Thursday, February 27, 2014

Boy, do they grow up fast

My, how they grow. I am writing this sitting in The White Hart in Llangybi, South Wales, having a glass of wine or three and waiting for my daughter. She is three miles away at the Caerleon branch (which I’m certain isn’t the right word, but my knowledge of matters and concepts to do with academia is mercifully restricted to not knowing how to spell peddagoggy) of the University of South Wales being interviewed for a place on its primary school teaching training course.

She is 18 in August, yet it seems like only yesterday that I was changing her nappy, bouncing her on my knee, reading her nursery rhymes and drying her tears. My observation on the transience of our children’s childhood is by no means new, but just as poignant, not to say as sad, as every other time it has been made since mankind took to rubbing sticks of wood together to get the central heating going. My daughter has set her mind on becoming a primary school teacher, and good on her.

I must admit, though, that when she was younger and showed no particular preference for any profession in any direction, I had hopes that she might become a doctor, say, and I would one day find myself in the enviable position of being able to nudge the nearest Indian and tell him: ‘See that woman, there? She’s my daughter. And she’s a doctor!’ Depending upon whether his daughter is also a doctor or not, one-upmanship doesn’t come any better. But it wasn’t to be.

As a younger girl she showed an aptitude for mathematics (she most certainly didn’t get it from me) and even though, I’m not to sure of the details, she was chosen to represent Cornwall (or was it just North Cornwall) and some kind of maths olympiad the maths skills seem to have died a death. However, for a while and on the strength of her prowess at doing sums rather better than her peers for a while, he sights were set on a career in accountancy. And Lord how my heart sank. But it didn’t last, and after she had spent some time doing work experience at a local primary school and like me, finding a real joy in the company of children, the decided a primary school teacher was what she wanted to be.

. . .

I finished off the above part of the entry at home once we had driven - I had driven - the 140-odd miles back home to Cornwall. But I must recount (as best I can - sometimes these things don’t come across quite as well when written down) a scene at the pub. Sitting near me were three elderly chaps, older than me by a few year. Two were drinking beer - lager and Guinness - and the third was drinking wine.

The wine drinker wasn’t saying too much, the Guinness drinker was contributing a little more, but the lager drinker, who spoke with a thick Newport accent, was holding forth about nothing in particular as only chaps such as him know how to hold forth. Then at one point he observed that ‘the world has gone nuts’.

This was too much for me, and I turned around and told him that I had realised that the world was nuts by the time I was four. When, I asked, had he first realised that the world was basically bonkers. He’s tell me he told me, and proceeded to do some at quite some length as only some South Walian men can do, men who could make the Second Coming sound a pretty dull affair and one, if possible, to be missed.

He first realised, he said, that the world had gone nuts when ‘they’ decided to close, then knock down, Newport bus station, and build another just 100 yards away. This action I gather was the height of stupidity. For example, he told me, whereas before folk could catch a bus, arrive at Newport bus station, get off their bus and were immediately at Newport market which was just next door, now - Lord, the horror of it! - they had to walk several hundred yards to the market from the new bus station! He took the best part of 15 minutes to expand on it all and I got rather bored.

So I told him that was just a local, not to say quite trivial, incidence of the world being nuts. Could he, I asked, give me a far, far more serious example of how the world had conclusively lost its marbles? ‘I can,’ said his friend, the man drinking Guinness. ‘When they closed Cardiff bus station,’ he said.

Perhaps you had to be there. But it was typical of the humour in South Wales.

Friday, February 21, 2014

So it’s goodbye from Nichi Vendola, who has paid the price of being a ‘coming man’, and hello to Matteo Renzi. Then I consort with a cousin who insists on reminding me of my father’s James Bond years, and B. Mc. and I finally meet and discover good food doesn’t necessarily need a lick of paint

So farewell, then, Nichi Vendola, much-heralded in what seems like two centuries ago as ‘Italy’s coming man’ (by the BBC and others) and like almost all coming men since the dawn of time, he has sunk without a trace. Well, not exactly, of course: I’m sure the good folk in Italy, and specifically, Apuglia, still talk about him, nudging each other discretely when he comes into view or appears on TV and telling each other era volta un coming man, but we here in Old Blighty, where these things matter, haven’t heard a whisper about him ever since.

Perhaps he is still coming, who knows, but it is rare for a former coming man to come again. So farewell, then, Nichi Vendola, who is apparently paying the price for being openly gay, but – far, far more seriously — who wrote poetry. Can’t have that in a politician, now come we. What next? Left-wing principles? Well, blow me, aren’t they exactly what the man espoused! All in all he only has himself to blame (and me, perhaps, as I mentioned him in this ’ere blog more than two years ago, which might well be a kiss of death). Instead rising without trace a certain Matteo Renzi has agreed to be Italy’s new prime minister for the next few weeks.

Renzi, might be a tad to the left, though apparently not too much, just enough for it to be mentioned in the Guardian (who sniffily refer to him as ‘centre-left’. There’s no pleasing them, is there). Quite apart from not being openly gay, he is openly straight and flaunts his wife, two sons and a daughter; and, crucially, he doesn’t write poetry (which will comes as something of a relief to Rome’s Establishment, though he doesn’t compose operas, either, or drive badly, which is something of a black

mark against him in some circles. The Pope is said to be rather put out, but feels that as a non-Italian, it is best he say nothing).

The status of former coming man Nichi Vendola might well be gauged from the rather distressing news that his entry on English Wikipedia (‘The fount of all knowledge — no fact too trivial!’) has not been updated since November 2013. And even though there has been some tinkering to his Italian Wikipedia entry as recently as last week, the most recent news of him recorded there is that from 2011 when he was in line to take over the leadership of the Italian Left and fight the next general election for them. Or not, as we now know.

Moral of the story: if you hear of someone touting you as ‘the coming man’, do everything you can to silence him (murder might well be legally and morally acceptable under the circumstances). And if, of course, you are a woman being touted as ‘the coming man’, you have even more grounds for outrage and violent action.

. . .

From leaving work in Kensington at 6pm on Wednesday (6.09pm for the OCD sufferers among you) until arriving home here in Cornwall last night at 9.30pm (9.27pm), I seem to have spent almost all that time getting to know the lesser highways of Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and Dorset, and becoming acquainted with the several thousand roundabouts dotted around those counties.

My reason for taking to the roads was to visit a German cousin in St Leonards-on-Sea where he and his wife have holed up for a year (they are not short of a penny, he being a scion of a family which owns and runs a shipyard, but just because he’s a distant cousin, please don’t run away with the idea that I have more than two pennies to rub together).

He is always good company, though I noticed he is wheezing a great deal and as he is a non-smoker and 68, there might be some grounds for concern. It was he who, three years ago when I attended his 65th birthday party in Freiburg (a trip recorded here) who first told me that my father’s nickname among the German side of our family was Der Spion (The Spy), in acknowledgement of what I had so far thought was only occasional work for MI6.

What he told me two nights ago would make it seem that my father’s work was a little more extensive. In fact, whereas before I had always thought he had been employed by the BBC all his working life and just did a little spying to help out his pals in MI6, I’m beginning to wonder whether it wasn’t the other way around. On Thursday night Paul, my cousin, told me that when he was about 13 and was staying with us in Berlin, my father took him along into East Berlin on a trip to see a high up member of the SED Politb├╝ro and asked him to play with the chap’s son while he and the chap went off to discuss whatever they wanted to discuss.

I shall get onto MI6 and find out whether, my father now pushing up daisies for these past 22 years, there isn’t a little more they might care to tell me. No doubt they will see me off with a flee in my ear and quote ‘national security’, but as a hack of some standing I shan’t back off unless they agree to buy me a drink.

. . .

From visiting Paul in St Leonards it was then on to The Lamb Inn in Wartling, East Sussex, to meet up with someone who went to the same school as me and who does me the honour of reading my ramblings, but who I had not met before. (I started at the Oratory School in September 1963 and he left in December 1964 and was, if I’ve worked this out, three years above me.

We talked about the usual things at such meetings between two old boys who had somehow survived boarding school — who was bent, quite why the food was so awful (actually, we didn’t discuss that but we must as it it a perpetual mystery to me who the caterers all managed to reduce perfectly good food to something akin to pigswill merely by cooking it. Correction, the chips were good, and there were always plenty of kippers and toast). I learnt one or two things I didn’t know (e.g. my house, Fitzalan, was regarded — I can’t quite remember the word he used — as the leading house. EDIT: I think this is where Zebadee things I should have said Fitzalan was regarded as smart.)If that’s true, and I can’t think my lunch companion was lying, I find it difficult to believe.

The Lamb Inn was interesting. The first thing I have to say is that the food was very good — we both had guinea fowl breast with porcini risotto.

A rare snapshot of the Lamb Inn taken in 1756 when photography was still in its infancy and colour photos
were still a distant dream

risotto — but the only way I can describe the place itself is genteelly shabby. Apparently, the place was revamped by the present two owners, but what they did is not at all obvious. It first, second and third sight the house would seem not to have been touched since the Fifties.

Actually, come to think of it, and this is something my school contemporary pointed out, the loos were very modern. So perhaps the genteel shabby look is the new look and for once in my life I am in a vanguard. We had a table in front of a wood stove and it was all very pleasant. I could have stayed another few hours, but knowing what a bastard my drive home to Cornwall from East Sussex would be, I set off at 3.15pm. But I shall most certainly go back there again, and I would recommend it. The background music was provided by a set of Sixties LPs played on what we elderly folk quaintly call a ‘record player’. Yet the two owners (who might well have been brothers) could not have been older than 26.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Self-delusion: how this ‘writer’ is slowly inching his way ahead (and perhaps he’ll make it before he breathes his last)

I am drawn to writing as a dog is drawn to scratch itself, and with no more consequential outcome. I know, and have long known, that my impulse to write is merely a more solitary version of my impulse to talk, writing being the obvious pastime when you are alone and there is no one to talk to (or should that even be to talk at?) But what do we mean by ‘writing’?

Well, so far, in my case, it just means blathering here on my blog, but as far as I am concerned that is not quite as pointless as I might seem to be making it out to be. Years ago, 48 to be exact, when I was at school, I wrote ‘a poem’ and showed it to one of the school’s English teachers. As it happens, he wasn’t mine. Mine was a Mr Walsh, of whom I recall very little except that he was off sick for a long, long time and we didn’t have any English classes for a long, long time.

The master (as teachers were called at my school) was ‘Timmy’ Hinds, who, because of his enthusiasm for encouraging us to read Roman Catholic tracts by the Religious Tract Society (RTS) was known as R.T.S Hinds. EDIT: No it wasn’t, it was the Catholic Truth Society (CTS), so Hinds was known as C.T.S. Hinds. My thanks to B. Mc for that. Why Mr Hinds was so keen on them I really don’t know. All I recall about him was that he was relatively young and enthusiastic. In fact, his enthusiasm for encouraging us young shavers was such that when I showed him the poem he advised me to ‘carry on’ writing.

The unfortunate thing was that I mistook his encouragement for a definite statement that I was some kind of literary genius, and I have carried on deluding myself on that score for a great many years, until quite recently, in fact. I was, I decided, going to be ‘a writer’. That ‘writers write’ eluded me for many, many years, of course. I wrote a little, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll exercise a little modesty and say I wrote ‘next to nothing’.

There are a couple of – very – short stories here and there (packed away in a box in Cornwall in Guys House, and I shan’t bother elucidating what Guys House is), but there were sufficiently few of them to ensure that every time – every time to this day – when I read of an established writer recording that he or she was passionate about writing and used to get up at 5am every morning to write before going to work; or who used to stay up till 3am every night writing because they were so passionate about writing; or who would almost literally starve because they had no money and spent all day writing, I feel thoroughly embarrassed and very, very small. For the fact is, dear reader, that I don’t. The only thing I feel ‘passionate’ about is finding a comfortable chair and with a mug of tea in my hand being able to talk at someone. Actually, that makes is sound as though I am fat. I’m not.

By the way, and digressing a little, I loathe the, in my view, appalling misuse of the word ‘passionate’. It is used a great deal these days and each time it sounds increasingly ridiculous. In a programme about running a restaurant, say, someone is bound to be ‘passionate’ about breadsticks. If it is one of those superbly dull six-part programmes about getting behind the scenes in a busy mechanics workshop, some cunt is bound to be passionate about motor oil. (‘Meanwhile in the back office, Kylie realised to her horror that the phone was off the hook.’) By the way, if you, dear reader, are one of that sorry bunch who finds such programmes ‘interesting’, you are officially banned from reading this blog. You and I have nothing in common except that we both use our respective arses to shit.

But let me move on. I spent four years at university in Dundee, ‘reading’ (why do they call it that? Why not call it studying?) in my last two years – Scottish universities allow you four yours to study for an MA, which is the Scottish equivalent of a BA – for an honours degree in English and philosophy.

I read very, very few of my English set texts and even fewer philosophy tomes, so I didn’t get an honours degree: I did appallingly badly in English but so tolerably well in philosophy that the philosophy department insisted that I should, at least, get an ordinary degree (I know that because a very nice philosophy tutor of mine, a Neil Cooper, told me). But, to get to the point, I was thoroughly intimidated by how certain my college friends were about what ‘they wanted to be’ or, to put it another way, what profession they wanted to enter. I had no idea whatsoever. All I knew was that I was going to be ‘a writer’ although doing the obvious thing – actually doing some writing – didn’t occur to me.

After college I returned home to live with my parents in Henley-on-Thames and spent several months working for Thames Carpet Cleaners in the Reading Road, a carpet cleaning company run by Bernadout and Bernadout. Somewhere I spotted an ad for English teachers in Italy and applied. I went for an interview. The only other candidate was a fat Russian graduate. (To clarify: he was a fat Russian graduate, not a fat Russian graduate. I am glad we could sort that out.) After that I heard nothing. I finally rang up to find out what the result of my interview had

been and was told why, yes, of course I had got the job. It only occurred me later – after I had gone to Milan and after I realised what a two-bit outfit the ‘language school’ I had been taken on by was – that the Russian graduate had been offered the position, spotted a nine-bob note for what it was (the ‘language school’ was run by a shyster from New Zealand called Russell Robb) and turned it down. I had initially been rejected but, needs always being must, had been taken on.

I shan’t, however, dwell on that here, or my five months in Milan, my return to England, my two-week break in Dundee which became a five-month sojourn working as a barman in The Galleon and was curtailed by a conviction for possession of cannabis and then a month’s employment as a labourer before I returned to Henley after falling in love with a schizophrenic lass called Shelagh Heywood (who was the cause of the cannabis bust) and decided – I like to think consciously, but that, surely, is debatable – that I had better get a proper job. But what. I was still haunted by the fact that my friends all knew, it seemed with absolute certainty, what they want to do with their lives, but I didn’t have a clue. It was then, dear reader, that I decided to get a job ‘in newspapers’. After all ‘I wanted to be a writer’ and what better way to start?

I answered a couple of ads in the Daily Telegraph and, having consulted Willings Press Guide for the addresses of newspapers throughout the country, wrote to several asking to be taken on as a reporter. I landed two interviews. The first was with some kind of motoring publication in Amersham, the second in Lincoln. The Amersham interview did not go well in as far as I didn’t get the job. But I’m not surprised: when I was asked what qualifications I had to be a reporter I replied that I had a typewriter. And when I was asked, quite reasonably, what I knew about cars, I informed the editor I was hoping to impress sufficiently enough to give me a job that ‘I had a friend who liked cars a lot’. That wasn’t, unsurprisingly, sufficient to persuade the editor to take me on. The interview in Lincoln went rather better.

At the time the Lincolnshire Standard Group published several newspaper in the county, the Lincolnshire Chronicle in Lincoln, the Lincolnshire Standard in Boston and, I think, the Louth Standard in Louth as well as, I think, several others. All were printed in Lincoln. The chap who interviewed me, a scion of the family which then owned the group, a man with a bushy white beard and a terrible stammer, decided that as I had a degree – in those halcyon days you didn’t need a degree to get into newspapers – I would be taken on as a reporter on the Lincoln Chronicle as it was based in Lincoln and Lincoln was a cathedral town. It was the first time, though I didn’t know it at the time, that I first came into contact with the 24-carat bullshit purveyed by newspapers. It wasn’t the last.

I started this off on ‘writing’, ‘wanting to be a writer’ and associated bollocks. But it is late and I want to got to bed, so ‘to be continued’

. . . .

Still to come (if you can be bothered:

Life on the Lincolnshire Chronicle.

Why you should buy Love: A Fiction.