A Little Past Before the Present Kicks In

Having been absent for a little while I thought I would ease myself back into the swing of things by doing a little reading. Amongst the pieces I first read was Milkshake Footbaths by the wonderful Dumbestblogger (who is anything but) and it led me to read both this piece from my own past archive and the piece it refers to in the first paragraph. I repost here simply because I plan to get back into the saddle soon and just reading these through has made me recall that I shouldn’t really worry too much about what I am going to write about as nothing much makes sense these days and what I have to say, even less so. Gibberish is the New Philosophy. So I’ll see you soon, refreshed and maladjusted as ever, and in the meantime I wish you sweet dreams one and all…

Although At First Vicious, Viffers Do Not Contain Any Calories

I am used to waking with some weirdly disassociated phrase or sentence banging about at the forefront of my cerebellum, desperate to get out before wakefulness blocks any means of escape.  (I have written about this before in a short piece from June 2019, There Is No Means of Testing This Hypothesis, but the Fact Remains That the Dog Has Three Ears, which you can read here and from which I nicked the photo at the top of this post)  These little phrases, fleetingly available to me only in the very moments of waking, trapped, like Steve McQueen was not, on the barbed-wire fences that separate conscious from unconscious, disappear from view as the morning’s more immediate uncertainties kick in: ‘What day is it?’, ‘What time is it?’, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What on earth has died in my mouth overnight?’  This morning the little nosegay documented atop this post clattered through into my conscious mind, refusing, like a spoonful of yesterday’s cold mashed potato congealed in the bottom of a bowl, to be dissipated by the cold-water swirl of dawn, and hammered around until I wrote it down.  It did not need to be so conscientious; I could not shake it off now even if I wanted to.  It is stark and it is precise: I remember it word for word.  It has somehow imprinted itself onto some neuron or other (Do I mean neuron?  Is it synapse?  I can never remember.) that has strayed off into some darkened recess within my cranium, where it should not be; taking up the private parking space, no doubt, of the whatever-it-is that should be remembering the PIN number for my credit card.  It has become impossible to forget.  It is still pinging around the cortices of my brain like the little ‘table tennis ball’ in the video games of my youth.

I remember the phrase, I hear it still, but I do not recall the context and, because of that I have no idea of what I was banging on about at the point that daylight punctured my nocturnal bubble.  I presume that the words are meant to be reassuring: ‘Don’t worry, Viffers are safe to eat,’ but I can’t be sure.  Is it, perhaps, a warning: ‘They have no calories and are, therefore, of no dietary value’?  Well that really rather depends on where you stand on celery, doesn’t it?  Does food without calories serve any purpose other than to make you crave food with lots of them?  Perhaps I am mistaking lack of calories for something else – like lard – and lack of calories may not mean that foodstuffs are deficient in dietary value – just taste.

Initially I thought that I understood what I meant by ‘vicious’ – fiery, as in chilli, or Gordon Ramsay when yelling at the powerless – but now I’m not so sure.  What if I meant feisty – as in something alive – if it continued to be vicious, it would have to be alive wouldn’t it – which carries quite a different meaning.  Who eats living beasts?  Well, pretty much every carnivore except humans if you think about it.  Was the sentence spoken by an animal?  If so, who gave it rational thought and, more to the point, have I been sleep-anthropomorphising again?  Slightly difficult to imagine a weasel, for instance, issuing such a warning to its offspring (although I can, for some reason, imagine a cat doing so).  Besides, if it was about to be eaten, it would have every reason to be a little spiky wouldn’t it?  Anyway, if it was a living thing, it would contain calories surely.  Am I wrong in thinking that anything that consumes calories must, itself, contain them: that a miniscule part of everything you consume becomes a constituent part of you?  That when all is done and I am being loaded onto the little steel trolley that will wheel me along to my fiery goodbye, they will find me to be sixty percent chocolate, thirty-nine percent alcohol and one percent cauliflower?

Perhaps it is a good thing.  Perhaps whatever-it-is is being encouraged to eat whatever-it-is by whatever-it-is because it has no calories.  Perhaps obesity is a growing problem in the weasel world.

But if I was right in the first place, it would be a warning wouldn’t it: a little voice saying, ‘Don’t eat that chilli: it’s volcanically hot.  By the time you’ve quenched the fire in your mouth you will already be dreading the consequences elsewhere.’  Or what, after half a dozen pints, most men would consider a dare.  As my dad would say, ‘I think they put something in it up the brewery.’  The consumption of beer makes men uniquely susceptible to autosuggestion: ‘You would never be stupid enough to do that.’  ‘Oh yes I would!’  Let’s face it; no Indian Restaurant has ever sold a Phaal to anybody sober.  It is on the menu merely to allow the waiters to get their revenge on Stag Parties – and quite bloody right too.

On balance, I am most inclined to adhere to my warning theory.  I like a nice moral ending to my dreams.  But then, I know, as usual, that you were there way before me, we are still left with one unknown.  That this has not occurred to me until now as even being an unknown, may tell you a little of how my brain works – or fails to do at times.  Anyway, what I have to consider now is what, exactly, is a Viffer?  It is not a mispronunciation of something else, of that I am certain.  The word was very definite.  I was clear on it when I wrote it down, I am clear about it now.  Something tells me that I knew what a Viffer was when I wrote it down, but it is equally adamant that I will never know it again.  Unless, perhaps, the Buddhists are right and after a dotage spent chomping celery, I am one day reincarnated as a weasel.

Revisiting Old Friends

Well, here we are approaching the third anniversary of what started out as a once-weekly method of purging my brain of all of the gibberish that had formerly been paid for by the editors of magazines that, one by one, had ceased to exist.  Humour, it would appear, was no longer a laughing matter – at least if you wanted to pay the bills.  My intention was to fill a little time and continue to write these little nosegays, until such time as fate – preferably in the shape of an astrakhan-collared magazine proprietor with a big, fat wallet – came a-knocking at my door promising a pound a word and a double spread every other Thursday.  It never came.  My brain is a febrile thing: if I do not keep removing the litter between my ears, I run the danger of setting fire to my hat.  One blog a week became two, became three, became four and, for a short while five or more; all of them new, most of them intending to be funny, some of them even succeeding…

Of late, I have found myself struggling for fresh ideas: how to fill my pages four times a week without constant repetition.  In that, I think if I am honest, I may have been failing.  I recognise the signs: this is not so much the black dog of full-blown depression as the slightly gloomy Siberian Hamster of disaffection, but none the less, it leaves me with nothing much to say and no diverting way in which to say it.  I need to find another distraction.  To write, perhaps two blogs a week, maybe even one, but with a quality control department somewhat elevated from the British Leyland department it has become, giving me the chance for my mind to go elsewhere between times.  Perhaps I will re-visit some ‘old friends’ and finish long-abandoned manuscripts: polish and submit the radio series, books, plays I have written with little view to ever pursuing production or publication.  It’s ages since I’ve had a decent rejection slip to brood over…

Meanwhile, I will still be around, but maybe not so frequently.  I hope that you appreciate this once in a lifetime chance to get a little less of me.  Make the most of it before I change my mind (again)…

The Running Man on Sundays

Being ‘a runner’ at last has come as something of a surprise to me: I have always been a runner last of all things.  Covid has changed me and although I do not now, and doubt I ever will, enjoy running, without question I do feel better for doing it and I will continue to do so for as long as I am able.  What I will not do, if I can possibly avoid it, is to run on a Sunday, because the paths are thronged with weekend dog-walkers and I spend so much time leaping up and down kerbs in an attempt to give them what they consider to be sufficient space that I might as well stay at home and go up and down the doorstep.  This week, however, for reasons that might provide someone with a decent PHD thesis, I was forced to brave the canine overlords and head out on the Sabbath.  I prepared myself and planned a route that, for the most part, allowed me to stick to the gutter, where most people seem to think that I belong.  What I had not considered is that nobody appears to park their cars on the road any longer.  All cars are parked across the path as close to the hedge/fence/discarded mattresses as it is possible to get without scraping the paint from the wing-mirror.  There is absolutely no way to pass without taking to the centre of the road where you encounter the second Sunday morning issue: all home deliveries, it would seem, are now made on this day.  The whole village is a web of DPD vans, Yodel vans and vans that are obviously recently purchased once-upon-a-time Post Office vans with which ends are being forced to meet.  I am able to run a straighter line after sixteen pints of cider than I am in the streets of this village on a Sunday morning.  Car doors spring open in front of me, drivers leap out on top of me, everybody wants to know why I am not on the path.  I am not on the path because it is full of bloody car!  I am not in the gutter because it too is full of bloody car!  I am in the road because it is not full of bloody car, it is full of Amazon.

Sunday morning is a very social time and, for reasons unknown to non-dog walkers, almost all Sunday morning dog walkers dress as if they are about to run a marathon and they cannot resist the opportunity to gather on street corners to discuss it.  The array of skin-tight, body-shaming, hi-viz elastane on show provides a pallet otherwise seen outside of Salvador Dali on a particularly vivid acid trip.  Not a single molecule of it has ever encountered human sweat*.  Everywhere you look there are small groups of middle-aged, semi-fluorescant lycra-clad dog exercisers chatting the morning away before, presumably, wheezing their way back home to a full roast dinner, a bottle of red and a couple of hours in front of Harry Potter on Netflix.  These tiny gatherings do not move for any reason what-so-ever.  They merely stare disdainfully as you try to navigate a path between them and the adjacent delivery van without falling under the wheels of the four-by-four on its way to pick up the morning papers.  I cannot begin to imagine how upset they would be if I were to be disembowelled by the three-ton school transporter and, in the process, managed to splash brain all over their leisurewear.  I cannot imagine anything would get that out, and blood red clashes so horribly with lime green…

Anyway, having misguidedly sallied forth, I persevered – I had no other way of getting home – but, the morning being warm and my anxiety being heightened, I pretty soon found sweat trickling down every available surface (as well as one or two that really should not have been) and particularly down my brow and into my eyes.  I wear contact lenses to run: I cannot rub my eyes for fear of losing one down a drain, I cannot rub my forehead for fear of stretching the sagging mess of skin that ripples across my brow and popping an earbud out, so I blink a lot and rarely recognise anyone around me.  Strangely, that situation seems to work for everyone, particularly those who studiously avoid looking me in the eye; who choose to deny my entire presence by staring at the ground, scanning the clouds or talking to the lamp-post.  They appear to believe that whatever I have got (and I must have something) it must be infectious and could possibly be contracted by eye contact.  To me, they are an amorphous blob; to them, I am a peripatetic pariah but, to everyone’s relief, our eyes never meet and thus I do not get the opportunity to leach out their very souls from their hooded optic orbs.  Which is just as well, being Sunday and all…

*Other, of course, than the children forced to produce it.

The Way it Goes (Encounters with the Chaos Theory)

You know the thing whereby a spouse’s lay-in results in expensive orthodontistry…  You don’t?  Well, let me explain…

It starts like this.  Knowing that you are at work the following morning and that your wife is not; you gather together all of your chattels: your keys, your clothes, your shoes, your pocketful of ever-more useless change, and place them carefully in the spare room so that you can shower, dress and leave the house without waking the slumbering beauty.  In the morning, however, you realise that whilst remembering everything else, you have forgotten a belt and, having lost enough weight recently to precipitate an imminent trouser-falling-down scenario without such support, you are forced to slip back into pitch-black bedroom in order to retrieve one.  You creep in, manfully stifling a scream as you stub your toe on a dressing table that has not moved in fifteen years, fall over a wardrobe that most certainly was not there when you left the room and grab the first belt that comes to hand, before exiting with a flesh-coloured bra and something that could just possibly be a pair of leggings wrapped around your ankles.  Thus you end up with a brown belt complete with fancy metal end to wear with grey trousers, grey shirt and black shoes, but, hey-ho, it’s only for work and at least you haven’t woken your wife.

Of course the belt is not only brown and ferric-terminated, it is also too big, which leaves you with a long useless tab that constantly divorces itself from your trousers and hangs, limply useless on your thigh.  (Stop tittering at the back!)  The belt arrangement bothers you all day: it is the wrong colour, it dangles and the metal tip whacks into anything within a three metre radius every time you turn.  You cannot wait to divest yourself of it, especially as it succeeds in constantly wrapping itself around the gear stick on the way home, making the shift from fourth to third particularly uncomfortable.

You arrive home in such a state of high agitation that you really need to take a shower, only to find that your wife – in a fit of super-exuberant cleaning – has managed to wrench the whole thing from the wall.  If turned on now, it would merely clean the ceiling.  You are tempted to ask if she has been cleaning with a sledgehammer, but you think better of it.  A shower is out of the question, but the clamminess of the day persists, so a bath is the only solution.  You can lay back in a bath, relax and ponder the possibility of getting a plumber in any time this side of Christmas.

You do not often take a bath: it is far too time-consuming; it is uncomfortable; it is too hot when you get in and yet too cold within thirty seconds; it is fifteen minutes laying in your own dirty water, and yet, with a sigh, and little alternative save a sponge and a bucket, you start the water running whilst trying to decide whether to put something in it to make the water bubbly.  Without bubbles it is much easier to wash your hair, but you have nothing to hide your middle-aged belly and undercarriage from view.  Nobody wants to ponder their own decline, particularly from such an angle.  It is the only reason for reading in the bath: a good book effectively throws a cover over spreading flesh and ancient appendages.  If you catch a glimpse in an ill-placed bathroom mirror, it is possible to convince yourself that they do not belong to you.  (Although, if that is the case, uncomfortable questions of just exactly who is sharing your bath, persist.)  In the end, bubbles are always the preferred option.

Having taken the bath, you emerge wrinkled, Gollum-like, into the terrestrial world feeling somehow even less clean for it and conscious of the fact that you forgot to take your contact lenses out before getting in.  Not normally a problem, but now every single mirror in the house – possibly the neighbourhood – is steamed-up and unusable.  Oh well, it can wait, the mirrors will clear eventually… except experience has taught you that an eyelash under the lens will not wait; it does not sort itself out, it bores into the brain.  It feels like somebody has been using your iris as a dartboard.  You are, however, painfully aware that any attempt to remove the errant lens without recourse to a mirror will result in an eyeball the size and colour of a baboons bum and the lens itself taking up temporary residence under an eyelid… somewhere.

So, you decide that is wise to get dressed first – the curtains are all open and the cat has that look in its eye.  You are not expecting the vicar to call, but anything is possible – especially with the moon on the crest of Uranus.  The first job is to separate trousers from the belt, but the folded contact lens in your right eye feels like a felled oak and clouds your vision to such an extent that it is like viewing the world through a layer of Vaseline.  You do not notice that the stupid belt has snagged itself on the stupid, stupid belt loop of your stupid, stupid trousers until the stitching gives way and the stupid, stupid, stupid metal terminal of the belt takes out half of your second favourite incisor and, well, that’s the way it happens…

N.B. This piece is written in the third-person, in the hope that I am not alone.

N.B. (2) I am alone, apparently…

The Cols in My Education

Photo by S Migaj on Pexels.com

Despite five long, fruitless years spent toiling in order to be ready for long-ago GCSE’s, my geographical knowledge is what is known in educational circles as ‘pants’, my entire world understanding barely scraping above non-existent.  I do not, for instance, believe that I would be able to name any more than a handful of the countries on the African Continent – even if they didn’t keep changing their names annually – and as for where they are – top, bottom, left or right – I would probably stand a better chance of naming the players of the Patagonian baseball team*.  As far as I am concerned, the whole world would be far easier to understand if all the countries within it were square and named alphabetically from left to right.  The boundaries between sovereign states (those that can agree not to fight over them) appear to have been drawn by a myopic chimp after a night on the tiles.  For instance, what kind of country is Chile when it plunges the length of half a continent, yet can be crossed in about three paces?

I know that all things change, but I’m sure that when I was at school there were only five continents and a similar number of oceans (although I’m pretty sure that if you asked my grandchildren, they would guess that there was only one of each: Pangaea and the wet bit).  According to Google, there are now seven of each – although where they have managed to fit the new ones, I cannot imagine.  I don’t recall any gaps that needed filling.  I am not even certain when Australia became a continent instead of ‘the whopping big island on the bottom bit where nobody goes’.  The political map of the world is a very different creature to when I was at school: the U.S.S.R has gone, as has Yugoslavia, and Africa appears to be in such flux that watching the map changes over the last fifty years is like peering down a kaleidoscope.  Yet the world has not really changed.  The high bits, the wet bits, the dry bits, the icy bits, they all remain more or less where they have always been.  The hike from Austria to Switzerland would still be lined with singing nuns, even if Austria and Switzerland did not exist; the people of France would still be setting light to lorry tyres, even if they weren’t the people of France; the people of Britain would still be completely out of place, wherever they were. 

To be honest, all that I can genuinely recall from half a decade of schoolboy research (turning up for lessons and not getting thrown out until at least half way through) is that occluded fronts require both red and blue pens; glacial valleys are ‘U’ shaped and river valleys ‘V’ shaped – although it really doesn’t matter unless you are at the bottom of one and it is raining, and the origin of the ox-bow lake is something that never comes up in a pub quiz.  I understand precipitation, because I am British; I understand erosion (ditto) and I understand the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic – although not the difference between geography and geology it would appear.

I seldom know exactly where I am (both physically and metaphysically) and I that is probably just one reason (or possibly two) why my Sat-Nav has such fun with me.  I am insanely trusting.  If it tells me that I should go to Cleethorpes via the Khardung La, I see no reason to doubt it.  It also knows that I struggle with ‘left’ and ‘right’ so it uses them all the time.  Surely it can find some other way of guiding me around: ‘In three hundred yards, turn in the direction that will get you killed if you don’t stop for the traffic heading towards you’.  It constantly urges me to ‘Follow the road to the left’ when the only alternative is a ploughed field.  Besides, most of the time I don’t need directions.  As soon as I get stuck behind an extra-wide load driving at five miles per hour, I know exactly where we’re both going.  It is, at least, a somewhat more accurate indicator of where we are going than my wife, who, to be honest, is very good at telling me where I should have gone.  I am only happy that when I am driving the car and my wife is navigating, I do not have to follow me.  We once went to Cornwall, via Scotland, only realising that my wife was taking her directions from Charles Atlas’ autobiography when we got there.

I am, by and large, a good man to have on the quiz team.  My head is crammed full of what, in academic circles, is known as ‘junk’, but which almost certainly satisfies the average pub quizmaster’s criteria for ‘knowledge’, however as soon as anything even vaguely geographical is mentioned, a void is all that exists between my lugs.  I can’t do flags, because I can’t remember which country is which, and I can’t do capitals because it would be ridiculous of me to know that the capital of Sierra Leone is Freetown, when I would put it on the wrong continent on a map.  I know what a Col is, but only because it is my name.  If I had been called Nigel, who knows what I would have called the gap between two mountain peaks.  Jeremy, probably.  Anyway, it shouldn’t bother you.  If ever I suggest joining your quiz team, just send the directions in the post – you may never see me again.

*Since I have just read that Patagonia is a region occupying the southernmost parts of both Chile and Argentina and not, as I thought, a part of the former Soviet Union, that is even more doubtful than I believed.

A Cynic’s Dictionary – You Too Can Join In

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

My dad had a phrase he always used when he thought that we should think things through before reaching what he hoped would then be the right decision, not necessarily in a moral sense but more in the sense of what was likely to land you in the least doo-doo.  Whenever he thought that there was a quicker, easier or more advantageous way of approaching anything, he would always implore us to ‘screw the loaf’.  I have no idea why: no idea what the etymology of this particular phrase could possibly be.  I never heard anybody else use the phrase, but I also never heard anybody question its definition.  However obscure its nascence, its meaning appeared clear.

I have always found it fascinating how words bend to our needs over time.  (Author’s note: if you do not experience such fascination then, in all honesty, I must warn you that you may well find the few hundred words that are to follow deeply boring, if not actively irritating.  It might well prove beneficial for us both if you just decide to hit the ‘Like’ button now and go off instead to trim the hamster’s claws.)  I started this little piece with the intention of casting an eye over some of the many words that had changed meaning quite dramatically during my lifetime.  The obvious first example was the word ‘gay’ which, when I was at school, simply meant ‘happy, bright and carefree’.  Slowly it began to change its meaning towards the one we understand today, but in an abusive way – as it was widely assumed (this being the 1970’s when nobody, it would appear, knew better) that, by and large, being called gay was, in itself offensive.  (It made a change, I suppose, to ‘bummer’ which was, at that time, the most commonly used term of abuse at my school – an all-boys school by the way – which to the best of my knowledge had exactly the same percentage of gay pupils as any other, although they always appeared happier.)  Then, slowly over the next few years, the gay population rightfully re-took ownership of the word and it became, once again, a friendly word.  Today it remains in common usage and is not in any way – unless you are in possession of a pea-brain and an intellect to match – offensive.  ‘Gay’ remains a commonly used word, a good word, but it is rarely, if ever, used in its original meaning.

I racked my brain (not in the Mediaeval sense of stretching, which actually, would probably have been far more beneficial) for further examples: Completion Date, for instance, used to be the date by which a job is to be finished, but now increasingly is used to identify the date by which one has to start explaining why the job isn’t finished.  Mobile Technology, in my youth, would have been a phrase used to describe the most up-to-date caravan available, whereas now it is more likely to be used to describe a mobile telephone that is so advanced, nobody over the age of twelve is able to work it, let alone make a phone call with it.  There was a time when Patriotism merely described the love of one’s own country and not the hatred of everyone else’s, when Peace of Mind was simply a feeling of calm and security and not necessarily the product of a bottle of whisky.  When a Pension was a wage, paid by the government, from retirement age (65) to the day of death (usually 66) and not something you have to start worrying about from birth, contributing to from age 18, and paying into all of your life, so that you can claim it at 80 – if you haven’t died first: when Something for the Weekend was a condom and not cocaine.  All well and good, but the whole enterprise began to feel hopelessly nostalgic.  What I was actually looking for was something rather more pithy*.

Many words have picked up new meanings as we have moved slowly through the twenty-first century.  Most are commonly understood before they make it into the dictionary, tacitly recognised, but never formally documented.  I realised that these were the words I wanted to consider: words that have new meanings; meanings that are completely removed from the definitions of old.  I give you, below, the very few that have fallen instantly to mind.  I see it as a starting point (and not simply an excuse to utilise the half page of ragged notes I have just scribbled down).  I know that you will all have many more (and better) and I look forward to hearing them**: 

Agreement – accord in which one party believes they have got their own way, whilst the other has misheard the question.
Award-winning, super-fast Broadband
– broadband.
Compassion – an emotion felt by the winner.
Child-proof – anything that can only be opened by the under fives.
Children
– things that fall out.
Debate – discussion aimed wholly at getting validation for your own point of view.
Free-From – twice the price, half the ingredients.
Gosh – dyslexic with good sense of humour.
Herd immunity – the theory that when we’ve all been ill enough, for long enough, it won’t matter any more.
Holiday¹
– time spent away from home, work and bills.  A period of constant worry about home, work and bills.
Holiday² – time spent away from home.  A period of constant worry about catching something and dying.
Hollow – all victories that do not involve chocolate.
Light Exercise – near-death experience.
Marriage – long, interminable moan, such as that of a dry joint on a long journey.
Music – noise that grates on your partner.
Pure – full of all sorts of stuff that puts the price up.
Relatives
– things that fall out.
Sense of humour – the real reason why your spouse hates you.
Service is temporarily unavailable – award-winning, super-fast broadband.
Silence
– the sound of getting your own way.
Sorry – word used only in the very last resort as a means of eventually getting your own way.
Tantrum – what adults have very, very quietly.
Teeth
– things that fall out.
Umbrage – what your wife takes.
Unknown – why she takes it.
Vegetable oil – anything in which you can fry a chip, which does not come out of a lorry’s sump.
Voice
– noise that grates on your partner.
Weight¹ – what you were before you lost it.
Weight² – what you were before you put it on.
Wrong – whatever it is you have done.

And that’s as far as I have currently got.  A long, long way to go before I can challenge the OED I know, but with your help I very much hope that I can accumulate a repository of word and phrase to which every blogger can refer in the future with a universal understanding of meaning – like ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, but with fewer pictures.  I would be happy to receive all contributions…

*‘Terse and vigorously expressive’ apparently.  British readers should think Princess Anne.

**In my head, I believe that I know exactly what kind of definitions will be produced by each of you: some will be sweet, some will be bitter, some will be clever, some will be perceptive, some will be satirical and some will be plain barmy (I’m sure you all know who you are), but I hope you’ll give it a go.  I know that, together we can produce a new dictionary for the twenty first century.  It is desperately needed: who, for instance, can be happy with the old one when it tells us that promises are meant to be kept and that hell is somewhere that the bad people die to and not somewhere in which the innocent can be forced to live their whole lives… 

I look forward to being roundly cheered up.

All the Fun of the Affair

I have this love affair with words.  I can do what I like with them (mis-spell, mis-use, incorrectly hyphenate…) and they seldom object.  (And when they do it is generally through this whatever-it-is that is embedded in Microsoft Word with the specific purpose of driving me half crazy: I know it’s a f*cking fragment, it’s how I write and no, I wouldn’t consider changing it!)  I’m actually pretty nailed on with spelling (although restaurant is, for some reason, always problematic for me) and my apostrophe use is definitely superior to whomsoever (whosoever, apparently) wrote the algorithm for Microsoft.  I love a bit of anthimeria – which the algorithm obviously believes is a word I have just invented – or possibly anthimeriaing.  Shakespeare, apparently, was a great verber, and if he never considered using Gerund as a character name, well, he dashed well should have (or, as everybody says around here, ‘should of’).  I will freely admit, I do like making up the odd word here and there: if it suits what I have to say, and it says it, then I use it.  If it doesn’t appear in the dictionary, well, perhaps it’s not just me who needs to get his act together. I am not alone.  Lewis Carroll, for instance, was a great maker-upper of words – although, strangely, I have just looked up paedophile and it wasn’t one of his. 

Grammar, unfortunately, is an entirely different kettle of frogs.  My use of grammar could best be described as ‘instinctive’ (as was the reaction of many of my English Tutors over the years): I tend to read things out aloud and if I pause, I stick a comma in.  If I stop, I stick in a full stop.  If I pause, just a little longer than a comma’s-worth, but don’t quite stop, then it is a semi-colon.  A colon, in my head, is simply an abbreviation for ‘such as’ or ‘such that’.  And parentheses (surely not parenthesises) I just drop in wherever I might have an extra idea to plop into a sentence, which is not catered for within my aforementioned basic grammatical rulebook.  I understand ‘verb’, ‘adverb’, ‘noun’, ‘pronoun’, ‘adjective’ and a little bit about ‘prepositions’, unlike ‘conjunctions’, and interjections which are well hard!  Beyond that, anything that requires more than a single word descriptor completely passes me by.  I don’t remember ever being taught these things.  I suppose I must have been, although I am certain that I have never known them.  Appositive phrases are completely out of reach to me.

I had an English teacher at school who dedicated his entire life (or so it seemed to me at the time – I’m sure he must have done other things) to chopping my long and florid sentences down into tiny, grammatically correct chunks with his own, equally florid, green ink revisions (although I still think that Word would call the resulting pithy blocks ‘fragments’) and all of my all-of-a-suddens into suddenlys (neither of which, apparently, can be pluralised).  His accuracy with the blackboard rubber is the main reason that I still, to this day, duck instinctively every time I am tempted to make a smartarse remark.  Consequently, my writing tends to veer wildly between the clipped and economical style that he tried to pound into my head and the convoluted mess that is more true to my nature and bloody-mindedness.  What’s the point in a sentence that you can read without having to think about it?  To get through many of mine, you might need a map.  If you reach the end of a sentence I have written with no idea of what I was trying to say at the start of it, it is probably because I have forgotten.

Also, for reasons that only a psychologist could explain, I do not like words such as learnt and dreamt, using learned and dreamed instead, both of which, I realise, are quite wrong, but sound much less ugly.  You may have noticed, I also use the ‘ise’ suffix in preference to the ‘ize’ espoused by the OED, apparently putting me at odds with Shakespeare and Tolkien, which I am sure will really bother them.  In ‘real life’, I am an inveterate and accomplished swearer, but I seldom swear in print because it looks so bloody unsightly.  I wrote a novel once in which every character was deeply flawed and ultimately unpleasant.  The worst of them swore as much on the page as I do in real life.  He was an ugly person and his dialogue disfigured the text to such an extent that I had to find something really unpleasant to do to him.  Oddly, I read it through a week or two ago and, with an appropriate distance between then and now, it actually made me laugh.  I believe that I have read many worse novels – although I could, as always, be very wrong about this – and I wish that I had pursued my search for a publisher rather more assiduously than I did, but I didn’t.  Even today I wish that I had the patience to pursue it, but I don’t (I am allergic to rejection: it brings me out in self-pity and I can’t afford the whisky).  I do wonder if my tortuous syntax might not be an impediment to literary success.  I’m not sure that this can be the whole reason for my stratospheric level of failure, as I have read many a best seller that has, in my opinion, needed some kind of preface from Bletchley Park in order to make it coherent and, unless I am particularly stupid*, there are many ‘great books’ out there that would have not made it beyond my own ‘could I read this in a deckchair’ test.  I am unable to tackle a single sentence in Ulysses without a pencil and notepad.

Anyway, I appear to have drifted somewhat from my charted journey here; the point is – or was, it seems so long since I started this – that I love words (even if my method of linking them together leaves much to be desired) and I love using them (my latest dreadful habit: using italics for expression) and that is the main reason why I continue to write this blog after all this time.  I hope you understand and can forgive…

*Author’s Note: I am particularly stupid.

The Death of Routine #1

I hadn’t really seen the routine: I had simply become fixated with what came next.  I had given up fretting over what to write, becoming more absorbed in how to write it.  Whatever was occupying my mind was squashed back into its box until I had finished what I needed to do.  When I came to let it out, it merely dangled to the floor like a Jack-in-the-Box with a spring made of liquorice lace.

Tuesday was always my wild-card.  On occasions*, after a long weekend, it involved delving into my many files of unfinished bits and bobs and pulling out something that I thought I might be able to bring to an acceptable conclusion, when what I really should have been doing was looking for a way to humanely put it down.  I was fully aware that, whilst some of these pieces had originally been abandoned simply because I had run out of both time and steam, or because I had been distracted by something new and shiny, many of them had been discarded simply because they were not good enough, and no amount of tinkering  was ever going to make them so.  You can put a new door on a derelict house, but the roof still lets the rain in.  I am capable of dropping jokes into just about anything, but it doesn’t necessarily make it funny, anymore than dropping a truffle into a dog-turd would  make it edible.  My laptop is so full of dog-turd it should really be emptied once a week by the council.  It doesn’t matter how much you love your baby, what’s inside the nappy is still shit to everybody else.  I really must try to stop myself from revisiting things that did not work the first time.  I cannot make them work: at best they still do not work, just in a different way.  Backwards is never the way forwards.

Wednesday became Zoo Rhyme day.  I enjoyed the zoo rhymes.  They appealed to the child in me, but after a year of at least one a week, the child has often proved a little too difficult to find.  I really like most of these rhymes, but they have gradually become a little too knowing: the humour a little too dressed-up.  I will see them through to week 52 (I hope – I haven’t written the final four yet) and then, perhaps stop posting on a Wednesday all together, despite it being, by far, my most popular post of the week (largely I suspect, because there is far less of me to go around in a little verse).  Three posts a week is a much more manageable number for a blog that was originally intended to support only one.

Thursday was the day for the Running Diary, which will undoubtedly continue to pop up occasionally for as long as I continue to run, but week in, week out, it has become more of a drudge than the actual running.  I can’t keep putting you through that.  So whilst I continue to run three times a week, you will begin to hear about it far more irregularly, and we must all be grateful for that.

And then to Saturday and the Writer’s Circle day, which was originally intended to be just a hook on which I could hang a series of short stories, but somehow it started to become a single entity.  In my head, I suspect, it became a book and each successive chapter began to depend on at least some knowledge of what had gone before.  A sure-fire way to lose readers, as it turns out.  The law of diminishing returns.  By the time I had trudged on to episode 30 the ‘cost’ to the reader was obviously far greater than the reward.  I think that with a little work I could (although I won’t) work it up into a reasonable book, but it clearly makes a lousy serial.

So now I return to what I was always meant to be doing: rambling.  Whittering away about growing old**.  On and on, like a firework display with nothing left but half a dozen dampened Roman Candles and a rocket that has lost its stick.  I have insufficient gunpowder, these days, to blow my own hat off.  What you will get on Thursday and Saturday this week I have not yet even thought about.  We’ll see what happens (if, indeed, anything does: I am, after all the living embodiment of indolence – I am Slothman.)  I fear that over-thinking – like silk boxer shorts – leads only to disappointment and, despite the fact that this whole blog is built on disappointment, I just feel that it needs to lose a little bit of the routine that it has lately developed.  I need a little bit of surprise in what I write, because that is what always leads me onto what I write next – not the agenda that I have spent most of my life trying to wriggle out of.  From now on, Tuesday is just the start of a new day – and the rest of the week will have to fend for itself.  At my age, it might not quite stretch as far as anarchy, but disorganised is a definite ambition…

*Admittedly more regular of late.
**I’m not sure why it is always ‘growing’ old, when ‘growing’ hints at development – at getting better – whilst ‘old’ points more accurately towards failing joints and bladder, general decrepitude and death. 

N.B. Obviously, The Death of Routine #2 cannot happen.

The Running Man on ‘Jogging from Memory’

Way, way back in 1980 I bought a book entitled ‘Jogging from Memory’ by Dr Rob Buckman1 who had the rare gift of reducing me to tears of laughter with his prose.  ‘Jogging from Memory’ is a collection of articles he wrote for various publications and it contains the article, also titled ‘Jogging from Memory’, which I now realise is the 1,000 word distillation of everything I have spent the last three years trying to crowbar into my own paean to misplaced youth  – only funnier.  Much, much funnier…

Dr Buckman was twenty-nine years old when he wrote about agreeing to take part in a charity ‘jog’.  Thirty minutes – how hard could that be for a fit young man, finely tuned on bagels and coffee and primed for action – as long as it wasn’t too early?   Sadly the realisation confronted him with a nerve-shredding ‘clang’ as he was ‘lapped by a fell-walker and two marathon runners’ within eleven yards of the start: he was not as young nor as fit as he used to be (nor, he suspected, had ever been).  I could quote a hundred different brilliant lines to you – although not without being sued – but I will not because, frankly, I am not up to that sort of comparison.  I can only urge you to buy the book (I’ve checked, you can still find it) and for goodness sake, sit down before you read it.

I am sixty-two years old as I write this (I think, it’s so hard to remember) and the ‘ageing, crumbling frame’ to which the erstwhile, barely out of his teenage years, Dr Buckman refers has been clinging to my bones for a number of decades now.  Delaying the decline, which was taking me from man to jellyfish, was the main reason I started to run – I love my time with the grandkids and I want it to last as long as possible: they will put up with me smelling faintly of wee and boring them to death with stories from the past only as long as I can still kick a ball and climb a tree.  I have rarely enjoyed running2 but I do enjoy the fact that my physical well-being is much better since I started.  I still feel like an old man – god dammit, I still am an old man – but I am now an old man who can run (in a fashion) without retching before I reach the garden gate; who can keep up with the grandkids when those, much younger, around me falter; who can pull up his own socks without the need for a chiropractor; who can wear a T-shirt without looking like a hippo in a sports bra; who can breathe in deeply without attracting dogs…  I have found that, though running makes me, for the most part, somewhat more miserable than my normal curmudgeonly demeanour would have you believe, overall it makes me happier by allowing me to do more of what I want to do and – who knows – might just buy me a little more time in which to do it.  It also means that I don’t feel quite so bad about the fact that I drink too much, eat too much and, given the option, do far too little – I remain a human slug, but definitely fitter than the slug I used to be.

In fact, what Dr Buckman’s little piece has done is to remind me that, although at certain times in my life I have been very fit, I have never been very fit at everything and most tellingly, when I played football regularly, cycled and circuit-trained (much to the dismay of my fellow work-out’ees, one of whom memorably asked me if I was on some kind of mental welfare scheme3) I was always useless at running, but now it doesn’t matter because I’m better at running than almost everything else I do4.  At my age, it’s the memory that’s the problem: ask me what I was doing in 1965 and I’ll have a pretty good idea.  Ask me what I was doing twenty minutes ago and I’ll have to sit down whilst my head stops spinning.  My problem is not with jogging from memory as much as remembering why – and, in fact if – I was jogging in the first place.  Mind you, if you’d asked me in 1980…

1.  I previously mentioned this book, Dr Buckman and my very tenuous connection to him in a 2020 post entitled ‘Odds & Sods – One of My Socks is Missing’.  (You can read it here if you feel so inclined.)  Dr Buckman died, although possibly to his own surprise, not whilst jogging, in 2011(I include a link to his Wiki page here).  In my post I also mentioned Des O’Connor who has also since sadly passed away.  I would have included a link to his Wiki page, but since it does not mention ‘Dick-A-Dum-Dum’ I have not bothered.

2.  I do actually remember feeling almost deliriously happy running one bright, sunny and warm spring morning during lockdown (I forget which lockdown) but it didn’t last long and I put it down to dodgy ceps.

3.  I am slightly prone to the ‘hyper’ and my mouth can run-on several feet ahead of my brain.

4.  I do, of course, pretty much nothing else.

My Running thoughts diary started with ‘Couch to 5k’ here.
Last week’s entry ‘Listening to my Body’ is here.

Zoo #38 – Polar Bear

There’s seldom a sight that’s more sad to be found
Than a bored polar bear walking round and around:
In the ice of the Arctic, the most fearsome sight,
In the mud of a summer it’s not even white.
A hunter whose power’s respected by all,
Is trapped in a pen with a pond and a ball.
This mightiest hunter in mild summer’s rain
On an iceberg of concrete, going slowly insane.

I’m sure that zoos are not like this now, but many, many years ago, as a child, I was taken to one – long since closed down – and traipsed around the tiny cages full of magnificent creatures with nothing close to enough space and nothing with which to pass the time.  Most of them simply paced backwards and forwards, giving every impression that they were fully aware that, in these conditions, life for them would be mercifully short.  I was very young and my eyes were not open to these horrors until I approached a pen which contained a single polar bear.  The bear in the picture on the wall was a magnificent beast; a pure white knot of muscle and teeth – the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore – power and savage beauty perfectly aligned.  The bear in the compound – a concrete hollow, clearly designed to hold a large amount of water, but containing little more than a bathful at the base of its deepest point, upon which bobbed something that looked suspiciously like a child’s beachball – was thin to the point of emaciation with the yellow/light brown fur that I now know comes with age.  From the base of the basin that was clearly intended to be filled with water rose a concrete iceberg to which the animal was clearly expected to swim in order to rest.  Unfortunately with the pool drained of water the bear, as tall as he was, would have needed ropes and crampons to reach it.  So, head bowed, it just walked round and around its base.  Round and around, round and around, round and around… it was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen and I’m not certain that I have ever fully gotten over it.  I understand that polar bears are one of the few creatures that will actively hunt a human – I can’t say that I blame them…