Time never heals: it just rearranges the furniture so that you can find another way around the room.
So, having been accused of ‘coming over all philosophical’ I thought I’d better check out what that means before I decided whether to take offence or not. According to my normal source of ultra-reliable information (Wicki) Philosophy (from Greek) is the love of wisdom. The study of general and fundamental questions about existence… That’s not too bad is it? Having checked out the definition I Googled images and the first thing I noticed is that most philosophers appear to be Greek, a minimum of 2,000 years old and have, at some point over the passing millennia, had some portion of their noses chiselled off. Perhaps that is just the way of the world for those of a philosophical bent. Turn your mind to the fundamental questions of existence and some silly bugger comes along and chisels your nose off; leaving you to spend eternity facing the world with nowhere to perch your glasses.
I am familiar with only one modern philosopher – Kant – and I think I might have been compared to him at school.
Now, the reason that I was accused of being philosophical is that I scrawled the short epigram at the head of this page on a scrap of paper (directly below a reminder to buy toilet rolls as it happens) for no other reason than it came into my head. (I know, I know. I was at work so I had plenty of time on my hands.) After it was pointed out to me, I read it through and thought that I must have remembered it from somebody else, but, as far as I can see, I did not. So, what I must now ponder upon, in my own trite and clichéd kind of way is, am I philosophical? Indeed, this entire blog may be, for all I know, a philosophical discussion. In fact, it occurs to me that we are all philosophers (in which case I caution you to take steps to protect your nose). We all study – or at least consider – the fundamental questions of existence. Who amongst us has never wondered “Why me?” Who has not accidentally switched on X-Factor and wondered about the futility of life?
Of life, love, death and religion I know nothing more than what it takes to make it through the day. Yet it seems to me that everybody has something to say and that everything that is said is of value – if only to make you aware of how fundamentally you disagree with it. Of course, for those who can only come up with hate and abuse – well, you’ve just proved me wrong haven’t you?
I will leave you with two quotes, both of which are definitely by other people, either of which may (or may not) be philosophical. You decide.
‘By the time I realised my father was right, I had a son telling me I was wrong.’ (Henry Winkler)
‘I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.’ (Emo Phillips)
PS Whilst I was considering what to write today I trimmed my beard without realising that the head had fallen off the trimmer. Consequently I no longer have a beard and when I look in the mirror I am greeted by an un-set blancmange with eyes. Try to be philosophical about that!
George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, describes a society in which the ruling autocrats control the population by restricting the scope of the vocabulary they are able to use. Negative words are removed from the language so that they cannot be applied either to the government or the actions they take. The word ‘bad’ is excised from the dictionary, but the word ‘good’ remains. To articulate the concept of ‘bad’ the suffix ‘un’ is added to ‘good’: thus ‘bad’ becomes ‘ungood’, awful becomes ‘plus-ungood’ and cataclysmic becomes ‘double-plus-ungood’. But it’s not ‘bad’. Get the drift? Good. Given sufficient time, the very concept of bad disappears, even in unconscious thought. Big Brother may be ungood, but he is never bad. An idiot is unclever, a bloody idiot plus-unclever and a blithering moron is in the White House.
‘So, what,’ I hear you ask, ‘is your point? What are you going to witter on about today?’’ I’ll tell you. The point is this. For Orwell the diminution of language was a tool of the oppressor, secateurs to rational thought, but in truth it is one of the few things that he didn’t get quite right. We do not need the government to denude and impoverish our beautiful language, we are doing it all by ourselves. Or, more correctly, we are doing it all by our smart phones. When we text, we abbreviate words into a vowel-less cluster of letters and numbers, sentences are truncated into a string of meaningless acronyms, the language of Shakespeare has become a kind of guttural Esperanto. Messages are so condensed that meaning is hard to ascertain and connotation is lost to such an extent that the only way you can let someone know that you are joking is by sticking a grinning face at the end of it. Who could possibly guess what emotion the staccato missive of random symbols is meant to convey unless it has an emoji at the end?
And Textspeak has spread beyond the world of texts into the language of the everyday. Who doesn’t say ‘LOL’ every now and then? I have heard people actually articulating emojis in normal speech: ‘So I said to him, don’t worry, you’ll be great, smiley face…’ And I know, I understand, that language evolves. It always has. Imagine trying to get by today, speaking as Shakespeare would have you speaking. I imagine that the attempt to get a half bottle of cheap vodka at 2am in the local mini-mart from a surly sleep-starved Latvian for whom English is the fourth language would not be particularly well received, particularly if it started with ‘Forsooth’. You would be perceived, initially, as quaintly eccentric, but very shortly afterwards as a PITA and within no time at all you would find yourself in secure accommodation sharing a room with Russell Brand.
Anyone who has read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (and if you haven’t, please allow me to recommend it to you) will understand how baffling a language can be when it is just a sidewise step away from our own, until, quite suddenly, you start to hear the new words in your head where you would have heard the old words. Understanding comes in a wave through which the submerged brain suddenly bobs to the surface with the realisation that two words that sound roughly similar and are used in the same way, probably mean the same thing – or similar – and, pausing only to pop on a pair of water wings, works the rest out for you. But, and here’s my real problem, that doesn’t really help me when a word I am familiar with, a word I have grown up with, suddenly, and without warning, has its meaning totally and irrevocably changed. When a good word, a friendly word, suddenly becomes a bad word and the bad word becomes the accepted term. Words that are in common usage become unacceptable; words that are acceptable sink into disuse. Suddenly I am marooned at sea again. Innocently dropping the wrong word into a sentence is as fraught as dropping a three year old into a swimming pool: it can go one of two ways, and neither of them the way that you predicted.
It is so easy to offend people when so many are so willing to be offended. It’s the keeping up that’s the problem. Have you any idea, for instance, how confused it makes a man of my age to hear that someone is being trolled? To my memory a troll is part of the family that lives under the rickety rackety bridge: if you don’t want to be trolled, use a different bridge. I remember when mobile technology was a new caravan. I remember when ‘f*ck’ was the rudest word imaginable, before it became what it is today: a uni-purpose verb, noun, adjective, pronoun and adverb used by all. The world’s first, and possibly only, truly egalitarian word. Does anybody else still go for a widdle? Does anybody else still wear a pully? I didn’t realise how regional our language was until somebody I was speaking to did not understand the word mardy. I thought that everybody dackered down now and then. A strange country is this when so much can be read into the way you pronounce the word scone. It says much about us as a race, that we have as many words to describe a bread bun as the Eskimos have for snow. (I wrote that, and now I’m not even certain that Eskimo is any longer an acceptable word.)
When I was younger, a pension was something that was paid by the government to a person from the date of their retirement until the date of their death – the two being separated by about twelve months on average. Now it is something you start to worry about at birth, contribute to from age 18, pay all your life and draw at eighty if you live that long. A prostate was an almost mythical organ that gave endless trouble to the elderly. Now it seems to trouble people who are really quite young. Come on, play the game, please give me back the patriotism that was the love of one’s own country and not the hatred of everyone else’s. Please give me back the time when short-term memory was the ability to recall names, faces and events from the recent past and not…
My problem is that I see consequences. Not immediate consequences, we all see those: if I put my fingers into that working liquidizer I presume they would… Oh bugger! and not the ultimate consequence – there is only one of those and I don’t quite see that on its way just yet – but possible consequences. It is what I do: I cannot help it. The range of possible consequences arising from each step along a journey serves only as a discarded shoe over which to trip prior to the next step. The exponential growth of hazard along the way means that I am usually consumed, if not by fear then at least some kind of radical trepidation, before I have had the opportunity to fall down the doorstep. I often do not see journey’s end, just all the crap that lies between it and me. My wife thinks that I am The King of ‘No’ and, whilst I do not agree with her (obviously) I do think that I am almost certainly one of The Lords of ‘let’s just think this through’. I really need to see a logical route through any ‘journey’ before I’m ready to set off. I need to understand the consequences of each action I will take along the way. I am not The King of ‘No’, but I may well be The King of ‘what if?’…
Now, please don’t think that this is some sort of pitch for sympathy – I neither seek nor deserve it. I have grown old with how I am, but I have never found a satisfactory way of dealing with it. If you have any sympathy to spare, please feel free to extend it to those who have to live with me.
At least I don’t spend my entire life constantly striving for more (more, more). I am reconciled to what I have. It is great, and I love it. I think that spending all of your life searching for something else will merely present you with the shortest route to misery. I am not tied to introspection, but I do see myself quite clearly. Unfortunately, although I know ‘what I am like’ it does not necessarily mean that I know what to do about it. (If you do, please feel free to let me know – as long as it isn’t painful.) And I don’t think that I am totally without redeeming features – I think I’m ok to spend a little time with. I am no Nelson Mandela, no Samuel L Jackson: you will not leave my company feeling that you have met somebody special, but I don’t think that I will have offended you. I’m not sexist, racist or homophobic. I seldom, if ever, get drawn into conversation about politics or religion. I don’t think that I exude any particularly noxious odour. I think, in the main, I am bland, inoffensive and unexciting. Human blancmange. I will not affront you, but I may seriously bore you.
In principal, I am very happy to set off on a journey with no idea of where I am going, just as long as I know exactly how I’m going to get there. I am happy to flirt with jeopardy, but never danger. If I was ever to play James Bond (I know, I know, but just hear me out) mine would be the first version to say “Now, let’s just think about this for a minute…” My ‘Bond-girl’ would lie, unsullied, on black satin sheets (about which I would warn her in due course) whilst I mixed her a really good G&T (neither shaken, nor stirred, but with loads of ice) and cautioned her about the inadvisability of mixing with men who keep sharks for pets…
For some reason that only nature can fathom, I have a full head of ginger hair – which just goes to show, you can’t have everything. However as a more-mature man, I am increasingly aware of just how many of my fellow sexagenarians appear to be completely bald. I say ‘appear to be’ because left to nature most would actually sport the ubiquitous glabrous sheen of the ‘chrome-dome’, whence a small bald patch at the crown of the head spreads unremittingly across the skull over time like treacle on a shag-pile, and nobody, it would seem, wants that. At the first sign of male pattern baldness the average middle-aged man troops himself off to his nearest Italian barber and gets a Number One, which, developing quickly as these things do, soon becomes a light polish to the main pate and a good buff behind the ears.
It didn’t used to be this way: when I was a young man it was very different. Most accepted this creeping baldness with the assurance that ‘only real men go bald’ and, perhaps, left the back and sides to grow a little longer by way of compensation. Some grew a beard or allowed their sideburns to flourish like some kind of physiognomous rain-forest. Some, however, reacted in a completely different manner. At the first signs of a developing tonsure; a thinning of previously luxuriantly Brycreemed locks; an ever-increasing dislocation between eyebrow and fringe, some decided that the time was right to employ the thick, tufted comfort of a layer of finest nylon weave. Toupee time was upon them.
Now, I have seen the adverts aimed at the follically-challenged male and almost universally they extol the capability to match almost any hair colour with one of the thousands of available shades at their disposal. I presume that you just send away a clipping of one of your own ever-diminishing tresses and await delivery of a perfectly matching demi-wig. The shiny dome is encased within a matt of artificial thatch that is indistinguishable from you own natural mane and, with the application of something that I presume is along the lines of a cranial Fixo-dent, you are free to leave the house with confidence in rain, wind or sunshine, having lost twenty years along the way.
So why is it that almost everybody I spy wearing such a designer postiche appears to have had something that resembles a patch of astro-turf crudely affixed to the top of their head? I cannot believe that anyone, conscious enough of their own appearance to consider donning a hairpiece, would not consider the look of the thing. Nor can I believe that budget is totally to blame – I can but imagine that even the more affordable wiglet comes in at least a rudimentary range of colours more appropriate to the natural barnet. And I can’t believe that anyone who would choose any toupee above incipient baldness or the sudden gloss of a shaven head would do so without access to a mirror. They have to know. And this, I have decided, has to be the point. They do know. They do not choose a rug that camouflages itself into their own locks in case they should be inadvertently de-wigged and exposed by a young child or a bird searching for nesting material and seen as vain. Instead they choose a switch that declares itself present with a yell. A toupee that leaves no doubt that the owner is wearing it and thus that nobody can ever mention it. Rolling back the years. Hidden in full sight.
Having passed pristine through the hands of Christopher Robin and relatively unscathed through those of his children, Winnie-the-Pooh was now in the hands of the grandchildren and feeling the strain. The daily bump-bump-bump of his head on the stairs was taking its toll. He did not find thinking things through nearly as easy as he used to, and now he thought about it, he had never found it particularly easy in the first place. ‘Perhaps,’ he thought, ‘that’s what comes of having a head stuffed full of kapok.,’ although he had not the faintest idea of what kapok actually was and even less of a clue if that was what a bear of a certain age had stuffed in its head at all. Whatever it was he had stuffed between his ears, he was pretty sure that it was not nearly as densely packed as it used to be. ‘Perhaps that’s why I can’t erhm… can’t… Oh dear, what is it I can’t?’ thought Pooh. ‘Oh dear, I can’t remember. What is it I can’t remember? I can’t remember. Oh dear…’ Pooh sat on the bottom stair to collect himself. ‘Kapok,’ he mused. ‘Was it kapok? Oh dear, I forget. What is kapok?’ To calm himself, Pooh hummed a little hum he had just composed.
What is kapok? Goodness knows! It must be something I suppose. Perhaps it fills my head and toes And possibly my down-belows.
Or is it sawdust in my head That’s drained down to my feet instead And trickled out through loosened thread To join the fur-balls that I shed.
Whatever is inside of me Is falling out as you can see And taking consequentially What little brain there used to be.
Pooh was very happy with his hum and he would have given it a tune if he hadn’t forgotten the first verse before he hummed the last…
Some time later, Pooh was tramping across what remained of the Hundred Acre wood – a small area of scrubland, bedecked with broken bicycles, burned out cars and soiled and soggy bed mattresses, in the middle of a semi-derelict housing estate – when he bumped into Piglet. ‘Where are you going?’ asked Pooh.
‘Why,’ said Piglet. ‘I’m not sure, but I believe I am going to the same place as you.’
‘In that case,’ said Pooh ‘I shall join you.’
And so Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet tramped off together to find out where they were going.
‘How do you think we will know when we get there?’ asked Piglet.
‘Well, I suppose that after we get there we will start going back,’ said Pooh. ‘So then we’ll know.’
‘Why of course,’ said Piglet. ‘I would never have thought of that.’
Presently, some time after Winnie-the-Pooh had stopped to pick some dog shit out of his fur with a stick, Owl fluttered down beside the friends. Having lost all of his forebears to poisoned rodents, Owl was attempting to embrace a vegetarian diet – and it was not agreeing with him. ‘In the old days,’ he moaned, ‘I could cough up a pellet the size of a Mars Bar. Full of fur and bone. You really knew I’d been there. Now what do I cough up? Don’t know? I’ll tell you. Seeds! That’s what I cough up now, seeds. Nature’s stealth bomber, that was me. The silent killer. The nation’s favourite raptor. And what am I now? I’ll tell you. A budgie, that’s what I am. A bleedin’ budgie.’ He swivelled his head evilly through 360°. ‘I miss the taste of pulsing flesh, blood and bone,’ he said and licked his beak in a way that only owls can do.
‘I miss honey,’ said Pooh sadly. ‘I’ve written a little poem about it.’
‘Oh Gawd!’ said Owl.
‘Would you like to hear it?’
‘No!’ chorused Owl and Piglet.
‘Very well,’ said Pooh, clearing his throat with a little cough.
Soft and yellow, sweet and sticky Eating it with paws is tricky. After just a jar or two I would be stuck up like glue
Long ago, in times that’s been I would lick my paws quite clean, But now everything I eat is Governed by my diabetes.
‘I hate flippin’ porridge’ said Pooh with a distant look in his beady glass eyes. ‘And I really miss honey.’
‘And I,’ grumbled Eeyore, who had been following them quietly for some time. ‘I miss my tail.’
‘Eeyore,’ said Pooh. ‘I didn’t know you were there.’
‘It would seem to me,’ said Eeyore morosely, ‘that that is the story of my life.’
‘What is?’ asked Piglet, who had been momentarily distracted by an earwig under his vest.
Owl had fluttered around to the rear-end of Eeyore and was examining his rump closely. The button that had once held Eeyore’s tail in place was long-gone, leaving just a stub of severed threads. The tail itself, it was said, lay amongst various bags of assorted household effluvia at the local landfill. A small open seam close to its original location was held together with a rusting safety pin.
‘Perhaps,’ said Owl, ‘we could pin you a new tail there.’
‘Oh could you?’ said Eeyore. ‘That would make me so…’
‘Happy?’ suggested Winnie-the-Pooh.
‘Happy,’ said Eeyore. ‘Whatever that might be.’
So, whilst Eeyore stood beside a rusting shopping trolley contemplating his posterior, Winnie-the-Pooh, Owl and Piglet began to search for something that would make Eeyore a new tail.
‘It’s a shame Tigger can’t be here to help,’ said Piglet.
‘He seldom leaves his house,’ said Pooh. ‘His top is still made of rubber, but it’s lost all its bounce. His bottom has no spring…’
‘We should go and cheer him up later,’ said Piglet.
‘Too late,’ said Owl, looking at a watch he kept tucked under his wing (God knows how). ‘He’ll be on the outside of a bottle of Scotch by now and sleeping it off under a tree as usual. We could try tomorrow.’
‘Perhaps I could hum him a cheerful hum,’ said Pooh.
‘No,’ chorused Eeyore, Piglet and Owl, just a little too quickly for Pooh’s liking.
‘I think he just needs rest,’ said Owl.
‘But…’ began Pooh, when Piglet interrupted him excitedly.
‘I’ve found just the thing,’ he cried, holding up a short length of frayed, orange nylon rope. ‘It doesn’t quite match the rest of you, Eeyore, but it will hang down just like a tail.’
Eeyore almost smiled. ‘Do you think anyone will notice that it isn’t really a tail,’ he asked. ‘Me being grey and it being orange and nylon and all. Will it make me look younger? Will it turn back the sands of time? Will it make me more desirable to other donkeys?’
Owl polished the thick, bottle-glass lenses of his spectacles, rested them back on his beak and looked earnestly at Eeyore. ‘It will look,’ he said ‘just like it had never fallen off… in an orange, nylon kind of a way. And at a fraction of the price of a transplant.’
A little longer than usual, today’s ramble, as I possibly won’t have the opportunity to post on Monday. Please feel free to read this in two parts so that you’ve got something to do over the bank holiday (when I know you will be at a loose end). Alternatively, you could try reading the paragraphs in a different order. You could try reading them back to front. I’m not sure if it will make that much difference: my grasp of basic grammar isn’t what it was so you’ll probably find the syntax is better that way anyhow. If I’m honest, you could probably drop all the words into a bag, shake them up and pour them out onto the table and it would make just as much sense. I’m sure some of you will remember caravans like ours – although they may not have been yellow and the little Perspex roof vent may not have leaked quite as much…
So… I was talking to a friend the other day about the new static caravan that he was thinking of buying. He had access to a website so vibrant and colourful that it would, with the addition of a Pathé newsreel and a Felix the Cat cartoon, have comprised an entire afternoon’s entertainment in my youth. He also had a shiny, full-colour brochure carefully furled in his sweaty palm and was anxious to share its content with me. At forty feet by thirteen feet (the size of a small cathedral) this de-wheeled beauty featured three double bedrooms – one of them en-suite – with separate ‘family’ shower room and W.C., ‘luxury’ fitted kitchen, central heating and double glazing. It was decorated and carpeted to a standard that would have had Sir Elton John checking his purse and… well, it started me thinking – or, more correctly, it started me remembering…
When I was a child, my grandparents had a static caravan. It was sixteen feet long and about seven feet wide. It was painted yellow. Their greatest pride was that it was not made of hardboard. It did not have a bathroom, shower or W.C. It did not have electricity, it did not have water. It most certainly did not have central heating or double glazing. It had a fitted kitchen that consisted of two gas rings and a plastic washing-up bowl. It was mostly waterproof and it contained a stack of ‘Astounding Tales’ and ‘Amazing Stories’ magazines. We went there every weekend between March and October for the greater part of my childhood and its memories are imprinted upon my mind with the clarity of the glossy brochure I was shown by my friend. Let me talk you through a weekend…
Straight from school on Friday evening and onto the bus. My grandparents did not have a car. Nobody I knew had a car. There was only one car on our estate. I never saw anybody driving it, but I did often see the owner polishing it. He worked for the council… The bus took a two hour meander through the Lincolnshire Wolds to the East Coast. My grandad told me that there were Indians (the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ kind) in the hills and I always looked for them. I still do.
Upon arrival in Cleethorpes (Pearl of the East) we boarded a local bus which took us part-way to the caravan site. From the bus we walked about a mile along the sandy path that skulked moodily in the shadows of decaying coastal flood barriers and grass-pocked sand hills. It was a much longer walk at the beginning and end of the season when there was so much more to carry. Bedding inadvertently left in the ‘van’ through the winter had a tendency to turn to mulch before spring so, twice a year, everything that could either rot or rust was transported to or from the caravan via a combination of bus and schoolboy legs. Except for the very height of summer, this walk tended to take place in the pitch black of storm-tossed night, illuminated by a one-candle-power battery torch. How fantastic it was, after the long, sea-speckled hike, to fling open the caravan door and smell the damp of home. The main feature of a weekend in the caravan was damp. In the morning the inside of the van was dripping with condensation. If ever the small gas fire was lit, folded-up newspapers were placed along the window bottoms to collect the water as it formed and ran down the inside of the glass in rivulets. Many a happy hour was spent running a mental ‘book’ on which of two similarly sized drops would reach the sill first and be roundly absorbed by page three’s carefully folded appendages.
First job on arrival; put out the gas cylinder and light the lights. The lights all had ‘mantles’ – a very thin, lace-like structure of what appeared to be sculpted talcum powder. They were always broken. The lights wouldn’t work without them and the spares were impossible to find without light. They were impossible to fit without light. To tell the truth, they were impossible to pick up with or without light. Not that it mattered, the matches, like everything else, were always damp. Eventually, after much muttered grandparental swearing, the few functional lights were lit, the van was bathed in a sepulchral orange glow and the kettle was on. I loved the kettle in the caravan. It whistled. The kettle we had at home didn’t whistle. Mind you, it didn’t leak either.
In order, I think, to distance me from the National Service brogue of my grandad’s language as he attempted to cast light into the gloom, I was despatched to get the water for the kettle. Drinking water was collected from a standpipe in the middle of the site, in a large container that had a little tap at the bottom. We were quite a long way from the standpipe and, the container being almost as tall as myself, I was only able to carry it back with a very small quantity of water in it. Mostly I dragged it and got mud up the tap. Hot water was fetched from the toilet block. Now, I don’t want you to think that the toilet block had hot taps. It did not. The running water in the sinks was cold. What it had was a slot that took a penny and a tap beneath it that then dispensed a bucketful of hot water. Unless someone had been there just before you, when it dispensed a quarter bucket of lukewarm water. Much time was spent watching the toilet block from the caravan window, gauging just the right time to get the most hot water for your penny. This, I should point out, was an old penny; one twelfth of a shilling (of which there were twenty to the pound) and the size of a dustbin lid. A penny would buy enough sweets for the whole weekend, three pulls on a one-armed bandit or some warmish water to wash in. No shower, no bath, just enough water for a ‘strip down wash’ and one last rush to the toilet before bedtime. No ‘facilities’ in the van; not even chemical – no space. Not even anywhere to put a po’ unless you used the wardrobe.
And the bedrooms? No, none of those. Two narrow ‘settees’ to one end of the van were where children slept. A curtain separated these two sagging bunks from the double bed that was formed by laying the cushions from the daytime sofas across the benches that flanked the table, and the table top itself (in retrospect, not the most hygienic of arrangements). And then lights off, to drift to sleep to the sound of the rain on the caravan roof. Always rain on the roof…
Saturday morning cast whatever light it could muster through the tissue-paper curtains and illuminated the caravan’s interior from earliest dawn. This was the moment when you realised that you needed a wee and that there was no way of getting out of the van without stepping on the occupants of the double bed that now lay between yourself and the door. You watched and you waited until the partition curtain was drawn back so that damp clothing could be wrestled on and, as the kettle merrily hissed on the stove, you took the full-bladdered, doubled-up lope to the toilet block with your slab of Wright’s Coal Tar (a large, yellow bar of soap: I have no idea whether it was actually made from coal tar, but given that this was a time in which you were told that smoking was good for the lungs, it is entirely possible) a damp flannel and an even damper hand towel. Rain or shine, hot or cold; it didn’t matter.
Saturday, prince of days, was the day for trooping off with grandad: a bona fide war hero with an ever-burning pipe wedged under his splendid RAF moustache, the smouldering embers illuminating his vaguely rum-pocked nose on each wheezy inhalation. A grandad it was a boys dream to spend time with, and a whole Saturday in which to do it.
So, plan for the day:
1. Dig lugworms from the beach with which to fish for dabs: little flat fish which were, to my recollection, not unlike tiny plaice or large squashed goldfish. Best thing about them; shallow fried in a little flour, they barely tasted of fish. The beach at low tide was full of lugworm casts and, after the many fishermen had been digging, resembled a First World War battlefield. I think it’s illegal to dig for them now without a licence.
2. The fishing was done at a brackish ‘creek’, a fast running tributary of sorts at the very end of the river which remained after the tide had drawn the main body of water into the distance, beyond the muddy flats, and into the sea. It involved a simple nylon line with a hook, a lead weight and the aforementioned lug worm. There was little skill involved except in casting the hapless, skewered worm out to sea without shredding your ear, and pulling it back in a few seconds later with a flapping dab at its end. The fishing was easy – always successful – and after a suitable time had passed, the creek swelled in size until it mingled with the incoming tide and boy, grandad and bag of fish were forced to retreat. I swam the creek a few times during the summer holidays – it was always deep and fast-flowing – but if you got your timing right, once on the other side you could wade to what I now know is the Haile Sand Fort. If you were lucky, and could pick your way through the barbed wire in time, you could climb up the base and walk around it. You could cast your eyes into the misty distance and look out for the German fleet; scouring the surface of the deeper water for the tell-tale periscope of a German U-boat… If you were unlucky and your timing wasn’t great, it was a frantic paddle/swim back to shore before you drowned. I still bear the scars of bare-footed scrambled retreats across concrete base covered in razor-sharp shells. I don’t ever recall being asked what I’d been doing. Times were different. Adventure was part of growing up for a boy – even if it involved the risk of death.
3. Cockle beds were exposed in the sandy flat river bed/sea shore at low tide. The cockles lay a few inches under the surface and were easily located from the little bubbles they blew through the wet sand from time to time. Presumably evolution, being what it is, will eventually recognise the success of non-bubble blowing cockles and they will suddenly become much more difficult to locate. They were dug and sifted through a big sieve – once again leaving the shore like a nightmarish wartime no-man’s land. I’m pretty sure that digging cockles is no longer allowed without a licence…
4. The marshes were green with samphire I remember; it took minutes to pack a carrier bag and was easy work as long as you kept moving. If you didn’t, you could sink up to groin level in the smelly, sandy gloop in seconds. I can’t see that you need a licence to collect samphire now, but to tell the truth, it’s probably much easier and less messy to collect it from Waitrose.
5. Grandma would soak and prepare cockles and samphire and gut the fish whilst the ‘men’ had a cup of tea and a butty and snoozed away the morning’s exertions. (I know, I know. I cannot be held responsible for this. These were very different times.) The memory of Saturday tea time: fresh boiled cockles, samphire with pan-fried dabs and the smell of stewed socks lives with me to this day.
…And then, after a quick change into smarter ‘evening’ clothes, a wander through the caravan ranks for an hour in the on-site ‘Amusements’. A few pennies in the slots if I was lucky and then Prize Bingo. A tanner in the slot lit one card. The adults played two. Four corners or a line; vertical, horizontal or diagonal for a single ‘win’ and the full-house for two. With a bit of luck you could save up enough wins over the season to replace the leaking kettle or the padlock that secured the Calor Gas container for what added up to little more than the cost of a new caravan over the season. And always to the chip shop on the walk home; the heady scent of a salt and vinegar laden caravan lingering around my nostrils as I began my descent into sleeping bag enveloped oblivion …
So passed the Spring, Summer and Autumn weekends of my childhood – in a happy, damp, vinegar-sodden tin box with all of the modern facilities of a cardboard tea crate. Sunday was tidy, clean and stow everything away until the next weekend. Long walk, short bus journey, long bus journey, short walk and home. Bath night. School in the morning…
…So, I sense you pondering, what exactly is the point of this self-indulgent twaddle? Well, truth is, it’s not all twaddle: it depends which way you choose to look at it. It could be a business plan. Glamping – is that really attractive to the over-somethings? No, I don’t think so. But give me a field and I will give them a no frills holiday experience with all the lack-of-utilities they could possibly wish for – all shrouded in the cosy, if damp, glow of nostalgic yesteryear and a quarter bucket of lukewarm water…
A few weeks ago we spent a few days in Finnish Lapland. Our hotel was on the bank of a huge frozen lake and in the evening we tramped out towards the centre of it in search of The Northern Lights. There was very little light pollution and the sky was cloudless. We stood in awe in almost total darkness as the lights grew and swirled and illuminated the night sky (photo above). After a while I sat on the ice and eventually I lay back to get a better view. Away from ‘The Lights’ the sky was black, bottomless and impermeable, but alight with a billion billion stars. It was utterly breathtaking and the enormity of it all set my brain spinning. What is visible to the naked eye is the tiniest fraction of what exists out there. If just an infinitesimal portion of the stars that I could see had planets spinning around them, that must still be countless millions. It is somehow impossible to believe that our own tiny little spinning orb could be the only one amongst such millions to support life. And given that, notwithstanding our considerable efforts to decimate it, our little globe is home to many millions of different species, who can begin to even imagine what might be out there.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that I will ever know. Almost certainly it will never be known, and that can only be for the best. If intelligent beings ‘out there’ can get here, they must be massively in advance of us. What could they possibly want of us? Pets? And given that, as a species, we often find it impossible to get on with our own kind simply on the basis of a different skin colour, sexuality or belief, what chance do we have of bonding with a small green ectoplasmic blob with an intellect the size of a thousand Einsteins? As sure as eggs is eggs, as soon as they see the mess we are making of our own planet, they are not going to want to let us anywhere near their own.
But what if they’re already here? We’ve all seen the films: aliens living amongst us – hidden in plain sight. Come on, who hasn’t looked at Donald Trump and not wondered if he could possibly really be of this world? Who amongst us is not watching his flicky little tongue, waiting for him to peel off his human face to reveal the lizard beneath? Even worse would be if aliens were to reveal themselves in the UK now and demand to be taken to our leader. Where the hell would we take them? ‘Erm… Little bit of a rudderless boat at the moment to be honest… er… situation’s a little bit… fluid… currently. Do you drink tea? Oh… no mouth, of course… Tell you what, I’ll phone the local radio station and see if they can suggest something…’
My dad had a theory that we were originally put on Earth by a much more advanced civilisation simply so that they could watch us develop – much as we might observe ants in a formicarium. We are like some real-time Eastenders for them. Such a shame that all we seem able to do is to hasten ourselves along to our final episode…
And then it occurred to me: what if I am an alien? What if we all are, but we just don’t remember? What if we’ve already killed off the true apex species of the planet and are now slowly (slowly?) working through the rest?
Anyway… all of this in a split-second in the middle of a frozen Finnish lake in the early hours of the morning. My mind clicked back to the Aurora. I sat up and drank it in. It was magnificent and the world that it cast an eerie light onto was also breathtakingly beautiful and then I started to feel cold… When I’m cold, my mind begins to wander – generally towards the warm – and the warm was in the hotel, so I followed my mind back to our room and joined it in a glass of whisky and a packet of peanuts.
All in all, not a lot to tell, but I just thought I’d like to share…
Perhaps I should begin by explaining that almost everything I do understand about the Universe is courtesy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: my problem is not that I don’t understand how the Universe works, it is that I do not fully understand why I would ever want to understand how the Universe works. The answer can only be disappointing. Tell me that the Universe is an upside-down colander and the stars are the flashes of light that come through the holes where the rain normally gets in and I will gladly believe you. Give me some claptrap about a Universe that wasn’t there and then was, a Universe that is both infinite and expanding, and then doubt sets in…
Perhaps I should begin, as it would appear all things did, with the Big Bang. My understanding is that two atoms spontaneously appeared in a vastness of nothingness, occupying the same place at the same time and Kerboom! With a ‘bang!’ not dissimilar to a teenager leaving a room, the universe was created. A broiling, violent, expanding everything – and everything that everything contains. Really? So who put the atoms there? If nothing existed, where did they come from? If they didn’t exist, and then they did, where did the ‘ingredients’ come from? If these two atoms contained all the ‘stuff’ from which the universe is now made, just how big were they? They must have been massive, which, given my exceedingly limited understanding of atoms, seems fairly unlikely. Anyway, putting all that to one side for now – generally because it is further from my comprehension than the edge of the Universe and more baffling than the first six chapters of Ulysses – we must move naturally onto what happened after the Big Bang.
Apparently this huge Kerboom! took only a fraction of a second to create everything that ever was, is, or will be, which was then blasted out into the vastness of space – so where did all that space come from? First there was nothing and then there was infinity. From zero zilch to an infinite abundance of it. Anyway… Massive explosion, all sorts of everything created in the blinking of an eye, and it all flies off into nothingness at a speed greater than the speed of light. (Except that’s not possible, is it? If it went faster than light, it would go back in time and, if it did that, it would surely not have existed in the first place. Oh dear…) Anyway… I do know that the Universe is infinite. And expanding. Really? Into what exactly? If the universe is everything, then what is it spreading into? Perhaps a Black Hole… Yup, now here’s something even more complicated than the Big Bang. There are so many paradoxes, inconsistencies and downright impossibilities associated with Black Holes that even your average Italian Hairdresser will not be able to explain them to you (take, for instance, why the much vaunted photograph of a real-time super-massive black hole was so disappointing – and so much less impressive than the artists impressions of the same). I envisage them as a kind of House of Commons for rational thought – it works for me.
Anyway… I believe that one of the giant telescopes that we now have circling the Earth has spotted stars that are billions of light years away at the very edge of the Universe. So far away, in fact, that the light they are sending our way actually emanated at the dawn of time. (Did I mention that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang? Kind of messes up my same time/same place theory.) Right, so, surely what is today at the fringes of the Universe would, at the dawn of time, have been right in the middle of it. If so, why is the light of the Big Bang! coming from the fringes? How can these suns be seen at a time and a place that they weren’t until now, if the light we are seeing was emitted at a time when they weren’t there but were here? In short, how can light emitted at the time of the Big Bang! have taken billions of light years to reach us when, at the time of the big blast, we were all in the same place?
Our solar system is one of millions in the galaxy; our galaxy is one of millions in the Universe and our Universe is… no, I’ve lost it again. You see I’ve never really understood how planets and stars stay where they are in the first place. If they have mass whilst space does not, how come they don’t all just end up at the bottom? How do they remain where they are? You try spinning around at 67,000mph (the speed that Earth orbits the Sun) and see if you end up where you started… Anyway… The Hitchhiker’s Guide told us not to panic. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what’s going on, astrophysicists understand all that there is to know about the entire history of the universe; in much the same way that 17th century apothecaries knew all there was to know about phlogiston presumably. They know that all their sums would add up – if only they could find some dark matter. (Presumably they’ve never thought to look between a four-year-old’s toes.) What they really need to verify their theory is a Higgs Boson particle. So, they build a Large Hadron Collider and, glory be, they create one. They also create a mini-black hole, but don’t worry; this is tiny, nothing like the super-massive black hole that, at the end of time, will swallow up the whole universe. Mind you, seeing as the whole caboodle began with just two atoms, I can’t help but wonder just how big it would need to be…
N.B. I realise that all the basic hypotheses on which I have built this post are, in all probability, total nonsense. I have no idea how scientifically verifiable my ‘facts’ are, but they’re all I’ve got. Where knowledge fails, I fall back on fantasy: what I don’t know, I make up. It is not even a conscious thing, it is just that whenever my brain finds a gap in my knowledge it fills it up with whatever it has to hand. I am no Brian Cox or Brian May – more like Brian from The Magic Roundabout. I carry absolutely no expectation that anything I have said above is not demonstrably incorrect. I have a basic inability to comprehend what existed before anything existed – and more precisely how there can possibly have been nothing. Surely nothing can only exist if there is something for it to exist within? Much like infinity: I am perfectly willing to believe in infinity, if only somebody could explain to me what’s at the end of it… Whatever the true cause of the Big Bang – and I realise it almost certainly is not what I said (whatever that was) – surely something had to be there to cause it. Unless the Big Bang as we know it (know?) and the start of our universe was actually caused by the very last atom of a previous Universe being sucked into a black hole… Anyway, if there is anybody out there who feels that they can explain all this to me in a clear and concise manner – please don’t bother, as any attempt to do so will only make us both feel terribly inadequate.
…So, we begin part two by presuming that you have not had to visit Accident and Emergency and that, flushed with shelf-hanging success, you may have decided that you wish to attempt door hanging. The main advice I can offer at this point is ‘For God’s sake, make sure it’s an internal one’. For a start, there are no awkward locks for you to fit back to front and it doesn’t matter quite so much if it doesn’t shut. The necessary equipment and the methodology are similar to shelf hanging except that it involves hinges that will initially be affixed to the wrong side of the door. In addition to your previously assembled toolkit you will also need a plane with which you will remove three inches from the top of the door and half an inch from the bottom, all at an angle of forty-five degrees. Do not even consider an electric plane unless you want to end up with something from which you can make the front of your bird box. A slight draught is one thing, but being able to walk between the newly fitted door and the frame without touching either is quite another. Never attempt to remove the bottom of a door with a saw; you will only end up having to nail it back on. Saws are seldom a good idea for the DIY enthusiast: you will never have the right one and you will always end up hacking bits off with a bread knife anyway.
Once you have hung your door, you may wish to paint it. Beware. However small you leave it, once painted it will always stick, even if it does not physically touch the frame. This is one of the great mysteries of our age, like why hats only ever suit somebody else. Now, there is, God forbid, just the outside chance that your experience of door painting might give you the taste for decorating in general. Please believe me when I tell you that shutting your tongue in the car boot will be less painful in the long run. If you must put stuff on the walls, at least stick to emulsion; that way you will only ruin the carpet and the furniture, the house itself will at least retain some value.
If, by some miracle, you emerge from the other side of painting a wall with your health and house intact, you may be determined to create a ‘feature wall’ by hanging wallpaper. If this is the case, I can say little except that you are obviously more daft than you look. If you cannot be dissuaded from such a course, then kindly allow me to offer some observations based solely upon my own bitter experience. I hope they help:
• All wallpaper is tapered. It might fit at the top, but never at the bottom.
• The pattern on wallpaper is never even. It might match at the top, but it will stray badly by the time you reach the gaps at the bottom.
• The ‘pattern repeat’ information on the label is merely a trap for the unwary.
• Wallpaper stretches – but never where you want it to.
• Wallpaper tears – but never until it’s nearly finished.
• Always cut the wallpaper around light switches and electric sockets whilst it is wet. Once it has dried you will never find them again.
• Scissors, even when new, are never sharp enough to cut wet wallpaper.
• Do not attempt to trim the wallpaper with a razor blade. Wet wallpaper is like blotting paper. A pint of blood will leach over an entire wall.
• Bubbles in drying wallpaper should be popped with a pin. Once popped, they should dry flat. They should, but they never do.
• If the bubbles make a shrieking noise when you pop them, you have probably papered over the cat.
• If you want to remove the wallpaper in six months time, you will require a flame-thrower.
• If you do not want to remove the wallpaper in six months time, it will fall off.
• The pattern is never upside down until after you have finished.
In the somewhat unlikely event that you might wish to attempt tiling, the one piece of advice I feel equipped to offer is not to worry too much about straight lines. Just be grateful if they stay on the wall.
For those of you with an even more adventurous DIY bent, there is always plumbing to be tackled. Much like binge drinking, it is only really a suitable pastime for the young and fit. Like binge drinking, it also tends to make an awful mess of the carpet. If you really must try your hand at plumbing, let me suggest something very simple at first. How about stopping the kitchen tap from dripping without ramming a huge lump of blu-tack up the end of it? Fitting a new washer to a tap is the simplest job in plumbing – which is why you can never find anybody to do it. If you feel as though you really want to attempt pipework, let me offer this solitary recommendation: always use compression joints in preference to the soldered variety. They will still leak, but at least you won’t burn the house down.
Which finally brings us to electrical works. In the UK it is now, thankfully, illegal for the amateur to carry out most electrical projects. DIY enthusiasts are largely restricted to changing socket fronts and light switches – although this still allows ample opportunity to fuse the rest of the neighbourhood. In the UK, the electrical wires are colour-coded; Live (brown), Neutral (blue) and Earth (yellow/green) with red and black thrown into lighting circuits. Improvisation is not encouraged: an incorrectly wired light switch may lead to a neighbourhood blackout, singed nasal hairs and fused dental work.
There are, of course, many other DIY tasks that you might consider taking on, from the most straightforward – drilling an outside wall in order to put up a hanging basket bracket – to the slightly more advanced task of rebuilding your house again afterwards. I may return to some of them at a later date – like a burglar returning to the scene of somebody else’s crime – not so much a harbinger of doom as the Prince of I-told-you-so. In the meantime, whatever you may choose to do, remember always why you are doing it: because you are too mean to pay somebody else to do it properly.
Easter. Time to face up to all those jobs you’ve been putting off since this time last year. Please accept my little Easter guide in the spirit in which it was written e.g. to give you something to do whilst you are attempting to concoct a reasonable-sounding excuse for not doing them. It is a little longer than normal, so it is split into two parts – not unlike sections of your anatomy if you are not careful…
As you grow older, and your time becomes less consumed by children, dangerous sports and Himalayan trekking holidays, you may feel the need to fill the void with a more age-appropriate pastime. Sadly, many will consider that sitting in an armchair drinking cider and doing the quick crossword is not such a hobby, and you may be forced to seek something a little more challenging. There will come a time in the life of all of us when we are tempted to say, “I’m not paying that. If I had the tools, I could do it myself, it can’t be that difficult.” Well, here’s my first warning for you: generally it is. All DIY projects end up costing considerably more than getting a tradesman in. A friend of mine once managed to remove the party wall between himself and the neighbouring bungalow whilst putting up a photo frame. He is, I believe, now a speech writer for Donald Trump. Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that all DIYers are so inept (there is, after all, only one Donald to go around) but the potential is always there. Never-the-less, if you feel you really must give it a go, I find it incumbent upon myself to offer such advice as I am able. Since you have probably decided to ignore my imploration to quit whilst you are ahead, e.g. before you have started, we may as well begin.
Before commencing any DIY project it is important to ensure that you have the following items easily to hand:
• Antiseptic Cream
• Mobile phone pre-programmed to dial 999
• Car: this is essential in order to fetch the vital components or tools that you always manage to forget until half way through the job
• A small child to blame when it all goes wrong.
Most prospective DIYers will begin with a little woodwork. The lure of producing a 3-legged coffee table, an asymmetrical magazine rack or a wonky pipe-rack will prove irresistible to many. In addition to the wood, which is available from any good timber merchants at little more than two to three times the price of a finished product, you will need tools. Woodworking tools are seldom, if ever, used for their intended purpose. A chisel is usually used to hack a notch into the top of a pozidrive screwhead when you do not have a pozidrive screwdriver with which to remove it. A smaller chisel is subsequently used to remove the screw when you discover that you have also forgotten the other screwdriver. A nail punch may then be employed to drive the screw head into the wood when you discover that the chisel will not remove it. Your shoe will be used when you discover that you have lost your hammer. You will also need a stout toolbox from which to misplace your tools.
Warning: All woodworking tools are either sharp, pointed or both. If you must keep woodworking chisels I suggest that you blunt them by knocking holes into walls when your drill has fused.
Let us begin by looking at a suitable early project for the keen DIY woodworker: the bird box. Begin by constructing a simple box of 4 equal sides, a top and a bottom which can be held together with nails and glue or, if you have misplaced the hammer and bought toothpaste instead of glue, blu-tack. The box should have a sloping roof (as it is likely to slope in all directions, just choose the surface that slopes the most) and a little hole at the front through which the birds can enter. When correctly assembled the box should be capable of being lifted without the bottom falling out. Take a photograph of the finished box before it ‘weathers’ (falls to pieces) and put it out into the garden in the spring. Having been affixed to a suitable tree, shed or bonfire, the nest box will remain unused for three years before you discover that the hole is too small. By this time the bottom will have fallen out anyway and the perch will have been taken away by a sparrow for nesting material.
At some stage all DIY enthusiasts will be called upon to hang a shelf. Before you commence the project you should amass the following:
• Electric drill
• Chuck key for a completely different drill
• 3 semi-rusted drill bits, none of which are suitable for masonry, one of which has not had its head broken off during a previous project
• A selection of wall plugs, all for the wrong kind of wall
• A selection of screws in different sizes, none of which match the wallplugs
• A selection of screwdrivers, none of which match the screws.
Warning: Electric tools offer all the risks associated with other woodworking equipment multiplied by 240 volts.
Choose a likely-looking drill bit and insert it into the drill chuck and tighten best you can. If it wobbles a bit, don’t worry too much unless it shoots out when you turn the drill on and decapitates your daughter’s goldfish. Then worry. Carefully measure and mark the walls and drill the holes in something resembling the right kind of area. Insert the wall plug. If it will not fit, chop a bit off it with a kitchen knife and hammer it in with a ladle. If it is too small, simply insert another plug inside it and hammer it in with a ladle. Put shelf against the wall and insert a screw into any hole that roughly matches a wall plug. Tighten as far as the screwdriver allows and then hammer in the rest of the way with a ladle. Now, take a photograph of your shelf in situ before it has the chance to fall from the wall and scalp the cat. Find something suitable to put on the shelf that will not roll down the slope and blu-tack it in place.
Warning: never sit underneath a shelf – particularly if you put it up.