A sort of retrospective blog
In memory of my parents
who had to suffer the consequences
of having a wayward son
An eclectic, eccentric, non-chronological mix…
Some work and hitch-hiking experiences written in retrospect.
Most other entries written at the time.
The strands include:
The Modern Characters
The Great Bicycle Walk
The Modern Characters mostly date from the late 1960s and early 70s.
The Bicycle Walk entries date from 1990, when I walked for a while through south-eastern England pushing a bicycle over-laden with camping kit and with its pedals detached… The slow progress had the intended effect in opportunities for observation and conversation.
A range of stuff to kick this off…
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Cottam, May 1968. Nine deaths per power station, on average. Not a remarkable figure. Bert sees today’s. The man’s up on scaffolding, high inside the blockhouse. Slipping, he twists hard in the air, trying to catch hold. Then hits a projecting pole and gives up. Custom is, take the day off, or work it for the widow. That’s among the unionised. In your little un-unionised gang – breaking into others’ bothies at night to eat your mid-shift meal – the only debate is: night off or work on.
Gang members at Cottam, Drax, Longannet. Jeff, foreman at — : young, black glasses, greasy black hair, feet that stink out his billet, son of the family who control – – docks. Phil, his brother, older than the rest of you, former owner of a night-club, just out of prison. Ray, the ex-boxer with the broken nose. Sid, his humorous sidekick. John, black guy who rarely speaks. Bert, homosexual with creased face and rough Beatles’ haircut, who wanders the site off-shift looking to find someone to chat up. Hank, the diminutive alcoholic.
“Don’t stand there picking your nose,” says Sid to Hank. “You’ll lose weight.”
Two jobs on the power stations: tubing condensers, and concrete grinding. Tubing is hard work; concrete grinding not, but a bit unhealthy. You polish little patches of concrete, till they’re utterly flat, smooth, level. For metal blocks, about eight centimetres by 40, on which heavy machinery will sit. Your tools are pneumatic grinders, sample blocks, spirit levels, engineers’ blue. You get the patch level, but there’s a wobble; you get the wobble out, and the level’s gone. You get wobble out and level right – but the blue shows your block’s only resting on a few high places. Your masks against the concrete dust are cotton wool pads in little frames over mouth and nostrils. Within minutes they’re sodden with saliva and snot. But you each get a free pint of milk a day, to help wash the dust down into stomach instead of lungs. More immediately lethal is when an air hose detaches from a grinder. The metal end thrashes viciously through the air while you all duck and scatter, till someone gets to the compressor and switches off.
Meanwhile in the sleeping huts the billet walls are thin.
“I find it difficult to make conversation.”
“When I’m driving, I hardly ever talk,”
“When I’m driving, I hardly ever talk. Even when there’s someone with me, I hardly ever talk.”
(With apologies to Thoreau.)
Most men lead lives of quiet perspiration.
(From The Modern Characters.)
Archie exhibits that common trait among human beings: of worrying most about the good opinion of those he respects least.
For Bernadette, living on the edge of a racial ghetto – having all that poverty and misery only just down the road – really satisfies her social conscience.
Charles has an ideal vision of what he wants from a woman – and avoids any who might begin to match his dreams. After all, when he is hoping for so much, there’s always a danger they might be hoping for something too.
Sweden, June ’64. Hitch-hiking from Göteborg to Norway and back over a long weekend, you stick out your thumb at an approaching car. A little upmarket, but one has to try. As it gets nearer, you finally see – the decorations – the uniformed chauffeur – and the newly married bride and groom in the back.
(Posted 30 May, 2018.)
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Tenerife, Jan. to June ’86. Los Cristianos boat yard: sample people. Danny the English football fan, who’s trying to get a lift to the Caribbean in time for the World Cup. Tove the Californian girl, who lives by theft and drug running and dress design. Old John, who was in Las Palmas two years back, now with a fishing boat in place of his little sailboat and trying to keep going doing a cheap illegal ferry service for the German backpackers heading to the next island. The nameless German hippy who wanders round playing a flute wearing only glasses and a fur jockstrap. Lars, the businessman who had to leave Sweden in a hurry and has since sailed twice round the world without passport or boom. Heidi, the Aryan blonde, whose boat, when it’s lifted out, is clustered thickly round with men with offers of help. Greg, the American, who used to tend missile silo computers and now mends autopilots. Tony, the retired N. Ireland businessman with half a million pounds worth of new yacht, who having just cruised down from the Channel Islands has already got bored and decided to go into property investment instead, and in one week has bought 31 apartments, a parrot, and a mountain top. Dee, his wife, whose baby bursts into tears every time it sees you. Roger, the ex-expensive-private-school alcoholic with the ex-Francis Chichester boat. John, who used to be an art lecturer in England and emigrated to Tasmania to be a fisherman. Paul, who claims he’s already crossed the Atlantic once in a barrel kitted out with sail and keel, and is now planning to do it again, only this time just drifting, and meanwhile is keeping alive going round the shops with an old paint tin with a slot cut in the top and a label saying “Research for survival at sea”. And Bo, the Swedish girl, who’s been staying with her baby on Tony and Dee’s boat ever since her husband decided to try to set out (again) (in Old John’s ex boat) for the Caribbean, and she was found still huddled on the quayside in the morning muttering “I just couldn’t take any more of the sailing…….”
(From The Modern Characters.)
Donal’s marriage immediately fills him with disappointment. Edith will always claim that it was love at first sight. Donal had assumed that loving someone would include being kind to them.
Frank is sufficiently self-aware to notice that signs of sadness in a woman’s face provoke in him flickers of desire. But he’s uncertain if this is because he has a longing to alleviate unhappiness – or because he’s reassured that the damage he’s going to do has already been done.
George has energy when Helen is low, is low when she has energy. As if there was only so much to go between them. Though that, of course, is not the reason.
Upper Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, May 1987; Tibetan and travellers’ India. Fourteen days of rain. Not the monsoon, just freak spring weather. You hide in the cafes and eye the drizzles and downpours outside. At dusk, lightning jolts along the ridges, filling the rooms with blue light. Fellow travellers talk of Tibet, Buddhism, meditation, travel. Rest stomachs from curries and psyches from India. Sit over chow meins and pancakes, Tibetan mo-mos and milk shakes, spinach quiches and German sourdough bread. Outside is Tibet in exile: monastery, library, hospital, temple. “Medical and Astro Institute”. Dalai Lama’s “Security and Passport Office”. Children’s Village with 1,400 charges. Jerry-built houses, earthquake cracks, adjacent runs of bare bent water pipe and open sewer. Hundred-mile views southwards into India. Kids in tiny gumboots playing marbles in the mud.
(Posted 23 June, 2018.)
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Summer ’85. Glenmalure, County Wicklow. The smallest youth hostel in Ireland. Only open summers. No piped water, no electricity, no telephone, no showers, no sewers, quite often no hostellers, and not much sunshine. Twenty-five mile round trip to the nearest carton of milk; eight mile round trip to the nearest Guinness. Three previous wardens have: i) resigned after two weeks; ii) come down for a summer’s painting and been found at the end of it with an odd gleam in the eye and canvases covered entirely in dark brooding conifers; iii) disappeared, and been found back at the family home hiding under the bedclothes. You, today, have got up, fetched water from the river, burnt a sack of rubbish, emptied the contents of the chemical toilets into a hole in the ground, had a sponge and bucket bath in the woodshed, had breakfast, put the finishing touches to the month’s accounts, and put your laundry to soak. Also checked for one hosteller if there’ll be shooting today on the army range in the next glen, and for another whether she’s recovered yet from going out to the women’s toilets last night in the dark and bumping into an Irish corporal in battledress and blackened face sitting on the loo having a quiet smoke. Then you’ve locked all the metal shutters against the kids’ gangs from Dublin (who so far this summer have smashed up one hostel, pinched bikes from a second, and camped to waylay and rob outside a third), and headed off down the track on the 25-mile round trip to town, to pay in and buy a toothbrush; past the overgrown remnants of the house where Synge set the plot of a play, across the picnic carpark where 405 years ago Fiach MacHugh’s men killed 900 English in half an hour, past the rubbish bin where you sometimes find empty cartons with vouchers for that free film processing offer, down the glen to the sounds of chainsaws and sheep, past its three farms where before the Famine 150 families lived, past the waterfall foaming like wool, past the stone for Michael O’Dwyer who finally surrendered in 1800 and ended up in Australia as a policeman, to, after an hour, the crossroads, and the pub, and the red warning army sign, and the old ruined British barracks, and maybe the chance, if you’ve timed it right, of bumming a lift from the local postman.
(From The Modern Characters.)
Ivor was always critical of Julie for being ‘bourgeois’ and ‘conservative’. Recently, of her own accord, Julie has become a socialist and a dropout. Ivor is, of course, even less happy with this.
Ken claims that the reason he doesn’t attract more women is that most of them are masochists. He just doesn’t look like he’ll treat them badly enough. In fact most women, meeting him, see rather deeper – and decide that perhaps they’re not feeling quite so masochistic as that.
Luke is restless, always moving on. Though he understands very well that, if we don’t love ourselves, we are never where we want to be.
On weekend security shift in London, in the Kuwait Oil offices, walking among the tables of the basement canteen, and reaching up and flicking with finger and thumb each lampshade as it goes by, leaving behind a succession of clear notes, each one different.
(Notebooks, August 1970)
(Posted 27 August, 2018.)
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Retrospective, 1963. The North Sea from 9,000ft: black with white fumes of waves looking like miniature clouds.
Your second trip abroad. Your first is at 16, to improve your French, 30 or so schoolkids from around the UK. The accommodation looks like a chateau from outside, a prison inside. It gets worse as you go up floor to floor. No hot water, and you can’t criticise the food because you don’t know what you’re eating. Was that dog they gave us for dinner last night? And this – is it a sauce? a pudding? ah, no, it’s potato. But you go to a rugby international, and Chartres, and Montmartre, and fancy the most fanciable girl among you, and send postcards home, and don’t meet any young French women, but do accidentally say “tu” to a cinema usherette.
And now, in the plane, the others eye you uncertainly. You don’t look like a deck officer or an engineering officer – which is what they are. Relief officers for a 50,000 ton cargo ship, on its European turnround. But you, 6’8″ tall, thin, with wiry curls of ginger hair and thick National Health glasses? Looking – as an affable American comments a few years later, seeing your old passport photo – like a 15-year-old chess-playing nuclear physicist who’s just defected to the Russians? No, they decide – you discover later – you must be the guy who sits peering into the Decca Navigator.
In fact you’re just a passenger. You’d wanted to work your passage somewhere, in the time between school and university. Inheriting a dream from your father. But it’s all unionised now, it can’t be done any more. Still, thanks to his contacts, you’re on board for this two-week trip. A Palm Lines boat on turnround from its Africa run; off-loading and on-loading; Rotterdam, Bremen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam. Flown over to join it; paying 10 shillings [50p] a day for food. Driving you down to the airfield, your father blurts out, at the last minute, “Wear a condom”. It’s the only piece of advice about life he’s ever given you. It hadn’t actually occurred to you you could pay some lady to terminate your virginity. You’d be far too shy to buy the condom anyway.
Earlier that summer, like everyone else, you’ve been reading Catch-22. But at school, you took French, not English. You haven’t read Chaucer, Marlowe, Blake, Jane Austen, James Joyce. You have, Corneille, Molière, Racine; Lamartine, Vigny. de Musset; La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes and La Bruyère’s Les Caractères. Oh yes, you know what literature should look like. In the sixth-form library, you come across a quotation from a medieval Christian scholastic, and its translation: “Omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est. – All passionate love, even for a man’s own wife, is also adultery” (Peter Lombard, De excusiatone coitus.) Utter ignorance of life, love, interpersonal sex, and religious feeling, and only a junior observer’s knowledge of marriage, do not, unfortunately, prevent you from attempting a first aphorism in reply: “The only true adultery”, you write, “is that which derives its pleasure from its illicit nature.”
(Obiter dicta, Notebooks 2010s)
Life is God’s experimental mode of time travel.
(Posted 9 October, 2018.)
* * *
December 1968, Turkey. Sitting in a lorry cab, crossing the ancient rolling slopes of the Anatolian plateau. To the left, a line of telegraph poles, then low green hills. To the right, the great expanse of Tuz Gölü: its mudflat edges alongside the road, then the motionless salt lake itself. Beyond it, the opposite shore dark purple, with the dying sun making the sky orange and the clouds deep blue above. Not a living thing to be seen, not even a bird. A road and a line of telegraph poles, cutting through bare nature.
Then the first sign of life: a large flock of sheep, clustered below the hills on the left and scattered up their slopes, and with them a dark-coated shepherd. Then a low stone hut. Then a dwelling cottage, brown render on stone, roof of branches and dried mud.
Two days later you’re riding into Mardin, standing on the mud- and manure-covered floor of an open truck, a pullover tied round your head in a makeshift headdress, your back to the wind and the rain. Two Turkish peasants in the cab, in the truck bed with you an old mule, on its way to become mule stew.
Summer 1972. Coming back to England with L. from Morocco, you find X. – a good friend, the same age as your parents – starting to break under the strains of his life. He has an appointment with the NHS for psychiatric assessment, asks you to go along. He’s presented with a questionnaire. Five hundred and sixty-six questions… and a masterpiece of stupidity. Because many assume that the respondent is at ease with the double negative – and in a condition to cope with it. “I don’t usually [whatever]” – tick yes or no. When he disagrees, X. wants to tick yes. Thinking, despite the breadth of his intelligence, that this will mean “Oh yes I do”. One wonders how many treatments, policies, papers, will be based on the resulting false data. Dostoevsky in The Devils has Shatov say to the effect: ‘The life force is beyond the analysis of science and reason, and negates their attempts to describe and control life.’ (An issue that academics try to ringfence, with a nod to self-denying hypotheses.) But sometimes, in our ‘social sciences’, the problem is a bit less fundamental than that…
On a train going out of London, the line runs for a moment alongside a small reservoir. At the next table, a young boy leaps in his seat, presses against the window. “Oh mum, there it is – Water!… Water…”
(Posted 31 December, 2018.)
* * *
March, 1973. You’re back in Morocco, alone this time, escaping a labouring job in the English winter. The bus from the frontier takes you to Tetuan, but that’s not a town to stay in, and your body is desperate for exercise. Putting your pack on your back you start walking, west then south, through the shallows under the Rif mountains. It’s already late afternoon, and as dusk falls the dogs start barking, sensing a stranger. When it’s dark they start coming down at you, but only one at a time. Each time you shine your torch to show a hand picking up a stone, and they stop at a distance. There’ll be rabies around, but these are sane enough, just dogs defending their territory. After a time an Arab falls into step alongside you, coming suddenly out of the dark, a tall figure in a hooded djellaba. You don’t react, and in a while he disappears.
You walk for a few miles, then it’s time to find somewhere to sleep. There’s a junction, with a small road going off to the left, and a single-storey house where the roads meet. Over the yard wall you can see a light. There’s a gate like a door set in the wall, and you knock on it, and after a moment the light moves towards the gate. The light lifts, a lantern appears, and a face looks at you over the top of the wall, above the tangle of thorns. Then the lantern lowers, and the gate opens to let you in. You sit on the floor of the house, drinking the mint tea they’ve passed to you. The man, his wife, a daughter, a young boy. They’re not the poorest, to have a light burning; but there’s something wrong with the boy. You have no language; your French is ok, but here in the north it’s Spanish that’s the third language, and they’ll be speaking Berber or Arabic. You should be carrying postcards of home, or photos of family. Instead you can only show your passport and your maps. You point to where they are on the Morocco map, and your route down across France and Spain; but you don’t know if it means much. You’re offered bread, which you accept, and after a bit they fetch out some butter. You take a little, not to offend, but you know this is something for special days. As soon as possible, you refuse any more. The man presses you, gesturing that it’s good, but you smile and gesture that you’re full. Then it’s time to sleep. The man takes you back out into the yard and into an outbuilding. With the raised lantern he shows you straw to bed on, and you thank him. In the morning maybe you’ll offer money, but you’re afraid of offending, hospitality’s sacrosanct, and you won’t know how hard to press. He leaves you, and you fetch your sleeping bag out of your pack, unroll it on the straw, and clamber in. There’s the sound of another animal in there with you in the dark, but you fall asleep soon enough.
(Posted 27 January, 2020.)
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Winter 1991, east London. You’re back to being a security guard again, after 20 years. You’re thinking of trying to get a mortgage; but for that, you need to show a steady job. Meantime you’re back too to primitive bedsit digs, to match your paypacket. Just down the stairs is a young Irishman, not long over, and he’s always got full-blast soundtrack spilling from his room. After you complain a second time, he says – Well, which is it, the music or the TV? He’s got both on together, turned up full, in opposite corners of the room.
Another time, when you’re chatting, you mention you know someone who’s a film double. A body double?, he says, with interest. You laugh. No, just an ordinary double. He looks puzzled. He doesn’t know what that means. And yet he’s the one who realises what the German guy on the ground floor is up to. He brings women into the house, and, yes, men come and visit them. But visiting the women seems to be free. You barely notice: you go out, do your 10 hours plus travel, come back, eat, sleep. It wouldn’t be the first time you’d accidentally ended up living in a brothel. There was that cheap hotel in the back streets of Las Palmas, while you taught English and worked on your sailboat. But here it’s the young Irish guy who works out the economics – not you with your PPE degree. It’s drugs where the German makes his money. The girls say something like – You know, this would be even nicer with a bit of a hit. So the client passes over the cash to get some in. The girls get free fixes, and probably commission, and maybe a gift. The client’s been drawn in, reckons he’s had free sex, just paid for shared sociability. It’s a creative solution to the mores of the market. The young landlord couple hear something about the drugs, but shrug it off. It’s only a bit of hash, they say. No it’s not.
Meanwhile, at work, you’re guarding a different end of the economy – an empty multi-million office block in Canary Wharf. There’s nothing to do; your partner guard, Vic, sits reading the tabloid Sun. Today there’s a front-page pic of a young woman at a ball, a titled baroness, caught wearing no knickers. Hitching up the back of her skirt and showing, as the Victorian poet put it, a bright backside. Look at that, Vic says: the dirty tramp. He’s genuinely shocked. He belongs to an era when one’s betters were supposed to behave better. Ah, you wouldn’t worry, Vic, you say; you’d give her a quick cha-cha. He does an instant switch to po-faced wit. Well, I wouldn’t mind, he says; only I’ve got a headache coming on.
There are two temptations: to think the moral life is a seamless web; and to think that it is not. The first appeals to our slackness of intellect; the second to our slackness of virtue.
The Great Bicycle Walk, 1990: East Anglian signs. Outside pub: “Mad wife sells homemade food.” Signpost to villages: “The Deals” – comprising, no doubt, Big Deal, Little Deal, and Raw Deal. Streetname in Alburgh: “Pagan Terrace”. Official notice: “Warning, sludge lagoons” (bureaucracy happily enlisting words in ways that confound our emotional expectations). “Dead Lane” – appropriately home to a farm owned by a well-known pharmaceutical company. And elsewhere, the possibly unappealing: “Lonely Farm, camping and caravan site.”
Meanwhile the sun shines off the first shoots of wheat as sharp as off wet pebbles.
(Posted 2 February, 2020.)
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1984, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. You’re working on your newly purchased old Hungarian wooden sailboat in the “sports harbour” of the city, living alongside the expatriate yacht dwellers, Scandinavian tourists, South American businessmen, Indian duty-free shop owners, Korean and Arab and Japanese fishermen, Russian and Romanian and Cuban seamen, and assorted local waiters, bartenders, beachboys, 8-year-old pickpockets, strippers, transvestites, bar girls, language students, and old men playing chess. Plus Lola, the vast and intermittently amiable landlady at your hotel in the back streets, Oystein and Torstein, the permanently drunk Norwegians who are supposed to be renovating the adjacent boat for their money-earning co-owners back home, assorted busy single-minded and technically adept French yachtsmen, your friend Graham the schizophrenic Buddhist who lives in a cave along the coast, Romido who lives on the old white catamaran and is according to choice either a rich bum or a gun runner or a police spy or some combination of these, Fernando, the only one of your students to have a sister who was Miss Spain, and your Korean Consul conversation student, with his love of Gibbon and Disraeli, his vast impractical English vocabulary, and his tendency to start the lesson articulate and sober and end it mute and boozed. Spending your time cleaning your bilges, picking discarded batteries that might still be sort-of ok out of the harbour dumpster, smoking cheap cigars, and pretending to teach English. Plus ransacking the battered haphazard contents of the local library’s ‘foreign books’ section, and, among the old American 1950s college textbooks and copies of James Bond in Dutch, coming up with an unbalanced diet of Nietzsche and Margery Allingham thrillers – though your favourite find is an old English University Library edition of “Teach Yourself English for Swahili Speakers”.
Michael is temperamentally suited to making plans, and temperamentally unsuited to keeping them. But then what is resolution, but a sign that something is not going to be done?
(The Modern Characters)
What was revolutionary about Lawrence was that he was the first English novelist of the human spirit. He writes about people transported beyond themselves. Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, Wells, Bennett, saw only people locked within themselves. In this sense, he is an American novelist – as Henry James was not. It’s also why he had trouble writing novels. Trouble, at least, once he’d left his roots – and perhaps why, of necessity, he had to leave them. English novels are about social worlds; not about lone psychological growth. American novels are about the journey.
For our own failings, we have endless compassion.
(Posted 6 February, 2020.)
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