The Writer’s Circle #9 – The New Chapter

Elizabeth Walton knew that time spent in regret and recrimination was always wasted.  It achieved nothing positive.  It merely deepened disillusionment – and bitterness was so ageing.  She had been lucky enough to spend twenty years of her life with the man that she loved, and she was grateful for that.  It had been a happy marriage; not blissful, but normally happy.  There had been times when she wished him dead and times when he had wished the same for her, but there had also been times when she felt truly contented – and those were the times that she chose to remember.  She remembered the day he had died – had been killed – of course, but not with any detail.  She remembered it as one remembers a taste or a smell.  The loss was a sensation to which there was no detail.  It was emptiness.  It is not possible to recall emptiness, only to experience it, and emptiness is what she experienced, day after day until one morning, several months after he husband’s death, Elizabeth awoke with the realisation that she had experienced quite enough of it and so she packed it carefully away – she had to know that it was still there if ever she needed it – and closed the cover on it, like a precious flower pressed between the pages of a favourite book, never forgotten, but seldom recalled.

Joining the Writer’s circle was the first conscious move that Elizabeth had made towards opening a new chapter in her life; she felt it apposite.  She had seen the leaflet in the library and, despite never having written a word in her life, she went along at the first opportunity, because she knew that if she left it to the second, it would never come.  In the event, it had been a very easy introduction.  A local history writer – a professor from the local university with a bad wig and, from the look of it, only one good shirt – had agreed to read them a short section from his new book, so apart from introducing herself briefly she had little to do for the first hour.  When the professor had finished his reading to polite applause on the hour mark, Deidre had suggested that it would be a convenient time to take ‘tea’ and everybody went down into the bar below.  She noticed that most of the group drank happily together whilst two men – whom she later got to know as Billy and Terry – tended to hang around the fringes, unwilling or unable to properly join in.  It didn’t take her long to realise that backs bridled whenever they came close enough to join in the conversation.  She also was aware of the smartly dressed man with the boxer’s brow who stood alone, occasionally shooting his cuffs, and constantly looking over his shoulder.  She felt that he did not belong.  Fortunately she retained sufficient intuition not to approach him – although she was intrigued by the bulge on his ankle. 

She’d had two gins – the first of which was bought by a man who introduced himself as Phil and said that he was pleased to see ‘new blood’ in the group.  The second she bought for herself and had to finish somewhat hurriedly when Phil told her that they were not allowed to take the drinks upstairs with them when they returned to the Circle.  Thus it was that, when she was asked to better introduce herself to the group, she did so fully and, briefly, tearfully.  She was a little ashamed of herself but, if she was honest, it felt liberating to be able to unburden herself in such a way in front of strangers – like taking her bra off in a restaurant.  (It was only the once, you understand, and she’d put her blouse back on before she came out of the ladies.  She’d only done it to see if her husband would notice.  He didn’t, but the waiter who found the bra under her chair did.)  Anyway, it was done; there was no way of turning back.  In her mind she had decided that it didn’t matter because she would never return here, but then everybody had been so nice about it, not condescending, just nice.  Phil and Frankie had made her laugh, Penny had offered her a tissue and Louise had passed her a little mirror saying, ‘You might like to take a little glance in there,’ which was very nice of her because nobody likes snot trails do they?

Anyway, long story short and all of that, the rest of the session really became just a little bit of a chat, mostly about books: they asked what kind of books she read, which authors she enjoyed, all the kinds of things that she’d anticipated and rehearsed and then Deidre asked her what kind of books she wrote.  Elizabeth had been prepared to obfuscate a little on this point – not really wanting to own up to getting little further than a shopping list – but the question was so direct and the manner in which it was asked allowed so little room for equivocation that Elizabeth panicked.  She closed her eyes and visualised the library shelves.  “Family saga,” she said.  “Oh good,” said Deidre, “We haven’t got one of those,” and the die was cast.  It seemed to satisfy everyone.  Well, almost everyone.
“What are you working on at the moment?” asked Penny.
“Well…” she looked at Penny and smiled.  Penny seemed very nice really and Elizabeth was sure that she would grow to like her, if she could just get over the current urge to strangle her.
“Maybe you could read for us sometime.”
“That would be nice,” said Elizabeth, painfully aware that ‘nice’ was a word she was going to have to try and eradicate from her vocabulary if she stood any chance of perpetuating the fiction of herself as an author that she was in the process of creating.  “It’s all a little bit fragmented at the moment, but I’m sure in a week or two…”
“That would be lovely,” said Penny, genuinely pleased.  “To hear something new.  Lovely.”
“Well, I’m really not sure how good it will be,” said Elizabeth, realising that if she was to come back again she would, almost certainly have to write something – and that was the second positive thing she did since opening the new chapter…

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #8 – Ovinaphobia’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #10 – Phil’s Baby’ is here.

The Running Man on the Path

I would choose, if it was safe, to run on the roads rather than the paths.  The paths around here are very much the second choice for running.  For a start they would appear never to have recovered from being bombed in the war: it would be uncharitable to call the craters that litter them ‘potholes’ – I think ‘fox-holes’ would be more appropriate: they are wide enough to defy hurdling and deep enough to conceal ancient Japanese soldiers who still do not know that the war is over.  Dodging them pretty much doubles the distance of a run.  Then, where there are no potholes, there are drives.  For some reason this village specialises in driveways that merge with the road via something with sides that appear to have fallen off a rift valley.  Those that do not treat you to an up and down of about six feet over a car’s width, indulge you, instead, in a headlong dive either into the road or somebody’s garden, as the whim takes them.  After a ‘path run’ my knees feel like they have just done ten minutes on a bouncy castle with my grandkids – the most strenuous exercise known to man.  And finally, of course, the paths have dog walkers…

I know, I know, I have been here before, but really!  What is it all about?  Normally if I am running in the road, providing I stick to the gutter – that’s quite enough of that, thank you – approaching cars ease out a little to give me room.  I always acknowledge them.  Everyone is happy.  If I am on the path and have to pass anyone – a novelty for someone who runs at a speed somewhat short of walking pace – I move into the road if I can, or cross to the other side.  None of this is possible when the rain means that the road is as slippery as a greased eel.  I stick to the path and gauge my speed, the best I can, to pass walkers at a convenient point, causing both of us the minimum inconvenience and allowing the maximum distance.  Now, I am a walker too.  I do realise that walkers do not want a shagged-out senior citizen panting all over them at close quarters.  It’s easily sorted.  We all move a little and everyone is happy.  Normally pleasantries are exchanged and the world carries on turning.  Unless the walkers are attached by a leash to a dog, in which case the path becomes a kingdom to be defended.  None shall pass.  A laird whose territory extends exactly to the end of the pooch’s lead.

Most of what passes for rational thought when I am running, is expended on where I should be in order to cause the minimum inconvenience to other path and road users: on plotting a path that keeps everybody as safe as possible and, if possible, avoids the necessity for a trip to A&E with my leg in a makeshift splint, cunningly fashioned from pieces of the larchlap fence I have just crashed through.  A walker, on seeing a runner approaching, will normally move to one side, the runner to the other and it is very easy to manufacture a point of crossing that coincides with a driveway.  Two metres is an easy distance to gauge: imagine falling over; would you crack your head on the path or on the other person’s toe-cap?  A walker with a dog, however, will glare and stop, with great deliberation, between driveways before moving to the very centre of the path, giving you the simple choice: go ‘dog-side’ and risk a trip through somebody’s hedge, or go ‘idiot-side’ and risk a high-wire act along the kerb whilst they glare at you and defy you to breathe their air.  With the road out of bounds, the ‘full stop’ is the only way out, whilst they walk by at their leisure, snorting gently from the nose.  I was actually asked today whether I was ‘allowed to be doing that’.  ‘Lockdown,’ apparently, ‘is not over yet.’  I was about four hundred yards from home.  I did not recognise my interrogators – who were even more ancient than me – but I’m guessing they were probably not from the village, that they drove here to walk the pooch – doubtless because they have run out of places to dump their plastic wrapped bundles of faeces closer to home.

I could have stopped to argue, but, to be quite frank, it’s such a battle to gain momentum that, once I’ve got it, I don’t want to let it go.  I could have said something caustic en passant, but I’m not certain that my breathing was up to it; I could have given them a withering look, but I fear they may have thought I was having a stroke, so I settled for a cheery ‘And a good morning to you too.’  They didn’t see the irony.  I must be slipping.

The whole running saga started here with ‘Couch to 5k’
Last week’s bulletin ‘The Running Man on Reasons to be Cheerful’ is here.
The next Running Man bulletin ‘…On the Go’ is here.

Zoo # 25 – Lion Fish

As a boy I was very taken with the ‘Little Willy’ poems.  Sadly, I have absolutely no recollection of who they were written by, nor where I read them, but I do remember that the form of these little rhymes never varied.  I can remember two of them today – over fifty years on:

Little Willy with a shout
Gouged the baby’s eyeballs out;
Stamped on them to make them ‘Pop!’ –
Mother cried, ‘Now William stop!’

And…

Little William with a roar
Nailed the baby to the door.
Mother cried, with humour quaint,
‘Careful Will, you’ll mar the paint.’

A have absolutely no idea why they appealed to me so greatly, but I thought it was about time that I allowed myself to take inspiration from them.  I hope that whoever wrote the originals will forgive me…

Little Willy, with a yen,
Threw baby in the lion’s den.
Mother seemed to be quite happy –
‘It was almost time to change his nappy.’

Sadly, it was at this point that I realised that at least fifty percent of my readers (‘Hello’ to both of you) will not know what a nappy is (actually the diminutive of napkin I believe – although how it came to be wrapped about a baby’s nethers I am not sure).  I understand that American babies have diapers (the etymology of which completely escapes me) and I couldn’t make that rhyme in any sensible way, so I tried again.

Little Willy with a yell
Dropped the baby down a well
Filled up with piranha fish –
Mother whispered ‘Make a wish.’

Which, in the end, I’m probably happier with…

The ‘Mistake’ Rack (part two)

Photo by Daria Sannikova on Pexels.com

The main thing about the ‘mistake’ rack is that albums do not make their way onto it over a period of time: they do not move there because I have grown bored of them over the years, or because I seldom play them any more – I have many, many CD’s and some of them get played very rarely, but when they do, I still love them.  ‘Mistake’ rack albums are different.  They are destined to be there.  Back in the days of Andy’s Records they would have had appropriate labels on them: ‘This album may not be anything like as good as you think it is going to be.’  Sometimes I have been given them, sometimes I have bought them on the strength of one great track, sometimes I was just looking for something new.  However they came into my possession, I just knew that we were not meant for one another.  I am not saying that they are, necessarily, bad albums – just that, all in all, they would have been better not to have been made… 

So, having paused only for fortification in a glass of 40% proof, I continue my trawl through ‘The Shelf with No Name’.  Next in line, and the most recent album on the shelf is ‘Amulet’ by Circa Survive (2017).  I was led to this partly by a brilliant Roger Dean-esque cover, which is every bit as good as Alisha’s Attic (part one) is bad.  The album is very polished, but so soulless that not even the devil would want it.  This is a band that very badly wants to be Rush, but sadly seldom gets past amble, playing the kind of music you would expect to hear piped into the toilets at a prog-rock convention.  It came off the shelf only very briefly.  It is back there now.

If you can imagine cutting and pasting little bits from every great rock album by every great rock act into a single album and still ending up with something interminably boring, well, that brings me onto the next album on the shelf, because that is exactly what Thirty Seconds to Mars managed to do with ‘A Beautiful Lie’ (2005).  It is an album that is far, far less than the sum of its parts.  Waiting for one track to end, knowing that there is another one to follow is actually painful: not so much a question of where one tracks ends and the next one starts as why they bothered?  It is like throwing every fruit you have ever liked into a liquidizer and switching it on only to end up with a brown, tasteless sludge.  Every little bit of this album detracts from every other bit.  The album sold by the bucket-load (the bucket, in my opinion, is where it should have stayed) and won plaudits galore as well as awards, which just shows what I know.  Like deliberately banging your head on the wall, the only fun to be had from this album is when it stops.  Back on the shelf.

Next in line is The Flaming Lips ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ (2002), an album that I really feel I should like, but I’ve tried and I can’t.  It doesn’t help that the melody from track one (Fight Test) is lifted straight from Cat Steven’s ‘Father to Son’.  It bothers me.  I have checked the cover to see whether it is credited, but it is one of those bloody awful booklets that is either designed to confound all attempts at reading it, or very shoddily printed.  The cover is littered with critical praise and five star reviews, yet the record is nothing like as good as it thinks it is.  This is the class swot.  This is the album that stands in front of the class and says, ‘Look at me’.  This is the record that your parents point out is so much better than you.  I don’t know who Yoshimi is, but I’m pretty sure I’d like to flick him/her with a wet towel.  I played this CD all the way through to give it the chance to change my mind.  It didn’t.  Back on the shelf.

Kula Shaker’s ‘K’ definitely has moments, notably in the singles (a common theme) ‘Hey Dude’, ‘Govinda’ and ‘Tattva’, but the rest of it sounds uncomfortably like a bunch of middle class public school boys who want to be The Stone Roses.  It’s ok for a little while, but then… actually, it’s not ok for a little while.  It’s dispiritingly tedious.  The overall sound is of a band whose independent financial means ensured that the music didn’t really matter.  It’s a bit of an ‘in-joke’.  On the ladder of aptitude, they are many, many rungs above me, but, if I’m honest, that’s nothing like enough and, sadly, I can still hear them.  Rather than a ‘Curate’s Egg’, this is an Easter egg of an album: cool cover, plenty of glitter, but, ultimately, hollow.  It’s back on the shelf.

Finally, we come to an album that it kills me to see there: Iggy and the Stooges ‘Raw Power’.  I know, I know, please let me explain.  I am a life-long Bowie fan.  This album was released in 1973, having been rescued from the record company bins and cleaned up by Bowie at the mixing desk*.  Along with The Sex Pistol’s ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ it is the very best of punk.  Over the years I have played the grooves off the vinyl twice and so eventually decided to buy the re-issued CD, which was re-mixed by Bruce Dickinson and Iggy himself, who did not like the buffed-up edges on Bowie’s mix.  Fair enough, except in re-mixing, they merely seem to have returned it to the kind of sound that nearly blocked its release in the first place.  It sounds as though the whole thing is being played through a child’s megaphone with a sock in it.  They have maxed out everything available to them.  They have borrowed an amp from Spinal Tap and turned it up to 12.  Everything is buried in a fuzzy, messy growl of tinny electrical noise that drives me mad.  There is rough, and there is rough.  I love this album, but the CD has gone on the shelf because every time I think about playing it, I just go downstairs instead and play the worn-out vinyl.  Age has made that a little fuzzy too, but I remember how it used to sound before Iggy tried to force it through a tin box filled with horse-hair and feedback and so, as long as I still have the old vinyl, the CD stays on the shelf with all of its friends…

Once again, I must point out that the opinions expressed above are all etc etc etc.  Before you are tempted to be upset by anything I might say, just remember how worthless my opinion is.  If you feel that you can give me the key to unlock the joy in any of these albums (or indeed those by The Levellers, ARZ or Ben Harper that I never quite got round to mentioning) I would be delighted to hear from you.

*Whilst transposing these two posts onto WordPress (yes, I do still write with a pen on paper) I played Bowie’s three great career-rescuing productions of the 70’s: Lou Reed’s ‘Viscous’, Iggy’s ‘The Idiot’ and Mott the Hoople’s ‘All The Young Dudes’ and the world became a better place.  Now, where did I put those glittery flares?…

The Mistake Rack (part one) is here.

The Writer’s Circle #8 – Ovinaphobia

Jane Herbert smiled nervously as she looked around the Circle.  “I don’t have anything to read to you,” she said.  “But I have an idea I want to pitch.”  None of the other group members really knew much about Jane.  She was an ever-present, always pleasant company but certainly no open book.  It always appeared that whatever small revelation she was prepared to make had been well thought-through beforehand.  She played her life like a poker hand.  The others knew that she wrote horror stories, she had described herself on one occasion as ‘Stephen King in a frock’, but other than the little insights she chose to impart in and around the bar, little was known about her or her writing.  “The tale starts with the discovery of a dismembered cat in field near a farm.  Nothing unusual in that; must happen all the time – foxes, stray dogs, drunken youths…  Nobody pays much attention, even when other mutilated small creatures start appearing – rats, rabbits, one or two more cats – nobody really bothers, until that is, the first of the brutally dismembered larger animals appears and it gradually becomes clear that nothing is safe any longer: dogs, foxes, badgers, deer are found – all horribly killed and half-eaten by who knows what?…”

“My God!” whispered Frankie.  “That’s like no Tale of the Riverbank I’ve ever seen.”  Jane Smiled, she was happy with the reaction.

“The killings become more regular; more brutal with each passing day,” she continued.  “The local people begin to discuss the possibility of some slavering mythical beast.  The national tabloids catch wind of the story and they descend on the village: farm animals are locked away at nights, watched over by reporters, farmhands and CCTV cameras, all hoping to uncover the truth of the Beast of Westhall, but the killings stop as suddenly as they began, interest wanes and the farms slowly return to the mores of normal rural existence.  It is widely believed that it has all been some kind of morbid publicity stunt, or even, perhaps, some kind of arcane sacrificial ritual.  Over time, as things return to normal, only one reporter remains, an atypically thorough journalistic investigator, determined to uncover the truth.  It is he who finds the first human victim, stripped of flesh and clothing,  and huddled under a hawthorn hedge surrounded by nothing more than a bloodied muddy lake, fringed by ungulate footprints and wisps of wool fluttering in the breeze where it has snagged on the barbed wire fence…”

“What’s an ungulate?” asked Phil after a pause that was just long enough to make him feel that he was the only one who didn’t know.
“I think it’s an animal with a cloven foot, isn’t it?” said Frankie.  Jane smiled at him once again.
Phil turned to Frankie and mouthed the words, “Teacher’s Pet.”  They both grinned.
“So, is that what’s doing the killing then?” Phil persevered, aware that he may still have been the only one of them in the dark.  “Something or other with a clover foot?”
“Cloven,” corrected Deidre, who was never one to turn up such a chance.
“Well,” answered a thoughtful Jane.  “It’s likely, isn’t it?  Although it’s even more likely that the ungulates, whatever they may be, could just have been curious bystanders.  They are, after all, herbivores.”
“What about pigs?  Are they ungulates?  My grandad had a pig during the war – it ate anything.”
“But did it kill anything?”
“I’m not sure, could have done.  I’ve never trusted pigs since they sent Boxer off to the knacker’s yard.”
“What about the wool on the barbed wire?” asked Penny.  “…Unless that’s a red herring.”
“Do herring have wool?” asked Phil, ashamed of himself almost immediately as Penny flushed instantly crimson.
“Well, they are weird, aren’t they, sheep?” chipped in Louise.  “Evil little eyes.”
“They don’t kill though, do they,” said Terry.  “At least, not in real life.”
“They have plenty of motive to start killing humans, I’d say,” countered Vanessa.  “I agree with Louise, evil little eyes.  Although Penny’s right,” she cast a glance at Phil, “the wool could just be a red herring.”
“Why do we count sheep do you think?” asked Frankie.  “When we want to go to sleep, I mean.  Why sheep?  Why not rabbits, or kittens, or koalas, they’re far more restful…  Maybe sloths would be even better.  Counting sloths – how peaceful can you get?”
“They are sinister, aren’t they, sheep?  Lambs are cute, like baby hyena, but by the time they’re adult and they’ve seen most of their contemporaries carted off to the abattoir, they definitely give the impression of an animal with a grudge.”
“Killer sheep – or maybe just one killer.  Be a nightmare to identify in the middle of a flock wouldn’t it?” said Phil.  “Mind you, knowing what sheep are like, they’d all want a go.  They’re notoriously…” his voice trailed away, “…sheep-like aren’t they?”
“What about deer?” asked Billy, keen to join in the conversation.  “They can be big and aggressive.”
“Didn’t Jane say that some of the victims had been deer?”
“Wouldn’t put it past ‘em,” Billy muttered darkly.
“Bloody hell,” said Frankie.  “Psycho Rudolph!  This could be more disturbing than The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
“Nothing could be that scary.”  Penny looked genuinely alarmed at the prospect.
“Imagine,” grinned Billy, “you’re just drifting off to sleep, peacefully counting sheep, when one of them leaps out and starts to chew your face off!”
“I really…”  Penny turned very pale indeed.  “Why do we count sheep do you think?”
“I think it’s because they come in flocks,” suggested Deidre.
“Starlings come in flocks,” said Terry.  “And pigeons.”
“Much too difficult to tie down,” said Vanessa.  “It would keep you awake, the possibility that you’d missed one.”
“You’d have to count so quickly,” added Penny.  “I think it would keep you awake.”
“Unlike a demented sheep?”  Billy chided, winking at the grinning Terry.
“I think we’d all agree,” said Vanessa, “that consideration of the demented in any species is probably inadvisable in the moments before sleep.  Nobody should have to try and sleep in the company of the psychotically unhinged.  Do you have a partner Mr Hunt?”
“I…”  Billy’s mouth lolled open like a dying carp.  He looked towards Terry for support.  He got none.
“Good,” said Vanessa, unaware of Deidre’s appreciative stare.  “So, Jane, what are they, these killer ungulates: sheep, pigs, deer or just plain old red herrings?”
“Well, there’s my problem, I’m really not sure,” she frowned slightly.  “I haven’t really got it straight in my head yet, and I’m afraid to say that it’s keeping me awake at night…”

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #7 – Vanessa’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #9 – The New Chapter’ is here.


The Running Man on Reasons to be Cheerful

OK, I am willing to concede that ‘cheerful’ may not always be my default setting, but today’s run has found me with a certain (if slightly demented) smile on my face.  (I’m sure that you’ve got the drift by now that the day of writing is not necessarily the day of publishing – I am nowhere near that organised – so, if meteorological references do not match up with what you are seeing through your window today, I apologise.  I have posted a nice photo at the top to help you with your ‘visualisation processes’.  In truth, this disconnection may be even more profound today, because I am actually writing this down tomorrow, as it were, for reasons that may – or may not – become clearer as we go along).   Today (that being yesterday as I write and possibly even last week by the time you read it) I ran in beautiful Spring sunshine*.  The white carpet of snowdrops that glisten along the hedgerows has been supplemented by yellow and violet crocuses (croci?) aconytes, narcissi and daffodils; the sky is blue and cloudless and the sun is warm on my back.  Even the sight (site?) of an abandoned TV, three-quarters of somebody’s old kitchen and a three-legged dining room chair in the ditch at the side of the road only impacts on my mood transiently.  Spring has sprung and I am in high spirits.  I have discovered that I am capable of running and being happy at the same time.

Breathing is, sadly, a bit of an issue: the trees are pumping out pollen like their future depends upon it (which, of course, it does) and most of it is making its way up my snout.  I have tissues in both pockets and both hands and I cannot even smell the giant heap of steaming manure that has materialised in the field alongside the newly built houses – although I’m pretty sure that the ‘new to the countryside’ owners can (nobody ever fully appraises you of the fact that for large chunks of the year, all that rural England smells of is Cow Parsley and shit) – but I am not dispirited.  It is Spring and I am enjoying my run – even when the grinning ‘Community Ambulance’ driver forces me off the road and through something brown and sticky.  (I’m hoping it’s mud.  I will find out soon enough when I get home and my wife – who has the olfactory acuity of a bloodhound – gets a whiff of it**.)  I ran further than I have before and I ran quicker.  I am a man reborn.  This heightened mood could last until the very last pickings of brambles in the autumn, or until the very next ministerial broadcast on Covid – you can probably guess which is the most likely.

Which brings me on to the evening (and the reason why today is actually yesterday) and the local Covid vaccination station.  Yesterday we were Astra Zeneca’d (I’m not coming over all Royal Family there, we were both vaccinated).  It has cheered me up even further.  It was brilliantly organised and everyone was so cheerful and helpful (Thank you NHS) even when the internet failed – the site is in the middle of nowhere – and we had to sit for twenty minutes whilst many uniformed people wandered around looking perplexed.  I presume that the confusion means that it hadn’t happened before: it was waiting for me.  Well, I don’t care.  It can bugger off.  I’m happy***.

We visited four ‘chip shops’ on the way home as we decided we deserved a treat.  The first two were closed.  The third refused to put anything new in the friers because they were about to close and didn’t want to waste chips – the fact that we were there to buy them did not, somehow, compute – would we like a pie?  The fourth was open and proudly displayed the fact that it was under new ownership.  It was truly awful.  The best thing about it was the satisfying ‘thunk’ it made as it hit the bin.  I had ice cream with golden syrup and cream instead.  (Oh come on – try it.  You’ll never look back.)  A good day that ended far too late to write about – particularly as it was time to get back up to speed with ‘Line of Duty’.

Reasons to be cheerful?  Today (Tomorrow/yesterday, who knows?) there are plenty.  Don’t worry; it’s unlikely to last…

*A note from the future: today it is cold and murky.  Everything is shrouded in a thick blanket of fog.  As is usual in this country, Spring has both sprung and disappeared with an alarming synchronicity.  Somehow we have skipped onto Autumn, which means that another bout of Winter is almost certainly bound to arrive, shrivelling spring blooms and freezing the blossom from the trees, with the consequence that when Spring finally arrives again, all that the sleepy little bees will find with which to make honey will be KFC wrappers, somebody’s discarded dining arrangements and a strangely besieged helleborous.
**A further note from the future: it wasn’t mud.
***Yet another note from the future: we both had a headache the following morning, but nothing worse than that.  Still happy. 

The whole sorry tale of my attempts to run stated here with ‘Couch to 5k’
The previous instalment or the Running Man diaries, ‘The Running Man on Plodding On’ is here.
The next Running Man ‘...On the Path’ is here.

Zoo #24 – Hippo

Never say ‘No’ to a hippo,
They don’t really like it you see,
And all of the hippos that I know
Rarely ever listen to me.

If a hippo just wants to get past you
Then probably let him, I’d say,
‘Cos they don’t really listen to reason
If they feel that you’ve stood in their way.

If you think they’re like George out of Rainbow*
Then I’d urge you to please think again –
If you stand between hippo and water
You will land in a sea full of pain.

*Rainbow was a UK educational programme made for pre-school children and watched primarily by adults.  Everybody watched Rainbow, but few admitted it.  George was a pink hippopotamus – everybody’s favourite.  George, Bungle (an androgynous bear) and Zippy (a puppet so inclined to ‘shoot off at the mouth’ that the others kept zipping him up) all lived with human companion Geoffrey and the show promoted social development: the importance of kindness and understanding.  This was many years before the Rainbow was adopted as a symbol by the LGBT community and even further ahead of its adoption as a sign of hope in the UK during the covid pandemic, but it always spoke of inclusion and hope.  Best of all, Rainbow gave the world Rod, Jane & Freddie

(Ask any UK adult between the ages of 40 and 60 to sing you the theme tune to ‘Rainbow’, you’ll see…)
‘Up above the streets and houses,
Rainbow climbing high.
Everyone can see them smiling
Over the sky.
Paint the whole world with a rainbow…’

The ‘Mistake’ Rack (part one)

Photo by Daria Sannikova on Pexels.com

I always wanted to be Charles Shaar-Murray*… 

These two articles (part one and part two) are somewhat atypical of what I normally try to entice you into reading on a Tuesday but, you know, different times, a change is as good as a, wossname, rest and all that.  If you don’t like part one, I feel it only fair to warn you that you are pretty unlikely to like part two, but don’t give in, the rest of my twaddle is the same as ever and there will be no part three.  All the same, I would love to know what you have on your own Mistake Rack…

This is a little bit of a trawl through some of the CDs I have bought over the years that have never quite cut it for me.  They have coalesced into a motley collection of ‘the unwanted’ on a rack that is, for most of the time, hidden from sight.  I played each of the albums as I wrote about them, desperately hoping that they would somehow magically change my mind: that having listened to them again, I would feel obliged to remove them from ‘The Mistake Rack’ and put them back in the light, where they belong.  It has added up to one of those days that I will never get back…

It started because the startlingly awful cover of Alisha Attic’s ‘Alisha Rules the World’ (1996) caught my eye and I couldn’t resist popping it on the player.  The singles taken from it are relatively passable and there are faint echoes of Alanis Morissette hidden away in there somewhere, but I am left with no idea whatsoever of what possessed me to buy it.  It’s not actually offensive, it’s just… I’m sorry, I drifted off there.  ‘Not as bad as I remembered’ would probably be the best review I could give it, which I’m not sure they’d thank me for.  I made it through to track 3, which is probably more than it deserves.  Will it be back in the player any time soon?  No.  It’s back on the shelf, but while I’m there…

Next to it I find River City People’s ‘Say Something Good’ (1990) which I bought on the back of the lead single ‘What’s Wrong With Dreaming?’  They subsequently had a huge hit in the UK with a cover of ‘California Dreamin’’, which is the fourth track on the album and as far as I got.  The band had the good sense to split up after this and, as far as I can see, have not intruded upon the public consciousness since.  Good decision.  It, too, is back on the shelf.

Which brings me to The Seahorses’ ‘Do It Yourself’.  1997 and The Stone Roses were no more, John Squire formed The Seahorses and they released the single ‘Love is the Law’.  Who wouldn’t buy the album?  I so tried to like this.  It has some really good moments, but in the end it is more up itself than all of Oasis’ post-‘Morning Glory’ albums put together.  Love is the Law is the fifth track and, if I’m honest, my attention was seriously flagging by the time I got to it.  I tried to remember where the really good moments were, but it would appear that someone had stolen them.  Shame.  Back on the shelf.

Tasmin Archer’s Sleeping Satellite (1992) next and who can deny, a great song?  The album has two further stand-out tracks (Lords of the New Church and In your Care) but they are not enough to lift the whole collection above turgid. This is a record that has no idea of where it is heading and yet still lacks the conviction to get there.  The satellite is snoozing in the midst of an infinite void.  An album that has no identity – at least not one that you’d want to spend any time with.  Back on the shelf.

Next?  OK, well here’s where I really start to make enemies.  The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ (1997).  I bought this album at the time when there was much discussion over which was the best album of all time, this or Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’.  Truthfully, I don’t believe there could ever be a best of all time because it is all so dependent on time and place.  In any case, who knows what’s to come?  To my mind, however, OK Computer is a very fine album indeed whilst Urban Hymns is not.  Despite some great songs, as a whole it is nothing more than one long, terminal moan.  I made it through to The Drugs Don’t Work, but only because I was out of the room clipping my toenails most of the time.  This is one of the few albums I own that actually annoys me.  It is like Chinese Water Torture.  The first few seconds are fine, I can live with them, but after a while, oh dear me, no… I develop the irrational desire to strangle the CD player.  If I had this album on vinyl, I would scratch it.  Back on the shelf.

In ‘Closing Time’ and ‘Secret Smile’ (1998) Semisonic had two of the big hit singles of the late 90’s.  Unfortunately the album does not stretch beyond those two great songs.  It is hard to warm to an album that is so knowingly eighty percent filler.  Shortly after its release I heard a critic say that the problem with Semisonic was that they were not nearly as good as they thought they were.  With hindsight, they were not even as good as he thought they were.  There is a definite element of not being bothered about this album.  It has the same sense of image over substance as fat-free ice cream.  Like a ballot box in China, there really is no point in it at all.  Back on the shelf.

*NME (New Musical Express) journalist of my youth.

This started out as a much longer piece, which would have tried the patience of a saint.  I cut it in half and even then, as a single piece, I felt that it had the same potential to hold your attention as an interview with Van Morrison, so I have split what remains into parts one and two.  I can’t actually vouch for it being any more interesting this way, but at least you won’t be bored for quite so long.  I can’t help but notice that the nineties don’t come out of this bit terribly well.  I’m not sure whether I was less discerning back then, whether I was more keen to give anything a chance or whether it really was a decade of dross.  I am also fully aware that some of you might really like these albums.  I’m sorry.  The opinions herein are mine alone and so, I really wouldn’t worry about them…

The Mistake Rack (part two) is here.

The Writer’s Circle #7 – Vanessa

Vanessa had joined the Circle only six weeks ago, but had already achieved the status of ‘regular’ simply by getting into Deidre’s good books (a joke she had made to Phil and Frankie, who didn’t get it).  In fact the mood within the group had improved immensely since she had appeared simply because her arrival coincided with the departure of Richard Hart, who knew an ex-copper when he saw one.  Detective Inspector Vanessa Winthorpe had interviewed Richard Hart many times during his ‘career’ and she had proved herself to be every bit as tough mentally as he was physically.  She had the kind of intellect that could slice over-ripe peaches and the kind of tongue that could subdue a hungry polar bear.  He would have liked to have done her harm, but he feared that that was what ‘they’ wanted.  Surely the police could leave him alone now – he had done his time (at least for the small percentage of the crimes for which he had been convicted).  In the old days, they would have patted one another on the back – one for the times they had caught him, one for the times they hadn’t – had a drink together and let bygones be bygones.  The modern police force was no longer full of gentlemen!

He did consider confronting her; he might have done so too, if he wasn’t so scared of Deidre.  Deidre had seen in Vanessa a kindred spirit and had given her the seat at her right hand.  It was too much for Richard who had never abandoned anything through fear, but was totally unfamiliar with confronting any challenge that could not be met with a punch in the mouth.  He had gone out of his way to be friendly with everyone in the Circle, yet his charm offensive, to most of them, was exactly that: offensive.  He knew that they were afraid of him, but that was ok.  Everybody was afraid of him.  He had never had a friend who would turn away from him.  At least, not if there was any possibility that he was concealing an axe about his person.  Deidre, however, was different.  She was not scared; she knew that Mr Darcy would have made mincemeat of him in a fair fist fight.  She did not know that Richard had taken part in more fist fights than Darcy had had hot dinners, but never a fair one.  Preparation was the key.  Shooting your assailant through the kneecap before starting to punch always made things a little easier.  Having a knuckleduster on each of your hands, plus those of all twenty of your ‘friends’, always tilted the balance slightly.  For Richard Hart, victory was always in the winning.

Maybe in the past he would have rubbed them all out, possibly one at a time, but more likely in a single incident: a freak bulldozer accident, or similar, but his heart was no longer in it.  Age had softened him.  He dreamed of following Mad Frankie Fraser onto the stage, perhaps after dinner speaking, but Frankie had to leave his old life behind him first and that is what he would have to do too, even if it killed him.  The Writer’s Circle had been his first step.  They knew who he was of course, they knew not to misbehave, but he did want to fit in if he could and he almost certainly would not have killed any of them.

His paranoia – a by-product of his psychopathic nature the prison shrink had said – had gone into overdrive when he first saw Vanessa.  She had not spoken that first week, other than to introduce herself to the group, but as soon as she said her name he was certain: they were still after him.  Perhaps they thought he would have forgotten her, or perhaps they knew that he would not have.  Perhaps they believed that he would unknowingly reveal something to the group that he had kept hidden from the police for years.  He knew she was ‘mic’d-up’, she fidgeted constantly, she scratched at her arm.  He was too old a pro to be so indiscrete in front of strangers and it annoyed him that they thought he would fall for that.  It might not have been their game of course.  They might have anticipated him recognizing DI Winthorpe, perhaps in the hope that he would be tempted into doing something stupid; well, they would have to think again.

Richard Hart went home as usual sharp at ten and attacked his prison tag with a hammer.  It hurt – a lot – but it eventually came off and he hurled it at the wall before turning on the TV and drinking his tea.  They would be round for him in the morning.  There’d be lots of them; one or two of the young ones he would really enjoy picking off, but he would not put up too much of a fight.  Just enough.  Break the odd nose, that sort of thing.  Just sufficient for them to have him returned to prison.  He was safer there.  His cell would be just as he had left it – or else somebody would answer for it.  He would stay in there for the rest of his life if it meant that they couldn’t send him down for longer.  Oh yes, no fool Richard Hart.

The Circle was much more relaxed after that.  Terry and Billy had settled back into their former position of ‘most abhorrent members’, Phil had stopped leaving his phone’s Voice Memo’s switched on and Frankie had stopped stuffing a metal ash tray under his hat.  Oh, and as for Vanessa, well, her surname was actually Morrison.  She had eczema that itched like hell when she was nervous.  She had never met Ms Winthorpe and she had never been in the police force, although, even in her own estimation, she did look just like someone who should have been…

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #6 – The Point’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #8 – Ovinaphobia’ is here.

The Running Man on Plodding On

You see, when I fell back into these ‘Running Man’ posts at the start of Lockdown #3, in January, I really didn’t anticipate the possibility that I could still be at it in mid-April*.  It was quite simple initially, to write down the kind of moronic ‘chatter’ that goes on inside my head whilst the rest of my being is otherwise engaged, but I am quickly coming to the realisation that my sub-conscious is just as boring as the rest of me.  The random thoughts that once flashed in and out have settled into the rut that my conscious mind has vacated due to a toxic mixture of herbal tea, boredom and rising damp.  Somebody has pissed on my fireworks.  The problem is that what has begun to make these running posts so difficult is at the same time what first made them feasible: Lockdown – initially it gave me a raison d’être, but ever since then it has searched out new ways of gumming up the works.  What was once escape has become isolation.  I am no longer looking inward or outward: most of the time I am just not looking.

My view of myself within the world has always been as something of an ‘outsider’.  Not fundamentally different, just not quite the same.  You know, the little cupcake that sinks whilst all the others rise.  I am the semi-collapsed and chocolate-less amorphous malty blob in the packet of Maltesers: the dismembered legs in a bag of jelly babies.  Three Lockdowns and many enforced months of watching the world drift by, just out of touch on the other side of a window, has merely made me realise that it is nothing new to me.  This is how normally I view the world.  I am a dislocated shoulder: I look like the other shoulder, but I don’t quite work like it.  I can help you to tote that bale, but I won’t half grumble about it.  Alan Bennett said of the late Russell Harty that his skill lay in saying – however indiscrete – what everybody else was thinking.  I have found that it is not until after I have said what everybody else is thinking that I discover they are not.  Just me.

My head is a sponge for ‘bad’: shame, regret, doubt – once it finds its way in there, it will never be released.  It batters around like a stick in a candy floss** machine, getting bigger by the second, more and more swamped in goo, more and more difficult to swallow.  I have had many years to get used to myself.  I don’t have to like me, but I have little choice other than to live with me.  Most of what is good about me is what makes me popular with the grandkids – I’m just not very good at the adult stuff.  I do try to change the bad bits as best I can, but who can actually, fundamentally, change what they are?  In the real world, Pinocchio would still be an oafish puppet and Geppetto would still be eating frozen meals for one.  If I ever found myself conversing with a top-hatted grasshopper, I would seek help.  I don’t need a talking insect to tell me that I should be better.  I am fully conversant with the fact.

And it is at this point that my regular runs have begun to get troublesome.  Like, I imagine, everybody else over the last few months, I have spent quite a lot of time looking in on myself: quite a lot of time trying to figure out how I would get on with me if I was somebody else.  (I fear that if ever I was to attend a ‘Speed Dating’ session, I would find myself sitting at the table marked ‘Toilet Break’.)  Sadly, I don’t have any more answers now than I did a year ago – although knowledge of ignorance must count for something.  I just have much more time to ask the questions – and most of that time seems to be available whilst I’m running.  Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I am certainly ill-equipped to decide, but I’m fairly certain that unless I manage a prat-fall into a ditch soon, or rupture my spleen in a comically inept effort to sidestep an intransigent dog-walker, it is not terribly entertaining.  I will try to buck myself up.  After all, good times are just around the corner.  In England, Boris has detailed his ‘road map’ to recovery, the ‘end’ is on the horizon and, honestly, I don’t think it can come soon enough…

*When the Government hopes we should begin to move towards some kind of normality.
**Cotton-Candy, I think, for those of you with the rather less fanciful US version of the English language at your fingertips.

This whole sorry saga began here with Couch to 5k
The next episode of the Running Man ‘…Reasons to be Cheerful’ is here.
The previous episode of the Running Man ‘…Not Running’ is here.