A Guided Tour

“Good afternoon everyone and welcome to today’s tour.  A word of warning before we start, please be careful as you walk along; it is a little slippy underfoot and the walls can be a little wonky.  And please, please all try to keep together, it is very easy to get lost in here, even if you think you know where you are going.  There are many, many dead-ends and cul-de-sacs dotted around – you may even find a lost marble or two in there as you rummage around – but it is very easy to become disorientated.  If you should find that you have become separated from the rest of the party and you are unable to navigate yourself back to where you should be, please remain calm; after all, what is the worst that could happen?  Well, yes, there is that, of course… so try not to get divorced from the rest of the party and, should you inadvertently find yourself alone, in surroundings that you do not recognize I would probably recommend screaming.  It’s always worked for me when I’ve needed to attract attention – especially in the shoe shop. I always find that the foetal ball is a very calming position.

So, if you’re all ready, I think we can move on.  If you could just extinguish the torch sir, I really don’t think you’ll want to see where you’re going: it’s very messy in there.  Ok, here we are in the bit that receives all the information from the eyes and ears – or as we know it, the seeing and hearing bit.  You will notice that everything that comes in here appears to be skewed, just a tiny bit, off-centre.  There are two reasons for this: one is that he has not been able to get his eyes tested during Lockdown and the other is that his hat is too tight.  Also, he has to try very hard not to wrinkle his brow, because his earpods fall out.  To the rear of us, through the door that looks like a rather unpleasant warty growth (Well yes sir, now that you mention it, I can see Michael Gove – although I rather wish that I couldn’t.) is the bit that makes sense of it all.  Unfortunately we can’t go in there, because it’s shut at the moment.  Something to do with Jack Daniels I believe.

Through the little gap there that looks uncomfortably like a haemorrhoid, we have the ‘taste’ centre – obviously out of use at the moment, as it has been since he turned seventeen – and just behind that – yes, now that you mention it, it does, although only when you tilt your head a little – is the bit where smells are sorted and attached to memories.  No, no, I’m afraid we can’t go in there at the moment because there has been a bit of an incident with a glue stick and a trip to the zoo.  They’re all very busy in there.

Now, if you will all just be careful where you tread here, we are now crossing the ego.  It is very delicate and does have a tendency to self-absorb, so just watch your feet: one wrong step here and the neurons in the ‘perspective’ department will be on overtime for a month.  It’s like crocheting with wet tissue paper trying to put that thing together.  Yes, yes, it does look a little swollen doesn’t it?  I’ll get ‘reality’ in to give it a bit of a check over.  And now, finally, here is the bit where the magic happens – currently shut for renovation I’m afraid and, yes, before you mention it sir, it does look a little like a sow’s ear, but we are working on it…”

The Writer’s Circle #14 – Funeral Songs

“…I’d like loads of fuss: anguished wailing, gnashing of teeth; the whole nine yards…”  It was a typical mid-session conversation at The Circle, this time sparked by Frankie’s passing mention of having ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ as his funeral song and Phil, as usual, was having his say, although what was coming out of his mouth bore little relation to what was going on in his head.  “Can you still get those horses with big white plumes on their heads?  I’d like those.  White horses, of course.  Nothing tacky…”
“Well,” interjected Deidre, the venom in her voice just about concealed by the syrup in her smile, “I’m sure we all look await the occasion with bated breath.”
“What is bated breath?” asked Elizabeth.  “I mean, why is it ‘bated’?”
“I think,” said Billy, “it’s ‘abated’ shortened, so kind of postponed.  Your man Shakespeare again, I think.”
“Right, so if we all bate our breath whilst waiting for Phil’s funeral, it’s very likely that we’ll all get there before him.”
“I used to work for a man who loved funerals,” volunteered Louise.  “He used to go from church to church, sitting at the back, singing hymns.  He loved to sing.”
“I hate funerals,” ventured Penny.
“They certainly don’t have much to recommend them,” said Terry.
Penny stared at him hard.  “Some might,” she whispered.
“My grandad was the same,” offered Frankie, picking up the stitch that Louise had dropped.  “He loved a good funeral did my grandad – although he did, at least,  restrict himself to people he knew.  Broke his heart when he couldn’t go to my grandma’s funeral.”
“Why couldn’t he go?” asked Deidre.
“Because she wouldn’t die.”
“Ta-da!” said Phil who, unlike Deidre, had seen it coming.
“It’s weird though, isn’t it,” started Elizabeth as the laughter subsided, conscious that Deidre was about to say something that would almost certainly dampen the mood, ‘how all that tension in the church dissipates the second the first sherry is served.”
“And why sherry?” asked Jane.  “Does anybody drink sherry other than at funerals?”
“Great aunts on Christmas Eve” suggested Vanessa.
“Well, that’s a given,” said Jane.
“I had a great aunt who drank nothing but Milk Stout,” Said Billy.  “It killed her in the end.”
“Don’t tell me,” laughed Frankie.  “She was knocked over by the delivery truck.”
“No,” said Billy.  “She had cirrhosis.  As I said, she drank nothing but Milk Stout.”
“Always one of the first signs that Christmas was on its way,” said Terry “the adverts for British Sherry.”
“I prefer mine dry,” said Penny, which brought a smile to Terry’s lips.
“When I was a kid, my mum used to send me to the local offy with a pound and an empty milk bottle for a pint of draught sherry.”
“Didn’t it make your tea taste funny, Bill?” quipped Frankie, who never learned.
“It was always snowballs in our house at Christmas,” said Deidre.  “Instead of sherry, I mean.  A snowball.  Although we never had lime in it, or a cherry come to that.  Just advocaat and lemonade.  Oh, what was it called?”
“Warninks,” answered Billy.  “‘Eveninks and morninks, we all drink Warninks…’”
“I think we had Bols.”
“I bet that took some swallowing.”  Frankie was in his element.
“Yes, thank you very much for that, Francis.”  Deidre was not.
“I never knew my mum or dad to visit the pub,” Terry said.  “When my dad died – I was very young – but I remember mum put a fiver behind the bar to buy all the drinks.  The landlord ended up footing the bill, because he didn’t like to tell her it was nothing like enough.  As we left, she told him to keep any change there was.  I really didn’t like the way she winked at me…”
“I wonder why we make the association between funerals and Christmas?” asked Vanessa.
“And alcohol,” added Phil.
Vanessa nodded.  “And alcohol…  Forced bonhomie and conversations with people with whom we would rather not spend our time…”
“Family gatherings,” said Billy.  “Like carbuncles: hard to endure, but when they’ve gone, the relief is immense.”
“So what’s you funeral song then Bill?” asked Phil.
“I don’t think I’ve got one,” he answered, just a beat too quickly.
“You have,” said Phil.  “I know you have.  You must have.  Everybody has.”
“Well, my dad had ‘My Way’ and my uncle Derek had ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’…”
“A bit clichéd, don’t you think?”
“Exactly my point,” said Billy.  You either go for something ridiculously clichéd or totally bonkers.”
“I like a song by Judie Tzuke called ‘Joan of Arc’,” said Penny.  “I think I’d have that.”
“I’ll make a note,” said Frankie.
“You’ll be gone long before me,” Penny laughed, despite herself.
“Mm,” Frankie stroked his chin, “I suppose I am probably the eldest here,” he chuckled.  “Together with Deidre, of course.”
Deidre groaned, as if shot, but not wanting to ‘protest too much’, she smiled wanly.
“Would any of you come to my funeral, I wonder?” asked Terry.  “Other than Penny of course, who can’t wait to dance on my grave.”
“Well, not ‘dance’ exactly,” said Penny.
“Shame,” said Terry, “because I was thinking of having ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ by The Nolans.”
“I hate that song,” said Penny.
“Me too,” laughed Terry, “but fortunately I won’t have to hear it.”
“I’d have ‘Magnificent’ by Elbow,” said Jane.
“That’s a great song.”
“I know, I’ll be sad to miss it.”

Sitting at the end of the bar, just on the fringes of the group, cradling his half-pint, Tom Bagshot listened intently, but did not interject: it was, after all, his first meeting and, truth be told, although it was far less intimidating than he had feared, he would be pleased if he could make it through without having to provide any input.  He nodded from time to time, laughed when everybody else laughed and quietly attempted to assemble in his mind a map of where everybody fitted in.  And then, fleetingly, he caught Frankie’s eye…
“What about you, er?…”
“Tom…”
“What about you, Tom, sherry or snowball?”
“Sherry, I think, but dry like…”
“Penny…”
“Like Penny.”
“And what about your funeral song?” asked Phil.
“Maybe ‘One World’ by John Martyn, although I do think ‘Magnificent’ is a great shout.”  He smiled at Jane and Deidre glanced at her watch.  “Well everyone,” she said, “as hard as it will be to drag ourselves away from ‘The Joy of Funerals’ I think it is time that we went back upstairs to hear what Penelope has got for us this week.”  Tom, along with the rest of the group, rose to his feet and Deidre smiled at Penny.  “Is it about birds again, dear?” she asked…

If you enjoyed this week’s Writer’s Circle meeting, it all started here with ‘Penny’s Poem‘.
Last week’s Writer’s Circle, ‘Charlie’s Diary’ is here.

The Running Man on a Bicycle

I was dragged out of my running routine by the head-cold that dictates that every step I take is accompanied by a bass drum between the ears.  I anticipated problems with breathing as I prepared to run, but not with percussion.  I could not return to the weights, as a recent snot-fuelled attempt had me sounding like a hedgehog trapped beneath the shed, so I went for the exercise bike.  However, by the time I had decided to lug it from its current resting place – in the arctic garage, between the deep freeze and the tumble dryer – the bass drum in my head had been accompanied by a hi-hat in each ear and any attempt at forward perambulation exceeding the speed of a geriatric sloth resulted in some kind of trans-cranial military tattoo.  Imagine – if you can – Cozy Powell’s ‘Dance with the Devil*’ slowed down and piped directly into the cerebral cortex**

Another dose of synchronicity: the lateness of the hour can no longer be relied upon to bring on the night – days are getting longer although, alas, no warmer – and there, just behind the exercise bike, I spotted my actual bike bike.  It seemed a whole lot more sensible to haul myself aboard that.  So, I wheeled it out, donned my helmet*** and rode away into the distance****.

I am incredibly fortunate to live in a place that means that I can be on quiet country roads within minutes of leaving my door.  Often I do not see another vehicle for miles around – although, when I do it is almost always a small hatchback (formerly mother’s and noisily driven to tears by the change of operator) piloted by someone who is clearly unfamiliar with the function of two of the three pedals, and for whom steering appears to be a pointless frivolity.  These cars, on any other day unused to the rev counter turning above vertical, are usually wheezing worse than me.  It is, though, because of this narrow country lane/automotive nutcase juxtaposition that cycling proceeds without a soundtrack and I am forced to contemplate the voices inside my head.  I fear that, especially in view of cold-constrained faculties, even the slightest diminution of my otic acumen could leave me vulnerable to ending my days as a grotesquely articulated hood ornament.

Cycle runs take me further afield – it is virtually impossible to stay upright on a bike travelling at my running pace – which does affect my ‘baggage’.  When I run, I feel that all I need to carry is some means of contacting the nearest paramedic; as a cyclist I am forced to consider the possibility of mechanical as well as physical breakdown.  I carry my little repair kit with me: ready to mend a puncture with the best of them – although not to any great advantage, I must admit, as I do not have a pump.  Back in the day, all bicycles had a pump attached to the frame and, like the strange squeaking noise from the back wheel, it accompanied you wherever you went.  In those days, I recall, the tyre could be inflated with little more than an angel’s fart; now, with tyre pressures three times greater than the car, it requires either biceps like Arnold Schwarzenegger or an electric generator.  When I head out for a trip on my cycle, my wife sits in the car with the engine running and the back seats down.

As my cold starts to lift, I will return to running, as I do not feel that cycling exercises me fully*****.  By next week I anticipate being back on my trainer-clad feet when cycling will return to the roster of recreational activities and running will, once again, become my king of pain.

*If age precludes you from doing so, you can at least view the original here.
**I have absolutely no idea of what that is.
***This is worn at my wife’s insistence.  There is an interesting psychology attached to bicycle helmets as, for some reason, motorists give you much more room when you are not wearing one.
****A very liberal use of the word ‘distance’ as I suspect that I seldom move beyond one that makes me invisible from an upstairs window of my house.
*****Naïve supposition that the worse I feel afterwards, the more ‘good’ the exercise has done me.

N.B. today I have fully surrendered to the vagaries of old-age and pressure-washed the bins!

My original ‘running’ blog ‘Couch to 5k’ can be found here.
Last week’s ‘Running Man on Being Antisocial’ is here.

Zoo #30 – Chimpanzee

The chimpanzee would be a fool,
To turn his brain to making tools:
To evolve himself to number one,
Far better if he made a gun.

I’m always puzzled by why, exactly, we became what we are whilst chimpanzees did not.  They have brains, they have opposable thumbs, they are bloody minded and, at times, blood thirsty – why are we the ones with the overdrafts?  Why do whales allow themselves to be harpooned, why do dolphins get caught in fishermen’s nets?  They must know something we do not – and God help them if we ever find out what it is…

I have just realised that chimpanzees also appeared in week 12 (although a completely different rhyme) of our little glide around the zoo.  You know what it’s like, constantly finding yourself back at a cage you’ve already seen…

Not Just Any Old Common or Garden Cold

“This is not just any cold*,” purrs the voice inside my head, “this is a Marks & Spencer’s cold.”  This is not just a headache, it is a proper banger.  Come on, why would I even want to swallow?  Breathing freely is just so overrated.  Nothing makes you feel as frail as a cold.  To be laid so low by what is the most trivial of diseases leaves you feeling incredibly puny.  The problem with this kind of cold is that you cannot disguise it: it’s there, ever-present in your voice, unmistakably lodged in your bright red hooter.  Now is the time that the surgical mask is for keeping in rather than keeping out – not so much of a blessing when what it keeps in is a great, snotty sneeze.  Nobody likes a shiny moustache.  I am currently feeding my cold, although it is almost inevitable that I should actually be starving it.  If you know the answer, please keep it to yourself, unless it involves chocolate.

Why is it even called a cold, and given that it is, why isn’t a fever called a hot?  It cannot be anything to do with the prevailing weather: in the UK everything we caught would be called cold, wet and miserable.  Given that a cold tends to involve head to toe muscle aches, a blinding headache, a throat that’s filled with saw blades and a nose that’s filled with God-knows-what, you’d have thought that somebody would have come up with a better name.  Let’s face it, if footrot can muster up tinia pedis, an ice cream headache gets sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia and an ingrowing toenail gets unguis incarnates what has a cold got to do to be given a glamorous name – be adopted by Angelina Jolie?

Apparently (thank you Wikipedia) the common cold – let’s make it sound even more mundane – is caused by a toxic brew of up to two hundred separate virus strains, all with the kind of fancy names we crave (my favourite being acute coryza, because it just sounds suitably miserable) but because it is such a cocktail, none of them appear to have stuck.  If it was made of alcohol it would be called ‘Knickers off and soundly spanked on the bottom’ or ‘Sweaty nights between the sheets’ or similar.  I wonder what a bartender would make of a two hundred ingredient recipe?  (I tried to look-up a fancy name for a cocktail maker, but I couldn’t find one, although someone suggested Alchemist.  My experience is that Maker of the Ultimately Disappointing would be much more appropriate.)

One of the main ‘risk factors’ for catching a cold is listed as ‘going to child care facilities’.  I do not do that, I am the child care facility: the little blighters bring their bounty to me.  Childcare bubbles have so much to answer for.  It’s impossible to look after children without being exposed to everything to which they, themselves, have been exposed.  Children are super-spreaders of everything (including joy, as it goes) but I’d quite like them to keep some of the more unsavoury stuff to themselves.

What a cold does do is to rob you of concentration.  The brain that normally allows thirty-minute slots of application, begins to falter after five.  Ideas that are normally hammering to be released have taken to their beds in a darkened room where they are drinking hot toddies and watching 1970’s sitcoms.  Consequently I write in short bursts, I drink coffee, I moan interminably and I stop as soon as I’ve had enough…

*Just so that you know, I have to Covid test twice a week and it isn’t that – so you can put your bargepole away now.

N.B. I have today been hit by the glitch that many of you have been suffering for some time. Font size has altered randomly, some has been bold, some has been in italics. I think I have now got it where it should be, but if not, I apologise. Not my fault – obviously.

The Writer’s Circle #13 – Charlie’s Diary

Charles (Charlie to his friends) Fairford had been a founding member of The Circle, an ever-present until his illness.  He had been more of an occasional visitor for a few weeks after his diagnosis, still the same old wryly amusing Charlie, but as the effects of his chemo slowly dragged him down, his visits became increasingly infrequent before, about three months ago, they had stopped altogether.  But now, to everybody’s great delight, he was back; his dark hair replaced by a light, downy covering, his face gaunt, but still Charlie looking out from behind perpetually amused eyes.  Everybody wanted to know whether he was back for good, but nobody wanted to ask.

Even Deidre could not hide her pleasure when he walked through the door.  “Charles,” she had almost sighed.  (She considered herself a friend, but would not consider calling him Charlie.)  “Phillip, Francis, get Charles a chair.  Put it here.”  She indicated the space beside her.  There was always a space beside Deidre.  Phil fetched the chair and held it tightly, as though it might otherwise fall apart, whilst Frankie helped Charlie down into it.
“Really, I’m fine,” he said, slightly embarrassed by the fuss, but none-the-less grateful for the help.  Everybody came to greet him, to shake his hand, to pat his shoulder, to hug him warmly, before returning to their seats; Vanessa introduced herself and he smiled warmly, it was good to meet new members.  Terry did the same and Charlie didn’t seem to mind at all. 
“So, what’s been going on?” he asked when The Circle at last settled back down.
“Well, as you see, we have new members,” said Deidre.  “There is so much writing being done.  Phillip has abandoned his book and is working on a play; Jane is formulating ideas – have you ever heard of ovinaphobia? – Mr Teasdale has told us a little about himself and William (Billy bridled as she knew he would) has let us in on the start of his new work.  You’ve met Vanessa, she’s going to read to us soon, and Francis… Francis still blesses us with his humour from time to time.  And Penny has read us some lovely poetry, haven’t you dear?”
“And you, Deidre?”  Deidre blushed slightly as she was able to do when the situation demanded it.  “I’ve seen your latest book advertised in the local press.  When are we to hear some of your new one?”
“You’re coming back… again I mean.  You’re coming back again?”
Charlie smiled.  “I don’t know what else I’d do with my Thursdays.”

“What about you, Charlie?  Have you had time to write?  Is it Charlie?  Do you prefer Charles? I…”  Vanessa had spoken instinctively, feeling that he had a story to tell, but not knowing nearly enough about what that story might be.  She regretted it instantly. 
“Lots of time,” Charlie’s smile was as genuine as it was warm “just not much to say.  I kept a diary.  I will probably try to do something with that.  My fingers are still a little numb at the moment; I struggle to hold a pen, so I’m doing battle with a laptop.  Does anybody use a pen these days?”
“Just me, I think,” said Frankie.
“Of course, Mr Dinosaur,” neither Charlie nor Frankie could hide their happiness at being able to have this conversation.  “Now don’t expect me to look surprised,” Charlie continued.  “At least, not until I’ve grown my eyebrows back.”
A palpable sense of relief flooded the room.  It could be spoken about.
“How are you Charlie?”
“I’m fine.  The drugs help of course.”  He smiled.  “Nobody ever says you’re cured: it can always come back – I push it all to the back of my mind and I live a normal life.  From today – everything starts today – each step is back to normality.  Speaking of which, do we still have a gin at tea break?”
“Are you allowed?”
“Deidre, when you have been where I have been, the only thing that keeps you going from time to time is the thought of gin and tonic, probably warm because the landlord has run out of ice again, and almost certainly decorated with a glace cherry because the lemon has turned and the young idiot with the dragon tattoo can never remember what colour an olive is.  Not only that,” he patted jacket pocket with a triumphant smile, “I have managed to smuggle my wallet out of the house which means that I can once again start paying for your friendship.”
“Well,” said Louise.  “I, for one, am prepared to sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ if it’s going to get me a dry white.”
“Two if you don’t,” said Charlie.

The meeting became a single elongated ‘tea break’ with the whole of The Circle clustered around Charlie, telling him their plans and listening to his stories.  As always, Charlie had a thousand stories.  They were always amusing.  They were never mean.  Eventually plans were being made to pick cars up in the morning, taxis were being booked and everybody prepared to go home.  Deidre looked at Charlie’s empty glass, not the first of the evening.  “Have you driven here, Charles?” she asked.
“No, I’m being picked up,” he answered.  “I’ll ring them now.  They’ll just be a few minutes.”  And so, assured that Charlie was settled, one by one the members of The Writer’s Circle said their goodbyes and drifted off home, leaving him alone, awaiting his lift home.  Only after the last of his friends had left did the man in the corner take to his feet and wander over to his table.  “OK now?” he queried.
Charlie nodded and wearily allowed the hospice nurse to help him to his feet.  He’d enjoyed his evening.  Everyone had seemed so happy to have him back, he didn’t have the heart to tell them that it wouldn’t be for long…

If you want to read further Writer’s Circle stories, episode 1, ‘Penny’s Poem’ is here.
Last week’s episode ‘Seriously Unfunny’ is here.

The Running Man on Being Antisocial

An excess of alcohol and chocolate over the Easter break – please don’t ask me to define ‘excess’: suffice to say that my grandkids are wondering where the eggs have gone and my wife is sure that we had another bottle of gin somewhere – and the return of sub-arctic air have combined to make my first couple of post-holy week treks even more miserable than usual.  I drag myself to the door, thrust it open and shrivel away, like a plastic bag near a radiator, at the first blast of wind-borne sleet.  Who in their right mind would go out in that – particularly dressed like this?  The issue of my running attire presses on me once again after, what I assume must be a recently reconvened, post-covid running group, passed my house yesterday, all neatly ironed, in unstained hi-viz, unwrinkled running tights and not a hairband out of place.  They were chatting happily, smiling some of them, and not a single one gasping for breath.  They looked as if they had all been waiting for months for this moment: whilst you and I battled house-bound neuroses, they collected lycra.  There was a distinct lack of the secondhand about them.

I am reluctant to spend heavily on running gear because I am still unconvinced that I won’t just decide one day that running really is not for me.  (Interestingly, it really is not for me, I have decided, although I don’t know what to do about it now.)  The course and distance of my thrice-weekly lopes varies enormously, depending on how many other runners I have to avoid along the way.  I hate crossing paths with them, as I am so conscious of looking like a convict who has gone on the run without his asthma inhaler; I will not run in front of them because I dread them catching and passing me; I will not run behind them because I fear that passing motorists may think that we’re together and that I just can’t keep up.  I would love someone to offer me an explanation as to why, when I stumble into the wake of another runner, I always appear to be running comfortably faster than them, until the very point at which I move up to their shoulder, when I suffer the kind of coughing fit that tells me that I should have followed my first instinct and gone the other way, even if it meant trying to get past the elderly lady on the mobility scooter with the Chihuahua on a ten-foot lead.  I cannot run at ‘school time’: whilst I am much too long in the tooth to allow myself to be bullied by gangs of school kids, I am none-the-less haunted by the fear of silent laughter.

Most of my runs take place mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when the rest of the world is either in school, at work or on a Zoom call, in order to minimise my detours, but I continue to zig-zag my way around the empty paths and byways avoiding any kind of interaction the best I can.  It’s not that I’m antisocial, it’s just that I’m… Actually, it probably is that I’m antisocial – although if they had a club, I certainly wouldn’t join it.

(First edit red biro, second edit green felt-tip, third edit black Sharpie – a particularly bleak moment – final edit a cross-shredder and a return to what I started with.)

If you want to join the beginning of this run, you can find ‘Couch to 5k’ here.
Last week’s ‘Running Man’ post ‘…on the Time to Run’ is here.
The next ‘Running Man…’ episode ‘…on a Bicycle’ is here.

Zoo #29 – Hornet

Never wave an ice cream cornet
In the presence of a hornet,
If they want to taste the thing
They possess a fearsome sting.

And, unlike the Bumble Bee,
Are very much less mannerly:
Always happy to inject
Their poison where you least expect.

If you’re walking round the zoo
And you somehow find that you
Are trapped between the beast and sugar,
Swat the stripy little bugger.

So, science tells us that every creature has carved for itself an evolutionary niche: every creature has a role to play.  Tell me, please, what is the role of a hornet?  Other than being even more belligerent and bloody-minded than a wasp, what does it do?  It seems to have developed as a consequence of some entomological arms race: more likely to sting than a bee, more painful than a wasp, bigger than them both; it is the China of the insect world and every bit as unreliable.  If you avoid being attacked by it, it will probably find a toddler to attack instead.

PS I do sometimes have readers in China.  No more I guess…

A Working Man

Having ‘retired’ at the beginning of the year I, like the majority of our benighted nation, have spent the last few weeks at home, doing things that I have been putting off for months, but in two weeks time I start my new, part-time job and, having worked full-time without a break for the last forty plus years I suddenly find the prospect quite daunting.  I was adamant that I was not going to return to ‘pressure’ situations and my new employer assures me that this will not be the case.  There will be no pressure in what I do – except that there will be a thousand new things to learn, and it occurs to me that it is a long time since I last did that.  Am I still capable of learning, not an odd thing – how to peel an onion without crying, for instance; how to pull my socks up without putting my back out – but many, many new things, all at the same time?  I am seriously concerned about it.

Have you ever stopped to think what you have learned recently?  ‘Every day’s a schoolday’ is my mantra.  I love to learn.  I learn new things – all of them useless – every day, but I learn maybe one new thing at a time, not dozens, and I am increasingly aware that my brain is now operating a ‘One in, one out’ policy.  Every time I learn how to set an electrical gadget, I forget the name of one of the grandkids.  I look at those grandchildren and I realise how much they learn each and every day.  They have brains like sponges, I fear mine is probably more like a pickled walnut: the content just as unpalatable.  Pickled walnuts are soaked in vinegar, and we all know what that does to conkers.  (I have only once eaten a pickled walnut*.  It tasted like pickled coke**.  I could not think of a single sane reason why I would ever want to repeat the experience.)  Will I be capable of learning even the rudimentals – which key goes where, which button rings the till, which button sets the alarm off – let alone the more complicated stuff: whose turn is it to make the tea, who has milk, who has sugar?  My brain is very good at what it does – at least that’s what it tells me – but how will it be at doing what, to date, it has not done before?

I wonder if I should somehow test it, maybe force it into doing a Sudoku, learning the chords to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on a ukulele, making sense of the gas bill.  I’m good at quizzes, but I always have been, I need a new mental challenge.  How much of a stretch would it be for me to sit through an entire episode of ‘Eastenders’ without searching for something more interesting to do, e.g. researching how to pickle a walnut?  I can only hope that my need to understand everything that I find puzzling is a good thing, that it shows that I am still curious, and not that I am stupid.  Everything is a puzzle to me, but I know that curiosity does not necessarily equate to intelligence – I have looked it up.  I am curious about how the universe works, but I do not understand any of the workings of it.  Forget The Big Bang, I do not understand how come all of the planets do not just sink down to the bottom.  (Also, come to think of it, where is the bottom?  If there is no up and down in space, how on earth do you avoid spilling your gin?)

I still find the same things amazing now, as I did as a child: a butterfly, a snowflake, the way that animals find their way home from the other side of the world, the way that paint always drips in exactly the one place you don’t want it to.  I have stopped trying to understand politics, but that is only because I have grown to realise that there is nothing to understand.  It would all be so much easier if I could choose what to forget every time I manage to remember something new: the name of my next door neighbours, ‘In’ – the atomic weight of plutonium, ‘Out’; the names of the people I will shortly be working with, ‘In’ – the nicknames of the people I went to school with – ‘Out’; anything even vaguely important, ‘In’ – the kind of pedantic crap my mind is full of (‘aitch’ not ‘haitch’, ‘may I’ not ‘can I’, ten thousand incorrect uses for the apostrophe, ‘we were’ not ‘we was’) ‘Out’.  It’s the knowing what to let go of, that’s the problem.  I‘m sure there’s a place in my brain that is set aside for making such decisions – I’ve just got to clear out the junk so that I can reach it.

*Just for the record, I have never eaten a pickled conker – that way lies madness.
**The stuff you put in furnaces, not the stuff that makes your teeth drop out and your manly chest drop to just below waist-level.

The Writer’s Circle #12 – Seriously Unfunny

“I wrote this for a magazine.  I thought it was funny.  They returned it to me.  They didn’t think it was funny.  They thought that it was a GCSE essay that I’d sent to them by mistake.  Anyway, as I wrote it, I thought that I might read it to you all before I feed it to the shredder.”  Frankie began, solemn-faced, to read from the sheaf of papers he held in his hand.

“‘In common with most nations (and some sunglasses), the UK is seriously polarised.  At one end of our society there is a sub-set of the poor and disadvantaged who believe that all of their woes have arisen as a result of the actions (or inactions) of ‘the rich’; at the other end a sub-set of the rich and privileged who really do believe that those without wealth are that way simply because they are workshy; that those without education are that way simply because they are stupid; that those who choose to eat their meals in McDonald’s do so simply because they are too lazy to get the 4×4 out of the garage and nip round to the wine bar.  Both views, although palpably flawed, are none-the-less deeply entrenched into the British class psyche.  It is an obvious, if not particularly edifying fact, that when things get stacked-up – as societies are apt to do – something always winds up at the bottom – like Grimsby.  Whilst the vast majority of us occupy the middle ground between two extremes – ineffectively dangling our balls over either side of the fence, grumbling under our breath like a disenfranchised Social Democrat about the behaviour and attitudes of those both ‘above’ and ‘below’ us – it is the rift between these two ‘poles’ of society that drives all comedy.  The stooge in all comedic confrontations will be either an upper-class twit or an ill-educated lout.  We feel empowered to laugh at them both because we are neither.

Our comfortable little Larnaca poolside sunbed in the ‘green zone’ between the two sides engaged in the class war is the place from where we can look in any direction and see something ludicrous.  We are the sane centre of an insane universe and the idiots either side of us can’t even see it.  We see that the rich are wrong to deride the poor and the poor are wrong to censure the rich, but we do not see that the one thing that unites the two is the contempt with which they view those of us in the middle.  Neither one nor the other, neither twixt nor tween, neither Abbott nor Costello: we are an homogenous gloop, like vichyssoise, and there’s nothing funny about that.  

Comedy is always painful for someone.  I have been to many comedy gigs that were excruciating.  (The problem with a bad joke is that you don’t know it’s bad until it drops onto your foot.)  All jokes are battles: all punchlines are the moment when Indiana Jones shoots the giant swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The skill of the comedian is in telling you something you already know, whilst allowing you to think that they thought of it first.  How many times have you watched a mammoth James Bond fight whilst thinking ‘Why doesn’t he just shoot him’?  Some degree of foreknowledge from the audience is vital.  Imagine a comedian with no audience (perhaps Jimmy Carr).  If I fall over in a forest and nobody is there to see it, is it still funny?  (Answer: only to my wife.)

In the United Kingdom, we can add to this caustic little brew the fact that the four home nations actually have very little time for one another (we are perpetually either preparing for divorce or engaged in the kind of dalliance that will almost certainly lead to one) and – except for when any one of us has an Olympic champion – we’d actually far sooner be United with anybody else other than our closest neighbours (excluding the French, obviously).  All the jokes I knew as a boy featured an Englishman (smart), a Scotsman (tight) and an Irishman (stupid): there was seldom a Welshman in my proto-teenage repertoire as I was not familiar with any comedic Welsh stereotype other than a fat man singing loudly at daffodils.  The English man – always a man: misogyny would have been a really good Olympic event for us back then – always top of the pile as far as we were concerned, but bottom for everybody else.  For us the stiff upper lip, for everybody else an iron rod up the arse.  The characteristics we most valued, being the most reviled by everybody else.  Charming eccentricities are all well and good, providing that you don’t expect everybody else to share them.  Ok, so we have the best sense of humour in the world, so why does nobody else get it?  Perhaps they just need educating.  (Many deride the French sense of humour, but they forget Marcel Marceau – or a single word he said – some say the Germans have no sense of humour, but they forget… actually, they don’t forget, perhaps that’s the problem.)  Hating the English is the only thing that actually unites the rest of our Queendom (and, at times, the world).  English plutocrats, looking down our noses at our feckless Celtic cousins: a class war of nations.  We are the butt of their jokes as they are ours.  A fun day out at the circular butt-kicking convention.

And God forbid that anyone is knowingly droll or amusing: that is just not how it is done.  English characters do not wise-crack, they pratfall.  Basil Fawlty was a clown, Del Trotter was a clown, David Brent was a clown: if they’d have been witty, they’d have been smart-arses and we wouldn’t have liked them at all.  Funny is accidental, stupid, absent, but never intentional.  Witty is annoying.  It is difficult to think of a single successful sit-com character who ever ‘made’ jokes, rather than being the butt of them: an unwitting victim of circumstance.  Most successful comedians stress their own fallibilities rather than those of others.  Frailty becomes their strength.  ‘Making fun of’ is seldom funny.  Mocking political satire merely turns the ‘enemy’ into the ‘victim’.  Even with a target as broad as our own Boris, it is difficult to score points without appearing mean.  Nobody likes a bully, and the desire to be liked is the common thread that joins all comedians.  The class clown is traditionally the shy boy/girl who has no friends until they discover that putting a drawing pin on the teacher’s chair will buy them a class full of them – as long as they find something equally funny to do the next day.  It is like being court jester to a medieval king: ‘make me laugh my head off or I’ll laugh yours off’.  ‘You’ve got to give it to him though, that’s a bloody hilarious pig’s bladder he’s waving.’  Has any sane person ever laughed at a circus clown?  ‘So, your car fell apart, well so did mine sunshine, and nobody laughed then either.’  The biggest prize for those with no friends is the friendship of those with many.  The biggest prize for those with many is the ability to thwart the aspirations of those with none.  Money does buy friends, and also the ability to have no need for them.  Those that have do not need, and those that need do not have, and whilst we may well be the only ones to see it, the joke, none-the-less, is always on us.’” 

He winked.

“I really have no idea why Woman’s Own would not accept it…”

The Writer’s Circle began here with ‘Penny’s Poem’
Last week’s episode, ‘Ulysses’ is here.