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Monday, December 29, 2014

Ghost Story

You Said:
Do you believe in ghosts?”
It was one of those January afternoons. Damp and bone marrow cold. Through the window of the cafe, if you wiped the mist away from the glass, all you could see was another layer of invisibility gradually closing in as the afternoon darkened into evening.
Well?” You said
Hmm? What made you ask that?”
It’s that sort of day. You never can tell what’s going on in that fog.”
I said “People shopping. Scurrying home to Neighbours on the tele.”
You’re behind. “ You said “ Neighbours hasn’t been on for years”
I don’t know about ghosts.” I thought a while “I’ve seen all sorts of things I couldn’t explain at the time. I’ve heard noises in the night. I’ve smelt things....”
You know, It was actually believed that saints gave off a particularly sweet odour when they died.”
Maybe saints washed more than everyone else.” You said sweetly
Probably. On the other hand evil gave off an odour of iniquity. Shakespeare mentions it in Pericles.”
You were always quoting Shakespeare.”
Only the odd bits I remember from productions I’ve done. ‘A fire from heaven came and shrivelled up
Their bodies, e’en to loathing: for they so stunk
That all those eyes adored them ere their fall
Scorn now their hand should give them burial.’ “
You looked at me curiously: “And you’ve smelled this odour of iniquity?”
Not exactly. It was more like Frying bacon.”
Very other worldly.”
When we used to work all nighters in the theatre. Come about four o’clock in the morning and someone would sniff and say “Who’s that cooking breakfast?”
You were tired.”
Oh, It was a quite a regular thing.Same sort of time. Frying bacon
We spent a lot of time looking. And sniffing. Believe me. But we couldn’t find a thing We got quite attached to it in the end. ‘There’s Charlie making breakfast again.’ ”
And then someone discovered that the theatre was built on the site of an ancient hostelry where a terrible murder took place over the scrambled eggs. The stench of the body charring on the hotplate lingered for months until they demolished it “
No Nothing like that. All I’m saying is that if ghosts did exist they could take one of many forms. Perhaps sometimes we wouldn’t even recognise it was a ghost we were looking at.”
So you do believe?”
Yes... no. I mean as an intellectual construct.”
And Charlie?”
Was he an intellectual construct?”
As you say, it was probably the drains.”
The cafe owner began to make clearing up noises from behind the counter. I had finished my tea. I wiped the window again but I still couldn’t see out.
Then you said: “There was a death, you know.”
What? Where?”
You leant forward to whisper keeping your eyes on the Cafe Owner behind the counter and inclining your head towards him
Here. Not all that long ago. It was in the paper.”
I raised my eyebrows: “Actually in here? “
There was some tragedy involved... Lone parent. Children left alone. You don't recall? Orphans. Tragic. That sort of thing.”
What if... “ I nodded to the cafe owner “He was involved.”
Murder, you mean?”
Not necessarily. Accidental poisoning . Something like that.... I’d been thinking this tea tasted.. you know”
I leant forward “So you think there’re ghosts here...”
I’m saying if there were ghosts this place would be as likely to be a venue as anywhere. If you think about it. the shocking thing is not that we see the occasional ghost but that we don’t see more of them more often. ”
I went back to gazing out of the window and wondered about the shapeless forms passing to and fro.
And what is it that makes people scared of them any way? I thought. We don’t do inner turmoil in the 21st century. “Wooo. Your mortgage has just gone up by a hundred pounds a month. Wooo. Your train is running late and you’ll miss Strictly Come Dancing.”
No There is one thing everyone is everyone terrified by in the twenty-first century. Being alone.”
You’re joking. I can’t get enough time on our own. Away from the kids, the crowds, the boss. I’d do anything for a few days of blissful solitude.”
A few days, maybe. But an eternity. Stretching out in front of you. A tunnel of loneliness. It’s heartbreaking.
Yes but then you’d be dead.”
That’s the point. The ghosts are the dead who do not know they are dead. They don’t have time to realise what’s happening. To adjust. They just find themselves more and more isolated. Cut off from human contact but yearning for those human things like affection, warmth. Talking to themselves as though.. Imagine what it’s like for a bereft parent when a child dies. The grief is unending.
That’s horrible. And sad.” Your voice had an emotional catch in it suddenly which upset me. “And the ghost, him or herself, may not know that this happening to them?
Pinned by the arms and facing an eternity of fear and loneliness. Paralysed but aware. Unable to tell people what you are feeling. Like in those nightmare where you want to scream but no-one can hear you.”
Is there any way out of that?”
They just need a friend. Someone to point it out as gently as possible.”
I watched out of the window as the evening grew darker and the fog thickened. The passersby seemed to grow ever fainter and ever more distant. “But do you really think there are such things? People, I mean. Who don’t know they’re ghosts?”
The lost and the lonely. This cafe... could be full of them
Do you think he’s one?” I said nodding towards the cafe owner flicking the counter top with a tea towel t.lost and lonely.”
Mind you, it all fits if your theory is right.
What theory?”
About the frying bacon. Perhaps that’s the fate of all lost souls to end up in catering. And come to think about it, some of the paninis I’ve had in here. Half cooked. Practically undead itself.”
And you carried on making jokes about the cafe owner whilst I was watching through the steamed up windows again. All those people. Lost from view. And I felt a lurch of emotion deep in the pit of my stomach. For what? I couldn’t place it. And at that moment a breath of cold air passed across my neck. I could feel the hairs standing up with the cold. I turned to say something but you were gone. I stared at the door. I hadn’t heard you leave and there seemed to be no indication that it had been opened at all. and out on the pavement the fog was too thick to show which way you had gone.
The cafe owner was looking at the door and frowning slightly. I was going to say something but he moved to our table and picked up the cup and saucer and took it back to the counter.
Oh my God! One cup and saucer. We had been drinking tea together. But there was only one cup and saucer. What had happened to the other? Was there another? Oh no! Oh dear God.
I turned to the cafe owner. He was ignoring me. Untying his apron and hanging it up. I was peering through the misted window. Desperate to catch some sight of you. You must be out there somewhere. And then it was dark. The cafe owner had turned out the lights and closed the door behind him. He hadn’t noticed me. He hadn’t seen me. The latch clicked.

I breathed on the cold glass and tried to write. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t, couldn’t, say Goodbye. You or the kids. I called out. But you couldn’t hear me. Behind the glass in the fog.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Merry Christmas, Sir Reginald

It is bitterly cold on the West Cliff tonight. The gardens are deserted. The moon is obscured by thick rolling clouds. The street lamps cast only frail pools of light on the paths. Where is Sir Reginald? Surely it's time for him to be out and about on his evening constitutional raging against the Communists at the Council for the feebleness of the lighting? Or will tonight's fulmination be for the waste of tax payers money engendered by having street lighting at all?

Click whirr. Click whirr. Ah here he is now in his bath chair propelled with vigour by his one legged manservant Phillips. Sir Reginald is wrapped warmly in his tartan blanket against the chill whilst Phillips, his sleeves rolled up to display his tattooed arms has a film of sweat across his brow. 
    “Faster, Man. Faster. Can you not see that I am in imminent danger of dying from hypothermia here?”

A single flake of white flutters down through the street light's rays. “What! What was that?” demands Sir Reginald.
    “It was a snowflake, I believe Sir.” answers Phillips and, as if to prove his belief the first is followed by a second and a third.
    “Snow! We want none of that here. This is Bournemouth not Siberia.”
    “Snow is a thing of great beauty.”
    “Beauty! Pshaw! Your idea of beauty is very much at odds with mine, Sirrah. An idea of beauty that could only have come from the twisted hell hole of the 'tween decks mess of that pirate ship I rescued you from.”
The truth is that Phillips has never ventured further on the high seas than a Sunday cruise around Poole Harbour as a child but he lets it pass.
    “Under the lens, each snowflake is a thing of great wonder. While no two are exactly the same, they ll exhibit the astonishing uniformity of having six sides.”
Sir Reginald likes uniformity. He likes regularity and order in all things. “Six sides, you say?”
    “Yes Sir. Every one of them. All different but, at the same time, all the same.”
Sir Reginald is about to begin extolling the virtues of regularity and order when out of the whirling white comes a disturbing sight. It is the bath chair of his nemesis Dame Amelia Vole leading member of the Women’s International Socialist and Suffrage movement. She is, in turn propelled by her companion Miss Pymm a tall angular female of indeterminate years but who is surprisingly athletic beneath her shapeless grey smock.
    “Get out of my way you... you harridan.” rages Sir Reginald. But Dame Amelia fails to respond and as they draw level she smiles and says “And a Merry Christmas to you.”
    “What! What did you say?”
    “I wished you the season's greeting. I said 'A Merry Christmas to you.'”
    “You dare wish me a Merry Christmas?”
    “I do. A merry Christmas. There, I've done it again.”
    “Christmas Balderdash.” He would have liked to say ' Christmas humbug' but he has in the back of his mind that that has been used somewhere already.
   “I suppose you do not keep Christmas, then?”
   “I'll thank you to keep your impertinent suppositions to your self.”
   “Not even a plate of good plum duff? I wager you don't keep any of The good old British traditions.”
   “Of course we keep all the traditions. All the British ones.” Sir Reginald has only a perfunctory knowledge of what the traditions of Christmas are. He knows they can be dangerously subversive but this woman has just wagered him
   “We do. Every one of them. We keep every one of them .” Then he remembers with a lurch that one of the traditions is that of generals feeding dinner to their troops. He cringes at the terrifying prospect of having to wheel himself backwards and forwards through the unholy melee in the dining room whilst Phillips sits there gloating at him and devouring all the plum duff. He would be seen. There would be members of the Club present sniggering through their fingers. The thought is insufferable.“Not precisely every one.” Then he remembers with growing horror the tradition of exchanging of gifts and he shudders even more. “Times change.”
“I'll wager you don't even decorate with holly.”
He brightens. “Ah yes, holly.” He remembers that holly can be got from holly bushes and is free.   “We keep the holly tradition.” And his demeanour is so pathetic all of a sudden that Phillips steps forward with his clasp knife at the ready.
   “If I may venture to say,” interjects the one-legged manservant. “That is just what we were doing out here. Collecting holly.” And he swiftly removes a couple of low branches from an overhanging bush.
  ”And mistletoe?” persists the old woman.
  “Yes. Mistletoe, of course.” But despite the certainty in his master's voice, this time Phillips can contribute nothing.
  “Mistletoe, Miss Pymm.” barks the old woman and The angular companion produces a bunch which she holds out over the heads of the warring pair. Dame Amelia leans forward and kisses Sir Reginald on the cheek
  “What! What! Madam I will have you prosecuted for common assault.”
  “Forward, Miss Pymm,” chuckles the venerable dame and the angular companion trundles her charge off into the swirling maelstrom of the snowstorm.
  “And battery” mumbles Sir Reginald. “Assault and battery. You are my witness, Phillips”

As the subdued pair return to Grand Marine Court he churns with the damnable confusion that now besets him. Christmas. He hates Christmas. Vile old women that attempt lewd acts in public. Snowflakes, at once regular yet individual. A manservant, an ex-pirate with a dangerous looking clasp knife who would gladly slit his throat as cheerfully as he gathered evergreens and to whom tomorrow he will have to bring plates of plum duff.
  “Damn Christmas,” he ejaculates. “Damn and blast it to hell.”
There is a pause as the two men survey the scene before going in..
  “I may not be having dinner tomorrow. Lost me damn appetite.”
  “There will be plum duff in the dining room. You do so enjoy that, Sir.”
  “Yes yes I do.”
There is a long pause.
  “It will not be necessary for you to serve at table tomorrow, Sir.”
  “No. Of course not.” and with a small cough almost lost in the blizzard. “Thank you.”
  “You will manage a small serving of plum duff, I'm sure. If I bring it to you.”
Silently Sir Reginald watches the snow smoothing out the imperfections of the world and touches his cheek where it burns from the wind.
  “If I may venture to wish you A merry Christmas Sir,” says Phillips as though from a great distance.
  “Yes. Yes. You may. And the same to you. Now get me in out of this damn cold.”

Friday, November 21, 2014

Holly's Story

Last night I was invited to a Dads and Daughters event where we considered the inspiration we got from our parents.  It made me think of the inspiration that I had been given by my daughters.  We were quite a literary household and reading and writing was an important aspect of what we did.  We wrote stories and letters to each other.  We read aloud and shared each other's writing.  Reading and writing was fun.  Some of the lessons I learnt at that time were through story-telling.  I learnt the importance of repetition and having repeatable tropes throughout.  But I also learned how to listen  and to adapt  the narrative to the listener.  The greatest lesson was that of co-operative story telling.  You can soon exhaust all your own ideas and the best way forward is to use the imagination of the listener:  "What do you think is round that corner?"  "What's that noise you can hear?"  and so on.  The story grows between you. Here is a story that Holly and I collaborated on when she was about three.

Holly lived in a tree in the park.  All day long she would hide there and drop sharp, prickly leaves down the neck of anyone who stopped to rest on the bench under the tree.
“Horrid Holly” they would say.“Hurtful Holly” and they would look up very sharply cramming their hats on their heads.  But they could never quite catch a glimpse of her.
Holly hissed with laughter.  She hooted with laughter.  She whooped with laughter.  But noone quite caught sight of her.

Sometimes she would lie still till all the sparrows and starlings had come out to sunbathe on the branches then she would rustle the twigs, rattle the branches and rock the boughs until the birds were  hooched  out into the air their feathers  and pride all ruffled.
“Horrid Holly. Hateful Holly.” and Holly hollered with laughter.  She howled wih laughter.But Holly wasn’t really horrid or hateful or hurtful.  She was just high spirited and hearty and she was just waiting for everyone to go home.  Tonight was a time for hanky panky.

She knew where the roses stood stiffly in their beds.  She knew where all the crisp packets huddled under the bushes.  She knew where the hedgehogs lay hunched up under the dead leaves.  She knew all about the haughty spikes on the park railings.   And she knew would make some hocus pocus.
When the gates banged shut at eight o’clock and the sun had lumbered into bed under his red silk sheets Holly scrambled down the tree and scampered across the grass turning catherine wheels of delight.  It was her park now.  Now for a high old time.

The silvery moon shone a path across the grass.  Holly bounced into the rose beds and danced the roses harum scarum out into the mooonlight. “Humph” they said. Their fingers were stiff and rheumaticcy but Holly hauled them round and round till they remembered how to do the paul jones and the Tango.  Then she dived into the beds of dead leaves and hurled out the hedgehogs to dance the Valeta and the pasa doble.  She harrassed the broken bottles and the crisp packets into the bandstand with the railing spikes and a fine old harmony they made.

All night long went the dancing; the Westminster waltz and the mazurka and the park was filled with the whoops and hollers and huzzahs. What a hullabaloo until suddenly Holly said “Hush.  The moon’s going down.  It’s nearly dawn.”  And everything heaved a heartfelt sigh hopped back to its place.
And hot but happy Holly sat in the paddling pool and poured water over her head until her hair was plastered down flat.  She hopped back to her tree and fell asleep just as the park gates banged open again.  People sitting on the bench under her tree were surprised when no prickles fell down their necks.  They took off their hats to enjoy the heat of the sun.

And Holly hugged herself with happiness as she snored.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Archers - Who Cares?

Why does it matter whether some dickhead at the BBC imports a kid from the telly to give The Archers a bit of a kicking?  After all the Archers is (are?) 64 years old and it’s about time they (it) was pensioned off.  It’s only a sort of soap opera about people who live in the country and therefore a bit of a joke.  And it’s only listened to by OAPs like me so why don’t I just shut up and F... off whinging?  Old people can’t hear the radio because they’re all deaf anyway.
I’m as old as the Archers.  It’s been there in the background throughout my life.  I don’t listen all the time and sometimes I don’t hear it for months at a stretch.  Things happen in Ambridge in the same way they used to do in my village - people die falling off roofs, people have affairs in tents, kids drown in slurry pits.  These things happen occasionally.  Sometimes they are quickly forgotten and sometimes they have long reaching after effects.  The point is that these events are not the focus of village life.  It is the people, the characters, how their lives are altered by events, in small ways or fundamentally and how they react to these changes that makes life fascinating.  In other words, stuff happens but life carries on.  
We’ll come to the bit about me later but let’s just consider what the Archers is or was until the ignoranti got at it.  For a start, it’s not a soap.  A soap is structured around events.  The difference between a soap and what is called in the trade “a continuing drama”is that soaps are event driven.  They were, after all, invented for the purpose of selling soap powder and their purpose was to pique the listeners interest and hold it for a few minutes until the next commercial break.  They had to be fast snappy and without any substance that required more than a moment’s thought.  The instruction given to writers was that there should be at least incidence of violence per episode.  Continuing Drama has a longer scope.  It is designed around a character or group of characters with the intention of keeping the listeners attention over weeks, months or years.  The Archers belonged to this genre. The Bill Matter for the programme was for many years “An everyday story of country folk”. It may have been melodramatic and creaky at times but at heart It was a continuing drama in which a number of characters are followed over a period of time with any events  observed through their reactions.  This character based sort of drama comes about because the characters are given long enough to develop and grow and change according to the unfolding events around them.  In this the Archers was unique.  It had 64 years of character development.  It was different from any other programme on the radio or television.  In its way it was a Stradivarius which writers, editors and actors had played with loving care.  Once a Strad is reduced to matchwood nothing can be played on it all.
Now the issue of it being set in a predominantly rural environment.  True.  And all the better for that.  In England 40% of the population lives outside cities and yet there is no programming which reflects their views or issues.The Archers used to have an agricultural story editor who used to make sure the current metropolitan misrepresentation of rural life was largely avoided.    The Archers was never particularly realistic but it did from time to time make hearts lurch when it touched upon real situations with characters we knew from childhood.  
Right, let’s get to this age thing and what makes me so cross.  The BBC management have this continuing hysteria about the need to attract young audiences particularly on the radio.  Something must be seen to be done or, they reason, their licence fee will be reduced.  However, I have followed The Archers since I was a baby and have grown old with it.  The age thing has never bothered me as it spoke to me at all ages and it did speak to me until a few months ago when it became unbearably silly. And now I am in another disadvantaged group - I am an old person and therefore should have as many programmes aimed at me as at the twelve year olds.
But let’s think of the target audience a little more closely.  Let’s say the BBC want to attract listeners from the thiry something group.  This is the age when people stop going out to clubs and spending their money getting pissed every night.  Now they are settling down with mortgages and could be captured by a radio programme.  But these people are not so stupid as the BBC management will allow them.  A young Mum at home with the kids needs something a bit more interesting than the mind numbing stuff on the telly.  Give her something to think about.  Something to aspire to.  Attract that thirty something audience and they will stay till they are my age now.  Thirty years of a guaranteed listenereship. But, wait a bit, I’m thinking of living another thirty years myself and providing you don’t f... about with the programme as you have been doing you have a bit more of a demographic spread and an assured listenership.  Follow current policy and you lose both.
One of the great things about programmes like the Archers is that they engender a loyal listenership.  They will stick with it through thick and thin.  Sometimes they are not able to listen for weeks or months at a time.  But in the end they will return and pick things up where they left them.  They will marvel at the odd things that have happened in their absence but will be glad that the characters are as they left them. It is this loyal listenership that has suffered most over the past six months.  They feel that they have some rights to a programme that they have supported throughout the years and they feel humiliated and insulted by the nonsense that is being served up to them.  The implicit metropolitan scathing ageism leaves a nasty taste. The current editor will leave in a short while.  He will have made his mark as the man gave those country bumpkins a bit of a shock and his career (Back in telly, of course) will be assured.  But for the listeners, the magic has gone.  Even if The Stradivarius can be glued back together it will never be played as sweetly as it once was.