Friday, 28 December 2007

Three Wise Passengers, and Stars of Wonder and Delight

So it was a little crowded but the guard on the platform laughed rather too heartily for my taste when I showed him my seat reservation.

"Due to cancellations we are trying to fit three train loads of people on one train and you will all have to change at York, we suggest that it is no good shouting at any passenger sitting in your reserved seat as all reservations have been suspended".

I managed to catch this announcement from the corridor next to the toilet where I was ensconced on my own luggage plus a rather large rucksack owned by a north sea oil platform worker trying to get back to Aberdeen in time to be lifted out for a twelve day shift over Christmas and the New Year on Platform Delta One. I learnt a great deal about life on the rigs over Christmas and why this man was prepared to leave his wife and children to work there. He was desperate to get a foot on the housing ladder and Christmas and New Year shifts paid really well. "Enough to make up for not seeing your children over Christmas?" I asked him, enough to buy them a better future off the rough crime ridden estate they currently lived on, it transpired. "I can speak to them by web cam", he added.

I felt sad for him and his children but at the same time he was very vocal about wanting to do the best he could for his young family and hopefully in years to come his children might remember that their Dad only spoke to them by web cam on Christmas Day because he loved them. I thought that there might be a happy ending, he may buy a house off the rough estate but then the marriage might fall apart because he is away for such long stretches at a time and then he will still be talking to his children by web cam or email or text for every Christmas to come.

I think sitting on the suitcase was making me cynical. However worse was to follow, the 4.15pm Christmas Handicap Train Race at York....a frantic pelt of passengers up steep stairs, over the bridge and down steep stairs to a distant platform to another train only to find myself sitting on my suitcase yet again in a corridor. I think , the halt, the lame, the elderly and those with large suitcases had distinct handicaps in this race. It was myself, a man on crutches, who had he told me broken his foot two days earlier, a very jolly but very pregnant woman and a very elderly lady who had with the wisdom of age packed a flask of coffee and sandwiches, who were crammed into a tiny stretch of corridor. The guard shook his head in an inn keepery sort of manner and informed us there were no seats left anywhere he could direct us to and he was unable to demand that younger more strapping passengers give up their seats to the halt, the lame,the elderly and those with child ( I feel I fell into those with big suitcases category although I am not so proud that I won't admit that the other categories, apart from heavily pregnant might also fit my state of being ). However bless his little National Express Train Company socks, the guard stood in the automatic doorway, which was now permanently blocked by suitcases and shouted in a very loud voice, " I have a gentleman on crutches,an elderly lady and a pregnant woman standing in the corridor would anyone like to do something about that?" He then added with a sort of wistfulness, " It is Christmas you know. " And lo as if Moses had struck the Red Sea, or a star from the East Coast had guided them, the luggage in the aisles parted and an Aussie back packer, a young girl with heavy black eyeliner and two nose piercings and the oil rigger I had sat with in the corridor on the Christmas Journey Part 1 gave up their seats for the lame, the elderly and the pregnant and a merry time was had by yours truly in the corridor with afore mentioned heroes.

I decided oil rigger would live happily ever after in his nice house in a better area and live to enjoy many a Christmas with his children in person and that Goth girl and back packer, who were getting on famously with the help of oil rigger's proffered cans of Carling Black label, would exchange e mails and meet up next year in Sydney, where more cans of lager, words of enduring love, if not bodily fluids would be exchanged. It's heading towards a New Year I am determined to keep the hope of happy endings buoyantly alive and living in the fens and I am determined to look for small moments of delight and wonder, such as those that can occur in a crowded railway carriage.

I have now become temporarily addicted (is that a paradox, the concept of temporary addiction? ) to Tyne Daly's readings of Edna St Vincent Millay poems.

Here with my best and most sincerely felt wishes to you dear reader for a happy 2008 is her reading of As Sharp As In My Childhood. May your 2008 be full of wonder and may the fingers of delight hold you very tight( stick with the reading until the end and you'll get my drift).

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Pass the Bread Sauce and Memories of Chocolate covered Brazil Nuts

So Christmas is nearly here. I am off up north to colder climes, icy cobbled streets and hills. The Boo is busy chasing after a small Dolly Parton of a chicken and I have requested a surfeit of bread sauce. As a child bread sauce was reserved for Christmas and it still holds a hint of luxury and delight. I have been known to eat bread sauce sandwiches on Boxing day without anything else involved which I suppose amounts to a sandwich with a bread filling, the weight watchers carbohydrate killer. Each of us must have foods that conjure Christmas family memories. Father is chocolate covered brazils and pickled walnuts, brother is endless packets of crisps, mother is a trifle that was so rich and alcoholic that one small bowl full could lead to a failed breathalyser test. As for me, I will be recalled as bread sauce and perhaps a honey glazed ham.

I watched Heston Blumenthal create a Christmas meal this week on TV. One course involved an up market stock cubes covered in edible gold leaf, frankincense tea and a spoon to eat it all with made of myrrh. All this was to summon the spirit of Christmas via the theme of the gifts given by the three wise men. No doubt it was intended to be unique but I could do the same thing with a packet of Walkers crisps, a bowl of chocolate covered brazils, a dollop of trifle and a bucket of bread sauce at 1% of the cost.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas dear reader and that you get to indulge all the best memories you have of Christmas, culinary or otherwise. If you have no such good memories may this be the year you start to create them as it is never too late to make a memory that can have you wallowing in nostalgia for years to come.

Be with you again after the Yule jollities, providing I don’t go arse over tip down some icy cobbled hill. May you still have a childlike joy in all the small Christmas things just like this.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A last cigarette with Edna at Christmas Time

A friend sent me a link to an American poetry theatre site ( see link on right) and there I stumble upon ‘Only until this cigarette is ended’ by Edna St Vincent Millay read beautifully by Tyne Daley. Actors often over egg the poetic pudding when they ‘recite verse’, the words can be lost in the search for performance but I think she judges this beautifully. Why did I dwell on this poem for so long last night? I have always liked it and I do think Millay’s poems don’t receive the attention they deserve outside of the States. She was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and she made no secret of her bi-sexuality and her ‘open’ marriage in an era when such things were still kept in the closet except amongst the artistic Greenwich Village circles.

I have always liked this poem but importantly some poems have the ability to sneak upon you during quiet moments and make you think that the poet has crawled inside your skull and for a brief while has taken up residence there, so perfectly does a poem fit your thoughts and mood.

I sit here by the fire in the scattered light from fairy lights and read letters and cards from people who once loomed large in my life but are now shrunk to the size of an annual Christmas card. If I still smoked it would indeed be a cigarette moment. I do tend to get nostalgic and sentimental at Christmas. I weep along with James Stewart running through the snow covered town yelling ‘I’m alive’ in A Wonderful Life . I want Lassie to come home or those two dogs and a cat to complete their journey in the customary re-runs on Boxing day. I want all those young soldiers playing football in No-man’s land on Christmas Eve to live to see a grand old age.

Some people just slip from your life gradually, inching away down a long corridor towards the door in soft slippers. Other disappear with a flurry of bells, whistles and hob-nail boots, intent on new beginnings having been a brief whirlwind in your life ( have I mixed my metaphors there, can whirlwinds wear hob-nail boots, would a whirlwind in hob-nail boots also whistle and ring bells? They could, indeed they could, on Planet Blogger). There are always those who, as Millay says in the poem, are difficult to recall in physical detail and yet you know their presence in your life was important and the sense of them stays with you forever (Alzheimer’s permitting).

The reverse is also true I know that I have crept quietly further and further away from some, as is the natural way of the world and also been a brief hob-nail flurry in the lives of others. I hope they may as they open my card recall some positive sense of me.

I feel only the steely hearted amongst you will be able to resist thinking of someone in particular with a little crease to the heart as you listen to this poem but then I am far from crease resistant, particularly at Christmas, others of you may be less easily crumpled.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Taking Stock of Sunsets and Turbines in the Fens

Don’t Ask Me, Love, For That First Love

Don’t think I haven’t changed. Who said
absence makes the heart grow fonder?
Though I watch the sunset redden
every day, days don’t grow longer.

There are many kinds of silence
none more radiant than the sun’s
Sun is silent in our presence,
unlike love, silent when it’s gone.

Mimi Khalvati

I was driving across the Fens this week, past a group of twelve huge monumental wind turbines just as the sun was setting behind them. These twelve turbines never cease to amaze me, they tower across the flat reach of the fen and can be seen for miles, appearing to dance from side to side of the car as the road through the fens twists and turns towards them.

Old Fen roads follow the old sheep tracks that meandered through the fens before they were fully drained. They get from A to B in a strange sort of dalliance with the landscape, Fen men took their time in the past and never took a straight line as that could end up in a quagmire, true deep darkest fen people are still inclined to eschew the straight line when trying to arrive at some destination. They are not great talkers but regard the conversational landscape as something to be negotiated with care, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it leaves them room to manoeuvre and take stock. I think they do that well in the heart of the fens, they take stock; there is, of course, a huge stretch of horizon to take stock of. Perhaps it is a rural rather than fen trait, the ability to stand and take stock of things. Presumably the saying derives from watching your livestock or counting your beasts in an intense and careful manner.

Given the spectacular sunset, in which the whole sky took on the appearance of a bubbling cauldron of fire and the brooding outline of the wind turbines against this backdrop, I pulled over onto the verge and decided to take stock. I got out of the car and just looked for several minutes.I suddenly recalled I had the camera in the car so I took some pictures, one of which is at the top of the blog. Now perhaps taking stock should have meant just staying with the moment and watching that sunset slowly wind down. I have this concern that capturing the moment forever photographically can often mean that actually you lose that moment forever, as you become swept up in the minutiae of technology. Of course we now want permanent reminders of happy events, occasions, family, sights we have seen. A memory now can often be inextricable bound to its photograph to the extent that I do have some family photos which I am sure have allowed me to construct a memory rather than recall one. I have several memories of some events that I can still recall because I made a mental note at the time to emblazon the moment on my mind, print it permanently on my own synaptic hard drive but do we trust the memory? Before photography I am sure events and faces just slipped away but now we can refresh an event a face on a daily, even hourly basis should we wish to.

I heard on the radio that in the States they are having great success helping Alzheimer patients retain short term memory by fitting them with a tiny camera and a small screen that they can watch back to show what they have done that day, that hour, two minutes ago. It acts as a kind of constant stream of visual memory for them. That’s where I put the keys because I can see myself putting them in the fridge on the playback. This process apparently not only helps them recall things but also prevents the memory deteriorating. This would suggest that seeing something after it has occurred, re-enforces not just that event but our total ability to recall things. I do play a sort of video in my head when trying to remember something; it has a filmic quality to it. Before the invention of film, the cinema, any form of moving visual representation how did people refer to that , probably by just saying they ‘re-lived’ an experience. The mind’s eye is a very ancient term for seeing what we have experienced. Are we unique amongst the animals to be able to re-create past experiences visually? There are those who have difficulty doing that but who recall by other senses; sound, smell, touch. I worked with someone who could repeat things she had heard accurately years after, including boringly a number of Queen’s Christmas messages to the nation.

I was once however fascinated to talk with a man who had been blind from birth who assured me that he had ‘visual’ dreams, dreams in which his ‘minds’ eye’ functioned. He told me other blind people also had this experience. Does that mean we are hard wired to experience dreaming and perhaps memory in a visual way? Does the taking of a photograph appeal to our innate sense of wanting to capture something visually? Now we have the means to capture an experience in a physical way and keep it locked in our computer or in the album does our capacity to remember clearly become damaged?

I tend to think the camera is a mere blink of the eye in terms of evolution and that we just have to learn to slow down and take stock more and memories can still be made and retained. Those people that return with a viewfinder experience of their holiday definitely don’t take stock enough. Like The Fast Show I intend to make that phrase my motto for the coming year. ‘Today I shall be mostly taking stock’. In fact I think I might even have a T Shirt printed and take a photo of me in it to remind myself to do it. I could sell them to others and start a whole ‘taking stock’ campaign; it could become a total lifestyle choice.

I will look forward to being fitted with a small personal video recorder and screen in due course so I can find my car keys which have indeed been placed in the fridge before now.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Playmobil Bollywood Dreams and the Terminator Virus

So like the Terminator of bugs the vomiting has returned with a vengeance, packing the punch of an Arnie Schwarzenegger. I have now given up the battle of going into work as only lying rather still and drinking water seems to help but oh the boredom. I have therefore hauled the laptop into bed with me. It may be a cold bedfellow, unable to soothe the fevered throbbing brow and is less than cuddly (should someone come up with a pleasantly tactile laptop there could be money in it) but at least it is responsive to my need to search for fantasy holidays and playmobil animations on Youtube to take my mind off somatic things.

I was on a writing week-end with someone who had just written a full feature length script about the Hundred Years War to be acted by Playmobil characters and was fascinated. After hearing about this and going for a curry with this writer and others from the course I ended up dreaming of a Bollywood movie starring these little fellows. An excess of spice can bring on strange but in this case rather interesting illusions. The Boo was rather fond of Playmobil I recall, although the Sylvanians did win hands down in the end, I think it was the idea of having a whole families of rabbits, badgers, cats and hedgehogs ensconced in a schoolroom with tiny plastic books or beside a horse drawn caravan huddled round a plastic camp fire that won her over; plus the strange plush that they were covered in ( note the triumph of the tactile over harsh plastic ).

Playmobil figures for anyone not familiar tend to have jobs or are history related figures Red Cross doctor, Viking, male midwife, female pirate, Roman soldier, Turkish paramedic, knight, woman police officer, suppressed medieval peasant, construction worker ( complete with steam roller and crate of German beer originally but this accessory had to be withdrawn after a protest by the West German Construction Union). Being designed and produced in post war Germany I think they tried to err heavily on the side of social responsibility or education. Apparently the designer decided that the faces should all have eyes, no nose and very Cheshire Cat grins, like a child’s drawing of the human face. They have strange grooves round their heads so that their tiny plastic hats/helmets/turbans/scarves could snap on, although more often than not these accessories disappeared up the hoover with a horrible crunching noise. If you need to refresh your memory or your German watch this animation.Hang on past the opening credits and I think you will be suitably impressed by the moving tortoise formation of the Roman army and the use of the me, as The Boo did an animation degree I am now aware of such work as a sheer labour of love and the anal personality, demanding perfection, that this German animator must have had as he moved all those little Playmobil joints.

I did discover as I searched the web that there is porno Playmobil and Playmobil snuff animated movies out there but I do think some small helpless plastic figures were severely embarrassed or hurt in the making of these films and some rather warped American High school kids obviously amused.
I am expecting to have a rather fevered dream about these figures tonight. Bollywood was fine but hopefully nothing more nasty becomes entangled with them in my psyche especially as I was listening on the radio to yet another report of a mass shooting in America. The killer, a young man, according to his own words wanted to be famous. The cult of celebrity has strange and damaged bedfellows. Perhaps those weird and more worrying playmobil animations have their place in the world; if he had acted out his fantasies with plastic figures and tiny plastic guns with playmobil at least some families would be having a happier Christmas but of course that would not have put his face posthumously on the front page.I referred to my current virus as The Terminator but of course to put things in perspective we all know there are real terminal situations out there that deserve more blog time and after all it is a mad world and we are all connected in the end.

* Thanks to Lydia for sending me the video

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Chewing Gum targets, a festival of light and Dannie Abse

I am recovering from the virus creeping round the fens that involves much vomiting and pounding of the head ( think really bad hangover without the aid of alcohol). In the olden days of yester yore Fen ague was a known phenomenon, in fact many died of malaria in the past. I suspect anything that caused a temperature and shivering was labelled Fen ague much as TB was a label given to anything that involved paleness and coughing. A label for an ailment is comforting in fact simply a number or barcode would give the average suffering punter something definite to hang onto in the shivering hours. The R48 Virus sounds much more special, more worthy of sympathy that an indefinite ‘a virus’…even plague had a definite ‘the’ placed in front of it to lift it above common or garden plague.

After being shut in the house I decided I should get some fresh air and decided to share my virus with the good townsfolk of the small market town where I live. There was a cheery Dickensian themed Christmas fair today to celebrate the switching on of the town Christmas lights. Don’t think Blackpool, don’t think well known celebrity from 'I used to have a face that you thought you remembered from an episode of The Bill Get Me Out of Here' shipped in to pull the switch, think more along the lines of one largish Christmas tree and the market square decked out in a few stars hanging above the new boards that have appeared tied to lamp posts saying ‘Stick Your Gum Here’. These boards are a new phenomenon placed at eye level they provide a window into the world of chewed gum. The aim of course is to stop people spitting their gum out on the street where, OAP’s, small children and unlucky dogs can end up being glued to the pavement on a stretchy string of chewing gum. However the sight of the chewed remains of someone’s gum stuck to these small boards , decorated to look like targets is very off putting, particularly when you still feel a little queasy. I suppose some bright environmental type person thought that making the boards look like archery targets would encourage the local gum chewing fraternity to practise spitting out their gum in order to get a bulls eye. Of course anyone walking innocently along whilst this new sport is in progress may risk gum in the eye or hair.

I once had someone spit chewing gum onto my hair from the balcony of a cinema. It is difficult to get out, someone advised me at the time that you could get gum off clothes by putting them in the fridge she did not seem to think this advise was pretty useless in my circumstances, unless of course she thought I was up for sticking my head in the fridge overnight. In the end I had to cut it out which left me with a rather Toni and Guy, bed head hair cut pre the era when hair was teased and waxed and gelled into looking precisely unkempt.

Anyway, I’m going off piste again, the ‘place your gum here boards’ seemed to be populated with a variety of masticated gum this morning as I trudged round the Dickensian market. Dickensian seemed to mean some ladies behind stalls making the effort to wear a simulated poke bonnet and cloak. Despite the poor weather, people arrived in droves and I was again reminded that small towns can be a joyous place to live in. I was greeted at least every ten steps by someone I knew, families with small children danced to the steel band up on the hastily prepared stage. Children were genuinely excited about the Christmas tree and the lights and I slapped myself across the wrist for being so churlish about their sparseness. I have been reading some Dannie Abse poems recently and one on particular, reminds me to celebrate those brief and passing things. The last two stanzas of his poem O Taste and See go

Toast all that which seems to vanish
like a rainbow stared at, those bright
truant things that will not keep;

and ignorance of the last night
of our lives, its famished breathing.
Then in the red wine taste the light.

A sense of community is a precious and worthwhile thing to foster. Santa arriving on a boat up the river while local people laugh and cheer as the local brass band plays Winter Wonderland is one of those warm fuzzy moments of community or perhaps it’s a seasonal affected disorder that is making me so sentimental or maybe the indefinite virus hanging on round the edges of me. I did not try the mulled red wine on offer but I did try and taste the light, if nothing else.

The town lights are not as spectacular as these at Jo’s Garage but they suffice to make life a tad cheerier.