Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Eric Morcambe Eat Your Heart Out

Dreams are intriguing, aren't they? I always thought it would be interesting to keep a dream diary but, since I remembered them so rarely, keeping a notebook by the bed seemed to me to be tempting fate. Most likely, weeks and months would go by and nothing get written down. Then, recently, prompted by a particularly interesting dream, I looked into how sleep researchers try to increase the chances of people remembering them. There are all sorts of ideas out there. Drink a large glass of water before you go to bed was one. If your sleep is interrupted, you're more likely to remember what you were dreaming about. Creating a need to go to the bathroom three hours after you fall asleep is a sure-fire way to interrupt it. The simplest way though, and by far the most intriguing, is to say I'm going to remember my dreams three times to yourself just before you drop off. I've tried it. It seems to work or, at least, it does for me. I've probably remembered my dreams about two nights in three so far, instead of twice a year. As a result, I've started a dream diary.

I was going to say the results were interesting but something I quickly realised is that you only have to go back through a few of your dreams to see to see that they're probably only interesting to the person who dreamed them, or their analyst. Last night, however, I had one which amused me no end. It bears sharing:

Boris Johnson announced that he was going to play Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. People might have a low opinion of him at the moment but when they heard this, he said,  all that would change. 

I was working at a school. Originally it was announced that he was going to come to the school to perform it but there was such an outcry on account of this breaking the covid regulations (don't ask me which ones, it was a dream, after all) that this plan was dropped. Instead, it was decided, he would perform it at a different venue. Why this was better was not clear, as it still involved children trooping off at lunchtime to the venue to hear him. 

The sight of him slumped in front of a piano like a sack of potatoes while tickling the ivories is not a sight I'm every likely to forget. I didn't get to hear very much but from what little I did hear it was obvious that what his hands were doing on the keyboard bore no relation to the music. He was playing along to a recording on a fake piano.


Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Me and My Trousers

I have always thought of making a big deal about buying a new pair of trousers as being an old man thing. I guess I'm getting old. I've just bought a new pair of jeans and it feels like a major event. It could also be that I've been wearing the old ones since the first lockdown last year. The only times I didn't wear them (apart, of course, from when I was in bed) was when I did the garden and when we went to my son's wedding. I have an even older, more disreputable pair of trousers for doing the garden (and that's saying something) and I wore a suit for the said wedding - although I did threaten to wear my 'lockdown originals' as I'd come to call them in my own mind.

I've been wearing them for so long that taking them off for the last time was a bit of a wrench, almost like shedding a layer of skin. It probably was,  in fact, as they only got washed once or twice. We've been through so much together that I can't bring myself to throw them away. They have historical significance.  As I already have a pair for doing the garden, I've had to create an honorary position for them, as spare gardening trousers, a kind of clothing equivalent of being given a seat in the House of Lords.

I doubt they'll get used. The bottoms are frayed where they caught on my heels, the belt loops are coming off, the zip's gone (that was the last straw), there's a hole in the crotch and another in the waist. They'd be good for a scarecrow but I haven't the heart to demote them to such a lowly position.

Monday, 6 December 2021

One Day It'll All Be Different

I recently finished printing out the latest draft of the book I've written. It's the book that's kept me away from the blog. It's a novel-length collection of thirty-two short stories and I've given it the working title, One Day It'll All Be Different. It's the title of one of the stories in the collection and also a line from a visual poem I made a while ago and which I've used as a cover for the draft. Thanks are due to The Weaver of Grass for helping me with the proofreading.

A few of the stories were written earlier, but the vast majority have been written over the last eighteen months.They explore  time, memory, the way we create the worlds we live in and the unknowability of other people. Suitable themes, you might think, for a pandemic lockdown. I was about to say that, despite that, I wouldn't describe it as a work of 'lockdown fiction', but as soon as I began to type out this thought I began to question it. None of the stories feature the pandemic, the characters meet freely, travel the country and explore their environments. However, the very things they do are the very things lockdown leads one to think about and perhaps yearn for. Several of the stories, too, involve characters becoming immersed in the topography of their immediate surroundings. This, I think, has also been one of the less unpleasant themes of the pandemic for a lot of people. So, is it a work of lockdown fiction? Perhaps it's not for me to say. 

One of the great things about writing short stories is that, because they're short and self-contained, you can be bold. If you have an idea, explore it. Why not? In two or three thousand words' time you'll be doing something else. Short stories can be a liberation not only for the writer but also for the reader. Not enjoying the narrative? Don't worry, in a few pages you'll be embarking on a new one.Very occasionally (but, be reassured, if such things are not to your taste, not too often), it might lurch away from literary fiction into a hauntological world drawing on the tropes of fantasy or science fiction.

It's a good feeling, getting it printed out. I've obviously backed it up but, even so, it's reassuring to see the thing on paper and feel its weight in my hand. I did a word count (well, the computer did) and it weighs in at 56,789 words. What are the chances of that?

On a different note, I'm currently reading The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. You have to be wary of taking to heart the judgements of others. I'm thinking here of critics and how we read and, if we write it, write criticism. It's so easy when reading to take on board the opinions of the writer, particularly, I think, when the idea in question is presented as a casual aside. With The Voyage Out, it being her first novel. when critics write about it they seem to feel almost obliged to damn it with faint praise. One is left with a mental image of a rather stodgy, flawed first novel that's nothing like as good or as interesting as her later work. Added to which it's pretty thick. 

Being a Woolf fan and having read almost all her later novels, actually reading it for the first time is proving to be a pleasant surprise. A young impressionable woman (a bit like Woolf herself) goes on a sea voyage with members of her family. They find themselves joined, briefly, by a Tory MP, Richard Dalloway, and his wife Clarissa. Richard turns out to be an egocentric sexual predator. I found that episode quite disturbing and was left wondering what Woolf would've made of his modern counterparts.

It's not all dark, though. On the contrary, so far I'm finding it one of the most humorous of Woolf's books I've ever read. For example:

Mr. Pepper went on to describe the white, hairless, blind monsters lying curled on the ridges of sand at the bottom of the sea, which would explode if you brought them to the surface, their sides bursting asunder and scattering entrails to the winds when released from pressure, with considerable detail and with such show of knowledge, that Ridley was disgusted, and begged him to stop.

And, later, 

"It’s the philosophers, it’s the scholars,” [Richard Dalloway] continued, “they’re the people who pass the torch, who keep the light burning by which we live. Being a politician doesn’t necessarily blind one to that, Mrs. Ambrose.”

“No. Why should it?” said Helen. “But can you remember if your wife takes sugar?”

Friday, 29 October 2021

The Day I Ran Away

One day in 1966 I ran away from boarding school. I was eight at the time. It was the beginning of my second term. I'd been sent there with the best of intentions. I'd been having problems at my previous school and my parents were at their wits' end. In their position, had I been able to afford it, I may well have done the same thing.

The first term had not been easy but my teachers had reassured my parents that things would get better. All boys take time to settle in, they said, some longer than others. To the adults in my life, things, understandably, didn't seem to be as bad as they really were. One had to accept that teachers knew what they were doing. What the teachers played down, I suspect, was the way violence was normalised inside that institution. For myself, as soon as I got back, I realised that the coming term was going to be at least as awful as the one before. For ten weeks, I'd been beaten at least four times a week and, at the end of term, the headmaster told me to remind him next term that he 'owed me a whopping'. Needless to say, when I returned, I didn't.

One morning, soon after the start of term, me and another boy who'd also had enough just walked off. I remember it vividly. It's a slide-show I can replay in my head at will. Chapel, which was held every morning, after breakfast, was over. We were walking down past the sports fields to the block where the classrooms were. As I remember it, he and I were talking about how fed up we both were. We'd never really spoken to each other before that day or been particularly friendly, but that morning we found common cause. Perhaps we gave each other the strength we needed to do what needed to be done. As we passed the rugby pitch we simply turned off the path and walked across it towards the fields and woods beyond. We had no plan. Like so many great rebellions, however many times it'd been dreamt of, when it actually happened it was a spontaneous act. I remember the other boys stood and watched us, jeering and laughing at us as we walked away. Looking back now it strikes me as curious that they thought they had something to laugh about. After all, they were the ones left behind on the inside of a violent neglectful institution, looking out. We were the ones on the outside, walking away. We were the lucky ones.

We just kept walking. We held out for a whole day. The school, as I remember it, was in the middle of nowhere. We made our way from field to field, furtively crossing the occasional road when we had to. I remember once peeping round a hedge to see a queue of police cars waiting at a crossroads, all, we presumed, out looking for us. Looking back it was probably one of the most exciting days of my life. We were wanted men. As we travelled we made a vague plan for the immediate future. The other boy knew the area slightly as his family home was not that far away. We decided to head for it as best we could but I've no idea whether or not we were ever actually travelling in anything like the right direction. He said we'd get a telling off if we made it but, knowing his mum, she'd at least give us a plate of beans on toast. As the day wore on, we began to get hungry. The thought of that beans on toast spurred us on. I have a vague memory of coming across an apple tree at one point and taking a few bites from a sour apple, but I might've imagined this.

By the evening, it was obvious we were getting nowhere. We didn't relish the thought of spending the night out of doors, or huddled in the corner of some farm building. Not only would it be cold, scary and uncomfortable but it would raise the whole episode to a different level. We decided to give ourselves up. The next road we came to, we simply waited on the verge for the next passing police car.

I have no memory of the journey back. What I didn't know at the time was that the police had been to the school for another reason that day, to arrest the headmaster for taking indecent photographs of children. When we got back I did get the sense, though, as you do sometimes as a child, that the adults around us were preoccupied with important things we knew nothing about. I remember hearing low voices involved in earnest conversations, too far away to hear what was being said.

We were taken to the headmaster's study and given a stern lecture. Apparently, our crime was so grave that, for once, we were not going to be beaten. We were to be suspended. We should understand that this was the height of indignity, far worse than six of the best. Our parents were coming to collect us. I remember feeling disappointed that we'd not been expelled. Perhaps, I thought, we should've stayed out all night after all. But that was only a passing thought. It was immediately followed by the realisation that, although I was only suspended, my parents would surely never send me back. All through the lecture I remember standing there, staring impassively at the adult in front of me while feeling, inside, a sense of complete triumph, a feeling which he, had he been able to read my mind, would've described as insolence. I viewed him with complete contempt. We had broken the rules, yes - his rules. He viewed what we did as misbehaviour. In fact, looking back, I find it hard to think of a day during my childhood when I behaved better, right down to our decision not to worry our parents unduly by staying out all night.

We were sent to collect our trunks from the cellar. My father came to collect me. I remember the tug I felt when the boy I'd run away with was whisked away. I knew at that moment I'd never see him again. As I expected, I never went back.

There was no barbed-wire fence around the school. There didn't need to be. Most boys more-or-less happily adapted to the regime of cod-tradition, bells, beatings and rough team games. There were prizes to be won, one could become a good cricketer, even captain of the First XI. One could make a life for oneself there. Those who did, erected barbed-wire fences in their minds and rarely if ever felt a desire to cut through them.

My time at that school and especially the events of that day certainly played a part in shaping my life and, in particular, my political opinions. As an adult, I've always found complacency tiresome. I tend to feel more at home among misfits. I'm still intrigued by how people develop loyalty to institutions that abuse them. For example, I don't understand how anyone can feel patriotic towards a country that lets its most vulnerable citizens suffer, die needlessly, or sleep on the streets. When I look at the world's political institutions, authority figures and the public's response to them, I'm often reminded of Tom Waits' observation that we're 'monkeys with money and guns.' And then there's the business of having to choose between breaking the rules and doing the right thing. As people often point out, those who shielded Anne Frank and her family were breaking the law. Those who killed them were upholding it. When Rosa Parks, quite rightly, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person she, too, was breaking the law. I've come to the conclusion that doing the right thing trumps the rules. The more people think for themselves and set off across the rugby pitch the better.

Looking back, I'm not sure what memories from that day have left the deepest impression on me. Was it the impotent finger-wagging of the authority figures? Was it the jeering of the boys we left behind? Neither. I think, on reflection, it was the epiphanic moment, after we'd given ourselves up, when I realised I was free. There was a downside, though. I'd made myself into an outsider. As Camus said: The outsider is not sure who he is. He has found an “I” but it is not his true “I”. His main business is to find his way back to himself.

I can relate to that. For years afterwards I felt lost for words. I was painfully shy in adult company, never sure of what I should say. I didn't make friends easily, although the next school I went to provided me with the safe, caring environment I needed. They also taught me to play an instrument and began turning me into a musician. In retrospect, it's obvious that Camus' project, the journey back, the search for my true “I”, was my project back then. Come to think of it, I'm still working on it.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Walking up the Hill

 I went for a walk up the hill in front of our house today and took a few photos!

Sunday, 22 August 2021

The Last Three Feet

Many years ago, a friend and I went rock climbing on Polldubh Crags in Glen Nevis. The route we chose to climb started not far from the road and I remember looking down between my feet to see that a number of people had gathered on the roadside to watch. Like all people watching such things, they were probably intrigued to see if I made it or if I fell off. Falling off was something I very much did not want to do.

Sometimes, if you're climbing, it's no big deal. You're roped up and well protected. If you fall, you'll fall a few feet and dangle in the air from your last point of protection. Obviously, you want to avoid doing so, as things can go wrong and equipment can fail but, as I said, it's usually no big deal. Here, though, it was. I was climbing up a vast slab of rock. Although the holds were big enough to accommodate my toes and the tips of my fingers, I could find nowhere to set up any kind of protection. 

I remember, too, looking up to see the top of the crag, only perhaps three feet away. I remember beginning to feel a sense of relief only to immediately dismiss it, as it occurred to me that the next three feet were no easier or safer than the fifty or so feet I'd already climbed. If I looked up I could see blades of grass and wildflowers overhanging the top edge of the slab. If I looked down between my feet I could see the rope, curving down away from me to my 'second' on his stance half way up the cliff. The onlookers, now tiny dots, were still down by the roadside. Had the remaining part of the climb been two feet from the ground, anyone would've been able to scramble up it without a second thought. It wasn't technically demanding in any way. As it was, it was perhaps the hardest three feet I ever climbed.

One of the attractions of rock climbing is its metaphorical relationships with life; and I often think of that climb, for the simple reason that life has a habit of throwing up situations like it from time to time. One such is finishing a book. You've written tens of thousands of words. You could possibly finish it off more or less as it is, but you feel you've a bit further to go. You need to write just a few thousand words more. Just a few thousand? You look down between your feet. Then you look up. You realise that the last few are no easier than the first few. However, it feels as if you've a lot more invested in them.

To my left, as I type, I've a pile of A4 sheets, a first draft waiting to be typed up. If I'd worked on them instead of writing this I'd be six inches closer to the top of the crag.


And if I'd spent the last few days adding to those sheets instead of making this short film, I'd be six inches closer still. Thing is, you have to be disciplined but you also get the feeling you have to give yourself a bit of slack if you're to give your best. 

Monday, 26 July 2021

A Walk Around the Garden

The village we live in usually holds an 'Open Gardens' event every July. Since, for obvious reasons, we couldn't hold it this year, I decided to wander round our garden with a camera. Anyone else who wants to wander round it can wander round it with me, online...

I should add that my other half's the gardener, not me (I just do the odd bit of donkey-work). 

Eric Morcambe Eat Your Heart Out

Dreams are intriguing, aren't they? I always thought it would be interesting to keep a dream diary but, since I remembered them so rarel...