Sunday, May 13, 2018

Simply file under 'Will this do?' If you think that's a tad cryptic, read on to find out what the bloody hell I am on about

It’s odd: I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but each time I started it, the little I had written struck me as so ineffably banal that I deleted it all and packed up. The thing is, there are a number of things I want to write, including one particular post I want to write here, but I don’t feel I am ‘allowed’ to until I get this post out of the way. And what is it about, what startling insight shall I deliver today? Bugger all, simply that - as of today - 39 days into retirement I realise that those who say it will take a while to get used to it are right: it is and will.

Now was that worth the effort? Of course it wasn’t. Just think what you could be doing for the 40 seconds it has taken you to read that paragraph. But the odd thing is - and it is most definitely, though unfortunately part of retirement, well ‘my retirement - that I feel obliged to write this post (and obviously try hard to ensure it isn’t banal, though whether I am succeeding is anyone’s guess). I’ll try to explain.

A day or two after I retired, I installed an app on my iPhone called, essentially nothing but a ‘to do’ list. In fact, I installed two other similar apps, but didn’t like them much and deleted them again. They are quite useful, or rather they are apparently quite useful, if you want to organise yourself. Once some task has been completed, you tick it off. The thing is that - surprise, surprise - I don’t get around to doing all of the things I list as ‘to do’, and then feel guilty about not doing them. Well, that wasn’t part of the plan: guilt? Fuck guilt, I don’t want guilt in my life. I shall keep on using it, because - well, it is useful - but I’ve got to get rid of things hanging over my head for several days - like this specific post - and feeling guilty that I haven’t got around to them.

As for retirement, my sister told me my brother-in-law took six months to get used to it. Then, a week or two ago, a friend of an acquaintance, a retired GP (family doctor) told me it took him bloody five years not to feel guilty about ‘not working’. Six months I can take, five years, and I shall be demanding compensation from whichever body hands out such compensation. Personally, I don’t as much feel ‘retired’ as somehow, for whatever reason, ‘off work’ as though at some point I shall be going back to work. Well, I shan’t, but bearing in mind what my sister said, I shall most certainly give it a while, at least six months. As for ‘five years’, well, sod that.

. . .

One of the things I intended to do and am doing (and actually started four or five months ago) is taking my guitar playing a little more seriously and, with that in mind, getting a guitar lesson once a week. I’ve played guitar pretty much for the past 54 years, though not at all well for many years, but consistently. I can bullshit as well as the best and could play several things in certain styles which might have people thinking ‘he’s not bad’, but the point is I knew I was not at all good and that what people heard was pretty much something of a con. To put it into greater context, I don’t actually want to sit around strumming ‘Michael Rode The Boat Ashore’ or anything like that. My ambitions are firmly in the jazz camp and although it is very unlikely I will ever get even a tenth as good as all those jazz guitarists I like, I can, at least, get to play better than have been.

So once a week, it is off to Paul Berrington in Padstow for a storm of scales, modes, musical theory and I don’t know what else, all of which I seem to understand while I am there and most of which is gobbledegook to me once I get home and start practising. Well, almost. Bit by slow bloody bit I am getting my head around it. My main problem, in practising guitar as in so much else, is applying myself. I say I have ‘played guitar for pretty much 54 years’ but actually when I pick up - well, make that picked up - a guitar, I would do a bit of this for 30 seconds or so, then a bit of that, then 30 seconds on a bit of t’other and this pretty much waste my time and make absolutely no progress. So for my the major objective is to learn to stick with it. (As in learning stickability, the admonitions of middle-class British mums since the middle class was invented? Ed).

NB Later (as in a few hours after the above was written while I was still in bed):

Sitting outside just now in a lovely spring sunshine drinking a morning mug of coffee, I realised, or rather remembered, what it is that ‘guilt’ is. I cannot speak for others, but I have long been aware that indulging in an ‘activity’, whatever it is, can superficially give the impression of, for want of a better word, ‘action’ or ‘achieving something’.

The unfortunate part for me was, and is, that I am fully aware that despite being ‘active’ - going shopping, noodling away on guitar, tapping away on my laptop to write a post like this, going to the gym or going swimming and until recently going to work and doing what I did there - I am not, in fact, achieving anything at all. So is this man neurotic? I can hear some of you ask.

Well, I don’t think I am, it’s just that there is a corner of me I simply cannot bullshit myself and that part is quite critical when I pretend I am doing something - by making sure I am active - but, in fact, have done fuck all of any worth (well, worth as in achieving the goals I have set myself). It’s like coming up against yourself and proving to yourself that you are not just another of Life’s Bullshitters. Doing my disabled stepmother’s shopping is worthwhile, certainly, going to the gym and going swimming are worthwhile, certainly, sitting down and writing a post here isn’t quite the most heinous of pastimes, but - in a sense - it is just ‘passing time’.

I put that phrase in brackets because it sums up a rather odd attitude to life, but one which many of us adopt. I first came across it when my younger brother, when he was younger still (he will be 60 in June) described life as ‘just passing time’, and I was oddly shocked and, I have to say, quite concerned. I could tell you more about my brother to try to give the phrase as used by him a little context, but shall do that another time.

My point is that we - most certainly I - are very capable of indulging in all kinds of activities - include going down the pub and watching TV - which often do nothing more than ‘pass time’. We somehow manage to persuade ourselves that ‘we have done something’ - ‘had a long chat about Brexit with Jim down the Royal Oak, you remember Jim, guy with the gammy leg, can sometimes be a bit boring but not always ‘cos there are one or two things he knows about, retired accountant, so he does speak a lot of sense on some things and more to the point knows what he’s one about, unlike some . . .’ and  can then convince ourselves the day wasn’t completely wasted.

That’s how one day becomes the next, one week the next, one month seems to take just two weeks to pass, and before you know it it’s Christmas again and you find yourself resorting that that hoary old platitude ‘Good Lord, doesn’t time fly!’ and your newly-born granddaughter is starting primary school, secondary school, university, off on a gap year. 

Perhaps I am neurotic, perhaps not, but I can say that there is that small critical corner of me whose quiet yet insistent voice asks ‘who the fuck do you thing you are kidding’. I opened up about my major goal in a past post but, for superstitious reasons, won’t repeat what I wrote. But it is still there and still looms over me quite uncomfortably. That is part of the guilt I feel. Years ago, I invented a small strategy to somehow counteract that kind of guilt when I had a day or two off but there were several things that needed to be done: I consciously ‘gave myself permission’ to take the day off and do fuck all. It worked. But the pay-off is that that can only be the occasional day and on days when such permission has not been granted, get stuck in!

On which note I can - happily - confirm that I have started on that major goal.

. . .

Is that enough? Can this be posted so that I have finally got that bloody ‘a month into retirement’ post nailed and out of the way so that I can get on with other things? Hmm. Usually, I write about 1,500 words, but so far I haven’t even reached 1,000, so I am in two minds as to whether to end it yet.

. . .

My son, not yet 19 for another 12 days, is knocking around Guatemala and other Central American countries for six weeks. He is due back two weeks on Monday. I have to say I rather admire him for what he is doing and how he has gone about it. I never ever thought he was some kind of slouch or in any way lazy and disorganised, but I was a little surprised and proud by exactly how organised he has been. He landed in Panama City, then took off to some resort somewhere - some island all backpackers go to - and has for a week or two has been staying in - I’ll look it up - San Pedro La Laguna, where he is a Spanish language school and living with a local family. And he’s loving it. He is here (althoug not at the hotel which Google Maps, undoubtedly in return for hard cash, have chosen to highlight:

He’s a sociable lad (which, if anything, he gets from me rather than his mother) and has been mixing with other travellers, and heard about the Spanish lessons and how the school has an arrangement for pupils to stay with local families. He was going to do it for a week, but then decided to stay for a two more weeks because he’s enjoying it so much and has adapted his plans accordingly. He’s due back on Monday, May 28, and I am meeting him at Heathrow airport when I arrive back from a five-day jaunt to North-West Germany to see my niece/goddaughter married.

As for my little granddaughter Olivia, she seems to be thriving. Here’s a picture of her, taken my my daughter, but given the expression on her face, I have added a facetious caption.

Well, that’s about it: 1,146 words and that’s your lot for now.

Monday, April 23, 2018

My thanks to one Neil Cooper, a philosopher, for doing what we should all to: encourage each other. Mr - subsequently Professor - Cooper brought about a one-off minor miracle in my life. And if you read on, you will see why I must also apologise to the good man, and do so now again, publicly

NB I have a little gizmo at the bottom of this page - it shows about the last four entries - which tells me (in some browsers) when the most recent 10/12 visitors arrived and from where they were visiting. Most recently, someone from ‘Hartley, Kent’ has been a regular visitor, so I invite you to get in touch by leaving a comment of some kind. In fact, I should like to extend that invitation to all visitors. Writing in isolation can be odd at times and it is nice to hear from people. Who knows, if we get on and you at some point find yourself in my neck of the woods down her in sunny North Cornwall, I might even agree to allowing you to buy me a drink. And you would then get one in return.

. . .

I have what might be called a ‘nominal’ university degree, an Ordinary degree in - possibly - English and Philosophy, and let me explain that ‘possibly’. I sat for an Honours degree, failed that, but was awarded an Ordinary. The Honours would have been in English and Philosophy, but I believe no such distinction is made in Ordinary degrees. This is how it all came about.

I have previously confessed that after I failed all five of my first year foundation course exams at Dundee University, I stayed on in Dundee after the summer term ended and set about preparing myself for the resit exams before the start of the autumn term.

As it turned out, I went on to pass four of the five exams and was able to continue with what a cynic might refer to as ‘my academic life’. But it would be misleading, in fact, downright dishonest, to suggest that I was spurred on to spend the summer learning from scratch the course material of a year’s worth of tuition in history, political science, economics, methodology (which is what they called philosophy in the first year) and psychology by a passion for being able to continue my learning and deepen my acquaintance with the work of Adam Smith and the subtleties of the difference between knowledge and belief. I simply wanted to make damn sure that come the autumn term I was still a student at Dundee University so that my bloody Oxford County Council grant cheque would arrive (and to the younger readers among you who are or were obliged to take out a £60,000 loan to fund their university education, all I can say is ‘tough’.

Life is not fair, and if you haven’t yet worked that out, you shouldn’t have opted for a college education). I now know, of course, that another reason for my spurt of academic zeal was to put off for as long as possible the moment when I would have to join the real world and earn my living.

Prolonging my time at university by any means possible was why I realised a four-year ‘honours’ degree course rather than a three-year ‘ordinary’ degree course was preferable, but my performance in my first and second years was not stellar, to put it mildly, especially in English, and the chances of being allowed to join the English department Honours course were slim indeed. Note to would-be English degree course students: it helps if you actually read your set texts rather than base your knowledge of the notable themes, motifs, style and purposes of your course’s set texts on snippets you can scavenge from friends over coffee or beer in the Students’ Union. Well, it might work for you, but it didn’t work for me. But, dear reader, I managed it.

There was another oddity: whereas it seemed others hoping to be allowed to join an Honours course were invited for interview to outline why they thought they should be allowed to join, I wasn’t. I simply, one day, was presented with a form asking me what I would be studying in my third year: would I be taking the Ordinary degree course or the Honours? More in hope that with any confidence, I baldly stated that it would be ‘Honours - English and Philosophy’, and so it came about. To this day I have no idea why or how I carried it off, but carry it off I did and an extra year at college scrounging off the ratepayers of Oxfordshire was mine.

My performance in my third and fourth years was very much in my first and second years: not very good at all. I did read one or two set texts and did attend several lectures and tutorials, but rather fewer than I was expected to take. And although I did not read many of the set texts in philosophy, I did benefit from a gift of the gab of some kind. So although the essays I submitted to the English department were quite simply awful - a few years later I somehow came across one and could not believe that I had written such infantile crap, the work I did for the philosophers and my reasonably lively contributions to philosophy tutorials and seminars were not quite as embarrassing.

In the summer term of my final year, not having read any original texts by Sartre, Locke, Hume, Heidigger, Jaspers or, notably Aristotle, I spent long minutes in the university library in a desperate search for volumes of commentaries on the various works and their authors, any volume and the slimer the better, but, of course, I found few.

Those I did find were pretty useless because generally - apart from the fragmentary bits and bobs I had scavenged in one way or another - I had no framework of even rudimentary knowledge of the various philosophers’ works, so the commentaries were as much gobbledegook to me as the original works would have been had I bothered to try to read them.

I did, serendipitously, come up with one strategy. Dot Leitch, a pleasant student in my year from Berwick-on-Tweed was, like most of the female students, a great deal more conscientious in her studies and attendance at lectures than we were generally we guys. Crucially, she had been to every lecture on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics given by an admirable man, Neil Cooper, later Professor Neil Cooper, and this man had been rather good to me in my second year when I began to get panic attacks and that kind of thing.

His lectures were all at - I think - 10am from Mondays to Fridays. The point was that after I had hauled myself out of my bed at some early hour to attend his first lecture of the year, I didn’t attend a single one until the very last, at some point in the spring term. And even for that lecture I turned up late. Bursting through the door at ten minutes after 10am, I apologised for being late. He said this:

‘You shouldn’t be apologising for being late, you should be apologising for your presence.’

And that stung. It stung because I liked and respected the man, and pretty much there and then I decided that however much of a pig’s ear I would most certainly be making of my other finals, I would do as well as I could in the exam on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The trouble was, of course, well, I’m sure you are well ahead of me. This is were Dot Leitch comes in.

Since I was a lad I have always, for no good reason I can think of, liked banging away on typewriters. I’m still doing it now, except that we no longer use typewriters but desktop or laptop keyboards. And I possessed a typewriter, an old BBC typewriter my father (who worked for the BBC) had found for me. I did a deal with Dot: lend me your handwritten lecture notes on Ari’s great work, and I shall type them up and give you a copy.

Dot, like many young gals, had clear handwriting and here lecture notes were excellent. So I went through them line by line, expanding here and there where the thought was a little too syncopated, and thinking through what Aristotle had written. The second part of my strategy was equally simple: while I went through the notes and tried
to make head and tail of what the man was suggesting, I pretended that it wasn’t Aristotle’s system of ethics I was writing up, but mine: and I thought it through - obviously with the help of Dot’s notes - as though I had come up with the Nicomachean ethics. And, bugger me, it worked. The whole system made perfect sense to me and remained making sense until and while I took my that paper in my final exams.

By chance it was the first exam of all eight I was taking - four in English (and the good Lord knows what they were, but I can’t recall, except that I’m sure one was on Shakespeare) and four in philosophy - Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, aesthetics, existentialism and, I think, some kind of general paper. I think. But the Aristotle came first, from 9am until noon.

Unlike pretty much everyone else who walked out of their finals and spent the next two hours discussing and analysing with others what they had written, I simply spent pretty much all of the time playing pinball in the Students’ Union.

For one thing it seemed so obviously pointless dissecting after the event what you had written and what you had forgotten to write or simply fucked up, for another I just couldn’t be arsed. My attitude was what the hell, you can’t soak up spilled milk and put it back in the bottle, so why bother? Practically, of course, it relaxed me, although I now realise that was just luck. It was most certainly not the reason I spent close on one and a half hours playing pinball.

Crucially, on my way Cooper on the Perth Road. And he was delighted to see me, and burst out (though unlike above, here I must paraphrase): ‘Keep it up!’ It seemed he had already taken a look at our papers and - well, I can only report what he told me - I had done rather well, and most certainly better than expected. His ‘keep it up!’ worked wonders. I was under no illusion at all that I was some kind of genius but the combination of relaxing by playing pinball rather than bemoaning as all the others did where I had cocked up and Neil Cooper’s encouragement did wonders. I can only remember one other paper, that on aesthetics and, if I recall rightly, it was about metaphor. (That does strike me, now writing this, as unusual if not rather unlikely, but that is my memory). And again I simply pitched in, stopped worrying about what was the ‘right’ answer and let rip.

I can’t remember quite how soon the results of our exams were posted and we were told what degree we were being awarded, but when I went to the board where that information had been tacked up, my name was missing. I had not been awarded an Honours degree. A little later I chased off to find out what was going on. And this is what happened: the English department, terminally fucked off with me for not having attended lectures, very few seminars and tutorials and for submitting risible essays and generally treating them all like shit, failed me outright.

The philosophy department, on the other hand - and I had attended all their seminars and tutorials, if not all their lectures - were rather chuffed (I was told) with my performance and insisted that it should somehow be rewarded. Finally, both departments came to a compromise: give Patrick Powell and Ordinary degree. So yet again I had scraped through (rather like surviving on the Daily Mail for more than 27 years after any number of dropped bollocks and temperamental outburst). Oh, and then I understood, or thought I understood, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ehtics perfectly. Now, I haven’t a bloody clue and would struggle to say anything about it.

. . .

I began this post a day or two ago, left it for one reason or another, and am just about to finish it. Originally I intended to write about how I had just finished a novel by a Nobel Laureate, a novel regarded as, if not ‘his masterpiece’ at least ‘one of his masterpieces’, and how I was distinctly underwhelmed by it. In fact, I wanted to state clearly that I didn’t think it was very good at all.

I then intended to point out that if, on the one hand, it comes down to the literary judgment of the Nobel Prize committee who felt that this writer’s body of work over his liftetime was sufficiently excellent to warrant awarding him the prize, and, on the other, the literary judgment of a man who was not just relatively badly read (my scant knowledge of literature has been acquired following my habitual practice of scavenging) but whose ‘English degree’ was about as phoney as Donald Trump’s hair colour, it was a no-brainer: Nobel Prize committee 1 - Patrick Powell’s literary judgment 0.

Well, since beginning composing this entry and completing it, I have started to read the novel again. Immediately re-reading a novel after finishing it for the first time is something I have done once or twice before and I recommend it. I did it with Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and I did it with John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, and it is worth doing. My point is that I shall hold fire on my attack on the Nobel Laureate’s novel in question until I have finished reading it. I must admit that it does hold together a little better on the second reading, though I must also admit that - especially given its apparent ‘theme’ - I am still to be persuaded that this is ‘great literature’. I promise that once I have finished it, I shall post the entry as planned, but what I have to say might - or might - not be the same.

I can’t, though, end before once again apologising to - now Professor - Neil Cooper and thanking him from the bottom of my heart for his help and, above all, his encouragement. And tomorrow, I shall ring Dundee University to find out whether he is still among us. After all I am now 68, he was then at least in his late 30s so . . . But if he is, I shall see if I can’t track him down and pay him a visit.

And now to bed and I shall wish you all a bon mot, with no hint, as yet, who the chap was.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

I am honourably discharged from Her Majesty’s Press, am handed the traditional tin of Werther’s Originals and can look forward to many years of peace and tranquility (well, someone’s got to and it might very well not be you)

Well, there’s no way to sugar the pill: I am officially now a pensioner and after serving in Her Majesty’s Press for two months short of 44 years, an ex-hack. (I was, for one reason and another - for one very practical reason, I have to say, apart from other less practical reasons - casting my mind back to early June 1974 when I turned up on the Monday morning at the office of the Lincolnshire Chronicle. But far more on that in a future entry. I worked my last shift last

Wednesday, spent a fortune on Wednesday night entertaining friends, son and brother, and colleagues at The Britannia, Kensington, to the drink of their choice and a variety of nibbles, buggered off down here to Cornwall on the Thursday, and my life is now my own.

To be quite honest, I haven’t - unusually I imagine - got all that much to say about it. I have been planning for it for the past six months, so I am not ‘in shock’ anything, and, crucially, I am well aware of the goal I have set myself, and I shall be taking that super-seriously. But apart from that, the only discernible difference between life now and life until 6pm last Wednesday is a curious and very welcome feeling of not having to rush: before when I returned from London on Wednesday night, Thursday morning and had just three days at home, there was always a list of things to do - my stepmother’s shopping, sorting out this and that - and until a job was done, I always had this feeling it was hanging over me. That has now gone.

But these are early days. My send-off from work was rather touching: I was ‘banged out’ by pretty much the whole newsroom at the Mail (the whole newsroom because when one end of a newsroom hears a banging out has started, it joins in whether or not it actually knows who is being banged out). It is a tradition which started in the hot metal days of compositors etc and is not at all usual, so I was very touched. Very touched.

So that it is. As almost always happens when a hack retires, my colleagues designed a spoor front page and I shall post it here once I get hold of a pdf. So far I have ten printed copies, but not means with which to digitise them (they are A3 in size).

The timing has inadvertently become rather good in that my daughter is expecting her first child and it is due on Friday (April 13), though that is just a guide date. On Sunday I shall be up very early - in fact, I probably shan’t go to bed, to drive my son off to Heathrow airport to catch an early-morning flight to Madrid and then on to Panama, and then, after getting a few hours kip at my brother’s in Earls Court, it will be down to Deal in Kent to see a college friend. I actually met him a few months ago when the former drummer in a band he was in who eventually moved to America and the computer industry made his annual trip to Old Blighty with his wife, but until then I hadn’t seen him for about 37 years. He hadn’t changed a lot.

I shall be taking my electric guitar and a small amp, and what with that and the fact that he is an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn whereas I think Corbyn, the current Labour leader is a decent, but useless politician stuck in adolescent left-wingery, it might be a memorable trip. His wife is a painter and has her own studio, so I look forward to seeing her work.

In May, I am off to North-Western Germany for five days for my niece and goddaughter’s wedding, then in June and July there are two one-day trips - as in fly in and fly out the same day - trips to Bratislava for the work on my implanted front tooth to be completed. Around the end of July, I think there will also be my now annual trip to Bordeaux for the music festivals.

But that’s it, really, in November I shall be 69, and with luck, if I keep myself healthy in every way, I might have another 10 to 15 on Earth, so let’s see what the future brings. I must say that although my daughter’s pregnancy was unplanned, she is in a stable relationship with a nice guy, but more to the point I, who very much enjoys the company of children, rather feared that if, like many other women these days, she didn’t have her children until her late twenties or even early thirties, I would have popped my clogs rather earlier and would never has seen them. Well, now I shall see at least one.

. . .

On other matters, what with the various international spats and the discussions about whether World War III should be started this summer, or whether we should wait a while and first have several rounds of futile summit meetings followed by last-minute appeals from the Pope and other dignitaries to see sense before the killing stars, we shall, as the Chinese say, be living in ‘interesting times’. Talking of the Chinese, I don’t doubt that Emperor Xi Jinping is mightly pissed off with the latest turn of events in the Middle East as war is bad for business, unless that business is building weapons and the like.

There he is, attempting slowly but surely to create a world empire by peaceful means and the West rather tactlessly looks like fucking it up for him by getting all moral about a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian dictator Assad (and the Russians, who pull his strings) and threatening attacking Assad, when previously they had merely huffed, puffed and condemned like the best of them. Shouldn’t wonder if Emperor Xi doesn’t choose to take it on himself to act as a peacemaker to ensure business isn’t too badly affected.

But that’s it. Got a lot on today, so I shall wish you all the best.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Two milestones, a new child (though not mine) and some throwaway comments on ‘art’

The next three weeks will mark certain milestones in my life.

First of all, I shall be hanging up my eyeshade, pot of glue, em rule and the finest collection of pencils known to mankind since Alfred the Great and drawing a line under my life serving in Her Majesty’s Press a week on Wednesday (that’s Wednesday, April 4, in those who still deal in new money). By then I shall have fought the good fight of keeping the public informed of the latest diets, a motley and substantial body of opinions held by some of the shallowest minds alive today and generally helping to preserve and protect the Public’s Right to Buy a Newspaper for almost 44 years.

If I had the strength and purity of heart to carry on until early June, it would be a round 44 years, but fighting the good fight does take its toll. And anyway I read somewhere that if you are to retire (and live in Old Blighty), you are best advised to do it before the turn of the tax year which this year is a day after my capitulation on April 5. I have no idea why that is a good idea, but I’ll – for once in my life – go with the flow.

That Wednesday would have been my last shift for the week, so I shall make it my last shift for the year and, well, for ever. A statistic which still amazes me is that by then I shall have been working shifts for the Daily Mail for well over 27 years. I worked my first in September 1990 (and until December 1995 was also working shifts on other nationals). Quite how I haven’t been rumbled, and they most certainly had their chances given my long list of dropped bollocks and cocks-up (only a sub-editor would be prissy enough to write ‘cocks-up’ rather than the far saner, though strictly incorrect, ‘cock-ups’).

As I usual, I am organising a leaving-do and am going through the equally usual distress over whether I have been too optimistic about the numbers who might turn up and have ordered to much food, or whether quite a few will attend and I haven’t ordered enough. The folk I work with cannot get away from work until after 10pm, but I have invited others around the building with whom I am friendly and who don’t work that late and so shall be in attendance from 7.45pm on. Will the scoff the lot? Or not? These things make for worries.

. . .

The second milestone will come on or around April 13, the following week, when, God willing and there are no complications, I shall become a grandfather. My daughter is expecting a baby girl. She will only be 21 in August, and although in times gone by young women began having their children from their late teens to early twenties, more recently the trend has been for having them later, so I pretty much expected never to be a grandfather.

Well, now I shall, and as I have always like children and as far as I am concerned they can never make enough noise the sails – God willing, again – see set for a fair wind. It is, of course, always silly to count your chickens before they have hatched, and who knows, when the young lass is hitting her tweens and might by then have a sibling or two, I shall be in my late seventies, so perhaps I shan’t be to chuffed to have youngsters running around disturbing what, I assume, will be my afternoon naps. Let’s see. But if you have a heart, wish my daughter well (and, of course, all other young women about to given birth to their first).

In keeping with modern times, she is not married, but I am pleased to say she is in a strong relationship with a hard-working man who is just a few years older than she is. Still, I do sometimes wonder whether after all the spoiling my wife has been handing out she will is quite ready for the hard work. But then, if she isn’t, there’s not a lot she can do about it now. (As for spoiling, I spoil both of my children, too, but in very different way.)

A week later my son, not 19 until May 25, is off – on his own – to take a look around Central America. I can’t claim not to be a little apprehensive, in that trouble in the countries he intends visiting if often in the presence of a firearm, which is not the case in Bodmin and Newquay where he has so far been spending a little time. But …

He was going to go with two friends, but for one reason or another they both bowed out and he decided to go ahead with the trip anyway. Well, God speed (and take care).

. . .

That is pretty much all my personal news taken care of. I haven’t bought any more laptops or phones, so there is nothing to report on that score. What, as I think I have pointed out before, my retirement will bring is confirmation either way or whether at heart I am really only one of life’s bullshitters or not. I like to think ‘not’, but it is up to me, and only up to me, to prove the point. In a way I am rather looking forward to it.

Quite how my wife will cope with having me around all week, every week remains to be seen. To be frank she all too often gives the impression of barely tolerating me, and I am, unusually, I grant you, for once not exaggerating. I shan’t here go into too much detail (for one thing she would not be able to give her side of the story) but our marriage has most certainly not been a Cornish rerun of Romeo And Juliet. But then I suspect hardly any marriage is. I do all too often get the impression that she regards me as little more than her means of making sure the bills are met, but maybe I am being too cynical. And maybe not. But what the hell. I shall be 69 on November 21 and with a bit of luck I could have a good ten years ahead of me, so it is up to me to put it to good use.

. . .

Driving back from The Brewers Arms in South Petherton where I usually drop off for two large glasses of wine before carrying on my journey, many different things occur to me which I think might be worth exploring in this blog. To explain that a little, I find that I am not a great thinker when it comes to ‘thinking’, and that I hone my thoughts and beliefs far more in debate (preferably with someone I don’t agree with) or by writing (as in this blog).

For example, last week I went to the workshop of a – I think rather good – potter called Paul Jackson, of Helland Bridge, to buy a wedding present for my niece and goddaughter who is getting married on May 26. In the event I didn’t buy something (it was to be a plate because plates are more easily carried in a suitcase than another piece, but a, well, jug). Here are a few images of some of his work.

Among other things, I like his colours.

I am that curious sort who prefers his art to be wholly useless and just something to be enjoyed. And unlike Seth Cardew, who I used to visit in Spain but who died last February, Paul’s pieces are just that: pieces which exist solely to be themselves and exist. Yes, there are other approaches to art, but that is mine.

I mention Paul because we spent some time (and were later joined by his wife) talking about ‘art’ and I found myself again expounding on my rather contrarian views on ‘what art is’. I think I might have mentioned this before, but my view, my conviction, in fact, though a conviction which flies wholly in the face of accepted notions, is that everything produced, from the plastic arts, to the literary arts to music is ‘art’. But that most certainly doesn’t mean that it is necessarily per se worthwhile.

The distinction comes when we consider individual ‘works’ in themselves. So I am far, far more inclined to making a distinction between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ as opposed to the current and contemporary view of ‘this is art’ and ‘this is not art’ and that the judgment is made by experts. If nothing else my approach if far more manageable and, if this doesn’t sound to naff, far more democratic. I do so hate snobbery in any and all of its forms, and the ‘art world’ is chock-a-bloc with such snobbery.

As a parting thought I shall leave you with the observation that a Picasso is only worth the several million it can command at auction solely because some sap or other (usually to show off how much moolah he has and that he can afford it) is willing to pay several million for it and outbid anyone who threatens to spoil is bout of boasting.

If the consensus were somehow to gain ground as to be the overwhelming consensus that Picasso ‘is OK, but most certainly not the great artist we have so far seen him as’, just watch those market valuations plummet. Here’s another example: we now know that the renowned sculptor Eric Gill was not just a paedophile but an incestuous paedophile. Does that have any bearing whatsoever on how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the art he produced is? Of course, it doesn’t, and it would be cant to suggest otherwise.

Several years ago, the British potter Grayson Perry (I’ve only seen his work in pictures and never in real life, and I can’t say think it is ‘better’ than Paul Jackson’s, i.e. I prefer Paul Jackson’s) gave the BBC Radio 4’s Reith Lectures, and in three on subsequent weeks, he tried to ‘define’ art. Well, by his own admission Perry didn’t manage it, but there was a anecdote he retailed which does slightly illuminate what I am talking about. He recalls how he was once talking to a New York art dealer who sold pieces to the very rich and asked him whether there were any works he found he could never sell. ‘Yes,’ the dealer told him, ‘ anything which is too big to get into the lift of an upscale Manhattan apartment block’. Seems like a throwaway anecdote but it on just a little reflection it does tell us rather more than we think about the ‘worth’ of art.

Pip, pip.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Funny, then, how folk still try

I was at primary school in Britain, the Sacred Heart School, in Station Rd., Henley-on-Thames, which moved to Greys Hill, both in Henley-on-Thames, from September 1954 to June 1959. I can’t remember being taught any history there. In fact, I don’t think any primary school teaches history, except, of course, at the Dick and Dora level of ‘the Vikings were a ferocious, warlike people from the cold North who drank much mead and wore helmets with horns, even in bed’. After that it was a year at Steubenschule, in Berlin-Charlottenburg, just down the road from where we live in the Olympische Straße, then three years at Das Canisius Kolleg, in Berlin-Tiergarten.

If we were taught history at the Steubenschule, it must have passed me by, because I can’t remember any of it, and all I do remember of history at Das Canisius Kolleg was that it was Ancient Roman history (though don’t hold me to that).

At The Oratory School, the Roman Catholic branch of Reading gaol and run by Her Majesty’s Department of Justice and Punishment in Woodcote, Oxfordshire, I arrived at 13, one of only two lads of my year’s intake of 42 who had not been to prep school (and who was thus wholly unprepared for the unmitigated discomforts which awaited me – cold showers, I can tell you, do not build your character, they are merely concrete evidence that most public schools would prefer to spend their cash on sherry, fine wines and a log fire in his study for the head than fuel for the boilers to keep the boys warm).

Crucially, they had all, I assume, been taught British history for several years and will have covered topics such as the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, the invasions by the Vikings, William of Normandy’s grab for power, rule by his sons, Matilda and Terence (or was it Stephen? I can never remember) and the Plantagenets, because they weren’t half as baffled by lessons about Henry VII Star Court Chamber as I was. Baffled is putting it mildly, and this went on for a year, my first, in the fourth form. Then, when I began my second year, we all started the term by being asked whether we wanted to study ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’. ‘Arts’, Oratory School-style in the mid-1960s – it was not the paedagogic colossus it is now (at least according to its website and prospectus with its vague references, wholly unsubstantiated, that the Oratory is ‘the Catholic Eton’. Yeah, right) – consisted of Spanish, history and geography. ‘Sciences’ meant lessons in chemistry, physics and biology.

At 14, I equated chemistry with messing around with chemicals (and I was not entirely wrong on that matter), so I opted for ‘sciences’ without a word of advice or consultation from a parent, and that choice defined the course of the rest of my education. I have to say that studying chemistry, and in time coming across the concept of ‘entropy’, lead me to an interest in philosophy – I was rather taken with the possibility that you could discuss and debate ideas – but crucially there was no more history. There were a few brief history lectures in my first foundation year at Dundee University – there were, in fact, several history lectures a week for three terms, but I wisely very soon took to sleeping until noon, then idling away the afternoon in the students’ union coffee bar – so history played almost no part in my life until – well, there is no better way of putting it – I had grown up a little.

Our first year at Dundee was concluded with exams in all five foundation year subjects: methodology (a kind of philosophy for infants), pyschology, economics, political science and history, and as I had spent all year in bed, in the bar, in pubs, at parties and feeling sorry for myself, but had dedicated no time at all to my studies, I naturally failed all five. Those like me who failed were given a second chance at ‘resits’ and as far as I was concerned those resits were a lifeline. For one thing, and this frightened me more than anything else, dropping out of university would mean that I was to be obliged to forgo my grant cheque and ‘work for a living’, and I can’t stress just how much that put the fear of God in me. So I did something which to this day is for me a source of personal pride: as an achievement it might not rank up there with developing the Theory of Relativity or laying down your life for you country, but by Christ was I proud!

I didn’t go home that summer but stayed in Dundee and from scratch – and I mean from scratch - studiously learned the syllabus for each of the five subjects. And come the resit exams I passed four out of five. I missed out on psychology, but passed that at a second resit at the end of the Christmas term. My grant cheque was secured: three more years of ligging around at the state’s expense (or strictly the expense of Oxfordshire County Council). It was about this time that I discovered I was able to claim ‘travel expenses’. Why these, too, were being handed out I can’t even begin to guess, but claim them I did and very welcome, too, were the pounds which trickled into my bank account.

To sum up (a summing up which might please those who get rather fed up with my discursive style), until several years ago when I began to read up on history, all I knew was a few odd facts about Romulus and Remus - they were twins, brought up by a wolf and Romulus eventually murdered Remus - and that Henry VII (the father of Good King Hal/that murderous bastard Henry VIII) operated something called ‘the Star Court Chamber’ through whose offices he put the fear of God up pretty much everyone and then some, and kept the throne to which he was probably no even vaguely entitled.

By the way, I am no expert, but given what I know, I am far more inclined to the suggestion that Richard III wasn’t the nasty little bastard who stole the crown from his nephew, and that the story is most probably Tudor propaganda designed desperately to justify Henry VII own usurpation and the monarchies of his son and granddaughters. There is a related suggestion, which is quite plausible, that the princes in the Tower were not ordered by Richard but by Henry VII who knew that while they were alive, his position would always be insecure.

. . .

I can’t remember when I became far more interested in history, but I did. My subsequent autodidactic assault on the subject had nothing to do with ‘being ashamed’ of my lack of learning as my hang-ups lay elsewhere entirely. The fact was and is that I find history fascinating, though I am more one for reading of the actions and

behaviour of the men and women from history than the facts and figures. It is the psychology – I use the word in a more general sense – of historical figures and of their motives which interest me and how the affairs of state and not least the innocent deaths of tens of thousands might be a consequence of, for example, that so-and-so was a conceited, bone-headed fart who refused to take good advice ever.

Facts – the years when such-and-such took place – are important, yes, but broadly as far as I am concerned their purpose is to give context and to provide a framework with which the ever-growing body of historical knowledge you acquire can be ordered and kept comprehensible.

I am not too proud to admit that I am a minimalist when it comes to academic reading. My strategy is to get the bare bones in place and more and more of the flesh can come later as and when. So over the years I have read, taking a splatter-gun approach, slim volumes on the French Revolution, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Plantagenet, Treveleyans very, very, very useful and readable Shorter History of Something Or Other, the origins of the First World War – well, you get the picture.

A very honourable mention should go to the left-wing historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States, which had a curiously profound impact on my thinking and which made me realise that intellectually I am a socialist. That I am not one in practice is down to the rather mundane, though serious, point that here in Britain the Left is as adept at fucking things up as the Right is at feathering its own various nests. (NB I suspect that were I German and living in Germany I would now be supporting the SPD, the country’s social democrats, though they, too, are, like Labour here in Britain, are going through a rough patch.)

. . .

I’ve just spent a few minutes trying to track down the exact quote, and finally found it. It is from the one-time reporter, playwright and scriptwriter (The Front Page is probably known to you) Ben Hecht who observed that ‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Well, I am not about to launch myself on another rant against the press, journalism and all

the rest. I tracked down that quote because it does neatly, though obliquely, sum up a modern dilemma – and by ‘modern’ I mean contemporary to whatever the age, from the dawn of time to now, 16.18 (4.18) on Sunday, March 18. We know what has happened in the past, but to be honest our understanding of what is happening now, whether that ‘now’ is today, this week, this month or this year, is patchy at best. We need perspective and information to understand what is going, events must be put into context and related to other events before we can truly claim to know our age. That is why Hecht’s observation is pertinent.

Today Vladimir Putin is standing for election in Russia and no one doubts the the whole shooting match is rigged and that Vlad will be re-elected as president. That is a fact, but what the consequences of his re-election will be are impossible to know, and it will be several years, or more probably decades before we – well, not me, but others – can know and evaluate.

Six days ago in China, The People’s National Congress abolished term limits on the presidency and vice-presidency which means that the country’s current president, Xi Jinping, can call the shots until he dies in office, decides to call it a day or is forcibly removed. As Xi will be 67 in two months time and as Chinese men and women seem to live remarkably long lives, he might well be calling the shots for another 15 to 20 years. Putin will be 68 later this year, and although the life expectancy of Russian males is just over 64, Putin is a teetotaller and so might expect might also expect to live – and lead Russia – for another 15 years.

As I say, we can’t at all know what the future will bring – although there is always any number of experts being lines up by the media to tell us – but I suggest that in or around the year 2033 there might well be a great deal of unwanted trouble in China or Russia or both as murderous gangs of rivals fight for control of their country now that their dear leader has popped his clogs. And I can suggest that because throughout history there have been wars, both national and civil, when an all-powerful ruler dies and has not, often merely for reasons of self-preservation, arranged of his power (it’s rarely her power, isn’t it) to be passed on. While he is alive, any possible rivals will be culled or otherwise neutralised, so there is usually a free-for-all once he breathes his last.

The same rather shambolic ‘knowledge’ of what will happen to the UK come the end of next March when it leaves the EU is also threadbare in the extreme. Both the Leave and Remain sides have made and continue to make prognostications, but as far as I am concerned, no one has a clue who Britain will fare economically and thus socially. Yes, we can guess and call those guesses ‘forecasts’, but at the end of the day, stripped of their fine clothes and the reputation of those who are guessing, they are still nothing but guesses.

There’s the very well-known quote by the Spanish philosopher George Santyana, one which is so well-known, in fact, that it is in great danger relegation to the status of cliché, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. I don’t doubt it is a very true observation, but I suggest it is also rather pointless, more the stuff of conversation at middle-brow dinner parties and first-year political science seminars than anything else. Why? Even those who do ‘remember the past’ still fondly imagine that they are the exception, that by repeating the actions of those who have gone before they will get away with achieving what others have failed to achieve.

Here’s a point in case: after World War II when the ‘British Empire’ was in its death throes, every one of its colonies demanded independence. And why not? But at the time there were many in Britain who counseled caution and patience. The colonies were not socially, economically or politically mature enough for independence, they said. I don’t doubt that many who spoke out along those lines did so merely from venal motives and wanted the white man’s good times to carry on rolling for a while yet. But there were others whose counsel was pure and impartial: they well remembered the past and did not want to condemn those colonies seeking independence to death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness. Their concerns went unheard and what did occur from the first years of independence for many subsequent decades? Why death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness for the vast majority of the people who weren’t in with the dictator and his cronies. The past was repeated anyway.

. . .

As I say, it is the human behaviour of past historical figures which I find most interesting: people are people are people. Kindness, hate, greed, love, altruism, self-sacrifice – everything we know about people is pretty much eternal. It matters not a whit whether they wore powdered wigs, covered themselves in woad, liked REM or Beyonce, eat with chopsticks. So if we try to understand the actions of people in modern terms, we are halfway there.

Yes, there were differences, for example, the stranglehold the Roman Catholic church had on Western Europe until the Reformation (though that stranglehold then merely shifted hands) was very much a factor in the political decisions, the what is possible and what is not. Then there is the gradual, the painfully gradual, emancipation of women, but at the end of the day, folk farted then, shagged then, got drunk then and laid down their lives for their fellow man then as now.

Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose: accepting that has helped me enormously in my splatter-gun reading in history. As for Henry Ford’s ‘history is bunk’, that is best understood in that I don’t think he meant it literally. I like to think he was urging us to look to the future rather than ever delving in the past if we want to achieve anything.