Sunday, April 10, 2016

And the Beat Goes On

The school holidays seem to have lasted for at least six weeks, but the calendar says otherwise. Determined to get my money's worth from our National Trust and English Heritage membership cards, I've subjected my younger son to a gruelling tour of castles, stately homes and parks. His older brother has remained in his room, mostly sleeping, like someone in cryogenic suspension on an interstellar voyage.

I find the planning and recollection of days out much better than the thing itself. The reality is usually either slight disappointment, or an awareness of being detached from the thing I am looking at and wondering why. But occasionally, something serendipitous happens that negates the angst.

My last moment of serendipity happened recently, on a mild, end of March day. I was sitting on a bench, by the ramparts of an 11th century castle and could hear birdsong, a cock crowing and the sound of people singing in the nearby parish church - it was Good Friday. At one point, a brimstone butterfly fluttered past and I remembered why I love this time of year so much.

On the way home, I picked up my mother and brought her to have lunch with us. As she struggled to get into the car, she suddenly said "I'm running out of books. Can you get me some more on your thing?"

I've ordered so many books for my mother, Amazon now thinks that my literary tastes revolve solely around tales of working class girls who become impregnated by the local squire's son. When I open the Amazon home page, a long list of titles is waiting for me.

I found one novel that looked like my mother's cup of tea, but the customer review was one of the oddest things I've ever read, straggling the line between madness and a haunting, epic beat poem.

To quote it in full (and scroll down if you lose the will to live):

Wow this Book was absolutely Great. or shall I say Fantastic
Yeah. Kay Brelland knows how to write a Book.. Thought the
Windmill Girls was good. But she's gone one better with this
One. It's been good to begin with . Got more exciting as it
Got to Rosie joining the Ambulance service. And her father's
Old Associate.I will call him Frank Purves was a bad man
Wanted to cause trouble and make him start his old business
Up. And Rosie s father said no he wanted no part in the deal
He'd made with someone down at the docks.
But he said to this man he got five hundred pounds to start
Up. A whisky brewing set up. Illegal. But John said no.
And sent a man to see him called Connor Flint. John told
Him no way was he going to do this. He'd given it up years
Ago. And .Connor said but you got five hundred pounds for
This. He said. No Frank Purves got that . He hasn't seen any
Money at all. Come his way. Frank has it all stashed away
Somewhere. Connor believed John. Cause he didn't trust
Purses and didn't like him either. So he went after him
Rosie had a child. And she'd been attacked by purves son
And had his child. Lots of hair Raising episodes happened.
From Kidnapping of Rosie s Daughter. And John and Frank
Having a bad fight. And Rosie ending up falling in love
With Connor Flint. Who was in his thirties. Rosie was twenty one
And her dramatic life in her Ambulance job. She was once a
Windmill girl. And settled down .eventually. but will not
Spoil to much by giving away too. Much. But. This book is
A must to read. Lots of war. Happening V1 Rocketts falling.
And causing disasters. keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Well this was truly great .enjoyed it very much . Worth waiting
For. To read. So I give this
Five stars truly worth it and more."

I like the seventh line from the bottom "but will not Spoil to (sic) much by giving away too."

I've been taking lots of photographs, trying to improve. I now have a cheap but cheerful zoom lense, which makes it easier to take shots of people. I'm particularly pleased with the touching scene below. It may not be a great photograph, technically, but it warms the cockles of my heart:

And further along the beach, another heartwarming sight - someone reading a book:

I used to wait for good weather before taking photos, but Gothic style buildings like this look far better on dark, stormy days. 

This is Pevensey Castle. It used to be by the coast, before the sea disappeared.  

This doorway appears to be the only surviving remnant of a much older building than the one behind it, but I can't find any information on the internet. It's just outside a village with the memorable name of Blackboys. 

This is part of Battle Abbey, built on the sight of the Battle of Hastings. Unless you visit at the height of the tourist season, it's usually mercifully empty.

Hove Station, where a footbridge offers this striking perspective.

This medieval ruin reminds me of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. I'd love to come back here at dusk and take some pictures, but I expect the staff might have something to say about it as they close at 5.00. I wonder how tall the walls are.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Table Talk

Yesterday evening, my wife arrived home with a new tablecloth.

"I expect you won't like it," she said. "I just wanted something cheery. It reminds me of a French cafe."

I looked at the garish colours and tried to imagine eating over it. "I'm sorry, but it's utterly hideous."

"Well, I think it's lovely." The door opened and my younger son entered the room. "Dad doesn't like this new tablecloth. What do you think?" A loaded question.

My son scrutinised it for a few seconds and I hoped that sanity would prevail. "Oh yes, it's beautiful."

I was outvoted and looked at the vile object, mocking me with its faux illustrations of food labels. Another nail in the coffin.

But during the night, one of our cats was sick on it. They have never vomitted on the table before, so I felt vindicated. Later I noticed that the tablecloth had been folded up and put away.

I felt sorry for my wife (but not sorry enough to take it out again) and resolved to think of something that might cheer her up. We all need treats, however small.

It was my birthday recently and I treated myself to two Jasper Conran shirts and eight novels. If that sounds self-indulgent, I should add that I still had change from a £20 note, as they'd all been bought in charity shops.

I love buying paperbacks in charity shops because the selection is completely unpredicatble. During the last month, I've read an ecclectic range of novels including Dead Man Leading by V.S. Pritchett, London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. I particularly enjoyed the latter, as it seemed so chillingly apposite in light of the Donald Trump candidacy, showing how quickly democracy can be debased.

There seem to be certain types of people who work in charity shops and I keep seeing their doppelgängers wherever I go:
  • a gay man in his 60s, usually wearing a bright, lambswool sweater
  • a woman in her 50s who likes to talk
  • a rough-looking man who is probably serving a community sentence
  • a silent, terrified-looking girl in her late teens/early 20s
  • a young man with learning difficulties
  • an elderly woman who can't work the till 
They are a strange coalition of the retired, the marginalised and the disenfranchised. Uncelebrated and undervalued. When I saw a customer being rude to a charity shop worker, I wanted to remind her that she was talking to a volunteer.

I'm still selling books, in between domestic duties and childcare. I have around 7,000 books on sale, which generates a few dozen orders a week. Sadly, the gap between the overheads - postage and rent - and the total sales is narrowing, leaving me with a dilemma. Should I keep going in the hope that I can find a new supplier, or give up the ghost once the profits reach double figures?

Like Mr Micawber (surely one of the most annoying characters in literature) I'm sure that something will turn up.

In the meantime, here are a few photos from the last few weeks:

Lewes had a few misty mornings (as did most places, I believe). Somehow, black and white seemed right for this picture.

I took my sons to the Bluebell Railway the other day. In a masterstroke of frugality, I discovered that platform tickets were only £3 for adults and £1.50 for children, as opposed to £45.40 for a ride on a train. My younger son said he'd happily forgo the ride for a lolly. My older son said that steam trains were 'gay'.

While I was admiring the ingenuity of the Victorian engineering, my wife turned to me and said "I hope you're not turning into one of those odd men."

I must stop now and feed the cats. I've bought them two tins of Lily's Kitchen as a reward for bad behaviour.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Home Alone

It has now been four months since my wife returned to full time work and I became a 'househusband'. Neither of us planned it that way, but as my wife can't drive and the school run is now a 25-mile round trip along country roads, our options were rather limited.

I decided to embrace my role and Googled the term househusband. One of the first things I saw was a link to a Daily Mail article: 'You Can Never Fancy a Man Who Becomes a House Husband.' Apparently, pink marigolds on men are a turn-off, unless you like that sort of thing (there are probably websites).

At first I had trouble adjusting to the sudden change. I was used to being the breadwinner (albeit a very cheap loaf of Kingsmill sliced white) and felt as if I had somehow let the side down. However, I was hardly idle. On an average morning, I took my sons to their schools, popped over to my office to deal with any book orders, did some food shopping, then drove home and began cleaning the house.

I valued my wife's work when she stayed at home, so why did I feel at such a loss? Gender conditioning, I suppose.

In spite of this, I was happy for my wife. She seemed to be doing very well in her new job and came home energised and full of gossip. My anecdotes were rather more mundane: "I cleaned the oven, but I'm not using Mr Muscle again."

Fortunately, I have started to get a more balanced perspective on the situation and accept that even if my current existence is very dull, it is entirely necessary. Those ovens won't clean themselves.

There has also been another change during the last month. My mother has suddenly become very frail and is increasingly dependent on me, both practically and emotionally.

The practical side is easy. I don't mind buying the Werther's Originals or dealing with the bills from Damart, but the emotional support is more challenging, as my mother can be relentlessly morbid to a point where I leave feeling thoroughly depressed. However, I know that when someone is virtually housebound, they need constant visits.

At least I will no longer hear about Vera's leg, which my mother would describe in graphic detail before I pleaded with her to stop. Vera is now in Florida with her daughter, for a long holiday. "She won't be coming back," my mother said, with barely-concealed relish.

Sometimes I can feel my mood sliding. When that happens, unless it's absolutely pissing down outside, I go for a walk. Being in the fresh air, smelling the damp earth and feeling the pale winter sun, clears away the cobwebs and puts everything in perspective. I don't what I'd do if I lived in Neasden. Perhaps I'd go to Ikea and pretend I lived in one of the rooms.

These photos were taken during the last few weeks. I particularly like the one of a hat, which is a lost property item in Berwick Church. There's a story behind that picture.

Monday, February 08, 2016

National Savings

I am a product of the National Savings Bank. My parents both worked at its head office in Kew and after a whirlwind 13-year courtship, they decided to get engaged.

The other day I found some photos of the NSB, taken between the late 1940s and the early 60s, when my parents married and my mother accepted a 'dowry' in lieu of a pension. I told my mother about the pictures but she showed no interest in seeing them. However, she did tell me a few anecdotes.

I learned that the women were all expected to arrive at work wearing white gloves and that if a pair of shoes hadn't been polished properly, a reprimand would follow. In the early 60s, a young man, who had clearly fallen under the malign influence of the Beatles, arrived looking slightly scruffy and was given a stern talking to. The next day he turned up in a top hat and tails.

I also learned more about the notorious serial killer John Christie, who worked in the same department as my father. Apparently, Christie had asked my mother's friend Doris out on a date, but after some deliberation she decided to say no. After Christie's arrest and execution, Doris was haunted by the thought of what could have been.

Serial killers aside, it sounded like a very ordered, regimented world. I had to get my mother to explain the many acronyms she kept mentioning - CAs, COs, HCOs, EOs and HEOs and tried to estimate out how many Clerical Assistants and Clerical Officers there were under under Higher Clerical Officer, before I began to get a sense of how it all worked.

At lunchtime, everyone would file into the huge staff canteen and the CAs, COs, EOs and HCOs would all sit on separate tables, never fraternising with each other. If a newcomer accidentally sat at the wrong table, they would politely put straight and shown where they would be sitting tomorrow.

My mother was given special projects, as she had a particular aptitude for numbers. At one point she uncovered a serious case of internal fraud and reported it, but nobody dared to take action. Frustrated by the inertia of her employers, my mother wrote a 'humorous' poem about it for the staff journal. Every copy was seized and the offending poem was scored out, badly, before the journal was recirculated.

In the early days, the offices were dominated by women that my mother referred to as old biddies. They should have retired, but had kept going while the men were serving in the armed forces. My mother disliked their austere manner and drab clothes and was glad when the office began to fill with younger men.

But not all of the men were fit for work. Some had been irreparably damaged by the War and struggled to get through the working day. One man had been held a prisoner of war by the Japanese and regularly suffered from bouts of malaria, during which he sometimes thought that he was back in the jungle. Another sat alone in the corner, reeking of whisky, looking broken.

Life at the Bank was governed by strict rules and regulations, but it wasn't a completely sterile, joyless environment. It had its own library and organised trips up to town to see the latest ballets, concerts and plays (on one occasion, my father saw my ballet dancing mother-in-law on the stage, blissfully aware that their paths would cross 30 years later).

My parents were both very happy at the bank and regarded it as a huge improvement on the jobs they began they working lives with: an electrician and an assistant in a chemist's. My father even began to think of himself as middle class. My mother never did.

My father would have happily have stayed at the National Savings Bank until retirement, but the Government decided to start moving Civil Service jobs away from London and his job ended up in Glasgow. As none of us would have made very good Glaswegians, my father reluctantly moved to another department and ended up doing something far more enjoyable.

For a generation blighted by two world wars and the poverty of the 1930s, the Civil Service offered an alluring security. If you were working or lower middle class, with no capital or assets to speak of, the job security and attractive pension made it a good career choice.

But what's this? Miss Clutterbuck is outside without her white gloves on! The strumpet. I bet she didn't last long.