Sunday, July 15, 2018

Bit by bit by bloody small bit this hopeless guitar player is becoming just a little less hopeless. Onwards and upwards (or whatever cliche you prefer, you know what I mean. Never stop trying, something it has taken me a little longer to learn than others)

NB Included in this post are some tunes which your browser should be able to play, though sometimes certain browser/OS combinations cannot. If you want to hear them but your browser is refusing to cooperate, try a different browser.

One thing I had long planned to do when I retired was to take piano lessons. But I haven’t. Instead I am taking guitar lessons. I would still like to be able to learn to read music and play the piano, but the fact is that if you spread yourself too thinly, you end up doing and achieving very little, and I had already long been playing guitar. Then there was the fact that a reasonably sized keyboard, let alone a full-sized upright piano would be hard to fit into anywhere in the cottaged down here on the edge of Bodmin Moor.

As it is my wife, a farmer’s daughter, hoards pretty much everything and is loth to get rid of anything, so space is at a premium. Then there is all the baby crap my daughter has introduced into the house - she splits her time between her and my grandchild living here, usually during the week, and at her boyfriend’s house 17 miles away at the weekends, mainly because he and his parents all work and the house would be empty during the day. (Incidentally, my heart really goes out to new mums with a young baby stuck several stories up in a high-rise tower block of flats, seeing and chatting to hardly anyone and locked into a routine of feeding and sleeping.)

If and when, of course, there would still always be time to try to get to grips with the piano, but I decided to learn to play the guitar properly. It’s not that I can’t play guitar - I can and I have been able to play for many years - it’s just that like so many other players, I got stuck in my groove, simply playing what I could play and not in the slightest bit pushing myself. So, of course, like everyone else stuck in a similar groove, you don’t really improve at all. Anyone reading this will who plays guitar will know what I mean: you do a bit of this for 20 or 30 seconds, then a bit of that, then a bit of t’other, then back to the first bit, and convince yourself you are playing guitar. Well, strictly, you are. But you’re not getting anywhere, and won’t ever.

I have been ‘playing’ pretty much since I was 14 and at boarding school. There was always a few guitars lying around to be picked up and strummed and it is as easy as pie to learn the two chords everyone learns first of all, because they are the same shape: E major and A minor. Then it is on to D major and D minor and - whizzo - before you know it you are playing a G major and then C major. The E, A and D are enough for you to bang out a passable blues, and the G, C and D will take you passably into folk and country music territory. And, of course, using just those simple chords, depending upon how much you practice, you could easily sound - and be competent.

The next step involved looking up the chords to various songs you wanted to play - in my case (52 years ago, remember) it was songs by The Beatles - and by and by discovering ‘bar’ (or ‘barre’) chords and the several variations which make music more interesting but which initially are not quite as easy to master as the simply major and minor chords - the major 7th being one of the most prominent.

Yet even religiously learning the chords to a song was hardly ever satisfying, particularly as I had an older brother around who was gifted in ways I could only dream of. When he played guitar, he sounded like someone playing guitar. When I did, I didn’t. (My brother also had a natural gift for drawing and a very good brain, so good that he could excel at whatever he turned his mind to. Sadly, all too often he couldn’t be bothered putting in the effort and also sadly he had some flaw in him which meant that - as I now know, but didn’t then - he was already demonstrating obsessive behaviour from an early age, and by the time he was 12 when we were living in Berlin, my parents took him to a child psychologist.

Over time, it simply got worse and worse and worse, so that from his early twenties on and until he died a few years ago at that age of 67, he was in and out of mental care, lived in doss houses and generally didn’t have a very happy life. The medication he had been taking for many years eventually brought on dyskinesia, which distressed him even more. RIP Ian.)

So there it was: I was ‘playing’ guitar after a fashion whenever I found one knocking around - there was a battered old acoustic in the flat I shared in 23, Castle St, Dundee, with Eric Clyne, Dave Pilkington and Nigel Selwyn which could never be properly tuned and which was so cheap and cheerful it was murder to play. But I never had a guitar of my own until I was living in Milan in 1973.

I can’t think why I finally decided to buy one, but get one I did (at a guitar shop near Milan’s central station if I remember), a bright orange ‘Spanish guitar’ style item which sounded awful but was within my modest price
range. The first thing I did was to remove the nylon strings and instal metal strings, which everyone who knows about guitars and his dog will tell you is a complete no-no: the guitar’s neck is simply not strong enough over time to survive the tension of metal as opposed to nylon strings and will warp. Well, mine didn’t.

Possibly the neck did warp, but I didn’t notice, and my playing still being of a rudimentary standard it’s a moot point whether I would even have noticed. Eventually, while living in Birmingham in the mid-1980s I also bought an electric guitar, a Les Paul-style shape, and a small amp. My playing, though, didn’t improve because I was still in the groove of playing this, that and t’other for 30 seconds or so and not pushing myself.

I moved to Cardiff in 1986, into a ground-floor flat in Richards Terrace off the Newport Road, and while I was in Germany visiting my sister (and not having checked before leaving whether or not the back door was locked), I was burgled and both guitars were stolen. I can’t remember when I next bought a guitar, a Fender Strat copy, but I was still living in Cardiff and it was there I took my first lessons. They were, however, a complete waste of time as I simply didn’t go the scale exercises my tutor set for me.

. . .

This is all getting a little long-winded and to be frank beside the point. So here’s a tune, Witchcraft played by Jimmy Bruno, and the kind of music I should like to play and at a standard - a bloody great standard - I should like to reach. I doubt I ever shall, of course, but there is no harm in trying and seeing just how far I can get.

Witchcraft - Jimmy Bruno

I have indeed made progress, for two reasons: first I am now regularly practising various exercises and also because I have a very good tutor, Paul Berrington in Padstow, who, though, has one tiny fault - he teaches too fast and by the end of my weekly hour my head seems about to explode with all the stuff he has told me. At first I was a tad despondent, though I didn’t tell him, and wondered whether I would ever get my head around any of it (it was the music theory I was interested in as much as becoming more dextrous).

But by and by some if it began to accumulate and in that odd way these things have, the more you understood, the more you were able to understand, and the more you understood, the more you were able to ask pertinent questions. Furthermore, all the - for my baffling - mystique of many jazz chords became far less baffling as I got to know more and more music theory. So, for example, if looking up the chords to a song I came across Bbm7b5 (B flat minor seventh, flat fifth, all I could do was to memorise ‘where the fingers went on the fretboard’ - and there are several shapes/inversions for every chord - and trust I would remember. I never did.

Now, such chords hold no fear for me, or rather less. It’s not that I understand music theory, more that I can now see how I might understand music theory and if that sounds a little too Irish for some, please bear in mind that your average Irishman or woman is more than a tad brighter than the rest of us.

Knowing the theory will not necessarily make you a better player. But practising the scales and particularly arpeggios does wonders for finger dexterity, muscle memory and finally - the Holy Grail - of playing instinctively what you want to play without thinking about it at all.

I have to be off now, so here are a few more tracks by guitarists I like. If I could become even a tenth as good I would be reasonably happy, though I suspect if I were to become a tenth as good, I would then try to become even better.

. . .

Here’s another favourite tune of mine, Lullaby Of The Leaves. I have five versions on iTunes, two guitar version, two horn versions and one by Art Tatum. This one is by guitarist Grant Green.
Lullaby Of The Leaves - Grant Green

Then there’s the guitarist John Scofield, who played with Miles Davis in his younger years.
Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get - John Scofield

And if that’s a tad to middle-of-the road for you, try this:

The Nag - John Scofield

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Was he or was he not? Who knows? Who cares? Well, not me particularly, but it is interesting. Then there’s the matter on which I shall say nothing, nothing at all...

In a previous entry, I promised to conclude a - rather long-winded - account about why I think it more likely that my father, who I had so far thought was a BBC journalist helping out with MI6 now and again, was actually a full-time spook. Not that it matters and he died almost 30 years ago, but a number of things an aunt told me on a trip to Germany in May cast a rather different light upon what I knew.

Briefly, my father served in the Army Intelligence Corps during World War II, and then worked for the British Military Government in Germany for a few years, probably until a few months before I was born in 1949.

By the time I was born, he had joined the BBC Monitoring Service at Caversham Park, Caversham near Reading, which, he told me, entailed the BBC monitoring radio (and, I suppose, later TV) stations from around the world. I
often wondered why the BBC should bother doing that and when, as a young lad, I asked him, he told me that the BBC could thus hear about news they might otherwise have missed and could put it in it’s own bulletins.

I’ve since discovered it, or possibly just part of it, was a division of the CIA known by the somewhat innocuous name Open Source Enterprise. In 1959, he was appointed as the BBC’s representative in Berlin (note, there was also a BBC correspondent who, for some of the four years we lived in Berlin was Charles Wheeler. Wheeler a more liberal-minded chap and my father rather further to the right apparently did not get on very well).

In Berlin, he was part of the BBC’s German Service, a department which existed for 60 years from 1939. It was in Berlin that he, by his own account and in response various questions I put to him in the last few years of his life, ‘helped out the security services’. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it might account for Charles Wheeler’s antipathy. Wheeler was a hack to his core and most certainly would not have agreed with a journalist working hand-in-glove with his country’s government, if only for the very practical reason that it would cast doubt on his integrity as an honest journalist, and even though that integrity might be wholly unsullied, even the possibility that a journalist was not entirely independent could be damaging.

Incidentally, and as I have pointed out in the blog before, when I talk here of a ‘journalist’, I do mean the professional man or woman who reports on news and sometime provides analysis as opposed to the guy or gal thinking up puns for captions to pictures of vegetables that look like celebrities - or celebrities that look like politicians if you like. This second kind of hack might be beavering away on Tunnels & Tunnelling, a very useful publication which now has an online presence for those with a keen interests in, well tunnels and tunnelling.

The first kind of journalist is one the public - ‘civilians’ - imagines you are when they discover you ‘are a journalist’ and assume you spend your days hob-nobbing with politicians and high-end businessmen and are generally ‘in the know’. In fact, the other sort, those who staff Trout & Salmon, for example, are equally justified in calling themselves journalists. It’s just their work is not quite as apparently sexy as that of the first kind. Me, I’ve never called myself ‘a journalist’, I always said I worked for newspapers. Nothing hard news about me, dear friends.

. . .

I mentioned in the entry I link to above a guy called August Löning, a distant relative and strong anti-Nazi by virtue of the fact that he was a supporter of Der Stahlhelm, a rival far-right group which was mainly distinguished from the National Socialists by the fact that it wanted to ‘bring back the Kaiser’ and the Nazis didn’t. Onkel August as I, part of the ‘extended family’ - and boy can Germans extend families, although I must admit I rather like it - called him was a founder member of the German CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands) and served as a member of the stare parliament of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). But Onkel August was also part of a secret government in waiting set up by - well, partly by the British security services - which was destined to take over in the event of a Soviet invasion. That, at least, is what my father informed me.

Several years ago, Irmgard, one of August Löning’s daughters told me that a few times every year throughout the 1950s a mysterious Englishman would visit her father in Lathen, the village about 12 miles from the Dutch border in which he lived, and when he arrived, they secreted themselves somewhere quietly and everyone else was told not to disturb them. Irmgard said she couldn’t remember his name. But on my recent trip to Germany her younger sister Helma, who I had lunch with, could remember who it was: my father.

Was she sure? I asked her. Because her sister Irmgard, I told her, who knew my father just as well as she did, would certainly have remembered it was my father. She was certain, Helma said. My father visited her father - August Löning - regularly throughout the 1950s. And then, she added, as we ate, there was ‘the radio transmitter in das Alte Wehrhaus’.

August Löning had owned das Alte Wehrhaus (the old weir house) on the river Ems since a new weir had been built further down the river. We spent many holidays there when we lived in Berlin, and it was also where a radio transmitter was kept. There’s obviously nothing particularly unusual about having a radio transmiter as part of plans to be ready to put in place a provisional German government if the Soviets ever invaded West Germany (as it was then), but it did take me a little by surprise when Helma told me. She said her brother Heinrich had been trained to use if as and when.

The question I am asking myself is why would a member BBC monitoring service, by his own admission, help to set up a provisional German government and, furthermore, make regular visits to see August Löning throughout the 1950s? But if he were a serving member of the security services, it would make a lot more sense.

That possibility also made me ponder on something else which has in the past struck me as odd. My father, who once later in life described himself as a ‘right-wing radical’ when I asked him what his politics were, also once told me he had campaigned for the then Liberal Party during the general election of either 1950 or 1951.

Now, anyone meeting my father would never have put him down as a liberal, but it is always possible that he, then 27/28. was a tad more idealistic at the time and, well, thought Britain could do with a Liberal Party government and it was worth campaigning to get one elected. It has since dawned on me that the security services might also very much like to have an inside man among the Liberals, given the number of Communist sympathisers out and about and the steadily deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union. But that is just surmise.

So there you have it. I can still not say with any certainty what my father was - a BBC man who ‘helped out’ or a spook with a BBC cover. To be frank it doesn’t matter either way, but when Helma insisted it had been my father who had arrived regularly throughout the 1950s, I did get to thinking again.

A few years ago I discussed some of this with my sister, and we decided to ask MI6 straight out. So almost four years ago, on November 1, 2014, I wrote them a letter explaining who I was and who my father was, and asking whether my father had been a member of their staff. I didn’t get a reply for several months, but then I did get a response from MI6. It was bland in the extreme.

It purported to be from a suburban street somewhere in South London and was extremely short. I know it was from MI6 because I had addressed my letter - I got the address from the MI6 website - to ‘General Inquiry, MI6, PO Box 1300, London SE1 1BD’. I think I still have it somewhere though I can’t say where as when I put stuff away

for ‘safekeeping’, I invariably forget where it is (but at least it is still safe). I can only remember the gist of the very short reply, but it was along the lines of ‘such matters are never discussed’ and it advised me to get in touch with The National Archives in Kew, South-West London, to see if they had any info on my dear old dad. Nowhere in the letter was there any mention of the ‘security services’, ‘MI6’ or ‘MI5’.

Oh, and here’s tip: if anyone in Britain (or in your own country) volunteers the information that they are working or once worked for the security services, you know one thing for certain: they are not or did not, and are just total bullshitters. Spooks don’t talk or brag. It’s not in their nature, and an ability to keep quiet is one of the traits which makes them attractive as potential agents. For the record, I am not and have never been a member of the security services.

Former colleagues might not that I am far to outspoken, indiscrete (or indiscreet - subs please check, as I can’t be arsed), noisy and tactless to be considered spook material. But then I would have thought that having a reputation as a loudmouth might well be excellent cover. If it worked for the Scarlett Pimpernel . . .

 . . .

There is another matter I should dearly like to write about, but wisdom - yes, wisdom - advises against it. As I confessed to a friend a week or two ago, rather shamefacedly I must admit, I might not be much wiser than I was, but I have learned to listen to small voice inside me that occasionally counsels ‘nah, wouldn’t do that, or at least not yet’. So, zilch, dear friends, zilch on the matter.

Monday, June 11, 2018

So THAT’S what displacement activity is! Well! I must ring all my friends and tell them, though I can’t do it quite yet as I really, really must get on with sorting out that hairbrush. And then there’s the bloody bog roll roller – sticking again. So I might not manage to ring around to later today or maybe tomorrow

Well, it’s been ten weeks since my new life started and I’m slowly getting used to it, although it hasn’t quite gone to plan. But that is no bad thing as surely being intent on sticking to a plan, however noble that plan, is arguably the antithesis of relaxing, and boy do I intend to relax. It’s just that my idea of relaxing is not simply cracking open a bottle of Rioja on the stroke of noon and settling in to watch flat-racing on the gogglebox

Writing was the essence of that plan, and that part of it I have adhered to, though not quite to the timetable I had mentally set for myself. And nor have I yet begun my next project properly, though I have done some work on it.

An application I have been using and found to be very useful is Scapple, though there are others like it and it is available for both Macs and Windows, so a file can be saved to, say, Google Drive or Microsoft’s One Drive, and then work on pretty much anywhere on a desktop of laptop if you have the app installed and access to the internet (to download the file, obviously, then upload it again with any changes you have made ready for you next session.

The idea is not original, merely one which has been transferred to the digital realm: you jot down – I suppose that should be ‘jot’ down a series of ideas and thoughts on what you want to write, I suppose you are brainstorming yourself, and then connect them in any way you choose. It is useful, if only because it can give you a slightly better overview of what you have in mind and helps you marshal your thoughts better. Here is a screenshot of it, with work I have already done. It is just a jpeg of a screenshot and I hope to God you can’t read any of the notes:

A few weeks ago, I was at my sister’s in Germany for my niece/goddaughter’s wedding, and when I came back I didn’t quite feel the same as I had when I went out. I was conscious again of having projects and feeling obliged to do something. Well, I did and do, but that slightly irritated me.

My original plan to be out of bed at dawn, down in my shed (picture at the bottom now that I have a new table and have rearranged the furniture a little to make it more amenable and be tipping away on my keyboard as though there were not tomorrow. Incidentally, I can’t think why I had the desk where it was before, and anyway, I no longer have that desk, but shan’t go into why not as it has caused something of a slight rift between me and my stepmother who more or less implied I was trying to con her out of it if not steal it outright. That hurt, although her friend and neighbour Jill suggests she might slowly be getting a little dementia. Who knows, but that is by the by).

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but I am, at least, putting in about four hours, even if it means I am going to bed a little later than I expected. My last post here touched upon the slightly mysterious suspicion that my father was not, as he had always assured me, a BBC man who just occasionally helped out MI6, but that it might, just might, have been the other way around. The last post was the first part, and I promised a second, but that will have to wait, as I have something else on the go.

. . .

I read a novel, which had been one of my set texts at college, and which is regarded as ‘a masterpiece’ and the writer ‘a genius’. So when I read it and increasingly thought ‘what’s all the fuss about, this isn’t all that brilliant’, I was a little bemused and embarrassed even. I mean who was I to judge that a man regarded as one of the world’s great writers was maybe not all he was cracked up to be, at least going by the novel I was reading.

In fact, I was so bemused and embarrassed by my apostasy, but on the other hand so sure that that was really what I felt, that as soon as I had finished the novel, I began reading it again. But even on two readings I can honestly say I am not at all convinced.

So that is the ‘something else I have on the go’ and I am doing quite a bit of work on it. I shall post it all here when it is finished. And once finished, I really shall get down to the main thing.

The other thing which I have finally been able to do is get into learning to play the guitar a damn sight better than I have so far. And even though I say so myself, the lessons – with a Paul Berrington in Padstow – are paying off. Some might feel what we do – scales, modes, arpeggios and musical theory – is all a bit dry, but I’m having none of it. For one thing my playing is because more flexible, or rather my fingers are becoming more flexible and my playing, by and by, more fluent. It really is early days yet as far as being as good as I want to be, but I feel I’m slowly getting there.

Other things on the horizon are another swift trip Bratislava to be measured for my new tooth which will be combined the night before I fly out – just for the say, by the way – with a drink and perhaps a meal with an old friend.

I have, though, discovered what ‘displacement activity’ is. I thought I knew, although I have never before used the word, and when I came to settle in to write this entry, it occurred to me. So I looked it up and it is spot on for what I want to describe.

Quite simply my day runs like this: I wake up, often quite early, turn over and and sometimes manage to go to sleep again. I finally get up between 9.30 and 10 and then, in theory there is nothing to hold me back. But it is then when I discover all kinds of things to do except shift across here to my shed and get stuck in. At 10.30 there’s coffee to be made, online newspapers to be read, perhaps I might go into town to buy something, then there’s time to be passed deciding what to buy when I go into town (today it was a guitar stand – Paul would be proud as using one means thereis far less chance of you guitar crashing over and getting damaged).

Then, at some point there is my stepmother to be visited down the lane – a duty I am increasingly putting off as after that incident with the table I am not all that keen on seeing her. And then, of course, it it lunchtime, and although I don’t eat lunch, I do tend to drink another pot of coffee. Finally, I might shift over to where I am sitting now and start. And the very odd thing is once I start, I wonder what all the fuss was about. But now I know: displacement activity.

But all in all, it’s rather pleasant. I would urged everyone to retire, whatever age you are. The only downside is that sooner or later retirement ends in death. But then so does life itself, so it ain’t that serious.

Pip, pip.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Weddings, spies, dads who might or might not have been spies, lunch with aunts, dancing in the moonlight (although there wasn’t any in fact on the night) - it’s all too, too much. (Part One - The Teaser)

Back from a very pleasant few days at my sister’s in the far North-West of Germany (as in ‘pretty far North’ but ‘very far West’ - you couldn’t get closer to The Netherlands without getting very wet wading through a stretch of water called Dollard which is also the estuary of the River Ems/Emse). I was there for my niece/goddaughter’s wedding and the baptism of her second child, Klara. Booze, as always, flowed freely, though that is not to say it was some kind of bacchanalia, with many folk getting rat-arsed and some even disgracing themselves, just a steady flow of whatever you wanted and then some.

Flew there eight days ago from Heathrow after visiting a friend in Eastbourne (and being rather taken with the town and local countryside) and would liked to have stayed longer in Germany, but I had arranged to be back at Heathrow airport at around 3pm last Monday to meet my son who was returning from six weeks in Central America to drive down home together. As far as his little trip is concerned - he only turned 19 three days before he returned - he told me all kind of stories, and I asked him not to repeat some to his mother. She is something of a control freak and clingy to boot, and his accounts would have so scared the shit out of her that she would never have allowed him out of her sight again.

That, of course, would have been impossible, especially as he is due to start a university course at John Moore’s University in Liverpool in September, so simply keeping schtumm about this, that and t’other seems the most practical solution.

. . .

There were two events which marked my stay a little. One was looking up a distantly related aunt, Helma B. and the other was a spontaneous dance-about with my nephew and his girlfriend and their friends in the fields beyond my sister’s farm which began at about 2.30am and ended at about 4.30am, though I stayed up, saw the sun rise, chatted for many hours to one of my niece’s schoolfriends, and then finally hit the sack at about 9.30am. (I woke and got up at 2pm and felt like death).

At the dance-about - I can’t think what else to call it - I played the music from tracks on my iPhone (not Mahler, Beethoven, Berg, Bach, jazz or The Boswell Sisters, none of which would quite have had the club oomph demanded by the dancers) and one of the guys there just happened to have a small but powerful bluetooth speaker with him, why I really don’t know. As the seven were, apart from my niece’s younger brother, all her and her husband’s friends, I don’t believe any were over 30 and one or two might even have been under 25. I, of course, am neither.

What I especially like was that our dancing into the dawn - literally - simply came about and was spontaneous. You couldn’t plan anything like that. Outside on one of the many grass areas around the barn wedding guests, many with young children between two and seven years old, had set up their caravans and tents and close by was a roaring fire around which ‘the young ones’ had been sitting with a guitar or two singing songs. Not my scene, so I was inside sitting around a table with 12 of the older generation (as quite possibly one of the oldest of the older generation) having a laugh, having a drink, chewing the fat and generally enjoying life.

We had started the reception with Kölsch und Häppchen (nibbles). This was then followed by Sekt and at the meal we had red or white wine, and on it went, with the parents of young children taking off to put them to bed and I and the 12 others sitting round that table. I mention the booze because at some point when I was off somewhere, my brother-in-law poured everyone a stiff gin and tonic, each glass followed by another. Me, I stuck to wine, and although I was round when the gin was on offer, I wouldn’t have had one: I’ve had far, far too many bad, unpleasant hangovers in my time to ever want another.

At some point I wandered out to the fire, saw that das Volksliedsingen was still in full force and returned. I am hazy on the details - despite my disclaimer about not taking the gin on offer, I wasn’t exactly sober - but in the meantime all the other old farts had pissed off somewhere, presumably to bed. A little while later, I wandered out again to find the young group reduced to seven and doing very little. That’s when I took out my iPhone and struck up, for a starter, with Innocent by Alexander O’Neal. Give it a listen:

Innocent - Alexander O’Neal

At some point the bluetooth speaker appeared and the music got louder. A young mother emerged from one of the caravans and asked us to turn it down - I’m sure she really meant ‘off’. The group was about to break up when I occurred to me we could easily carry on simply by moving away into a field, so we all walked, or rather danced, our way several hundred yards up a path and carried on. And on, and on and on. It was full daylight, though the sun

hadn’t yet come up, when everyone seemed to decide they were getting rather tired, so we drifted back to the farmhouse, where I decided I wasn’t all that tired and could do with another glass of wine and a cigar.

In time I was joined by a schoolfriend of my niece, a very interesting chap, chalk to my cheese, who was - is - completing an engineering Phd at Cambridge but who is obviously far more interested in following a philosophy degree course, and in that very German way (and undoubtedly also Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, French and Dutch way, so let’s just settle on European) ‘wir haben diskutiert’, though at this juncture I would only be vaguely able to recall the broad outline of what we were talking about. I was urging him - to be blunt he was young enough to be my son or even grandson - to stick to engineering as a day job and take a philosophy course on the side, urging him not to let slip through his fingers the young woman he is so obviously keen on, and I don’t know what else.

Finally, one glass of wine too many, we decided to call it a night. I went to make myself a mug of coffee in a kitchen already full of sisters, nieces and great-nephews and nieces - it was, after all 9am - and discovering there was no sugar, I announced I was off to Holland to buy some more at the supermarket in Bad Nieuweschans (by half a kilometer closer than those in Bunde, but they wouldn’t have been open on a Sunday morning). At that point my sister asked me to hand over my car keys, and to my credit I did so without a peep. So I couldn’t have been that drunk.

. . .

More interesting was a lunch I had with Helma B. She is nominally an aunt in that generations ago her family and my mother’s family (which then lived in the same town as Helma, Papenburg) intermarried. But in that neck of the woods (and in many other German necks of the wood) Verwandschaft is loose and but pretty much always celebrated - the Germans, or at least the ones I know, are nothing if not sociable. So when I first met her, in about 1961, I was ten and she was 29.

Her father - who will play a central role in the rest of this entry and who I have mentioned before - one August Löning, owned and with his wife Johanna ran a draper’s in the small - then smaller - Emsland village of Lathen. He also owned what was known as das alte Wehrhaus. That was nothing to do with Wehr as in ‘force’ but as in a ‘weir’ across a river in this case the River Ems. It was where, in the 19th and early 20th century the Wehrmeister lived, the man who worked the weir. Latterly, a new weir had been built further down the river and the Wehrhaus was used as a weekend retreat by his extended family and, in this case, my father and his family.

My father and mother and my sister, then about five and my younger brother, then just over one, spent a few weeks there during the summer of 1961, and I was farmed out to stay with Helma - then ‘Tante Helma’ - and my older brother with the family of her brother-in-law Josef Meyer, who owned the Meyer-Werft, then a large shipyard and now considerably larger. Mind, in those days I knew nothing of wealth and to be fair the people in that neck of the woods, das Emsland and Ostfriesland, are very down to earth and egalitarian. It’s one of the things I like about them. But that is all just background.

In a previous entry, one about a very short trip I made to Freiburg in October 2010 for the 65th birthday of my cousin Paul Meyer, Josef’s oldest son, I mentioned how I was rather bemused when Paul, jocularly, referred to my father as der Spion (the spy). I had over the years gradually come to know that my father had, in some obscure ways or another and in his words ‘helped out’ with the British security service, more usually known as MI6, but as far as I was concerned he was first and foremost a BBC journalist. As he and I grew older, I obliquely questioned him about what had done, but it never went beyond ‘helping out a little’. And that, as far as I was concerned, was that. He had ‘helped out’. That’s what he told me and that is what was the case. But chatting to Helma over our lunch last Friday, she told me something which cast a completely new light on it all, and then some.

NB A friend who reads this blog and who I saw and stayed with in Eastbourne the evening before I flew out to Amsterdam and then travelled on to Germany for the wedding, let slip that my blog entries are ‘too long’. Well, perhaps they are, but I take the view that no one is in the slightest bit obliged to read my ramblings and can quit at any time they like if they get bored halfway through. So you are warned, because this one, this entry and because of this, the second half to it, has quite some distance to go. I suppose I could always, a la a fucking gogglebox drama series, throw in a few teasers to keep you hooked - of if not ‘hooked’ at least keep you reading - but I’m buggered if I’m going to do that. Sorry (though not really, I’m just being polite in the way we middle-class, public-school educated twats were brought up to be, an upbringing furthermore which is not to be disparaged: I can spot an antique sherry glass at 50 paces. Can you? No, thought not). Where was I?

. . .

My father had always been interested, if not even obsessed, with the military, and although he didn’t become a professional soldier like my Uncle Pat (latterly just ‘Pat’, after whom I was named and with whom I seemed to have so much more in common than with my father that we always got on very well), he joined up after taking a ‘wartime’ degree at Kings College, Cambridge, at sometime halfway through the war. He enlisted with (he told me once) The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and took part in D Day, when he - born on March 21, 1923 - was only 21. He received a ‘field commission’ and, I seem to remember he told me, at one point he was the youngest captain in the British Army.

He was always very gifted at languages and soon he was transferred to the Intelligence Corp, tasked with interrogating captured German soldiers. A little later he was attached to the French forces - he spoke German and French - and at some point was involved in a motorbike accident and at another received a piece of shrapnel in his cheek which was never removed. But that is all by the by.

When the war ended, my father, like all other students who had taken a two-year wartime degree, was offered the chance to return to university for a third year to complete his course. He didn’t bother, so he didn’t actually have a proper degree and when I graduated (something of a fluke as I pointed out in a more recent post) I was the first Powell to get a degree. (My older brother had, by this time, already succumbed to the various mental troubles he suffered from all his life and, he told me, didn’t write a word in his finals. He just sat there for three hours each time. And he was ten times as bright of me.) Instead, in about 1946, he joined the ‘British Military Government of Germany’.

His job at first was to ‘mingle with the population and sniff out Nazis (and the socialising that involved - he was always a sociable man, which is why he was so attracted to Germany led him to meet one Elfriede Hinrichs, later my mother, in Osnabrück). Later he was employed on some British Military Government press commission, helping to sort out who might be ein tadelloser Nicht-Nazi (or something) and could granted a licence to set up a newspaper or magazine to operate in the British occupied zone.

The British, unlike the Americans who were intent on destroying Germany from now until kingdom come, took the view - the immensely sane and enlightened view - that if we wanted prolonged peace in Europe, a properly functioning and democratic German state under the rule of law was quintessential. How right they were, and so, for example, the old Volkswagen works was speedily revived by one Ivan Hirst, a Yorkshireman (thank goodness for Wikipedia) who saw the potential of the company, helped to re-establish it and thus helped to lay they foundations of the future West Germany.

. . .

I have now glanced below to the foot my screen and Bean, the word processor I am using to write this, tells me I am quite close to having written 2,600 words. Well, maybe I should heed the advice of Barry Mc. and not push my luck as much as I intended and end this blog entry here. But there will be a Second Part, which will - God willing - get to the point of the second half of this entry. So with that in mind here are a few teasers. I mean, shit, I’ve got to get you guys and gals coming back, surely to goodness.
  • Working for the BBC’s Caversham ‘monitoring service’, was my father really simply just another BBC drone working night shifts because the money was better or . . .
  • Those trips to Germany: was it my father who went there to see August Löning as Helma recalls - she says she first met him in 1956, but we didn’t move to Berlin until 1959 - or was it someone else as her now dead sister Irmgard told me?
  • The ‘anti-Nazi’ August Löning was not quite the liberal hero I thought he was until my chat with Irmgard, but an enthusiastic member of Der Stahlhelm, a far-right rival to the NSDAP. So why was he
    a founder member of the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU)? And what was this West German government in exile he, my father and - obviously - many others were setting up?
  • Why exactly was there a radio transmitter at Das Wehrhaus, operated (Helma tells me) by Heinrich, her brother and August’s oldest son?
  • Why did my father, a life-long anti-communist who later described himself to me as a ‘right-wing radical’ (whatever that means), campaign for the Liberal Party in the 1951 General Election? Youthful idealism or . . .
This and more will be looked at in the Second Instalment of This Blog. Tune in . . .

Not much any more to do with my niece’s wedding but, well, what the hell. Oh, and by the way, with the last word of this entry, it has now reached 2,925 words, as close to 3,000 as is barely decent. That’s as many as your going to get this side of Britain Has Talent - The REAL Story or The Kardashians Unveiled! Sorry (well, once again, not really). I could, of course, blether on to make it the full 3,000, but, well, what the hell. Let’s stick to 2,925.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Simply file under 'Will this do?' If you think that's a tad cryptic, read on to find out what the bloody hell I am on about

It’s odd: I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but each time I started it, the little I had written struck me as so ineffably banal that I deleted it all and packed up. The thing is, there are a number of things I want to write, including one particular post I want to write here, but I don’t feel I am ‘allowed’ to until I get this post out of the way. And what is it about, what startling insight shall I deliver today? Bugger all, simply that - as of today - 39 days into retirement I realise that those who say it will take a while to get used to it are right: it is and will.

Now was that worth the effort? Of course it wasn’t. Just think what you could be doing for the 40 seconds it has taken you to read that paragraph. But the odd thing is - and it is most definitely, though unfortunately part of retirement, well ‘my retirement - that I feel obliged to write this post (and obviously try hard to ensure it isn’t banal, though whether I am succeeding is anyone’s guess). I’ll try to explain.

A day or two after I retired, I installed an app on my iPhone called, essentially nothing but a ‘to do’ list. In fact, I installed two other similar apps, but didn’t like them much and deleted them again. They are quite useful, or rather they are apparently quite useful, if you want to organise yourself. Once some task has been completed, you tick it off. The thing is that - surprise, surprise - I don’t get around to doing all of the things I list as ‘to do’, and then feel guilty about not doing them. Well, that wasn’t part of the plan: guilt? Fuck guilt, I don’t want guilt in my life. I shall keep on using it, because - well, it is useful - but I’ve got to get rid of things hanging over my head for several days - like this specific post - and feeling guilty that I haven’t got around to them.

As for retirement, my sister told me my brother-in-law took six months to get used to it. Then, a week or two ago, a friend of an acquaintance, a retired GP (family doctor) told me it took him bloody five years not to feel guilty about ‘not working’. Six months I can take, five years, and I shall be demanding compensation from whichever body hands out such compensation. Personally, I don’t as much feel ‘retired’ as somehow, for whatever reason, ‘off work’ as though at some point I shall be going back to work. Well, I shan’t, but bearing in mind what my sister said, I shall most certainly give it a while, at least six months. As for ‘five years’, well, sod that.

. . .

One of the things I intended to do and am doing (and actually started four or five months ago) is taking my guitar playing a little more seriously and, with that in mind, getting a guitar lesson once a week. I’ve played guitar pretty much for the past 54 years, though not at all well for many years, but consistently. I can bullshit as well as the best and could play several things in certain styles which might have people thinking ‘he’s not bad’, but the point is I knew I was not at all good and that what people heard was pretty much something of a con. To put it into greater context, I don’t actually want to sit around strumming ‘Michael Rode The Boat Ashore’ or anything like that. My ambitions are firmly in the jazz camp and although it is very unlikely I will ever get even a tenth as good as all those jazz guitarists I like, I can, at least, get to play better than have been.

So once a week, it is off to Paul Berrington in Padstow for a storm of scales, modes, musical theory and I don’t know what else, all of which I seem to understand while I am there and most of which is gobbledegook to me once I get home and start practising. Well, almost. Bit by slow bloody bit I am getting my head around it. My main problem, in practising guitar as in so much else, is applying myself. I say I have ‘played guitar for pretty much 54 years’ but actually when I pick up - well, make that picked up - a guitar, I would do a bit of this for 30 seconds or so, then a bit of that, then 30 seconds on a bit of t’other and this pretty much waste my time and make absolutely no progress. So for my the major objective is to learn to stick with it. (As in learning stickability, the admonitions of middle-class British mums since the middle class was invented? Ed).

NB Later (as in a few hours after the above was written while I was still in bed):

Sitting outside just now in a lovely spring sunshine drinking a morning mug of coffee, I realised, or rather remembered, what it is that ‘guilt’ is. I cannot speak for others, but I have long been aware that indulging in an ‘activity’, whatever it is, can superficially give the impression of, for want of a better word, ‘action’ or ‘achieving something’.

The unfortunate part for me was, and is, that I am fully aware that despite being ‘active’ - going shopping, noodling away on guitar, tapping away on my laptop to write a post like this, going to the gym or going swimming and until recently going to work and doing what I did there - I am not, in fact, achieving anything at all. So is this man neurotic? I can hear some of you ask.

Well, I don’t think I am, it’s just that there is a corner of me I simply cannot bullshit myself and that part is quite critical when I pretend I am doing something - by making sure I am active - but, in fact, have done fuck all of any worth (well, worth as in achieving the goals I have set myself). It’s like coming up against yourself and proving to yourself that you are not just another of Life’s Bullshitters. Doing my disabled stepmother’s shopping is worthwhile, certainly, going to the gym and going swimming are worthwhile, certainly, sitting down and writing a post here isn’t quite the most heinous of pastimes, but - in a sense - it is just ‘passing time’.

I put that phrase in brackets because it sums up a rather odd attitude to life, but one which many of us adopt. I first came across it when my younger brother, when he was younger still (he will be 60 in June) described life as ‘just passing time’, and I was oddly shocked and, I have to say, quite concerned. I could tell you more about my brother to try to give the phrase as used by him a little context, but shall do that another time.

My point is that we - most certainly I - are very capable of indulging in all kinds of activities - include going down the pub and watching TV - which often do nothing more than ‘pass time’. We somehow manage to persuade ourselves that ‘we have done something’ - ‘had a long chat about Brexit with Jim down the Royal Oak, you remember Jim, guy with the gammy leg, can sometimes be a bit boring but not always ‘cos there are one or two things he knows about, retired accountant, so he does speak a lot of sense on some things and more to the point knows what he’s one about, unlike some . . .’ and  can then convince ourselves the day wasn’t completely wasted.

That’s how one day becomes the next, one week the next, one month seems to take just two weeks to pass, and before you know it it’s Christmas again and you find yourself resorting that that hoary old platitude ‘Good Lord, doesn’t time fly!’ and your newly-born granddaughter is starting primary school, secondary school, university, off on a gap year. 

Perhaps I am neurotic, perhaps not, but I can say that there is that small critical corner of me whose quiet yet insistent voice asks ‘who the fuck do you thing you are kidding’. I opened up about my major goal in a past post but, for superstitious reasons, won’t repeat what I wrote. But it is still there and still looms over me quite uncomfortably. That is part of the guilt I feel. Years ago, I invented a small strategy to somehow counteract that kind of guilt when I had a day or two off but there were several things that needed to be done: I consciously ‘gave myself permission’ to take the day off and do fuck all. It worked. But the pay-off is that that can only be the occasional day and on days when such permission has not been granted, get stuck in!

On which note I can - happily - confirm that I have started on that major goal.

. . .

Is that enough? Can this be posted so that I have finally got that bloody ‘a month into retirement’ post nailed and out of the way so that I can get on with other things? Hmm. Usually, I write about 1,500 words, but so far I haven’t even reached 1,000, so I am in two minds as to whether to end it yet.

. . .

My son, not yet 19 for another 12 days, is knocking around Guatemala and other Central American countries for six weeks. He is due back two weeks on Monday. I have to say I rather admire him for what he is doing and how he has gone about it. I never ever thought he was some kind of slouch or in any way lazy and disorganised, but I was a little surprised and proud by exactly how organised he has been. He landed in Panama City, then took off to some resort somewhere - some island all backpackers go to - and has for a week or two has been staying in - I’ll look it up - San Pedro La Laguna, where he is a Spanish language school and living with a local family. And he’s loving it. He is here (althoug not at the hotel which Google Maps, undoubtedly in return for hard cash, have chosen to highlight:

He’s a sociable lad (which, if anything, he gets from me rather than his mother) and has been mixing with other travellers, and heard about the Spanish lessons and how the school has an arrangement for pupils to stay with local families. He was going to do it for a week, but then decided to stay for a two more weeks because he’s enjoying it so much and has adapted his plans accordingly. He’s due back on Monday, May 28, and I am meeting him at Heathrow airport when I arrive back from a five-day jaunt to North-West Germany to see my niece/goddaughter married.

As for my little granddaughter Olivia, she seems to be thriving. Here’s a picture of her, taken by my daughter, but given the expression on her face, I have added a facetious caption.

Well, that’s about it: 1,146 words and that’s your lot for now.