contains, and in particular the newly-displayed "permanent collection". Naturally, I was drawn to the anatomical models, including this fine example of an écorché (flayed) torso. Back in the days when artists suffered from the disabling delusion that both talent and the acquisition of representational skills were prerequisites for their trade, poor fools, the copying of such objects was mandatory. Some fine examples of anatomical and sculptural drawing are on show at the RA, and the sheer (sorry, mere) facility displayed is breathtaking.

Probably the most extraordinary object in the permanent collection is an almost full-size copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, actually made during his lifetime. Unlike the original, which started to fade about ten minutes after it was finished (and was not improved by having a doorway cut through it), this copy is pretty much intact. Studying it, the revolutionary if impious theory occurred to me that the whole composition actually revolves around the row of buns or rolls laid out in a row along the table edge. I counted them, and there are only ten, three too few, surely the cause of the disturbance and gesticulations erupting around the table. Italians take their food very seriously. I bet a panino to a ciabatta that here lies the true origin of the expression "bun fight". Go on, check it out, and tell me I'm wrong.

Of course, when it comes to the matter of copying casts of classical sculpture, William Blake (whom I revere, but who – let's be honest – was no great shakes as a draughtsman) had a typically contrarian opinion. The photograph you see above is of part of an installation in the RA, seen through a gauze screen: it's a small model of the original, heavily-restored version of the sculpture "Laocoön and his sons having a bit of bother with a large snake", once regarded in neoclassical circles as the exemplar and ne plus ultra of all plastic art (no, idiot, it's not made of plastic). Blake's own engraved version, annotated by him onto the actual plate at some later stage, is an extraordinary artefact, which raises demented marginalia to an artform in itself. If you want to read what he has to say, look here. Let's just say he begs to differ on the subject of the sculpture's alleged greatness, and indeed that of classical art in general. I must say I agree with his broad point, although – like any moderately sane person – I might take issue with quite a lot of the detailed argument. Or Blakean Rant, as we might more properly call it.

In the Permanent Collection is a full-size cast of the Laocoön. Like so many of the exhibits, it does give a certain thrill to think how many distinguished pairs of eyes have gazed upon it, labouring over a sheet of paper in their apprentice days. As is my habit, I went round behind it to see if there was a more interesting angle there, and was amused to find a "hidden" work of art, a little model boat painted in WW1 dazzle camouflage, inserted into the hollow base of the cast. The young attendant was pleased to note my discovery, and she told us all about it, and the RA's wartime role in developing camouflage patterns. Although she did look a little panicky when, in return, I expounded my theory of Leonardo's bread rolls, still hot from the oven, as it were. Perhaps I was being a touch more Blakean than I intended.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

You Have Mail

I've been an email user for a comparatively long time. Before I retired in 2014, I had been an IT administrator within a university library since the mid-1980s, so had been using electronic mail over academic networks even before the advent of the wider internet and the World Wide Web.

I think it is now a universal experience that email in the workplace has become a problem, and not the solution it once was. It's far too easy to copy a mail to multiple recipients, and regard that as "job done".  "What do you mean, you didn't know the electricity was going to be off today, didn't you get my email?" Got it, yes; read it, no... (a real example, unfortunately). For the last decade or so at work I was receiving so many emails daily – from colleagues, work-related interest groups, not to mention the leagues of fraudsters and spoofers – that, had I decided to read them all, my job would have consisted entirely of reading and occasionally answering emails. It wasn't so very far off from being that, anyway.

My only defence was to set up numerous "rules" to divert mail from known low-priority email sources into their own inbox folders, so I could ignore them en masse and concentrate on the residual incoming mail. When I retired, I was allowed to keep my university email address, but I carried out a mass cull of work-related mailings, some of which I had kept for over a decade (and, um, some of which had gone unread for almost as long). In one folder alone, containing messages from other users of the same library IT setup as ours, there were over 6,000 (six thousand) unread emails from the previous six months. At the end of the slaughter my inbox had shrunk from a shade over 1 gigabyte to 85 megabytes.

What I hadn't anticipated was the withdrawal symptoms. Now that I am no longer a member of those various interest groups, and no longer receive that daily barrage of work-related mailings, the frequency of my incoming emails has dwindled away to a mere handful. The arrival of a new item in my inbox has become an event, like the arrival of a real letter or postcard that isn't a bill or a piece of junk-mail. I discovered that part of me actually didn't mind as much as I thought all those scattergun requests, the "me, too" mails, and the duplicated notifications ("Apologies for cross-posting..."); a certain illusory sense of personal importance and centrality can be buoyed up by that daily tidal flow of email, which has now evaporated. It's a first taste of the isolation of old age, I suppose.

There are other factors at work, too. I love email, but many people now regard it as an old, superseded technology.  If I need to send either of my kids an email, for example – because I prefer to type a lengthy communication containing important details on a keyboard rather than prodding at a phone screen, and will edit it carefully for optimal communicative elegance  – then I generally also need to send them a text, to alert them to the incoming email. When my daughter was at university I had regularly to remind her that her lecturers, mainly being old farts like me, would be expecting her to check her institutional email regularly (as in several times a day, not once a week). Like me, they had probably come to find that email hits a sweet spot between modernity and Ye Olde Worlde of typewriters and duplicated memos.

Away from work, and apart from texting, it seems social media like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter have largely replaced email in public affection. I suppose the attraction is that you can follow today's ephemeral trends while they're still hot, and enjoy the serendipitous pleasures of a semi-public, semi-private life shared with hundreds, even thousands of like-minded folk. I think of it as the equivalent of being at some eternally-ongoing festival, like a virtual Burning Man, where lurking moodily in your tent is not an option. Email, by comparison, must seem both excessively private and lacking in spontaneity; the equivalent, perhaps, of hiring the same old gîte in the Dordogne with selected family and friends. I did have a Facebook presence for a while, and checked in most days to see what my half dozen "friends" – who (weirdly, I know) were all actual friends – had seen fit to share, but I hardly ever used it myself. Eventually, I simply deleted the account. Take that, Zuckerberg! As for Twitter, I have never signed up for it, and I resent the way broadcasters like the BBC have capitulated to it, using and publicising hashtags as if Twitter were a neutral and permanent public utility, like the phone network. Which it is not.

Not so long ago (if ten years can be thought of as "not so long ago") blogging also used to be thought of as part of the "Web 2.0" social media revolution, but this is clearly no longer the case. Certainly, if my own stats are typical and to be believed (and I'm talking about Google Analytics, not the ludicrously distorted figures in Blogger's own stats)  then the number of people reading blogs has dwindled dramatically over the past few years. I mean personal blogs, of course, not the mega-blogs that are essentially free magazines, published one article at a time. This is hardly surprising, as keeping up a consistent, regular and decent-quality flow of posts demands a high level of commitment and, dare I say, some actual writing talent. Most personal blogs were unfocussed, short-lived enthusiasms that are now dead or so intermittent as to be indistinguishable from dead. Unlike this one, of course, with its tenth anniversary coming up next month (gifts of money will be fine).

Well, it's so much easier to add the ten millionth "like" to a particularly cute cat video, and feel that brief warm glow of sharing, than to figure out what you think, stick your neck out in public by writing it down, and risk the humiliation and disappointment of not being read by anyone, isn't it?


Monday, 10 September 2018


Guardians: Bordeaux & Amsterdam

I came across this pair back in 2010, when visiting the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux. I'm not sure who or what they are, but it's clearly an angel either restraining some warrior type, or possibly checking the sharpness of his blade (stop giggling at the back, there).

The original is a mighty sandstone block, but I like them rendered as this tarnished bronze brooch or medallion. Beneath their watchful presence lies a rickety canal frontage from Amsterdam. Why? Who knows, but it works for me.

Friday, 7 September 2018


Guardians: The Sleep of Reason

When we were in Bristol recently we visited the American Museum near Bath. Mooching around Claverton Manor, the early 19th century building that houses the main collection, my eye was suddenly grabbed by the sort of weird detail that always excites my attention. A decorative plaster frieze on a staircase that I had originally thought to consist of urns linked by drapery turned out, on closer inspection, to be made up of the skulls of cattle. WTF? I had never seen (or, at least, never noticed) such a thing before, and naturally took care to photograph it. Given this was the American Museum, I was put in mind of the archetypal skull nailed on a ranch-sign, and of those photographs of colossal heaps of buffalo skulls slaughtered on the Plains in the late 19th century [1]. So it seemed quite appropriate, possibly even some witty site-specific twist on a classical theme.

The next day, it was a toss-up whether we would visit Dyrham Park in the Cotswolds or Lacock Abbey near Chippenham (the Fox Talbot Museum); looking at the distances involved, Dyrham Park won. To my surprise, wandering around the grand but dingy house that afternoon, my attention was drawn to yet another, similar frieze of bovine skulls, this time around a plinth, linked by garlands of leaves. It was beginning to seem likely that this was not some unique Western-themed conceit, but an architectural thing (sorry, I am becoming over-addicted to "thing"). I resolved to look it up.

It seems what I had come across were examples of a bucranium frieze. No, not some rare element which causes hair-loss in superheroes, but a curious decorative representation of the sacrifices of oxen that took place in classical times. Constantly, it seems, at any and every auspicious opportunity, though I doubt if the quantities of skulls ever approached those heaped up on the American Plains. All the same, to the silence and stillness of those Keatsian Grecian urns must also be added the absent stench of spilled blood and butchery, wafting over everything like a battlefield.

Strangely, it seems I was fated to encounter a second example that day, whichever choice of outing we had made, as one of the other places cited as an example of the use of bucrania in English neoclassical architecture is Lacock Abbey. Although, now I've noticed them, I expect they'll probably be turning up everywhere I go. Which doesn't make them any less weird as a choice for interior decoration.

1.  Not to mention the traditional cow skull that, in cartoons, always marks the onset of desert (and, in Popeye, intones, "You'll be s-o-o-o-ry!", which I believe was a 1940s catchphrase in the USA, derived from the TV show "Take It Or Leave It").

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The Red Thread

Forty-odd years ago, I was reading for an examination paper on that all-purpose man of German letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Nothing unusual in that, other than the fact that I was supposed to be studying English, not German language and literature. But, as I've explained before, we had to choose a special paper from a long and rather eccentric list of options and, as it happened, one of the options was "Goethe". So, as I had studied Faust Part 1 as a set book at German A-Level and had grown a little bored with my monolingual diet, it seemed like it might be fun. In fact, only one student made that particular choice that year, and the exam paper in finals had to be compiled and printed for that single candidate, me. I also had to be "farmed out" for this paper, as my own college lacked anyone suitably qualified (or perhaps willing) to tutor me. In one of those intriguing but probably meaningless coincidences, the chosen tutor was Kenneth Segar of St. Edmund Hall who, I discovered a couple of years ago, now owns a property in Sauve, France, where he has become a good friend of one of my home-town "elective family", a musician who settled there some years ago [1].

Anyway, one of the works I studied with Dr. Segar was the novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, traditionally translated as Elective Affinities, a wonderful yet baffling title, which refers to an old chemical theory that particular substances are driven to combine with certain other substances, as if they were "naturally" electing (choosing) to do so. One of the passages that struck me at the time was this, where Goethe reaches for an image to convey the family resemblance between the entries in one of the character's diary:
"We have heard about one particular custom of the British Navy. All the rope used by the Royal Fleet, from the thickest to the thinnest, is twined in such a way that a red thread runs through all of them; it is impossible to remove the thread without undoing the rope, and that means that even the smallest piece of rope can be identified as property of the Crown".
The idea of a "red thread" (ein roter Faden) as a kind of thematic connection running through something subsequently became a figure of speech, especially but not only in German, eventually deadening into one of those cliches, beloved of the pompous, that gesture toward quotation – expressions such as "grew like Topsy" or "like a curate's egg" – without requiring any awareness of their actual source.

However, in recent times I have noticed something odd. Obviously, most people have not read Elective Affinities, and so will only have at best a second-hand appreciation of the "red thread" expression. Unless, of course, they have been in the Royal Navy or for some other reason are aware of the old so-called rogue's yarn anti-theft device. As a consequence, most people will have read, heard, and used the expression with zero appreciation of its original referent. So it seems that attributional vacuum has been filled by the assumption that the "red thread" refers to Ariadne's thread, the one that guided Theseus out of the Labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur. Which, as far as I'm aware, was never actually described as "red".

But it seems the redness of Ariadne's thread has firmly established itself in the public mind. For example, recently two books on the subject of mazes were reviewed together in the TLS (Forking Paths, by Peter Thonemann, August 24 & 31, 2018). One book is actually called Red Thread, and the other, more graphical book, Follow This Thread, has a single red line running through the entire book "twisting and turning into impressionistic single-line images of mazes, Minoan bull-leapers and ... the horse from Picasso's 'Guernica'". The reviewer is quite caustic about the way "both authors have been led disastrously astray by the imp on their shoulder whispering why not structure the book itself like a labyrinth?", but at no point questions whether Ariadne's original thread was actually red. Which I found both annoying and intriguing.

I've since done my best to check the sources for the "Ariadne's thread" thing (or Stoff, as the comparative literature people like to call a thing). I'm no classicist, but so far I've checked out Catullus 64, Plutarch's Life of Theseus, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Diodorus Siculus, the Fabulae of Hyginius, and found no mention of the colour of the thread. Its thinness and fragility, yes; its redness, no. So, unless someone better informed can tell me otherwise, I think this is a case of the creation of a genuine factoid, a false or unreliable statement repeated so often that it has come to be regarded as true.

1. Sauve seems an intriguing place, having become something of a 21st century "artists' colony". Among other notable residents the American cartoonist Robert Crumb lives there, creator of Mr. Natural, the "Keep on Truckin'" meme, and numerous other figures familiar to the counter-culturally inclined of the late 1960s. One of these days I must pay it a visit.

Friday, 31 August 2018


I have already mentioned that I was born in the top flat of a converted house that belonged to the engineering firm where my father worked, Geo. W. King of Stevenage. Back then, Stevenage New Town was still very much under construction. The town I knew in my childhood and youth had already become a stable, knowable place, but in 1954 it was still a shifting mosaic of building sites and half-constructed roads. That house, scheduled for demolition, was a remnant of an older Stevenage, when it was still just one of dozens of former coaching stops strung out along the Great North Road; the road that, before the coming of the motorways, used to be the main route from London to Edinburgh. The property had an odd but evocative name: Blackamoors.

My parents had spent the first years of their marriage in my mother's native village, Pirton in North Hertfordshire, sharing accommodation with my maternal grandparents. It can't have been easy, so soon after both of them had returned from military service – my mother had been a sergeant in an ATS anti-aircraft unit, outranking my father, a humble despatch rider – and especially with a small child to care for, my sister, born in 1946. To move to an exciting new town, and finally to get their own place, however temporary, must have been thrilling enough. But Blackamoors was, by all accounts, a rather grand house with grounds that were far beyond anything they would ever be able to aspire to themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that my earliest days were spent in what, in family stories, comes across as a little paradise.

I am told I spent many contented hours in my carry-cot on the lawn, surrounded by foraging green woodpeckers – still among my favourite birds – while my sister and the little girl from the downstairs flat played in the grounds, which included a pond which still survives (perhaps symbolically located behind both the town library and a large office block that once contained the pub of my youth, the Longship, on its ground level). Back then, that pond was a home to newts and frogs and other pond-dwelling creatures; now, probably not so much. With the family in the downstairs flat being good friends (and my godparents) and with a daughter the same age as my sister, it must have felt rather like the sort of communal living my generation experienced in similar large properties twenty years later. There were so many happy, foundational stories told about the place that, in my mind, the name "Blackamoors" came to represent some paradisal phase in our family story [1]. It never occurred to me to wonder what a "blackamoor" might be, probably until I read Othello at university: it was simply the name on the gates of Eden.

A few years ago, I found some clues to the nature of this little Eden on the Great North Road. By some miracle, it turned out that the local museum had a postcard of the property in its collection, and they made me a copy. Naturally, I have no recollection of the place, and I had always imagined it to be somewhat older, but this, clearly, was a substantial private house built in the early 20th century. I then found an auction record dating to the pre-war period, describing Blackamoors, curiously, as "a little gem in Herts, a house to satisfy the most discriminating of housewives". According to the auction house, this "little gem" stood in 5.25 acres of grounds, with "quaint hall, 3 reception, 6 bed rooms, 2 bath rooms, 2 staircases, and the usual offices, all company's services, telephone, part central heating, lavatory, basins in bedrooms, useful garage". Not so very little, then, even divided into two. I also found a notice in the London Gazette for 1948 concerning the winding up of the London and Suburban Coal Company, in which the chairman was named as Robert Swan Brewis, coal merchant, of "Blackamoors", Stevenage. Brewis, presumably, was the last private owner of the house before the New Town loomed on the horizon, leading to the flight of the wealthier locals; King's then presumably took over short-term ownership, no doubt at a bargain price. Finally, I discovered a compulsory purchase order from 1956 by Stevenage Development Corporation for Blackamoors Lane, "which land was formerly an access way leading from London Road, Stevenage aforesaid to the property formerly known as 'Blackamoors'". So, at most, I can only have lived in paradise for two years, and probably rather less.

Obviously, there also needs to be a serpent in Eden. The other day, I was reading about the concept of "Maya" in Eastern religions, something which has always fascinated me, and noticed the story of the rope and the snake. That is, that in the dark, a rope lying on the ground may be mistaken for a snake, but in the light the illusion will vanish, and it will be clearly perceived for what it really is, a rope. At Blackamoors, my mother had the opposite experience. In broad daylight, bringing in some washing from the line, she noticed that someone had left a dirty old rope in the washing basket. Reaching in to remove it, she found she was holding a snake. This event became a key element in the Blackamoors origin myth, although I don't think it was ever regarded as the Great Teaching it probably was. Mum was a formidable, complex, and unusual person, but deriving metaphysical insights from even such startlingly instructive real-life incidents was never one of her stronger characteristics. Which, now I think of it, may in a perverse way account for why I have spent so much of my life doing precisely that, to the extent that I am still parsing out and puzzling over the episodes and anecdotes that went into the construction of my own personal Dreamtime.

Stevenage Town Centre under construction (image: Stevenage Museum)
Blackamoors was beyond the Co-op's facade, about 150 yards down to the left.
The family story was that I was born above the toyshop, Playland, that occupied
the corner of Queensway opposite the Library (now a Cash Converters, I see...)

1. Obviously, my take on the situation is both entirely reconstructed from hearsay, and also entirely self-centred. You might say I have put the ego in Arcadia... (Heh. Sorry about that).

Wednesday, 29 August 2018


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a couple returning from a brief vacation will probably still be in a holiday mood. So, having got home from Bristol and finding that we were still in a holiday mood, we finally made the trip out to Jane Austen's cottage in Chawton, something we'd meant to do for years, but had somehow never accomplished. Reader, at this point I should make my ritual confession of still never having read a single Austen novel, which, I'd guess, puts me in much the same position as at least 80% of the 55,000 visitors each year who creak across the venerable floorboards. Yes, many have admired Colin Firth in a wet shirt on TV, but far fewer have grappled with Aunt Jane's subtle literary ironies on social class, aspiration, and the screaming boredom of a woman's life among the landed gentry of early 19th century England. I have done neither, myself: it's nice, sometimes, to find yourself in the ignorant camp.

Among the exhibits in the cottage, I was very struck by some fragments of Jane Austen's actual wallpaper. They looked rather like the long shreds you end up with when stripping the wall, which is probably exactly what they were. However, enclosed in a glass case like geological specimens, they looked, inevitably, rather comical. I mean, it's good to know exactly what ambience surrounded the Austens as they went about their daily business and – who knows? – maybe those marks are where Jane herself spattered this exact spot opening a late night can of beer, or are the result of repeatedly banging her head against it in frustration, unable to find yet another synonym for "handsome". But, having served as a model for the reproduction paper pasted onto the actual walls, you'd think it was "job done" for the wallpaper scraps, and they'd be filed away, pending the time when some future advanced technology will enable Miss Austen's customary sweary sarcasm to be exhumed from the fossilized soundwaves trapped within them. But some curatorial impulse is persuaded that we should have the opportunity to contemplate these faded and torn quasi-religious relics of Georgian interior decoration.

In principle, I'm not about to disagree. I love to mooch about in a good museum – and a bad museum can be even more fun – and I also enjoy poking around in some stately pile, preserved for the nation by the National Trust. And, it's true, despite the heightened level of irony in my mooching and poking, I expect a museum to contain the real thing, even if it has been changed utterly by the depredations of time, rust, and moth; I don't expect a museum to be full of reproductions, artist's impressions, and interpretation boards. Although where time / rust / moth have been particularly active, these can certainly help, so long as they are placed alongside the real thing, and not substituted for it. But, on the other hand, I also don't expect any notable house with a steady flow of visitors to have been restored into a museum-piece by removing all modern amenities like electricity and flush toilets, or ensuring the west wing is authentically cold and damp by un-repairing the roof, or wafting in the bona fide stink of a Tudor barnyard (although I believe something of the sort is done at York's Jorvik Viking Museum). It's a difficult balance to get right.

But, I remembered visiting Dyrham Park last week – not least ascending the staircase shored up by acrow props and scaffolding ("No more than four people on the staircase at one time, please") – and thinking: this place is falling apart not just because of a lack of funds, but also because no-one is allowed to replace the woodwork, strip off that god-awful "original" wallpaper, fix the dodgy plaster, or generally brighten the place up. Like so many ancestral piles abandoned to the nation by their cash-strapped inheritors, it has the gloomy patina of a neglected attic. No longer anyone's home, it has become a tomb. I was reminded of the unplayable ethnic instruments in Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, with their perished leather, cracked soundboards, and stiffened gut strings. Such dead things make a fine metaphor, but a rather sad display. If only we weren't quite so obsessed with preserving every last scrap of the ancestral past, down to ragged strips of wallpaper, such buildings could have a useful future, and be used for something other than rather dismal museums of aristocratic poor taste.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Bristol Guardians

While we were in Bristol last week we managed a couple of excursions. One was to the American Museum, near Bath, and the other was to Dyrham Park, a National Trust property in the Cotswolds. Allegedly, I have been to both places before, probably some time back in the last century, but have no convincing memories that would corroborate this. Sadly, this often seems to be the case, these days; not only can I not recall where I was when either Kennedy was shot (at school, probably, but who knows?) but I can't find my driving glasses, which is much more annoying.

As you can see, I've made a few new "guardians" by cross-fertilising photos from the two places. I got a particularly rich haul of figures from the "folk art" section of the American Museum – even the toff below playing an enthusiastic game of pocket billiards is American – and a lot of useful background material from Dyrham Park. Now I'll definitely remember I've been there, probably. No sign of those glasses, though.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Barcelona Guardians II

This trinity of grinnin' fools combines statues from St. Petersburg and Barcelona – one in a museum, one on a street corner – plus a little typographic ingenuity to produce an essence of smiley-ness. Can you imagine holding that expression long enough for someone to photograph, let alone sculpt it in marble? Come to that, can you imagine feeling the need to sculpt some local notable in marble? Somewhere along the line, public life lost the urge to memorialise itself. I'm in Bristol at the moment, and I'm struck by the busts of city and university notables from the 19th and the first half of the last century that clutter up various niches and unvisited corners of the city museum. No-one, now, is likely to pay to have a mayor or vice-chancellor immortalised in stone. Assuming they could even find someone capable of doing the job.

I forgot to note which particular saint the benign-looking bearded fellow below is (the one with the sunglasses), but he's clearly in a relaxed mood. The other (smaller) one is my go-to guy for "contemplative, fashion-forward male with shaven head". You may have noticed him before around here, pondering the great mysteries. Saint Shades of Barcelona clearly thinks he's doing a good job.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Barcelona Guardians I

Naturally, I've already been working on some photo-collages using the raw materials I brought back from Barcelona. I'm still keen on the idea of "guardians" as a thematic series, based on sculptures and statues of various sorts. It's a well-established stimulus to creativity to set yourself certain rules and constraints within which to work; the urge not to be boringly repetitive – despite these self-imposed limits – leads to the sort of constant small innovations that keep things fresh, for the creator, at least. In this case, some of the rules include a "portrait" orientation, and the ability to "read" well as a small 10cm x 15cm print on an A4 sheet.

The gargoyle-like thing above must be in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) somewhere, probably in the Romanesque section, but I encountered him / it as one of a number of 3D reproductions in the gift shop. It's a sort of variant of a Green Man, eating or extruding a tongue-like ram rather than the more usual foliage, and very like the moon-faced, bearded character I used to use as my Facebook icon, with the lower half of a man dangling from his toothy maw.

The rather lovely carved wooden woman below is a reliquary, also to be found in MNAC. The pearly halo-shape behind her is one of the enormous internal air shafts in the Museu d'Historia de Catalunya, inverted,  with various other bits and pieces superimposed, including the air vent in our Barcelona apartment. It's all grist to the compositing mill.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Absent Friends

Recently, I received an email out of the blue from an old schoolmate. Ian was someone I had grown up alongside – quite literally, we were next-door neighbours for a few years as small children [1] – and, although I knew we had not been close friends in those most memorable years of late adolescence, nonetheless he is someone I ought to be able to remember well. Except that, annoyingly, I couldn't, and the more I thought about it, the vaguer my recollections became. I could remember him at primary school well enough – we had sat in the same classrooms for seven years, after all – but who had been in his group of friends at secondary school? What direction of study had he taken in the sixth form? Good grief, hadn't he, in fact, been in one of my own subject groups? German, perhaps, or Geography? No, that was another boy, similarly tall, and with a certain facial resemblance to Ian, but not him. Or was it? This had all the makings of a first-class mnemonic embarrassment.

Now, once you have passed the age of 60, failures of memory take on an alarming quality, like finding a fresh crack in a load-bearing wall, or being woken by a ringing telephone in the small hours. Things like that Billy Collins poem, Forgetfulness, are no longer quite so wryly amusing. I have spent entire mornings trying to remember a name, coming at it from various different angles until, with a disproportionately intense surge of relief, it has turned up in some dusty corner of my overstuffed and neglected memory palace. Phew! But on the subject of Ian at secondary school: nothing.

So, to cover my humiliating lapse of memory, I emailed another old classmate to ask if he could remember anything about Ian. But he, too, only had the vaguest memory of someone who might or might not have been him. Which was odd, because Ian was large and characterful, not the sort of lad you would easily forget. It was as if he had been edited out of the narrative.

In the end, the answer turned out to be simple. He had indeed been edited out. Ian's family had emigrated to California in 1966, and so he had spent just a single year at our secondary school. There was nothing there to forget, other than the removal of his piece, so to speak, from the board. In those days, this would often happen. Someone would fail to reappear at school at the start of a new year in September, and their absence would either not be noticed at all, or quickly forgotten. Friends and classmates came and went; new ones took their place in the register. A move to another school in another part of town, never mind another part of the world, meant they had simply ceased to exist, in any meaningful sense, in the ongoing group Bildungsroman (or soap opera, if you prefer) of 30 or so individuals.

Of course, that was before social media. It never ceases to amaze me that my daughter is still in touch with a girl who left her school at about the same stage as Ian left mine, when her family moved to Yorkshire. I suppose there must have been people in my day who stayed in contact with a particularly close friend by letter or by phone, but I'm not aware of any; after all, letter-writing is rather more effortful than texting, and a single family landline is not an ideal medium for sharing adolescent secrets. No, absence from daily "facetime" resulted, in effect, in a complete excision from reality.

The oddest thing, though, was realising that neither of us could have the faintest idea of who or what either of us had been, become, acquired, abandoned, ventured, achieved triumphantly, or failed at miserably on the journey from age 12 to age 64. Which is a long, eventful journey by any standards. Who, I wondered, did Ian imagine I was now? Did this matter enough to either of us to take the necessary corrective steps (essentially, to write an entire summary autobiography)? I suppose if someone were to read their way through the nearly ten years' worth of posts on this blog – all 1,500 of them – they might get a sense of who I am, or at least of how I have chosen to present myself. But "I" is always a work in progress, and will have been changing even over the course of this most recent decade, too. And then there are the shameful and secret (or indeed admirable) things, forgotten by or unknown to me but regarded as essential attributes by those more objective observers, one's work colleagues, friends, and family. Nobody is ever quite who they think they are, especially in the eyes of others.

I suppose there is a case to be made that your 12-year-old self is your purest self. Poised between childhood and adolescence, at that age you are both completely yourself and a blank canvas; wise to the world, but not yet compromised by it. To be known and remembered as you were then, and only then, is to be a character in some eternal tale of late childhood, such as Just William, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or, ah, Lord of the Flies. Which has its attractions, doesn't it? Why complicate things?

But what must it have been like, to have been uprooted from Stevenage New Town and transported to Southern California in 1966, right at the time of peak Beatles, Beach Boys, and Byrds, not to mention Mamas and Papas, Mothers of Invention, and, um, Monkees? Or Vietnam and Civil Rights, come to that.
It's automatic when I
Talk with old friends
The conversation turns to
Girls we knew when their
Hair was soft and long and the
Beach was the place to go

Suntanned bodies and
Waves of sunshine the
California girls and a
Beautiful coastline
Warmed up weather
Let's get together and
Do it again
Beach Boys, "Do It Again"
Sounds awful, doesn't it? All that sand and warmed-up weather! Poor guy, forced into proximity with suntanned California girls, picking up those good vibrations, when he could have been hanging around in the rain at chilly bus-stops after pub closing-time like the rest of us. When the family returned to England some years later, it must have felt like the expulsion from Eden.

But, when I was thinking about the possibilty of someone doing that same journey in reverse, from Southern California to North Hertfordshire, a little memory-ping went off. At the back of my mind, I suddenly found I had a vague recollection of, yes, some American lad who had turned up at our secondary school for just a year or so. Or was I just imagining that because of its conveniently satisfying symmetry? What was his name? Jim or Joe, maybe? Damn it, here we go back into the dusty memory palace... I may be gone for some time.

1. Their house could well have been the location of the Mary Mouse episode.

Sunday, 12 August 2018


I've been in Barcelona for most of the past week, where it has been uncomfortably hot, even at night. It must be tough on climate-change deniers, insisting against all evidence that this is how the summer is meant to be, isn't it? Hot? But mind if I take off my shoes and socks? I concede that the wildfires are not entirely untypical: I remember sitting in a bar in Vigo around 1980 (admittedly on Spain's Atlantic coast), watching abandoned vineyards burning unchecked in the hills above, as smuts floated down onto the tablecloth and into my beer from the leaden, smoke-filled sky. But a daily temperature approaching 40 degrees centigrade is just too hot for me, and kicks off an irritability in my northern gene set. Look, guys, let's just sack this place, get back in the boats, and head home to the fjords and meadows ASAP, yeah?

This year so far has felt a little too like ticking off European cities in brief visits, but we'd promised to take the daughter somewhere for her birthday (twenty-four! How can this be possible?) and Barcelona was the top destination to emerge. Luckily, we had arranged an air-conditioned apartment on a shady street. In fact, most streets in Barcelona are shady, following that typically southern European tall and narrow urban grid configuration that blocks off sunlight and channels cooling breezes down balconied canyons, echoing at night with competing TV shows and heat-induced arguments. When it's still around 30 degrees late at night then something as simple as agreeing which restaurant to eat at can cause tempers to fray, never mind the descent into the noisy, sweaty hell of the metro system, standing-room only at all hours.

Not the Camp Nou 

 The bottles look fine, but the bacon has seen better days...

You'll know how excited I was to come across this ex-budgie

Unsurprisingly, I have no great insights to offer after such a brief time in a city I barely know, one that speaks a language, Catalan, that floats somewhere bafflingly between Spanish and French, and which has many different and interesting facets, quite a few of which, however, are obscured at this time of year by hordes of tourists, and the facilities and distractions deemed necessary for their (that is, our) accommodation and entertainment. One thing that is obvious, however, is that, as in so many of the great European cities, the inhabitants of Barcelona – always kept at a politicised simmer ready to boil over into action by the hot issue of Catalan independence – are finding that mass tourism is beginning to destroy the place they love, and they'd like to have it back, please. Setups like Airbnb are not popular, as they exacerbate the housing and neighbourhood gentrification crisis created by tourism, and the city council is quite rightly cracking down on the unlicensed letting of apartments.

Touristically, I confess that we did visit Sagrada Familia, but I couldn't quite see why it is such a must-see mass attraction. Sure, the view from the top of the towers is spectacular, but in its unfinished state it's still a bit of a building site, and the Gaudi style is really not to my taste. Frankly, the cathedral is chaotic, aesthetically, and not in a good way. Worse, there's really nothing much to see, other than the view from the top: it's a single large empty space contained within some rather unappealing modernist ecclesiastical architecture. Compared to, say, Chartres, Cologne, or pretty much any long-established cathedral it seems a bit of a non-event. Rate it meh.

 View from Sagrada Familia

View of the Stadio Olimpico from MNAC

More to my taste was the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC), covering the whole history of art in Catalonia, from prehistory to the modern day. Even the view from the top is better, and the gigantic, railway-station-sized Sala Oval is, apparently, the third largest publicly-accessible enclosed space in the world, so take that, Sagrada Familia. Modern art does seem to have a peculiarly Catalan slant –Picasso, Miró, Dalí, Tàpies and many other lesser known artists all being from the region – although what is referred to as "Catalan Modernism", strictly speaking, seems to have more in common with Art Deco and what in Britain is generally referred to as "Arts and Crafts". Like Gaudi's work, it's not really my cup of tea. But, needless to say, I found plenty of material for future photo-composites in there. Regrettably, I didn't get to visit the Museu de Ciencies Naturals de Barcelona.

You probably get the best sense of touristic Barcelona by visiting the beachfront area. It's a classic Mediterranean setup, and I expect many people spend their entire holiday basting themselves on the hot sand. The daughter and I went for a lengthy stroll along some of the choicer bits, and it all seemed well-organised and well-maintained: there were none of the fag-ends and hazardous rubbish you have to watch out for on British beaches, and there were plenty of beach showers, first aid stations, bars, and all the other requisites for the safe enjoyment of sun, sea, and sand, if that's your thing. Sex, too: we wandered through a stretch of nudist, gay-oriented beach, which was strange. Who knew so many men shaved "down there"?

 Beach bar

Sun, sea, and sand (yawn)

Photographically, I was happy to carry just a Fuji X-M1 with the 27mm "pancake" lens. Harsh sunlight is not ideal for the sort of pictures I like to take, and neither are the extremes of bright and shade you get in lively city centres at night. I did take a fair few, but only came away with a handful that stand in their own right. Obviously, what I was really after was raw material for composites, and I got a good, useful haul for such a brief visit. Watch this space.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Listening To The Voice

If this picture reminds you of the work of Tom Phillips, and in particular of his extraordinary bookwork, A Humument, that would not be inappropriate. A while ago there was a competition, judged by the great man himself, to create a Humument-style image out of a page of W.H. Mallock's A Human Document (the unwitting but inexhaustable source of A Humument). I couldn't resist entering but, inexplicably, I did not win. So I've recycled it into my "guardians" series, where it seems quite comfortable. The original statue is in the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux.

Monday, 6 August 2018

He Is The Eggman

I came across this contemplative bloke in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Yes, he really is studying an egg, and yes, there really does seem to be some kind of disturbance going on in his lap. Possibly a chicken? Endless scope for ribaldry and double entendre there (which came first, is that a rumple in your toga, etc., etc.) but it's far too hot for that sort of thing.

Friday, 3 August 2018

We're Having a Heatwave

I'm going to be away for most of the coming week. It is hot enough for anybody here in Britain at the moment, but we'd already planned to head to Catalonia [1] for a few days. Just in time, as it turns out, to catch a potentially record-breaking heatwave in the Iberian Peninsula. Oh, great... Let's hope their infrastructure can cope rather better than ours has been doing. I see a lot of visits to air-conditioned museums in my immediate future. "The wind is in from Africa..."

I'll probably put together the usual couple of pre-scheduled posts to keep things ticking over, although I'm not sure why I'm bothering: not many actual people seem to be dropping by at the moment, even if the robotic visitors are as relentless as ever and do seem finally to have broken into the previously reliable Google Analytics figures (although if you do live in Paris, and made 46 visits over the last three days, or in Boardman, Oregon, and made 23 visits, each lasting an average of precisely 0 seconds, I'd be curious to see how you score on a Turing Test).

These two pictures are from a series which is emerging from my composites based on statues and memorials, with a working title of "Guardians". And, yes, one is yet another re-working of good old Krylov the Fabulist.

1. Incredibly, there seems to be no good, tourist-oriented Catalan phrasebook on the market. Given the popularity of Barcelona, not to mention Majorca, as a tourist destination, you'd have thought you'd be spoiled for choice, but no. I've had to settle for a "teach yourself" text, which tells me rather more than I want to know about irregular verbs and the like. I guess I'm about to find out what Catalans really think about (a) tourists and (b) poorly-spoken Spanish.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

A Voyage Round My Father

ca. 1938

Today would have been my father's 100th birthday, which is an extraordinary thought. "Would have", because he died in July 2007, not long before his 90th. He would certainly have made it to 90, and maybe even 100, had he not concealed the symptoms of the disease that killed him. Or rather, had he not succumbed to an infection in hospital shortly after the emergency operation that attempted to save his life. Typically, this foolishly brave, stupidly self-effacing man had concealed his symptoms for too long because my mother was dementing, and he felt honour-bound to see her through her final years. Only when she had finally been admitted to the care home where she almost immediately died did he seek treatment, but it was far too late. As I say, typical. What can you do?

This was also typical, of course, of so many decent men of that entire generation, born into the long shadow of the Great War, and destined to follow their own fathers – like them, in most cases, cheerfully grumpy, insolently obedient, and reluctantly brave – into a conflict not of their making. Deference and obedience were part of the fabric of society, then, and it took a braver, more free-thinking sort of man to question or refuse so-called "service". It was almost literally unthinkable. But the problem with military service, especially as a private or NCO, and particularly under wartime conditions, is that it raises inchoate attitudes of compliance and conformity into reflexes, and re-badges them as virtues. Do what you're told, and we'll all be OK. Do what you're told well, and you'll be rewarded with praise and promotions. Don't, and you'll cop it.

These questionable reflexes carried over into civilian life and the workplace. Before the war, my father had been an apprentice at a local engineering firm, Geo. W. King, which was run by the King family along patrician lines. The head of the firm was known as "Mr. George", and his son as "Young Mr. George". They seemed to know most of the large workforce by name, and it was a successful and innovative enterprise, mainly building conveyor belts and other mechanical handling devices for car factories and warehouses. After returning from six years in uniform Dad was taken back on, worked hard, did what he was asked, and rose from the factory floor to the drafting office, eventually achieving middle management status as a "production controller". Equipped with a little schoolboy French, he was even dispatched to France around 1960 to help oversee the installation of conveyors in the Simca factory. Deference and loyalty combined with natural ability seemed to be paying off. At patrician King's, effort went into building that loyalty. As it happens, I was born in the upstairs flat of a house just off the Great North Road in Stevenage belonging to King's. My godparents, also employed at King's, lived in the downstairs flat. The King's apprentices "charity beat balls" were famous (in 1964, the Rolling Stones, no less, performed for them in the Stevenage Locarno). Families were not ignored, either; every year there was a children's Christmas outing to some show in London [1]. Every five years, a new "long service" lapel badge was awarded to employees. By the 1970s, Dad had worked there for over 25 years, and was still in his early 50s.

Things began to go wrong around then, however. As the post-War decades progressed, younger men in possession of engineering degrees were leapfrogging their seniors in the promotion stakes. Dad found this a bitter pill, I think: the educational opportunities denied to his generation, but secured by them for future generations, were being taken for granted by relative beginners, and putting the older hands at a disadvantage. Also, the work environment was changing from the patrician to the managerial as control of the firm slipped away from the King family. Worse, the British car industry was in terminal decline, with knock-on effects all down the supply chain. Then, catastrophically, in 1973 Geo. W. King was taken over by Tube Investments, who saw no future in the mechanical handling side of the enterprise. 700 employees were made redundant, including my father. To add insult to injury, TI stole the King's pension fund, simply because it was a handy pot of money, and the law at that time said they could. None of those long-serving, redundant employees would see a penny of their pension. So much for those lapel badges.

This, combined with various domestic troubles and setbacks (including, I'm sad to say, a rebellious son who gave unnecessary cause for worry to his parents) would have embittered any man whose whole philosophy of life had been crumpled up and flung in his face. Loyalty? Long service? Experience? Fuck off! Welcome to Brave New Britain! Dad had always been a wary, ironic man (see the post Father's Day), but he now became increasingly inward and withdrawn, despite finding new work with ex-colleagues who valued what he had to offer. The father I had known as a small child – beaming and bearing gifts when he returned from a week working in Paris, or proudly showing us round the King's stand at an Earls Court exhibition en route to a family outing in Leicester Square; a family man simply, happily content in his life and his prospects – that man had already retired, hurt, before he had even turned 60 in 1978.

Burma Reunion 1947

Which was particularly sad, as he had in many ways been an unusual man and an untypically engaged father, rather ahead of his time. For a start, he always seemed to know everything I might want to know. Whether it was the various types of cowboy pistols, or the names of indian tribes and their chiefs, or the names and habits of exotic animals, or how to fix a broken bicycle, or make a trolley out of pram wheels and planks, or how to draw a boxer, or how to mix brown paint out of blue, red, and yellow paint, or the best way to build a bonfire ... He always knew. He often made me playthings – a sailor's hat from a cornflakes box, a hideaway from wooden pallets in the back garden, an improvised guitar from a rolled up newspaper – and taught me, quite consciously, how imagination was so much better than expensive (and unaffordable) toys. I was never ignored, I could always get his full attention. True, he would sometimes offer to wallop me, give me a good hiding, skin me alive, knock my block off, put salt on my tail, and various other hair-raising threats, and I'm sure I must have had the odd smack, but I can't actually remember any; the threat was usually enough. To this day, the very idea of levering open a tin of paint with the end of a sharpened chisel gives me an almost religious thrill of horror.

The wider world outside work and family seemed to hold little interest for him, although at one point around 1965 he did stand for the local council as a Liberal Party candidate (he lost), persuaded to do so by an old acquaintance from his pre-war days in Letchworth – my mother always pointedly referred to her as an old girlfriend [2] – who was a Big Noise in the party. He loved my difficult, conflicted mother with an exemplary, selfless devotion. Again, I think their relationship was ahead of its time, a model for any aspirational, working-class couple. He understood and supported her need to have a job – she was at work from the time I started at primary school – and never ignored, embarrassed, or belittled her the way other fathers seemed to do. Their pet name for each other was "mate"; I have no idea why, but I've never heard any other couple use the word in that affectionate way, ever. In their prime, they were a formidable pair, cut out for bigger things that never quite happened. Frankly, I think it turned out that they had placed too big a stake on loyalty and deference; they had both been let down by a system that asked for their trust, and then betrayed that trust. As old age set in, and my mother's decades of ill-health became the Big Issue, the two of them moved to Norfolk to live in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. They had always been inseparable – unhealthily so, really – and now rarely ventured out except to shop, spending every evening at home in front of the TV. They seemed to have no friends, and no interests. I felt oppressed by what they had become, and my visits were a trial of endurance that never lasted more than a couple of days.

After my mother died in 2007, and before his own final illness became acute, Dad had a year of relative freedom, which I did my best to encourage. Things he hadn't done for years "because of Mum" came back into his life. He could go for walks (Mum couldn't walk, and couldn't bear to be left alone), so I bought him boots. He could listen to music (Mum didn't enjoy jazz, his passion), so I bought him CDs. He could read (Mum always felt ignored when sitting in the same room as a reader), so I bought him books and an illuminated magnifier to aid his failing eyesight. Our weekly chats on the phone – a repetitive filial chore (perhaps penance) I had come to dread over the decades – became enjoyable; he was free to talk about things he hadn't talked about for most of his life, and most weeks I would be jotting down a new shopping list as I listened.

Then the inevitable call came: he had been rushed into hospital for an emergency operation. I drove the four hours up to Norwich to visit him afterwards, and he seemed to have shrunk alarmingly into a tiny, frail, exhausted old man in a post-op gown. We talked for a bit, nothing of any great consequence, and then I had to leave for the drive back. On the way out, I realised I had left a bag by his bed, so headed back. The curtains had been half drawn around his bed, so he couldn't see me, but I could see him: he was laughing and joking with the three young nurses who had arrived to give him a bed-bath. I grabbed my bag and left the old guy to it. He was two weeks away from his 90th birthday; how would we best celebrate that now?, I wondered. The very next day, though, I heard he hadn't made it through the night. But I was grateful to have had this last intimate glimpse of him being (and enjoying being) the man himself, and not being my father, or a dutiful husband.

1985: not much older then than I am now...

1. I'll never forget those coach-rides into central London, eventually going along the Chelsea Embankment before turning up into the West End. At one Christmas show, I remember looking across at a striped awning opposite the theatre we were being ushered into, which appeared to bear the name STRIPE-ERAMA. Only in later years did I realise it must have been STRIPERAMA, a strip-club on Soho's Greek Street.
2. The name "Elma Dangerfield" always used to come up, but this cannot be right.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Long Hot Summer

Here in the UK, as in much of the Northern Hemisphere, it has been an exceptionally long, hot, and dry summer so far. We've had our share of wildfires, too (fires on dried-out, peaty moors are especially difficult to extinguish, once started) but have thankfully escaped the catastrophic loss of life and property we have seen elsewhere: I sincerely hope none of you have been affected by this.

For once, I have even bothered to dig out and wear my shorts and sandals, a foolhardy act which would normally guarantee a break in the weather. Not this year, however; maybe writing about my shorts and sandals will bring some welcome relief, at least in the form of rain. Probably the nearest comparison would be 1976, memorably the year I endured my university final exams, clad in the regulation, ridiculous "subfusc": for men, a dark suit, white shirt, white elasticated bow-tie, black shoes, plus academic cap and gown [1]. If I recall correctly, for English Language & Literature finalists that year there were two three-hour exams on Thursday, two on Friday, one on Saturday morning, two on Monday, and another one on Tuesday. By the end of it, I don't think anybody cared about the actual result; finally to be free to laze in or out of the sun in minimal, non-fusc clothing was reward enough. School was finally out. For ever.

One of my regular walks in Southampton takes me through the municipal Sports Ground, which lies below the municipal Golf Course, in a swampy hollow of sand and gravel riddled with underground streams and seasonal springs. On an autumn morning, the mists there can be spectacularly all-enveloping. At the moment, however, even this damp spot resembles the Dordogne, with yellowed, straw-like grass baking under harsh sunlight. As I looked across it from an elevated spot, I could see new herringbone-patterned markings across the football pitches, and was speculating what strange new game the pitches could have been marked-up for, until I realised that the overlay of lines actually marks the course of underground drainage pipes, installed to keep the pitches playably dry in winter. All around the country, "crop marks" like these are revealing sub-surface features of varying antiquity, from unsuspected Neolithic henges to Tudor garden layouts; it's the traditional archaeological bonus of a dry summer. The trees, of course, stay green, with their deeper roots, but at grass level it's not deeper roots but the differential presence of moisture over vanished banks and ditches and buried walls and floors that parches some grass into golden straw and allows other grass to remain relatively green, revealing the hidden inscriptions of history below the level turf like invisible ink over a candle flame.

1. For women, the garb was / is similar. However, one of my friends, lacking a suitable pair of black shoes (indeed, much by way of shoes at all), painted her feet black. No-one seems to have noticed or, if they did, chose not to make a fuss about it.