Sing, like There’s Nobody Else in the Room

boys screaming
Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels.com

You know the feeling. You are alone, in the shower, or cooking in the kitchen, or driving the car, singing along to the radio at the very top of your voice when, suddenly, you become aware that due to the key you have started in, you are not going to be able to make the high notes and, even though, as in space, no-one can hear you scream, you are wracked with embarrassment. What do you do? Do you just stop singing? Do you abruptly change key? Do you just think, ‘Oh bugger it!’ and let rip anyway? Whatever you decide, this is a decision you will only ever have to make when you are alone. Why? Well, in company you would almost certainly have not started singing at the top of your voice in the first place and, if you did, the ‘yelling on’ alternative would be quickly taken off the table. Being out of control in public makes us feel vulnerable; like being the last person on an otherwise full bus with an empty space beside them – even worse if the next person on takes the decision to stand anyway. In company, there are things that you just do not do. Full throttle shrieking of a song that is obviously beyond your capabilities is clearly one of them – unless, of course, you are auditioning for ‘X-Factor’, when it might just get you on the telly.

Being alone widens horizons; increases options. Take, for instance, the common experience of realising – pants down, too late to back out – that there is no toilet paper. Alone, no problem. In a house full of strangers, the kind of panic only otherwise associated with losing your trunks in the swimming pool: to cover up, is to drown.

We make these micro-decisions a thousand times a day, each one of them influenced greatly by company and circumstance. Consider taking your child to the soft play area at a restaurant and realising that your big toe is poking through your sock. Do you brazen it out, remove your socks altogether, or snatch up your screaming child and exit without paying the bill? Consider going to your doctor’s appointment, remembering only once you are settled in the waiting room that the only clean bra you could find that morning was the peep-hole number an ex-boyfriend bought you as a joke. Do you see the doctor, or stay sick? The words ‘OK, just open up your blouse and we’ll have a listen to your chest,’ could well bring on the kind of hyperventilation that results in the nurse calling a hearse.

Not only do we make decisions when we are on our own that we would never make in company, we make decisions when we are alone that we will later regret when we find ourselves squashed into a lift with half a dozen strangers: ‘My, wasn’t that garlic bread a good idea,’ ‘Thank goodness I had those two extra coffees…’ It is so easy to make a decision when you are alone in anticipation of remaining alone, despite the fact that common-sense dictates that you will not do so; that the postman will knock, that the car will break down and you will have to catch a bus, that the tills at the all-night supermarket will not be self-service, that the police officer will not be the forgiving sort…

Now, please don’t get me wrong here, I am certainly not suggesting that you should never take decisions whilst alone – it is the time, after all, of least distraction (unless Countdown is on) – but, perhaps that once made, you should run them past yourself whilst in company before implementing them. Perhaps Superman would have thought twice about wearing his pants outside of his trousers, if he had just run it past Lois first.

Anyway, as for singing at the top of your voice, you should do it whenever and wherever you can. The further you veer off tune, the louder you should become, because if you keep ploughing on, you will pop right back into it sooner or later and, anyway, like the falling tree in the forest, if there’s nobody there to hear you, do you actually make any sound at all?

I always try to cheer myself up by singing when I get sad. Most of the time, it turns out that my voice is worse than my problems. Anon

Notes to Self – How to Become More Interesting

Eddie the Eagle

I have been trying to decide how I can make myself more interesting: how I might gather myself in some kind of coat of intrigue that helps to imprint me upon the memory as someone I would like to know more about. It is not an easy task. Such élan as I once had has dropped down to my ankles. I am the same as everybody else: I think that I am likeable, and that’s ok, except I am the same as everybody else! People don’t shrink back in the shadows and scuttle away when they see me coming (although, to be fair, I wouldn’t know about it if they did, would I?) but nor do they settle at my feet to be beguiled by my tales of derring-do. I am much more derring-didn’t-quite. I have never quite managed to be the centre of attention whilst conscious. I have a body full of scars, but none of them particularly notable. They all stem from accident or operation. They are all, like the body they adorn, mundane: the result of a surgeon’s knife, an inopportune moment of clumsiness or an accidental trip. None of them involve duelling with swords or wrestling with an escaped circus lion. Attached to each is a story, but none of them (even with a generous dollop of embellishment) would make me any more interesting – except, perhaps, to a forensic pathologist. As an aide-de-memoire they are invaluable, as a measure of intrigue, they remain firmly anchored at zero.

I have never been a spy/saved a life/eloped under threat of shotgun. I have descended so far into the ordinary that I would need a street map to get out of it. It would take a sackful of carefully hoarded airmiles for me to reach engrossing. There are times when I can actually sense myself blending in with the wallpaper. Times when I feel the words Eau-de-Nil being embossed on my forehead.

So, who can I turn to for inspiration? How do I become more interesting? The great snooker player, Steve Davis, was so predictably good and so un-used to error or eccentricity; so incredibly even-tempered, that he became known, ironically, as Steve Interesting Davis on the professional circuit. When he retired he searched for something else with which to occupy his mind and, in a bid to become in reality interesting, he became a DJ (known as – you’ve guessed it – Steve Interesting Davis). I believe he was very good, but interesting? Sadly, no. It would appear that, even for wealthy (presumably) ex-sport stars, indulging in hobby and epithet does not guarantee fascination. Who’d have guessed? Completely scuppered my plans to tour the UK as Colin Captivating McQueen, bingeing on red wine and chocolate. I need an alternative strategy.

Perhaps I could audition for Love Island. They must have a vacancy for a short, fat, elderly geek. What about X-Factor? I have all the requisite attributes for that: I have no personality and I cannot sing. Perhaps I am approaching this from the wrong direction; maybe I should start by looking at all the things that I am good at… Well, that didn’t work, did it? I could follow the Eddie the Eagle route and be heroically bad, but stoically determined. All well and good, but at what? I come from a nation of gallant losers. All manner of sportsmen, athletes, explorers have been there before me. Whatever I might choose, you can pretty much guarantee that some other Brit will have gloriously failed ahead of me.

I am certain that even the most magnetic of people would like to be more interesting than they are. I am sure that Neil Armstrong may well have had times when he wished that he had something more exciting to talk about; that Edmund Hillary was always looking for some enticing anecdote with which to make his own story more diverting; that Piers Morgan… oh bugger, I’ve lost my drift now.

The point is, if I was more interesting, then more people would read my blog, even if it, itself, was not interesting. If, from time to time, I did not publish at all, they would think that I was off somewhere interesting, doing interesting things, with interesting people, whereas, what they actually think now is, ‘Stupid old duffer has forgotten again.’ In mind of The Trade’s Description Act I did think of changing my username to Colin Not-Very-Exciting McQueen, in the hope that new readers might, mistakenly, think that I was being ironic, but I fear that I would be all too quickly found out and, possibly, ejected from the platform.

Still, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

Well, you know, it’s interesting being 50… You start to reflect on your life. And you look back over the years at everything you’ve ever done. And, with age, middle age, comes wisdom. But I have to say that I’m not sure that 50 for me is the same as 50 in people years – Kermit the Frog

The Evolution of Modern Manners

photo of people using gadgets
Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

This is not actually a repost – it just feels like it. It is in (as Sean Layton so correctly said of my early posts) a different voice – although, I hope, still identifiably mine. It has been in my drafts forever, but each time I prepare to publish it, something else comes along and it gets put back. I don’t know why. I like it. I’m sure if I was to write this today, it would be slightly different – although that is by no means certainly better. Anyway, I read it through this morning and it made me smile, so I decided it was definitely going to be published today. I hope you enjoy it…

Manners, etiquette and polite conventions are fluid and evolving, dictated by such factors as history, social class and common usage. They develop in response to the changing circumstances of our lives: smoothing the sometimes turbulent waters of social interaction and applying the calming oil of respectful custom onto the waves of conflict and misunderstanding; like a gob of cooling raita on the ebbing sting of a mutton vindaloo. New challenges constantly emerge and the moral dilemmas with which they present us require time and space to allow new social practices to become established and accepted. Arguably it is our use of the mobile telephone that has driven the most wide-ranging changes to our views of what we consider right and wrong when interacting with others, so, as I begin my investigation into 21st century common courtesies, perhaps I should start by describing some of the contemporary mobile phone-related civil practices that I have myself experienced and which, I believe, are considered de rigeur – at least in my neck of the woods:
• When listening to music through your phone, it is considered necessary to remove only one ear-piece before engaging in conversation. It is not necessary to turn off the music or to turn down the volume.
• It is acceptable to break off a face to face conversation in order to answer an incoming call providing you say ‘I must take this’, before ignoring the person with whom you were previously conversing. That person is expected to stand, unmoving whilst you carry on a loud or (perhaps worse) whispered conversation for what could be several hours. It is considered ‘good form’ to mouth “Sorry” to the person waiting for you every couple of minutes during the call.
• It is considered proper behaviour to say “You are on speaker-phone,” immediately after coaxing an indiscrete disclosure from a work colleague and broadcasting it to the whole office.
• Whilst it is wholly unacceptable to loudly discuss your partner/sex life/bowels with a friend when you are together on a train or bus, it is quite acceptable to do so over the phone, especially if they are on holiday in the Seychelles and you have to shout very loudly so that they can hear you.

Which brings us to the location of a morass of modern etiquette dilemmas; public transport. When, for instance, is it polite to catch a fellow passenger’s eye; smile; speak; offer your seat to somebody who is obviously struggling ? The answer to the first three is probably ‘never’, the answer to the fourth is ‘you have to be kidding’: the ‘strugglee’ would have to be incredibly sharp-footed to get into the proffered seat ahead of the 13 other more able standing passengers, who would gladly trample their own grannies in order to get there first. Best just to keep your eyes down and interact with no-one. If you are feeling hot, or you need a bit of space, simply rock back and forth and mumble softly.

Should somebody ‘jump’ the queue ahead of you whilst you are waiting for a bus, it is permissible to say “Excuse me, there is a queue, you know.” If they ignore you or become aggressive, it is customary to examine your finger nails intently before biting off an imaginary ‘snag’. When the queue jumper eventually turns away, you may stare sullenly at the back of their neck.

When meeting a person socially for the first time a handshake is generally considered the correct mode of greeting. On subsequent occasions, a hug is acceptable. The man-on-man hug should always be accompanied by exaggerated back-slapping. A squeeze of the cheek accompanied by “Allo Choochie” is seldom appropriate.

Much modern social intercourse is centred around the public house. When visiting the pub with a group of friends, it is customary to join in ‘the round’: a semi-formal arrangement in which each person in the group pays for a ‘round’ of drinks for everybody else in the group in strict rotation. Being part of a ‘round’ means that it is not generally acceptable to change what you are drinking dependent upon who’s paying for it, even if they’re loaded. If you drink half pints, you cannot pay for just half a round. It is not acceptable to announce that it is your round when everybody else has a full glass and, as nobody at that point is likely to want another drink, offer to buy crisps instead.

Touching-up lipstick is (just) acceptable, as is refreshing other make-up during a meal as long as it is between courses. Plucking hairs from the nose is not. If eating at a friend’s house, it is not considered ‘good form’ to ask your hosts for a tea spoon in order to scrape the dog-shit from your soles, even if it was their dog that did it. The shorts/socks/sandals combination is never acceptable at a dinner party unless you are under ten years of age.

Finally, the course of normal social interaction will, at some time, lead you inexorably into the minefield of small-talk. The formalised awkwardness of such occasions may lure you into saying things out loud that you have not had time to run by your brain first. So, in ending this brief guide, please allow me to offer a short list of phrases that should never be uttered, even in the most mind-numbing of circumstances:
• “Blimey, what have you been eating?”
• “I don’t think it’s infectious…”
• “I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I just tied the end and dropped it behind their settee…”
• “I’ve still got the scab in a packet somewhere…”

“Say you’re sorry. No-one says you have to mean it.” Jeff Green

“It was a delightful visit; perfect, in being much too short.” Jane Austen

The Haphazardly Poetical – Finding the Perfect Rhyme for Atrocious

Poetry
Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

I really don’t think it’s a crime,
But I like all my poems to rhyme.
It’s possibly overly formal –
I prefer that my rhythms stay normal.

And then, if I possibly can,
I prefer every stanza to scan.
You may think I’m being effete,
But I quite like a verse with a beat.

I find that it all feels much neater
When the lines are of requisite metre,
For I really do feel it perverse
When there’s no shape or form to the verse.

So, for those who prefer their verse free,
There is no point in looking at me,
But for people who like their rhymes bad,
Stick around then, ‘cos I am your lad.

For K Morris (Poet) and James (Proclaims) with apologies for taking so long…

…Of Flesh and Bone

selective focus photo of bunch of bananas on black surface
Photo by Kio on Pexels.com

The only time that I am capable of rapid movement during the late evening/early morning bed-ridden twilight zone is when cramp’s vice-like grip has taken hold of my calf. At that point I can fall out of bed with the best of them. Not even the soft ‘clunk’ of head on wall can distract me from the frenzied lower-leg massage, as I attempt to coax the startled rigidity from my toes.

Somebody has done something to the floor: it is very easy to reach, but almost impossible to get back up from. I find that I am unable to rise without emitting the kind of ‘grunt’ that is usually employed by a mating hippo.

I have grown used to aching. When I get out of bed in the morning, when I get out of the car, everything that has spent any time hypotenusal takes an age to straighten out and complains about every single degree of it. Unmoved muscle and bone becomes locked within seconds of inertia. Old age squirts some kind of superglue into every sagging joint. Whatever does not bend, locks. Whatever does bend subsequently takes four times longer to straighten.

I have learned not to involve my knees in the morning totter to the shower. They do not bend until they have had a good few minutes of warm water sprayed across them. In the morning I cross the landing to the bathroom like a man on stilts; like the half-awake obese lead in some terrible geriatric ‘Swan Lake’. I teeter across the ‘stage’, knees unbending, calves tightened to just this side of flaccid, groping, arms outstretched, searching for the light switch, zeroed-in on the loo like some ancient full-bladdered Exocet missile. I enter the shower thus; unbending, zombie-like, but emerge some minutes later in a state much closer to human, albeit of the seriously past-it variety. Everything that has not stiffened has sagged.

I played football until my mid-fifties and my knees have decided that enough is enough. Unfortunately, the only way they are able to dissuade me from donning the football kit, even at my age, is by seizing up and aching with the intensity of a rotten tooth. This they do daily, just in case.

And if my knees are enticed back to some kind of flexibility by the morning shower, then all of that good work is overturned by the morning commute. Anything in excess of fifteen minutes in a car seems to encourage my body into a state not unlike pre-death rigor. When I ease myself out of the seat, I do so with my vertebra seemingly fused in the sitting position. I lever myself from the vehicle in much the same way as one releases the bent fork from the back of a drawer, and I limp away into the distance, gradually straightening with each painful step, until I reach my full height, seconds before my ankle ‘gives way’.

Yet somehow, between fast ageing hip and failing knee I retain a thigh that is tight as a whip and can only be described as ‘muscular’. My thighs are not pretty, but they are substantial and they remain powerful. Below the decrepit hinges that adjoin my upper and lower limb sections are the kind of calves that could support a Blue Whale should it ever decide to return to land. They are, mind you, also the kind of calves that mean that I have never been able to wear ‘skinny’ jeans. Some years ago, I had a fitness instructor who, whenever he was leading us in leg-strengthening exercises, would look at my pins and say, with an airy wave of the hand, ‘Just go over there and do something with your arms – I’m not wasting my time on them.’

My arms, on the other hand, are nothing to write home about. Although my elbows remain in fine fettle, the muscles above them are not particularly well-toned. I have seldom done more with them than write and, although the pen is mightier than the sword, it is substantially less heavy. Not that this lack of muscularity stops them from aching completely. The only good thing is that, as there is less development in my arms than my legs, they ache far less often. (Probably why I seldom suffer from headaches.)

All in all, I suppose that aching is the one thing at which I have got better over the years. I ache more often, I ache for longer, I ache with greater vigour and, if I’m honest, I’m very happy about that because, at some indeterminate point in the future, I will cease to ache – and a life without pain is no life at all…

The older you get, the better you get – unless you’re a banana – Ross Noble

The Photo on the Corkboard

Climbing

Behind the desk where I spend most of my evenings hunched over the laptop keyboard is a corkboard that is home to family photographs, children’s paintings, newspaper cuttings, various precious knick-knacks and an assortment of bits and bobs that serve as a reminder of who I am. Among these photographs is the one that you see at the top of the page, and it is this photo, or more precisely the circumstances that surrounded it, that forms the basis of today’s sermon.

Before we can get onto that though, there are one or two things that I have to tell you about the image itself.
• It was taken with a very long lens and shows only the very toppermost portion of the rockface that was being climbed.
• The moustachioed man at the top is Paul. Paul is a rock climber. Paul is, a man on whom you would stake your life.  Paul is holding the rope to which the ginger geek on the rockface is attached.
• The ginger geek on the rockface with the fat arse is me.
• I do not know what that is near my elbow, but I do not recall there being any flower-arrangements present.
• The ginger geek with the fat arse is terrified of heights.

So, now perhaps, is time to slip back to the beginning. Paul and I had headed out into the country for a walk with our wives. We parked the car and walked. I was a little mystified as to why Paul required such a large rucksack for a wander around the Derbyshire countryside, but Paul is resourceful. He is always prepared. I presumed he may have been carrying anti-venom, first aid requisites, Kendall Mint Cake, beer – that sort of thing, and it wasn’t until we arrived at the bottom of the craggy rock monolith, whereupon he delved into the bag and pulled out the pair of soft, rubber-soled boots with which, he assured me, I would be able to walk, Spiderman-like, up a brick wall, that I began to feel uneasy, and my suspicions, being somewhat slow on the uptake, began to be aroused. I tried to explain that I had no intention of walking up anything more perilous than the loft ladder, but Paul had helped me into the boots even as my toes had begun to curl. ‘I’ll go first,’ said Paul – six foot plus, slim, toned, fit – ‘I’ll tie-up at top and you can follow me.’ I nodded. I had understood every single word he had said, right up until the bit about following him.

‘I can’t do that,’ I said – five foot seven, chunky, baggy, tired – ‘I think I may need the loo.’

‘Just watch what I do,’ said Paul. ‘Use the hand-holds that I use and I’ll talk you up from the top.’ With which he was gone, gazelle-like (Do I mean gazelle? I’ve a feeling that I may be thinking of a mountain goat. Anyway…) up the rockface, tied to nothing, but dangling a rope behind him. ‘It’s really easy,’ he said, from a height that made my head spin. ‘Other than the overhang, you’ll walk it.’ I think I might, at that moment, have expressed a very definite preference for the walking alternative, but it was not to be. Paul was at the top and beckoning me on. I moved to the rock with the kind of lead in my soul that you can only normally get by being tied to a barometer.

I looked up at the first handhold. I reached for the first handhold. I jumped at the first handhold. I could not reach the first handhold: it was definitely beyond my grasp. It presented, you might conclude, the ideal opportunity for packing up and going home, but people were watching and injured pride is very hard to swallow, so I looked around me for the answer. I dragged a small boulder to the foot of the cliff and stood on it. I could still not reach, so I fetched another rock, and then another. Eventually I was able to curl my fingers into the tiny fissure in the rock. Triumphant, I prepared to climb, even as an unfamiliar voice behind me chided, ‘You’re supposed to climb the rock, lad. Not build a f*cking staircase.’ I refused to turn. I gritted my teeth and I began my laborious, grimly determined ascent. The handholds were always just within my reach and the boots did offer grip where there really shouldn’t have been any. I was not feeling confident, but I did not feel death tapping quite so insistently on my shoulder until, probably half way up the face, I realised that, however I tried, I could not reach the next handhold. The fingers of my left hand became numb in their tiny, rocky lair whilst my right hand groped in vain for something to hold onto. My feet began to slip. My knees began, imperceptibly I thought, to shake.

Paul could sense my predicament, but could not fully see the position I was in.  He remained calm as panic began to grip my soul.  Paul would, I knew, climb down to me if he needed to, but I wasn’t sure what he would do when he got there.  I sensed myself slowly taking an all-body limpet-grip on the rock-face.  It could well take dynamite to move me.  It was then that I started to hear voices. Few at first, but rapidly increasing in number, all offering advice on how to progress, some of which I somehow followed and found myself moving on just before my legs gave way completely. From that point, my pace increased and the scramble to the top became ever more ungainly but effective. I clambered over the brow and, after taking my first proper breath in about thirty minutes, I looked down. There was a lot of it. At the bottom of my little cliff the gathered gaggle of rock climbers gave me a spontaneous round of applause. I stood, unsteadily, and gave them a ‘thumbs up’, with a grin like rigor attached to my face, whilst I waited for my spirits to soar and my confidence to grow, but, sadly, neither occurred. What did occur was, ‘How do I get down?’ I asked Paul. ‘You abseil,’ he answered. I died a little.

Well, such was my desire to be back at base level that I did it, even, to my recollection, managing a little bounce here and there along the way. My tiny fan club watched on, shook me by the hand when I reached them, and dissipated instantly. I took my boots off quickly, lest Paul should appear at my side and encourage me to climb a more ‘exciting’ route. I reflected upon my achievement: I battled my fear and, with much encouragement from Paul and a handful of climbers who had recognized a bottle that was about to be lost, I won.

And now, I look at that photo on my board and I smile in recognition of a victory over myself and in the recollection that I have never climbed anything higher than a kerb from that day on…

There are only 3 real sports: bull-fighting, car racing and mountain climbing. All the others are mere games – Ernest Hemingway

Getting On – A Slight Return

 

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This was initially intended to be my first post, but as I had written ‘Mission Statement’ whilst attempting to get to grips with the processes associated with posting on WordPress, it became my second, published 17 November 2018 a day after the first. As with most of these early posts, it had been picked over for many days whilst I attempted to wrestle a joke from every line I could. Over the following weeks, as the blog progressed, it became somewhat looser in style and more personal, but I like this early post because it is exactly what I initially intended the blog to be and it illustrates how I saw myself fitting into the ‘community’ at that time.

Getting on is a little over 1100 words in length.

Getting On

I stand at the portal that will allow me entry into a new age of discovery. The doormen of Nirvana have found me to be on the list and have grudgingly agreed to let me in. There are many benefits to belonging to the club that I will shortly join: I can take tea and biscuits with my fellow sexagenarians in the designated café; I can board the bus to Rhyl with a half-empty suitcase and a clear conscience; Lord knows! I may eligible for a discount on a stair-lift or a sit-in bath. I have reached the age when I understand that I should always smile sweetly at the dentist, because to gnash my teeth at his suggestion that I need several long-haul holidays-worth of dental treatment is merely putting money in his already bulging pockets. I have attained the maturity that allows me to comprehend that the true joy of an April day by the east coast seaside cocooned within fourteen layers of thermal clothing to protect against the unseasonal scything on-shore breeze and draped in a slightly too small cagoule that herds the interminable arctic drizzle into the large drips that run around the rim of the hood before depositing themselves into the ever-swelling puddle on my crotch, is the knowledge that there is no point in doing it, other than knowing that I don’t have to do it – but, shit, while I can, I will. I have begun to appreciate the myriad joys of getting older. A whole new world of revelation has opened up before me. I have entered, in short, a second phase of enlightenment and realisation.

I have opened my mind to learning, although, truth be told, most of what I have learned is how little I know. My discoveries, such as they are, are modest – they are not of Newtonian proportions. What I have not discovered would generate a ‘to do’ list that could keep Isaac and his apple occupied for a very long time. I have not discovered, for instance, what makes me (or more appositely, they being on the bottom, Australians) stick to this globe of ours. I tend to adhere to the Velcro Theory. In fact, I find myself irresistibly drawn towards the flat earth theory, simply because I do not understand why, wherever I go in the world, I am always the right way up. Hold up a football and put something on the bottom of it; what happens? Yup. If the world is actually a sphere, what prevents the Australians falling off? Forget gravity. Gravity is everywhere. It can’t even hold my glass on the table after six pints. And also, if the world is a globe, how come all the water doesn’t flow to the bottom? Never thought that through did you Pythagoras?

Mind you, I must admit that physics was never one of my strengths. I can still recall the look on the face of my teacher when he read my test paper aloud to the class, with special emphasis on the question ‘What is resistance’, to which I had answered ‘Futile’. I thought I was being endearingly amusing. He thought I was being an arse. Guess who was correct? I would never discover a new continent, even if one were to exist, because that would almost certainly involve sailing off into the unknown and, quite frankly, I have enough trouble sailing off into the known – and only then when I have double-checked the catering arrangements. And as for finding a new planet, I can barely see the television in these contact lenses, let alone an infinitesimal blob at the far end of the universe. No, the things that I have learned are of a much more personal nature. I do not know if they will make a difference to the lives of others. I do not know if they were at any time unknown to others. What I am beginning to know, I think, is what everybody else has known all along.

I have discovered that stairs are arranged singly for a reason; there is nothing to be gained by ascending them two at a time. I know that escalators move so that you do not have to. I have learned that there are only two types of shoe; those that fit and those that look good: no single pair of shoes is ever able to meet both criteria. I have learned that rows of buttons are always to be fastened from the bottom in order to avoid having one left over at the end. I have learned that hats are for other people.

I have begun to understand that there is no point whatsoever in attempting to take a photograph with my mobile phone. Nobody is even faintly interested in a close-up of my nasal hair, nor do the staff of The Raj Palace want another silent call from me. I have grown to realise that I have lost the innate ability I once had to know instantly whether an acquaintance was older or younger than I. Everyone of my age looks so very old. I have begun to understand that no-one younger than me actually sees me as younger than I am. That the way I viewed people of my age when I was my daughter’s age is exactly the way that people of my daughter’s age now view me – eccentric; mildly amusing in a ‘let’s just humour him’ kind of way, but definitely to be kept at arm’s length. I have discovered that the only thing more annoying than a younger man in an extremely expensive car is an older man in an extremely expensive car. I have begun to realise that nobody ever gained anything from arguing (except, for some, a lucrative career). Stealth is the answer. Age gives one the time to wait and the insight to appreciate that there is absolutely no finer moment than the acutely timed ‘I warned you that would happen, but you never listen do you? Oh no. You always know best…’

I have also begun to understand that advancing age is not to be feared, it is to be embraced. Embraced for its ability to allow me clearer vision than sight. Embraced for its ability to grant me the realisation that what is right for me, may not be right for anybody else, but quite frankly, that I care even less than they do. Embraced for the realisation that my appreciation of the world around me is linked, incrementally, with the paucity of time that I have left to enjoy it. Embraced because I have no choice. Embraced because it makes me happy.

There is still no cure for the common birthday – John Glenn

A Little Fiction – Excerpt from Another Unfinished Novel

blur book stack books bookshelves
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

‘Are you absolutely certain you know what you are doing?’ said Dinah, aware, for the first time, that she was gripping the seat rather more firmly than was strictly necessary. Shaw thought for a moment. He raised his eyes to the sky, without moving his head and breathed in sharply.
‘Certain is a very strong word,’ he said. ‘Can we ever truly be certain? I’m not sure…’
‘But you have a pretty good idea, right?’
‘I have a good idea of what I’m doing,’ he said after a pause that was just a beat too long for Dinah’s liking. ‘Only by dint of the fact that I am doing it. Whatever it is that I am doing, I know that I am doing it. Whether I’m doing it correctly, well, that’s a whole different bucket of frogs. Besides,’ he ploughed on, having gained the kind of momentum that, like the Queen Mary at full steam, meant that stopping was both protracted and cumbersome. ‘There are no prizes for doing things right.’
‘I think you’ll find there are,’ said Dinah.
‘Well, yes,’ agreed Shaw after a pause for reflection, ‘but not necessarily the kind of prize that we would like…’
Dinah pushed hard on a brake that did not exist on her side of the footwell. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she squawked, aware that any prize, however fanciful, would be preferable to an untimely death. ‘Do you think we could possibly stick to the right side of the road?’
Shaw peered exaggeratedly into the distance. ‘Well yes,’ he replied when, eventually, he was happy that his point had been made. ‘Which side would that be?’
‘Just choose one that doesn’t have vehicles hurtling towards us,’ she shrieked, attempting to fold herself into the glove compartment.
‘I mean,’ continued Shaw, ‘it’s all subjective, isn’t it? There is no right or wrong is there? Only opinion…’
Dinah swallowed hard. ‘I would really rather like it if you went along with the majority view. At least,’ she said, ‘until you manage to drop below a hundred miles an hour.’
Shaw glanced down at the dashboard dials. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s what that is… What’s that flashing?’
‘I think it is a tiny piece of the car’s AI that has managed to retain its sanity and is questioning why you are still in third gear.’
Shaw gazed questioningly at the gearstick. ‘It’s not automatic?’ he asked. Dinah shook her head in answer, as a rigor-like grimace fused itself to her face. Shaw, uncertain of how to approach the gear change, lifted his foot slightly from the accelerator and the car began to slow a little. Dinah peered out from between her knees. ‘Where are we going anyway?’ she asked, hampered only by the fact that her tongue had become welded to the roof of her mouth.
‘I’m, not certain,’ said Shaw. ‘I normally decide that when I get there.’
‘So, how do you know when you’ve arrived?’ She persisted.
‘Well, if I wasn’t there, I’d be somewhere else, wouldn’t I?’ Shaw looked at her as if it was, just possibly, the most stupid question he had ever been asked.
Dinah blushed slightly; embarrassed but affronted and, therefore defiant. ‘So, what if you arrive somewhere that you’re not meant to be?’ she asked.
‘Not meant to be?’ Shaw, again, looked confused. ‘Where you are,’ he said, ‘is where you are meant to be – although not,’ he paused for effect, ‘not necessarily where you had aimed to be.’
‘But how then,’ Dinah groped on, ‘do you know that you will find what you’re looking for?’
‘Looking for?’ Shaw, himself, looked alarmed now. ‘Who actually ever knows what they’re looking for?’
‘But your advert,’ said Dinah, hunting through her pockets for the scrap of paper. ‘It says that you specialise in finding things: missing people, missing pets…’
‘I do,’ he protested. ‘Although what I find is not always what I thought I was looking for.’
‘But how do you know what’s lost?’
‘We’re all lost,’ he answered. ‘Somehow…’
Dinah eased herself back into her seat, happy, for the first time, that the car was travelling at a reasonable speed and roughly in the same direction as all the other vehicles. This was without question the weirdest job interview she had ever been on and, having assumed some kind of self-control, she decided that it was time to get a grip on the conversation. ‘So,’ she began, ‘if you don’t know where you’re going or how you’re going to get there, why do you even need an assistant?’
‘To assist me,’ he replied, deliberately trying to inflect an unsaid ‘Doh!’ into the words.
‘To do what?’ she persisted.
‘Whatever I’m doing.’
Dinah realised that she was on a road to nowhere and tried a new tack. ‘What’s the rate of pay?’ she asked.
‘Pay?’ Shaw was shocked. ‘What for?’
‘You advertised for an assistant.’
‘I know,’ he said, ‘but not an employee.’
‘You expect somebody to assist you for free?’
‘Only for as long as they want to.’ He passed her a mint which she unwrapped and placed in her mouth, deep in thought.
‘Erm, I thought,’ he said, only a little petulantly, ‘that you would unwrap that for me.’
‘Oh,’ she mumbled, fishing the sweet out of her mouth. ‘Do you want it?’
He looked at it in her hand, glistening with saliva, and was tempted, but, ‘No,’ he replied. ‘It’s fine.’
Dinah, meanwhile, had made a decision. She realised that somehow, via a process she did not fully understand, she had, herself, found something for which she did not realise she was searching. ‘Alright,’ she said. ‘I’ll be your assistant.’
‘Good,’ said Shaw, now taking the half-sucked sweet from her and popping it into his own mouth. ‘But, in future, you’ll have to be a bit more careful with the mints…’

The Man In Charge of the Deep-Fat Fryer

youre-not-lost.jpg
Photo by Thiébaud Faix on Unsplash

I have a small file of articles on my computer – the sick, but not yet dying – which I turn to when I find myself with nothing to say. Sometimes my fresh eye enables me to breathe new life into a piece that is gasping for air, and to inject humour into a discourse that is obviously struggling to keep things down. Occasionally, I emerge from the intervention with a composition that is rejuvenated and ready to face the world. Generally, however, the patient is returned to its sick bed, where it waits, quietly, to have its bones picked over once again at some indeterminate future fallow date. In truth, once an article has fallen into this literary black hole, it is unlikely to ever be sufficiently restored to be laid in front of the discerning reader. The add-ons always seem, to me, to be blatantly apparent – like the poached quail’s egg atop a plate of beans on toast, they seldom belong.

To botch together a usable piece is not, however, at all the point of this exercise. The point is simply to get myself going: to rouse the mind. It is like walking the dog, but without the plastic bags. My brain is like one of those yappy little terriers, tearing about at a million miles per hour, pursuing imaginary quarry, barking up a thousand wrong trees, before collapsing into a deathless sleep. When it wakes, it needs Chum and a walk around the block before it can function again.

I have discovered that the worst thing I can do at this time is read, because what I subsequently produce becomes an inferior mish-mash of what I have just consumed, in both substance and style. My computer has seen thousands of these pieces which will, thankfully, never see the light of day. I don’t delete them: I leave them there, in plain sight, smirking; reminding me every day of what not to do; to teach me a lesson. Consequently, I read far less than I really should.

When I sit down to write, which I do pretty much every day, I am never certain which part of my brain is going to report for duty. I have a broad outline of where I am going, but no idea of how I’m going to get there. Style and form develops on the hoof, like some weird equestrian carbuncle. Sometimes I make myself laugh. Mostly I drive myself mad. As you will know, if you read this blog with any frequency, I never know what I am going to turn out, but at least I know that it is identifiably me. Or, at least, part of me. Whichever part of me has stuck around to help whilst the rest of me takes the day off, walking along the beach or watching cat videos, that kind of thing. To be honest, I have problems even with the part of me that has toddled off to the seaside: will it be the lounging about bit, the kicking a football about bit or the searching for shiny shells and starfish bit? It would be nice to know what to expect when it comes back with its stick of rock, and its Kiss Me Quick hat, smelling, vaguely, of salt and vinegar. I might be able to set it a suitable task instead of merely letting it off the leash and following it at a discrete distance.

I do have times when I am writing two startlingly dissonant pieces simultaneously, but they never spill over into one another. I write longhand and I often have different sheets of paper in either breast pocket, dipping into and out of each with no particular regard for rationality or order. I am the man in charge of the deep-fat fryer at a Chinese wedding. Yet I do tend to obsess a little bit whilst I’m writing. Eddie Braben – the genius behind Morecambe and Wise – would pore over scripts time after time until he found a joke for every line. I’ve given up on that – I just try to find a semblance of sense.

So, this has all occurred to me because I have just been re-re-reading a piece about the Power of Numbers which will never make the cut, whilst writing a poem about a cardboard box for my grandson. One of them made me smile – and the other one was about numbers. Earlier today, whilst trying to cobble together one of those ‘About the Author’ kind of things, I paraphrased Anthony Burgess: All of my life is here, but the reason for it seems to be somewhere else, and it occurred to me that, if you should happen to find it anywhere, you could possibly let me know…

There are 10 types of people in the world – those who understand binary and those who don’tJohnny Ball

Mission Statement – A Slight Return

mission statement

Now, I realise that you might find this hard to believe, but my quality control is quite rigid: I write far more than I publish; I throw away far more than I use. Publishing three blogs a week has proved to be a little more challenging than I anticipated and I think, from time to time, in order to maintain quality, in the future I might find myself posting only twice a week – probably on Tuesday and Saturday. When that occurs, I will use the Thursday slot to repost some early blogs which, according to WordPress, were read only by myself and next door’s dog when they were originally posted. I worked hard on these early articles, so I hope that you don’t begrudge me giving them a second chance. Some of them are a little longer than current blogs, as I was originally posting only once a week, so I will try to warn you of that, giving you the opportunity to stoke up the fire, make yourself a steaming mug of chocolate and curl the dog around your feet – or, alternatively, don’t.

If you did, by some mischance, read them the first time around, and really don’t want to have to go through all that again, I apologise. I will flag them up for you and, as I said at the outset, I will still be posting my usual salmagundi of moans, ideas and observations (in honesty, mostly moans) at least twice a week. Anyway, today I intend to repost my very first blog, from 16th November 2018.

I hope this all works. As always, I would appreciate any observations you have to make along the way.

Mission Statement (1100 words)
I feel that I should begin my first blog with an explanation of what it is exactly that I intend to do over the next however long it is that I am given: it might give you an idea of whether you are going to bother with it, and it might help to remind me what it was I had started when I return to it after pouring a glass of red and half-eating a jam and peanut butter sandwich. My intention is to observe life through the eyes of an older person – I have no choice in this, I am one – and to lay what I have seen before you in such a manner that it might take your mind off the pre-paid funeral plan for a few minutes (unless, of course, you really want that free Parker pen). I do not intend it to be about getting old, but merely the product of a mind and body that is itself slipping inexorably downhill, gathering both speed and mass, clinging on to all the dignity it can muster whilst understanding that the inevitable pratfall into the dog-shit of life lays merely inches away. I do not intend to focus solely on the experience of being an older male, but being one, it might just go that way. Just think of it as a thousand words(ish) a week window into the soul. Actually, probably less a window into my soul and more a knot-hole into my psyche. I am aware that I cannot properly see life from the perspective of someone I am not. I try, believe me, I try, but almost inevitably just as soon as I think I have got this empathy thing licked, I unwittingly put my foot in it up to my ears and, having apologised for all I am worth, write myself a note to remind me not to make that mistake again… and then lose it…

There will be, I am sure, some nostalgic twaddle; some howling at the moon; some ‘how shit things used to be’; some ‘how shit things are now’; some ‘why can’t I remember what it is I wanted to say when I started this…?’ It is my hope that people of my age may be able to wring some scintilla of truth or recognition from it, whilst those younger people amongst you may regard it as some sort of instructional tract; providing nuggets of information that you may recall at apposite times when interacting with we vintage souls (and possibly mopping up after us).

We are all getting older. Life is a one way street and we are all heading into the same cul-de-sac. The people around you can erect speed bumps and you can apply the handbrake all you like, but in the end you’ll realise that the only sensible thing you can do is to floor the clutch and enjoy the scenery. And don’t think that science is going to save you. I’m certainly not going to argue with Einstein, if he says time-travel is possible, then I’m sure it must be… but I’ve seen the films: the Captains Kirk and Picard discovered, as did Marty McFly, that even when you travel back in time, you yourself remain the same age; still getting older. Wherever you sit on the space/time continuum, you plod on, just the same. Wherever you go, you become older just getting there. So, what could be the point of going back in time if everything around you got younger whilst you continued to plough on relentlessly through your allotted span? Very little – unless, of course you’ve got an unopened pack of smoked salmon that has gone beyond its sell-by date or your egg yolk isn’t runny enough…

We all claim that we don’t feel any different to how we felt twenty, thirty, forty years ago when, in fact, we are all that little bit weaker, slower and less able; incapable of stretching without farting. Getting older is not just about what you see, what you hear and feel, but what you do and how you do it. Do you wonder how Pooh and Eeyore cope with the associated problems of sagging kapok, slackened stitching and Christopher Robin’s animalistic grandchildren; how Sherlock Holmes copes with the diminution of a giant intellect; how James Bond copes with stress incontinence? I’ll look into it.
And age is not all about loss. Age also brings us gifts: the self-knowledge that we regularly mistake for wisdom. The ability to think ‘Actually, that is not what I would do, but, let’s be honest, what does it matter.’ The knowledge that you are not going to be hanged for wearing non-matching socks and that no-one will notice if you’re wearing your pants back to front may be liberating. I, myself, have heard the siren call of primary colour trousers and Velcro shoes, and like Odysseus, I am desperately clinging to the mast of sanity, attempting to resist them. To be honest, once you’ve passed 50, nobody takes a great deal of notice what you’re wearing. Wear what you have always worn and they’ll smile sweetly and enquire whether you have actually changed that cardi at all this year. Wear something different and they’ll think you’ve had a stroke. It is better to continually keep checking that you’ve remembered to zip up your fly than to wait for someone to tell you that you haven’t. Again…

Age will gift you an insatiable thirst for knowledge. All knowledge. A desire to learn all of the things you did not learn while you were capable of learning them. Infinite curiosity will keep you alive and vital and the desire to experience will drive you crazy. If you are physically capable of doing it, then do it. You may hate it, but at least you’ve tried it and you’ll never have to do it again – like eating oysters and drinking Saké, you’ll know better next time.

The accumulation of new hobbies becomes a hobby in itself. Never tried it? Give it a go. Immerse yourself; soak it up until you’re semi-proficient; pack it up; find something new. Don’t be put off by those who might say ‘You can’t do that’. They might be right, but bugger them frankly, give it a go anyway. If it doesn’t work, you can laugh about it over a super-strength gin and tonic and spit an olive stone at the back of their neck when they’re not looking.

Anyway, that’s what I’m going to do. Join me. If I cannot persuade you to laugh in the face of danger then at least I might encourage you to snigger in the ear’ole of adversity.