Sunday, 17 January 2016
Life’s for Living
GET ON WITH IT
Ignore the creak of limbs,
The ache of climbing stairs,
Old age is still life;
Get on with it.
Ignore the failings of the world
Ideas you fought for,
Old age is your reward;
Get on with it.
When the heart expires,
The breathing stops,
When light goes out,
Relax; what was once old age,
Is now something else.
Get on with it.
The late, great Louis Armstrong once said “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken more care of myself.” As I approach the age of 73, I count myself lucky that despite years of self-abuse, the over-eating, the tons of tobacco I’ve consumed and the gallons of beer, I still have enough residual energy for this sedentary occupation of writing. In the space of a month three popular icons of entertainment have left us, all brought down by that busy deputy of the Grim Reaper, cancer. If we’d lost actor Alan Rickman before December, no doubt the media would have quoted his famously delivered line in his role as Sheriff of Nottingham; “Christmas is cancelled!” In Ace of Spades, Motorhead’s Lemmy famously sang “I don’t wanna live forever”. On his final album, in the song Lazarus, David Bowie sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” All three of these performers had their Biblical three score and ten; Rickman and Bowie at 69, Lemmy at 70. They had full lives where their talents were recognised and they were duly rewarded, and rightly so. Yet today and tomorrow many other human beings of equal yet overlooked ability will expire, some only to be recognised decades after their passing. I often think of Vincent van Gogh in this respect; how would he have felt had he known that his paintings would one day sell for millions of dollars, often to people who only see art as an investment, rather than an inspirational pleasure?
Mortality is a grim subject to air in the bitter depths of January, but every time a famous person’s passing makes the news, it should make those of us ordinary folk still living more determined to make more of the life we have, not only for ourselves, but for those around us. People assume that somehow the gym, jogging, botox, vitamin supplements, fame and wealth will keep mortality at bay. However, even if you win the next Euro-millions rollover, if the reaper wants you, you’ll have to go. But that shouldn’t be a depressing thought; it should inspire us to be better human beings. Sadly, even writing these words makes me a hypocrite, because I can be irritable, tetchy and often intolerant. There is much in the 21st century world to rail against. Maybe the secret to improvement is at least an element of self-recognition when it comes to your flaws. I know my lovely wife, Wendy, would be quick to point out that most of the sentiments I’m expressing here will appear to be at odds with my inherent impatience.
When you’re in your 20s the idea of your mortality is very different to when you're 50. At my wedding in 1966, if someone had said I’d be celebrating 50 years of marriage in 2016, it would have seemed like science fiction. In some ways it is. But as those 50 years rolled on, life and the way it was lived became more important. As you pass the half century mark, things begin to happen; your parents grow old and expire, children grow up and became parents in their own right, and all the love and affection you’ve spent a lifetime building up becomes much more valuable. We can choose to concentrate more on our friendships, become caring and careful, and try to consider others before ourselves. Those who have not yet passed through middle age can steal a march on us old folk by starting that process now. The modern world is in a bad way. Religion is no longer a beacon to better behaviour. There are too many competing gods and they all seem to be intolerant of one another. Politics struggles to move us forward, yet remains ineffective. It’s down to us; the way we behave to one another, how much help and understanding we give to our neighbours, family and friends, the way we listen, the way we speak.
So as the endless obituaries prove, we don’t live for ever. If you do get to my age, it has a title: I call it ‘The Season of Funerals’. Your contemporaries, either those close to you or those big names you admire, begin to drop like flies.
Our late lovely daughter, Sarah, taken by cancer on December 23 2012, aged 46, always said she’d never wanted to become “an old woman”, yet by her caring nature, with 30 years working in the NHS, she had a full, happy life, kind and understanding. She left us a legacy of good memories - and that’s something we should all aim for. As Louis Armstrong suggested; ‘It’s a wonderful world’. It would be nice if the world woke up to that fact and tried to make it so.
Monday, 11 January 2016
THIS REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED ...
|David Bowie and Mick Ronson enjoy dinner on the Train to Eternity|
It’s hard to believe or even accept David Bowie’s death at the age of 69. There is a theory in left wing politics about Revolution - the theory of ‘permanent revolution’ - where we keep the rebellion going, churning over, re-inventing, polishing, progressing. That was David Bowie’s art in a nutshell. With every album he transformed himself into something new. Ziggy, the Thin White Duke ... the Young Americans, Major Tom, Master of the Dance ... Bowie was everything - pure musical sophistication. His superb ability as a composer of timeless songs was matched by his ever-changing image. Now the Gene Genie is back in the bottle.
I never got to see him live, but I have a frail, tenuous connection to the Great Man. In the 1960s I played guitar in a Hull band called The King Bees. In a fit of petulance I resigned because they wouldn’t let my girlfriend ride in our van. My temporary replacement was a young Hull Corporation gardener named Mick Ronson. Now Mick and David are together again. They’ve already got a bass player up there with Lemmy … Heaven must be like a permanent Glastonbury.
Tuesday, 29 December 2015
OLD YEAR, NEW YEAR
Four seasons, cold, warm, dark, light,
Twelve months, the measure
This year of days and nights has passed
With so few thoughts to treasure.
The clock’s hands tick on, unstoppable
Upon their midnight climb
Santa Claus has now surrendered
To old bearded Father Time
Once more we face another year
Searching for a solution
To how we’ll live and how we’ll love
Whilst lacking resolution.
I was never a massive heavy metal fan, and I found Motorhead's music basic, albeit lively and driven, yet never challenging. However, Lemmy was one of those characters who personified the genre's self-made 'wild life' reputation. He was a basic man in many ways; he seemed as if he'd go on forever, but that wildness has finally overtaken him. Were Motorhead good musicians? Well, they were fast, that's a fact, but subtle? Never. No crying in your beer balladeering here; just three chords, tricky licks and the truth. They survived the 1970s punk revolution when all the other bouffanted, spandex heavy metal poseurs were sidelined, because Lemmy and his band outstripped the Pistols and The Damned or the Ramones with a well-established reputation for bad boy antics. They were the one heavy metal outfit the punks could still admire. And yet, for a resident of L.A., there was an old-fashioned, English heart still beating in Lemmy's hoary old chest; on the tour bus he re-read P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster over and over. That peculiarity alone gives him a sense of endearment. The music world's lost a true character, and no doubt Satan is already standing back in horror at his new arrival. RIP, Lemmy. You'll be missed.
Thursday, 10 December 2015
Carol singers, a whiff of chestnuts, frantic last minute shopping, pretentious TV ads for vastly over-priced fragrances. It’s here again, Christmas. But don’t imagine you can relax - there’s the enforced indigestion of the Boxing Day sales to face up to, and no doubt the Easter Eggs are already waiting on pallets in supermarket warehouses.
|The great Alastair Sim in the definitive |
movie version. Scrooge, 1952.
However, we always have Dickens. What would Yuletide be without A Christmas Carol? It’s been a play, various musicals, and has been filmed fifty times since 1920. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) knew all about poverty, after being a child worker in a blacking factory whilst his parents languished in a debtor’s prison. He began writing his “little Christmas book”, as he called it, in October 1843 and finished it in six weeks, just in time for Christmas.
The book was an enormous success, selling 6,000 copies within days of publication. It became an instant hit as a play and musical in London and New York. 10 years after its publication, Charles Dickens gave the first public performance of his abridged version in 1853 in Birmingham’s town hall before a delighted working class audience of 2,000. In America he was the rock star of his day, touring for weeks on end to massive crowds in full evening dress, with a bright buttonhole, a purple waistcoat and a glittering watch-chain. His stage equipment consisted of a reading desk, carpet, gas lights and a pair of large screens to help project his voice. On his tour dates, for breakfast he had two tablespoons of rum with fresh cream, and at tea time a pint of champagne. To limber up for his performance, he would drink a raw egg in a glass of sherry. In the show’s interval, he consumed a cup of beef tea, and later went to bed with a bowl of soup.
His last performance of A Christmas Carol was on March 15 1870 at London’s St. James Hall. After he’d finished, exhausted he told the rapturous audience “From these garish lights, I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” The crowd went wild, stamping and cheering. Three months later, aged 58, he died.
In popularity, Scrooge and the three Spirits of Christmas run a close second to Santa Claus, Christmas trees and turkeys. Yet in his private life Dickens was not always a pleasant man. He treat his wife badly, and his dispute with the original illustrator of The Pickwick Papers, Robert Seymour, led to Seymour’s suicide. These blemishes aside, with stories like Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol he’s been pulling at our heartstrings for almost 150 years. In the Soviet Union Dickens was a literary giant, yet he was no socialist. His simple message was kindness and benevolence. Even in today’s world of banking greed and high finance, there are plenty of recognisable Scrooges around. So this Christmas, with food banks, desperate refugees and the homeless on our streets, let’s remember Tiny Tim’s words;
“God bless us, every one.”
Monday, 30 November 2015
There was no colour then. Everything was dark. The black, naked trees stood out against the iron sky like long-legged arthritic spiders. It was always damp, often foggy. There was a smell of ancient mud and rotting weed coming off the river. There must have been summers, but it’s the winters we’d remember. Perhaps any winter after a war feels like this. There was still a lingering smell of cordite and charred embers. And there was that house.
We were told it was the Luftwaffe who had created that abandoned ruin. But if a bomb had dropped on that neglected, ancient abode down by the docks, it had only made a hole in the roof. No-one really knew how old the place was. When you’re ten years old architecture and provenance are meaningless; derelict buildings are places of adventure. We lads in the old docks gang called it Jack’s House. Some of us called it Jack’s Jinxed house, because it emanated fear and loathing. Yet such danger to boys is as a flame to a moth. It had an atmosphere which seeped like squirming tentacles through every shattered door and window frame. I can never remember that place in sunlight. It was a cold place, as wintry and as scary as a remote mountain cave. There was a legend, you see… and rumours. What more irresistible attraction did a sinister pile of crumbling bricks need for a gang of short-trousered, scuffed-kneed, dirty diminutive daredevils than legends and rumours?
And what a legend.
“Don’t you go playing in Jack’s house” was the parental admonition. We all received this every time we ventured out in the winter twilight of the after-school afternoon. When we asked ‘Why?’ a different variation on the legend came from parents “Boys have disappeared in that house.” Or “Little Jimmy Morgan went in there before the war and he’s never been seen since.” Other names were mentioned. Boys, girls, but always children. And every time, we would issue our own request: “Tell us the legend, Mum and Dad.” And in the gaslight, our shadows dancing on the walls, as the kettle boiled and the fire spluttered, with serious faces, they would.
“That was Doctor Jack’s house, before the Great War, and the one which came after, before the Kaiser, Hitler, before Himmler, when Churchill was a young buck. Doctor Jack was a clever man. He was a biologist and a surgeon. Some say he was so clever that when Myra, his wife, died, he was able to bring her back from the dead. But no-one knew what happened really. He had three sons. One of them was killed in France. The other two were wounded, gassed and burned in the trenches. When they came home, they had no faces; just a fleshy slit for a mouth, staggered teeth like tombstones, eyeballs rattling in purple-veined, painful sockets above holes where there was once a nose. They were hardly alive. And after that cruel Great War, they all lived in that house, a brilliant, broken man and his two living corpses, and that place, like them, was slowly rotting away. No-one knows what became of them. No one remembers Dr. Jack’s funeral, or what happened to his sons. But beware, because that old house is storing something.”
And naturally, no matter how many times we’d heard this, we would ask what ‘something’ meant. The answer varied, but my Grandfather always explained it thus:
“Ink.” It seemed odd, and we’d repeat the word; “Ink? Ink?”
“Think about it, boys. At school, your ink wells, your scratchy pens. What happens when you spill ink on a desk?”
“We soak it up with blotting paper.”
“And what colour is the ink?”
“Well, boys, there you have it. That place is a huge blotter soaking up the blackness and despair. The fabric of that house is storing grief, anger and horror.”
But we were young, and though impressionable, we never dwelled too long over Granddad’s gloomy prognosis. It was terrific stuff but even so to us it was baloney. So, obstinate urchins that we were, we would still go to Jack’s house. We never played our favourite game there; Commandos and Nazis, because it felt wrong. Whenever we stumbled through that splintered, hanging door and passed through the veil of cobwebs, we imagined ourselves as Howard Carter, discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. Our HQ was probably once Dr. Jack’s study. We had found our own little treasures there. A meerschaum pipe, a buttoned boot, some military buttons, three rifle bullets and a silver tobacco tin. We had two stained, fading, framed sepia pictures, one of a stern looking Victorian man with a walrus moustache, pork chop sideburns and piercing, almost lizard-like eyes. The other was a family group. The same man, but younger, standing alongside a seated woman, young, smiling, with three small boys gathered at her feet. We in the gang assumed this was Dr. Jack’s family, but we dare not take these artefacts home. We hid them in an old wall cupboard, and when we gathered there, the five of us, we would sit cross legged in a circle on the threadbare, rotting old Persian carpet, light candles, and like some bizarre, prepubescent ritual, pass these strange, fusty items among us. They felt like electric, spirit-imbued talismans of the old house. They gave us a shudder, and those shudders were a special thrill.
But the space between a shudder, a thrill and true fear is a narrow one.
There were only four of the gang that fateful late November night. Our fifth member, Tommy, couldn’t come out to play because he had a cold and had been off school. That left me, Eric, Stan and George. It was odd because when we’d called round for Tommy, his religious, Catholic mother had looked us up and down on her doorstep, then pale-faced and morosely wide-eyed peered out into the frost-laden fog and said “Ah, just look at it. Almost dark, lads … so cold and damp. Whatever you do, don’t be going down to Jack’s house. Play somewhere else tonight.” As far as we were concerned that request was like a line from a movie script. Don’t go to Jack’s! Don’t go? Where would the plot of an adventure be in that decision? Darkness? Fog? Bring it on!
And so we skipped on, through gas lit terraces, back alleys, over piles of crumbling brick rubble, courtesy of Heinkel and Fokke, until there, squatting on the riverbank, silhouetted against the sky, loomed Jack’s house. That smell arose again. The mist had cleared a little and a low moon had broken through, it’s sickly areola encircling it like a shroud. That smell was the same but tonight there was something else. The mix of mud, cordite, burnt timber and rotting weed was overlaid with something more pungent. We stood on the remains of the shattered perimeter garden walls of the house and sniffed. Eric wrinkled his nose, but before he could offer a thought, Stan stepped in. “Hospitals,” he murmured.
George sniggered. “Naw. Smells like our lavvy when mam puts disinfectant in it.”
But I agreed with Stan, and Eric’s view supported mine.
“I remember that smell. When I was in the hospickal after I’d fell on that steel rod and it went through me leg. An’ when I ’ad me tonsils out. It’s that stuff they give ’yer to knock you out. It’s a hospickal smell alright.”
Eric had a small flashlight, and we followed its low-battery beam through the tangled undergrowth and up the three stone steps to the house. That smell seemed stronger. Inside, we carefully crept along the crumbling hallway with the plaster peeled from the walls, and crept into what we called our ‘den’, and found our candles still laid out on the floor. George got a box of matches out and lit them up, whilst I retrieved our selection of trophies from the old rotting cupboard. It was only then, as we attempted to form our circle that we realised Stan was missing. Eric frantically flashed the diminishing torch beam around the room. I began to shout.
“Stan? Stan! Stop messin’ about! Where are you?” I picked up one of the candles and held it aloft. Our monstrous shadows loomed up the diseased old walls all around us. Where was Stan? Suddenly our boyish bravery left us, leaving only the reality of the nasty darkness of the house. With two candles on the floor, one dripping burning wax onto my fingers and a dim torch we staggered into one another, and with each repeated cry of “Stan! Stan!” the panic in our voices crept higher. Then Eric, sensible Eric, stood stock still in the doorway to the hallway. He shone the flashlight at me and George. He spat the words out in a loud, staccato whisper, the shadow trickery of the candles turning his eyes into black holes.
“Shut up you two! Shut up! Listen! Listen …”
The we heard it. It was unearthly, seemingly distant yet we knew it was near. Stan’s plaintive, reedy voice. “Help! Help me! I want me Mam! No! No!” Then the torch batteries finally gave out. All we had now was the candle I was holding. Stan’s voice rang out again, screaming this time. Hearts thumping, George, Eric and I huddled together and I held the candle aloft as we stepped into the dilapidated hallway. The voice seemed to be emanating from the very end, beyond the broken down staircase. We had never ventured there before because it ended in a boarded-up door secured with planks and nails. But as I held the candle up as high as I could, we were now shocked to see the planks lying on the rotten floor, and the previously obscured door slightly open. And from that black crack came poor little Stan’s scream again.
“Mam! No! No! Help me!” Eric gasped and turned.
“Let’s get out! Let’s go!” But George found enough courage for the three of us.
“Bugger off Eric! We can’t leave Stan! He’s our mate!” And so, in close single file, me leading with the candle, we approached the door. I pushed it and with a long, spooky creak it opened wide. There were stone steps. Stan’s tragic cries were closer. Everything was now bitterly cold and our combined, terrified gasping filled the air with exhaled vapour. We began our descent. I held the candle at arm’s length. We were only half way down into what appeared to be a basement when we all froze and screamed in unison.
Looking up at us with piercing, glowing amphibian eyes was a figure in a long white coat. He had a large moustache and massive side whiskers. But that white coat was streaked with blood and gore. In one hand he held a large, bloody scalpel, in the other a big syringe. He bared his jagged green teeth. In the gloom behind him we could see two tables, upon which lay two dismembered cadavers. And beyond … oh, sweet Lord, no, no. Beyond, on the wet stone wall, hanging in manacles, crying, bleeding, screaming … Stan. Poor Stan. Our little friend Stan, who we would never ever see again. And that was when we became cowards. That was when we ran. When we looked back from the perimeter wall, the house had caught fire. We’d left the candles burning. The next morning, all that remained was four walls of blackened brick.
No-one believed us. Nothing was found. What had been a basement was a charcoal pit. There were no bodies. It is 60 years since that terrifying night. Eric and George are dead. When they finally bulldozed Dr. Jack’s house, I stood and watched. Above the rolling rumble of tumbling masonry, I heard what my conscience demanded. Stan’s voice again, accompanied by a distinct odour of anaesthetic.