Here’s a useful thing I didn’t know I needed: a visual calculator for checking that you’re not overloading an extension lead. Scroll to the bottom of the post to have a play.
I need to sort out my office. It’s such a mess that my work is being impeded. I have piles collapsed into piles. Something must be done, and the preparatory work can’t wait until New Year. Tomorrow, I am going to start throwing out some of the rubbish. Once I’ve got rid of the old paperwork that clogs the empty hearth, and organised my paperwork for this year so that I can actually use it without having to search for every folder before every work day, I’m planning to put shelves up above my desk for the CDs that, at the moment, fill a very large box, taking up space on the floor.
That accomplished, I’ll be able to more easily tell which CDs still need ripping to my server, and they’ll look pretty. I also want to put a shelf up for the Bose music player that I have inherited from my father. It’s more than enough sound for my room, and it has the input module, with red/white audio sockets, so I can have it playing from a computer. The ultimate plan is to add a Raspberry Pi music player, with Volumio installed, so that I can play music from my server without needing to turn on a computer. Volumio is controlled through a phone and the Android app for it is available on F-Droid, so it’s perfect for me, but that’s a project for the New Year.
Anyway, I have worried about having a computer, a monitor, a router and a charger plugged into an extension, but the electricalsafetyfirst site has reassured me. Even with my monitor, a desktop computer, a router and a laptop plugged in, the total only came to 4A, which is less than a third of the safe load for an extension. I can go for a larger extension, such as this one, and still plug in the Bose, the Pi and another laptop, without getting near the 13A limit.
The Socket Calculator has been brought to you by Electrical Safety First.
Well, here she is, the new dog, to fill the aching void left by Tia, the Golden Dog, who was killed in a road accident on 15th December last year, after only thirteen months living with us. I can’t believe it was so short a time.
The new dog was named Buttercup by the rescue charity, but I wasn’t shouting that in the park, so we’ve renamed her Flora. Don’t let the look of innocence fool you; she’s a terror. The picture also gives the impression that she can read and is therefore a doggy prodigy: nothing could be further from the truth. I am fairly convinced that we’ve taken on a canine cretin.
In fairness, it is still only about four days since she left Romania, was transported hundreds of miles, separated from her litter mates and dumped in a house with two strange humans and a cat. She’s entitled to be a little disorientated.
I was working on the day she arrived and had an evening class as well, so wasn’t home until about half-past-nine. By then, she’d bonded with Amanda, and wasn’t about to spread the love. We’ve had a difficult weekend of adjustment. Flora hasn’t got the hang of me yet, and howls whenever Amanda goes upstairs, or pops out of the house. I’m supposed to completely ignore her and let her come to me. She’s shown some curiosity about me, but hasn’t decided I’m her friend yet. I don’t take rejection well, and am finding it quite difficult.
Amanda is working this afternoon, so I’ll be in the house with Flora going spare for her favourite human. To remind myself that it is worth it, I have made a gallery of pictures of Tia, to which I linked in the first paragraph of this post.
For now, I just keep thinking that I’m a cat person. Yes, since Tia died, I’ve missed the walks, and the devotion of a trusting dog, but I am finding all the adaptation a real headache.
Flora is quite pretty though, and I love the way she hasn’t quite grown into her paws yet. I’m sure we’ll be best buddies before long.
My father died on November 30th. He had been ill for five years, with one of the exotic derivatives of leukaemia that can be emolliated for a time, but will triumph in the end. We were very lucky that the care, for him and us, during his illness, was wonderful. He was treated in a well-funded Macmillan Centre in a large NHS hospital whose excellent condition is due, no doubt, to it being in a Tory semi-marginal constituency. He died there, with an attentive palliative care team staffed by nurses and a consultant he had come to know and who treated him as a friend. Everyone should have such care.
My mother and I were with him when he died. He’d been unconscious for a couple of days, stretched on a bed that was almost too short for him, his head and shoulders raised, his mouth open, a tube in his nose quietly hissing oxygen into him. Every few hours, his painkillers would begin to wear off, and he would rise towards awareness, wave his hands feebly and move his jaw. I was thrown into panic by this activity, pestering the nurses, or trying to dab at his mouth with a wetted sponge, making useless attempts to comfort him. My sister, Charlotte, my mother and I stayed in the room overnight the night before. They slept on chairs and I had a pillow on the floor, and, horrible as the situation was, we were close in a way I don’t remember us being for many years. He was a missing part, just a bodily presence, although we spoke to him, telling him we loved him very much. In one of his periods of stirring, Charlotte said, “We are so lucky to have you as our father,” and I wept silently, so as not to upset him.
In the small hours of the morning, with just my mother and me in the room with my father, Charlotte having popped home for a few hours’ rest, I noticed that he wasn’t breathing anymore. It was that simple. After a controlled bedlam of nurses checking we were right, I closed his mouth, and a nurse switched off the oxygen, and my mother and I sat in silence with his body.
“I wish I could cry,” she said.
Over the rest of the weekend, we clung together, my mother, my sister, Amanda, our friends Vanessa and Pete, my niece and nephew and I, going through photo albums, walking the dogs, and coming to terms with a world without him.
Amanda and I had to return to the Island. I didn’t want to take too much time off work, as I had learners coming up to exams, and they needed my support. We returned to Bury St Edmunds the following weekend, though, and took part in the preparations for the funeral. Then we came home for another week, before the long drive back up to Suffolk for the weekend of the funeral, which was scheduled for that Monday.
Our car had developed a fault, which we had had fixed on the Island, but which had left the computerised engine management system messed up. On the Saturday morning, in bright, sharply cold sunshine, Amanda and I drove up to the Peugeot garage on the Morton Hall estate, and booked the car in. It was so cold that we stopped in a pet superstore place and bought Tia a coat, because we were worried she would be too cold on the walk back to my parents’ house. Then we ambled back through the leafy estate, letting Tia roam on a long lead, the grief of our loss a gentle topic of careful discussion, but feeling peaceful in the glorious winter weather.
Back at the house, my mother was worrying about my father’s office. He had kept the most bizarre things: hundreds of old coins; documents without any filing system; cuttings from newspapers about people we didn’t know, and instruction booklets for devices we had never come across. We’d spent the previous Saturday trying to make some sense of it, and Charlotte had dug out all the documents she needed for the registration of his death, and for the other annoyances of bereavement, like re-registering the car in my mother’s name, transferring the joint bank account to her and adding his investments to the estate, so that his will could be processed. Amanda and I spent an hour with her, in the office, trying to calm her nervous rummaging, and prevent her from messing up what order Charlotte had been able to impose.
We were rescued by Charlotte phoning to ask whether we wanted to go for lunch in town. The day remained bright and lovely and we leapt at the distraction.
While I searched for gloves and changed my shirt, I heard a commotion downstairs. My mother had accidentally let Tia out of the front door and she had done one of her disappearing acts. By the time I’d got my boots on, Amanda had already gone out of sight, chasing after her.
I ran across the square and through the alleyway that leads from the new estate where my parents’ house is, onto the industrial estate behind it. The A14, the major road through East Anglia, runs past the estate, on a raised bank with wooded sides about ten metres high. Because of the trees, and the good insulation of the houses, it’s easy to forget it’s there: like all nuisances with which you live, you either get driven mad by it, or zone it out, and I am good at zoning out nuisance.
Over the noise, however, I thought I heard a scream. I was behind a warehouse where I had walked Tia late the previous Sunday, and I ran back round to where I had a view through two industrial buildings to the housing estate. A man in mechanic’s overalls was walking hurriedly across the square. I ran towards the alleyway, but before I got there, through another gap, I saw Amanda carrying Tia and I registered, without absorbing it, that Tia’s head was lolling from her arms.
By the time I got back among the houses, and ran up to the house, Amanda had laid Tia down by the front door and run in, shouting about needing a vet. I knelt down beside the poor, broken dog, and, I think, saw a moment of consciousness before she died. There was blood around her muzzle, her tongue was hanging out and her neck was skewed in a position that said it was definitely broken, but she retained her beauty and her face was still the face I had come to love over the past thirteen months.
I shouted into the house to Amanda, “She’s dead”, and was humiliated to realise I’d wailed it. I buried my face in her fur, and there was no movement. She was warm, but lifeless.
It seemed one thing too many. For a moment, I considered running away. I am a selfish man at heart, and I had been at a high pitch of anxiety since my father’s illness had got worse, months before. For the past two weeks, since his death, I had been promising myself that, at the funeral, I would put this period of unhappiness and tension to rest, and return to sanity, calm and a life of hobbies and good living with a renewed sense of the basic rightness of life. Kneeling in front of my mother’s house, beside our dead dog, that seemed to be a future that I had just lost.
I think, though, that you do find the strength to do what needs to be done, in moments of crisis. My mother was distraught, although, as always, she wasn’t crying, but trying to behave with dignity. I got up and hugged her, and then went upstairs to find Amanda, who was crying on our bed. I comforted her, and cried with her for a moment, and then went downstairs again to my mother.
I phoned Charlotte, and then my mother and I took Tia round the back of the house, through the car park and into the garden. Through my reassurances, my mother took control by trying to organise, and she said that we could bury Tia in the top of the garden. I pushed Tia’s tongue back into her mouth, and arranged her head so that she looked as though she was sleeping, and then I suggested we go inside.
I made tea and Amanda came downstairs. Incredibly, she had managed to compose herself. I loved her so much just then. She had wanted a dog for so long, and when it had finally become realistic, she had worried and fussed over the process, and had been surprised, I think, that it had been a joy, rather than the disaster she had expected, in her anxious approach to life. I knew, though, that she would be thinking about my mother, who was preparing to bury her husband of five decades in two days, and was trying to control the impact of this new calamity, that seemed to confirm her natural pessimism. Two sides of her character – her anxiety and her impulse to care about the feelings of others – were at war, and her selflessness triumphed.
Charlotte arrived. I asked her to stay with Amanda while my mother and I took Tia’s body up to the top of the garden. We got a spade and a shovel from the shed and dug a hole in a patch of ground that my mother had only cleared of weeds that autumn, and which she was planning to use for climbing plants. When it seemed deep enough, I laid Tia into it, arranging her as best I could. When my mother asked me whether I wanted to start filling in, though, I said it could wait for an hour or two. Tia was still warm. “I don’t want those nightmares,” I said.
There didn’t seem anything else to do, so we went ahead with our lunch plans, walking into town. To get out of the estate, we had to pass the path that Tia had bolted up, onto the A14, and Amanda found that hard. She explained what had happened and reproached herself for chasing an excited dog, when she should, she felt, have hung back, waiting for her to come back to her. I doubted that Tia, once she had given way to curiosity, would have noticed, but I didn’t try to contradict her then. The man in overalls I’d seen was a mechanic in the garage by the main road, and Amanda and I dropped in to thank him. He was kind and sympathetic, but embarrassed, and I said to myself then what I would say many times over the next few weeks: she was just a dog.
My father’s funeral was on Monday 17th December, 2018, at half-past-two. If that seems a little histrionic in its precision, my excuse is that such details matter, two months on, as it all begins to feel a little distant.
By the good offices of the church warden, Teresa Goodenough, who is a long-term friend of my mother’s and a true Christian, we had been allowed to hold it in the church of Fornham All Saints, the village in which my parents lived for twenty years, although they had ceased to be parishioners when they moved into town, and transferred their worship to the cathedral, which was more accessible to them as my father grew frailer. Kindness surrounded us in the arrangements. Two friends of my father’s officiated: Canon David Crawley, who is the Anglican chaplain at the hospital where my father died, and Revd. Michael Edge, a neighbour of my parents who is a retired cleric and who used to visit my father at home to read with him and, it seems, chat about memories of the Church of England.
My cousin, Nicky, and her husband, Chris, stayed with us at my mother’s house the night before. They’d travelled up from Devon and the meal we shared on the Sunday evening was a joyous affair, with Charlotte and Eden (my niece) joining us. Later, we got out the photo albums again. I think I may have been obsessing slightly. I had been busy throughout the fortnight since my father’s death, burying myself in Labour Party stuff and trying to shut things out, and I felt now that I needed to throw myself into some role of mourner-in-chief.
In the morning, my uncle and aunt came over from Norwich. Charlotte, Eden and Ruben (my nephew) arrived mid-morning and then Vanessa, Pete and their daughter, Maya, turned up. It was another lovely, bright winter morning. The house was full of flowers and cards and the sense that my father was a man widely loved had begun to seep into my grief.
Charlotte and Amanda had taken my mother dress shopping on the Saturday and had had a proper girls’ day out. The pain of losing Tia was still hanging over Amanda and me, but we had been able to hold it off, at least around my mother; to keep the focus on her.
At the appointed time, the undertakers’ car turned up and Charlotte, my mother, Amanda, Ruben, Eden and I piled in. It was all a bit of a daze. You see funeral processions and you try not to stare, but it’s one of those experiences that can never feel entirely novel when it is finally your turn to sit ashen-faced in the extended Mercedes: it is too familiar as an observer. Our route was by ring roads, round the back of the sugar-beet factory and through Fornham St. Martin, all golf-courses and flat-pack housing estates, and so arriving in the centre of the village, outside the church, was like stepping out of a mundane world and into a picture-book one. Fornham is not what it was when my parents lived there, but it is still beautiful, and the church is like an archetype of a village church.
Going in was a shock, though. It was filled. Teresa was rushing about, organising more seating. In the end, just shy of two hundred people were packed in. My father had been a founding member of the St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir, and a couple of dozen of them packed the choir stalls. Amanda and I were sat in the front row to the right of the aisle, while the rest of the family sat to the left. I stared up at the East window and prayed to the picture of Christ there.
The vicars and Charlotte had asked me whether I wanted to do a reading. I hadn’t wanted to do a eulogy: how could I sum him up? Chaotic, honourable, loving, daft, pompous, kind, gentle, brave and funny: none of it would have sounded like the stuff of a loving son. It would have sounded like a performance. I had latched on loving, and chosen the only text that came to mind at the time they asked: Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, on love. I’m not actually a huge fan of Paul, but he is very good on love, and it has been the front page of my website for over a year, so I know it. It seemed right.
When the time came for me to read, I got up and walked to the lectern and just kept my head down. Revd. Michael had printed the passage out for me in large print, and I took the sheets out of my pocket, laid them on the lectern-top and read. A sort of grace seemed to fill me. I didn’t rush, or falter, and, when I reached the line saying that love “…endures all things,” I looked up, straight at Amanda, willing her to feel the comfort of this truth. She was crying, though, with her head bowed, and so I looked down again, and read on.
On Christmas morning, my mother and I went to the eight o’clock communion in the cathedral. We walked up in frost-sharp air, and took our places in the sparse congregation. It was a beautiful service. The sermon, by the Dean, the Very Revd. Joe Howes, was casual, chatty, included some good jokes at his own expense, but made a wonderful point about, I think, rebirth, although I cannot now clearly remember. (I have emailed him asking whether he can recall what his sermon was and will update this if he gets back to me). It felt as though he had addressed himself to me. By the time we took communion, I was in a real state of prayer; calm and settled, the whirring calculation of my brain stilled.
We walked home through the Abbey Gardens and the sun was white-bright turning to gold on a perfect sheet of frost. In the middle of the gardens, we stopped to look round, and to appreciate the beauty of the morning, and I revelled for a moment in the aftertaste of prayer. Then, my blogging head kicked in and I got out my phone and took a few photos. These are the results.
Still, the grief muddled on, the great sorrow of my father’s loss overshadowed by the petty grief for a slaughtered pet. During the previous week, back on the Island, attending training at work now that classes had ended for the term, and filling the rest of my time with computing tasks to keep myself busy, I had become angry about it, and then worried, that I was not grieving appropriately. Nevertheless, we had a happy Christmas day with Charlotte, Eden, Vanessa, Pete and Maya round my mother’s table, doing it all with a sense of duty that, despite the circumstances, turned into joy. At one point on Christmas Day, my mother said to us, “Mike would have loved this,” and that made it feel alright, being happy, so soon.
On Boxing Day, Charlotte had us round to her house for a meal. Eden was there as well; a quiet, amused presence, treating life like a humorous spectacle, as is her manner. At some point, I must have looked around the room, at these four incredible, brave, kind women; my mother, my wife, my sister and my niece, and realised that, despite the double blow I had suffered, my relationships with them had been strengthened, not harmed, by our shared sorrow. In any loss, there is something to be gained, if you can find it, and, for me, this closeness was like a reward for my not having given way to my grief. I hope the same is true for them. I know that Amanda feels our relationship has been strengthened by the last few months’ turmoil, because we can discuss such things, and Charlotte has made cautious overtures to me as well, but I worry about my mother.
I wish she could cry.
I’m still worried that I haven’t grieved properly. I’ve done some research, and discovered that the advice is so consistent that it must be a reliable consensus: there are stages; they are not written in stone; everyone grieves differently. It all begins to sound a little lazy, as if the universality of loss has reduced the incredible unreality of someone you love no longer existing to a set of bullet points on a web page or in a leaflet that gets misfiled in a health centre.
What nags at me is how sharp my feelings towards Tia are, compared to my feelings about my father. She was just a dog. I can rationalise it by realising that, despite my policy of optimism throughout his illness, I had five years to understand that my father would not be with me forever, whereas Tia’s death came out of the blue, when I was already vulnerable, but it still feels inappropriate, like a betrayal.
In the months since the funeral, I have returned to work, continued to tinker with computers, attended Labour Party meetings and enjoyed social events. Life goes on. Tomorrow, Amanda is going to the mainland to pick up a puppy, Buttercup (that’ll have to change), from a rescue charity in Hertfordshire. Life is beginning to regain its balance.
Perhaps, for me, that is how grief will complete its form: there will be no great epiphany of feeling; no peak of anger or denial or bargaining or depression. Perhaps I will just slide slowly on to the acceptance. Perversely, though, I feel short-changed, and I feel as though I am somehow failing my kind, generous, unfailingly loving father, by not being racked by a sharper sorrow. It makes me wonder whether there is something wrong with me: something missing.
A month ago, I was worried enough about this to begin the process of seeking counselling. Through an employment support service, I have applied for an interview with the public mental health team. It is a service overburdened with supporting people in real crisis on austerity-slashed budgets, but I am told that I have as much right to seek assistance as anyone else. I hope I am not just being self-indulgent. I suppose I will find out.
There is one last event for me to record. A week and a half ago, we went back up to Bury St Edmunds, for the burial of my father’s ashes. On the way, half way round the M25, a fault light came on, and the car slowed to a crawl. I managed to nurse it to South Mimms service station where we spent an anxious couple of hours waiting for the rescue service.
It felt like a repeat of Tia’s death: another focus for my grief overcome by circumstances. In the fluorescent-lit hell of South Mimms, Amanda and I sat gloomily pondering our failings, unable to communicate. My anger was growing and I went outside, abandoning her, and walked to the trees at the edge of the car park and howled. Finally, I remembered that employment support had given me a phone number for a mental health crisis line and I had put the number in my phone.
The woman who answered listened to me patiently for a couple of minutes and then took over. Where was I? Was I safe? Where was my wife? Was she safe? Suddenly, prompted by her questions, my arrogance dissolved and I understood that nothing mattered as much as my responsibilities to my loved ones: my care for Amanda and my duty to her feelings. I thanked the counsellor, rang off, and ran back to Amanda.
Calmed myself, I was able to calm her, and apologise for my selfishness. Over the past five years, she has never once complained about spending almost every holiday with my parents, about driving up to Suffolk every weekend for two months without a weekend to herself, about having her grief for Tia buried beneath my father’s death. I couldn’t put into words how much I wanted to thank her, but she understood, as she has understood everything. We put our coats round ourselves, huddled together and waited together, accepting that what would be would be.
We were driven to Bury in a lorry, with our car bouncing on the flatbed behind us, by a cheerful driver who played Russian rock music all the way there. Some of it wasn’t too bad. We arrived at about two, and my mother, who we’d phoned when we realised we’d be late, had waited up. The house, which I have never really liked, felt like a warm coccoon, albeit, still a beige one. We settled into bed with a sense of renewed well-being.
The weekend passed pleasantly enough. We put the car back into the Peugeot garage, managing to get through the reminders of our last walk with Tia before her death, and then met Charlotte in town for a coffee, a wander round the market and then lunch at Pizza Express. My mother was in good form, her memory sharper than it had been recently, the terrible weight of her stoic grieving less evident. She was, however, dreading the burial.
Monday came, and we drove out to Fornham in my mother’s car. It was a wet, cloudy day. There was just us, the two vicars, Revd. Edge’s wife, Teresa and her husband Allan. We had a short service, led by Canon Crawley, in the chapel to the side of the church. My father’s ashes, in a pine box with a brass name plate on the top, sat on the altar rail as Revd. Edge read a beautiful reading from Isaiah, which he had chosen.
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Then, guided by Canon Crawley, I carried my father’s mortal remains outside, round the church, to a small plot beneath the east window. A hole had been dug, and lined with fake grass. After the familiar litany about ashes, I knelt down and placed the box into the hole, touched, but not overwhelmed, by a sense of the true awe of death. I was conscious of the sense of a performance and annoyed with myself for that. I forced myself to forget that there were people watching, and took care to make sure that the box was level, and square in the hole. My father, who liked his pencils lined up on his desk and his jackets hung in ordered rows in his wardrobe, would appreciate that. In that moment, I felt love for him, and I suddenly had tears in my eyes.
When I stood, Canon Crawley said, “Let us pray,” and we said the Lord’s Prayer. I had to keep wiping tears from my eyes, but I didn’t sob. When it was over, I kept staring down, into the hole, slightly horrified by what I had just done; the finality of it; trying to remember the promise of eternal life that Revd. Edge’s reading had so beautifully described. Someone was at my side, putting their arm around me, and I was moved beyond words to discover it was my mother. Charlotte and Amanda moved in close and we all held each other.
The grave is to the east of the church, beneath the window that depicts Christ the Redeemer. It will get morning sun, and it is large enough for my mother to join him there, when her time comes. Beside it, an old choir friend of my father’s is buried.
Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.
My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.
As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.
Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…
Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.
I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.
The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.
That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development – a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:
Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.
Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”
Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’
The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:
Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.
The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.
Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.
It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.
The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:
The Story: Slavery Evolved. To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.
Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:
Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.
And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.
In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.
There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.
The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’
The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’
The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.
The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.
The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.
Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.
Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.
Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.
I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?
Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.
Going back through the photos on my phone, picture after picture shows a dazzled world: clear blue skies; smiling, tanned friends; sunlight lancing through rich green foliage or glinting, blindingly off sea or lake.
Tia, the golden dog, features in many of them, and she, as much as any other element in my life, has helped to make this a summer whose memory I will treasure.
How memories last is one of the mysterious revelations of middle age: the extent to which what we have experienced descends into a soup of glimpses and sense impressions that lose their sharp edges and become blurred. I suppose that is why I blog, or a large reason for it at any rate. Already, I cannot quite remember what I was doing when I took the photo above, of Tia asleep in our back garden. I suspect it was during one of the long afternoons when I was sitting outside, drinking tea and reading crap science fiction, enjoying the sun with Charles Mingus on my headphones. That has been a key part of this summer for me. I must post about the books I’ve read; the music that has shifted from new excitement to established favourite over this wonderful, sun-drenched year.
I should also, I suppose, record my achievements over this summer. I have completed a university access course, in science, technology and maths: a major milestone for me. I have, with Amanda, enjoyed the maturing of our relationships with our Labour Party comrades on the Island: in June, I went up to London for the SaveOurNHS march, and, with my sister, we attended the Burston School Strike Rally at the beginning of September. At work, the last academic year was my most successful so far, both in terms of results and the sense that I had helped several of my learners to move on with their lives, opening up new opportunities for them.
It has also been a summer of uncertainty. My father’s lymphoma has reasserted itself, and his treatment has shifted from fighting the illness to a more palliative-focused care. We have been up and down to Suffolk, and he has been, on some visits, frighteningly unwell, and on others, his old self, if diminished, physically. One afternoon, I sat in my parents’ garden with him, reading and chatting, warmed by bright sun, and I feel now a desperate need to grab at this memory; to preserve the comfort of being with my father, to record his anecdotes and loving enthusiasm.
I am beginning to feel old, but, at the same time, I’m swamped by feelings of never having grown up at all.
When Amanda opened the blinds this morning, the world outside was blanketed by fog: our first Autumn mist of the year.
From the river, half a kilometre away, the ferry’s foghorn lowed.
Signs of autumn have been settling throughout September, of course. We have had the heating on a few nights over the last week and I have been wearing long-sleeved tops, instead of tee-shirts, when I cycle or walk. Thanks to Tia, I have watched the passing of summer in Firestone Copse, as the blackberries fruited, ripened and, now, are beginning to wither on the brambles. A fortnight ago, there were still mushrooms all round the woods, layered on tree stumps and poking through the undergrowth, but they are, for the most part, past now; either gone completely or looking wrinkled, slimy, deathlike.
Yesterday evening, in wonderful autumn sunset weather, I saw the first major turn of leaf colour, and was walking over fallen leaves for the first time his year. I took Tia off the main path, across a hidden bridge on the path that, after the winter rain sets in, will be inaccessible, as it was all last winter, When I reached the top of the last descent to the creek, the sunlight off the water screamed up at me through the woods, white and fresh, rather than yellow and warm, as it has been through the summer.
A man was at the creek edge, by the bench, throwing stones into the water for his dog to chase. Tia, who doesn’t like swimming, waded along the shallows, barking at the other dog to come and play, but not quite able to summon up the courage to throw herself in and join in the fun.
Later, I bumped into two friends who were having an after-work walk. It was a lovely surprise, but threw me out of my dream: my woods-peace. I had hoped to make it back to the main path in time to see the low sun on the bank that rises up from the path, but we talked for a little too long. By the time we made our way back, the sun was set and twilight was setting in, the woods off the path turning dark, with the sense that life was stirring within. Tia had become bored, waiting for us, and disappeared, causing anxiety and shaming me. Eventually, as the shadows on the path were turning from chocolate to black, she came bounding out of the woods, tongue lolling out of her excited grin, as if butter wouldn’t melt, and we came home to a delayed supper and annoyed wife.
And so to this morning. I am working late today: my last class finishes at eight-thirty, so I don’t have to start until midday. Thus, we lingered in bed and I got a second pot of tea; a luxury usually reserved for the weekend. I put on the kettle and opened the blind above the sink to see a forest of webs over the denuded jasmine outside the kitchen window. I grabbed my phone and went outside to get photos. The paving slabs were cold beneath my bare feet, the air damp and fresh, the stillness of the fog enclosing me like a shelter.
Something sharp, joyful and clear will be remembered, when the irritations, fears and sorrows of this time in my life are swallowed by the passing of time. The blessedness of living through nature’s greatest truth is shaping this period in my life: the inevitability of change, and the awareness that that is life’s brightest magic.
We had thunder last night, a huge storm that got trapped over the Solent, as they sometimes do, confined between Portsdown Hill on the mainland, and the downs on the southern side of the Island. I went upstairs to check on the cat, who was fine, and sat on the table in our bedroom window, looking out at the flashes that lit the sky from East to West. I kept my eyes forward, in a meditative state, waiting for lightning bolts to appear within my view, and inside five minutes I saw several: beautiful, brutal, jagged lines of pure white, linking the night cloud to the horizon like ruptures in the sky.
This morning dawned clear. Last week had given us glorious summer weather, but Saturday had been dull and wet, culminating in the storm as night fell. Today is bright, summery, but with the fresh aftermath of the storm.
Amanda and I got up early enough to take Tia out before getting bogged down in the weekend obligations to family, house and friends. We decided to go to Compton Beach, on the south west of the Island. It’s a bit of a haul to get there, driving through Newport and then on out to the South Coast, but, at low tide, it is one of the glories of living here. Low tide was at 9:15 this morning: we got there at about 8:30, and the sand, peppered with seaweed, rocks and tide pools, and with the chalk cliffs of Freshwater as its backdrop, looked like a setting from a fantasy novel.
We walked eastwards, into the sun, the sound of a strong surf accompanying our lazy chat. Amanda has been taking dog training classes and Tia, despite her limitless capacity for excitement, is becoming more manageable. She sprinted ahead, but came back to us when Amanda called, and ran delighted rings around us when she had received a reward for her obedience. We went further than we had intended, because we met other walkers, and got talking, or Tia was playing with their dogs as we walked, but it didn’t matter. It was Sunday, the sun was out, and we live in a beautiful, beautiful place.
After a week of news about heavy snow, we finally got our turn yesterday lunchtime. The magic of a fairly heavy snowfall hit the Island and, by dusk, we had a good few centimetres turning East Cowes into a beautiful playground.
Earlier in the week, I walked Tia in Firestone Copse and was checked out by this creature. He was unflustered by Tia’s presence and sat scanning me, hopping this way and that on the branch, until he decided I wasn’t very interesting, and flew off.
The weather then was bitterly cold but dry. The ground in the woods, which has been boot-ruining wet for most of the winter, had frozen to a crisp dryness. Puddles were like frosted windows and streams looked solid, unless the light hit them a certain way, when it was possible to make out the movement of a reduced trickle beneath the ice. My headphones gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, and I have been walking without music or talking books in my ears, becoming used to the sounds of the woods. In the eerie cold, even with the slight, distant reminder of traffic if the wind is in the right direction, I have heard birdsong, the creaking of trees, the breath of leaves and cry of birds of prey.
Yesterday morning, Amanda and I took Tia back there, and we had a walk of blissful cold. Work was in the process of being suspended: I was due to go to Ryde for my usual long Thursday, but the weather and travel warnings had made my boss worried and he had cancelled classes. While we were walking, the admin officer phoned and said I should work from home. Even though I had a lot of work to do, I felt as though I were on holiday.
My desk at home faces away from the window, so I missed the start of the snow, but by two o’clock I had done a reasonable amount and got up. Already, the ground was covered with a couple of centimetres and the sky was full of swirling, windswept flakes. I rushed downstairs, put on my boots, coat and gloves and took Tia out for her first ever experience of snow.
It’s difficult to know what she made of it. I don’t think she’s very keen on snowfall, but she seemed amused by the snow on the ground. We walked up to the rec and round it, and I thought that I would take her along to the new estate where we had walked a lot over Christmas, and which had caught my imagination then with its unearthly, film-set desolation. However, Amanda phoned and said she’d finished work and would come and join us, so we walked back to meet her. The cold got into us fairly quickly, and so we headed home.
I checked what our house looked like in the snow: I was interested to see how efficient our insulation is-not too bad, it appears. However, I took several photos and was pleased with the results. I have not taken many pictures of our house, and we have been here for seven years now. I put them here for my own reference, as much as anything.
The snow lasted until mid-evening, when freezing rain replaced it. This morning was noticeably warmer and, when I took Tia out at 9 o’clock, the freezing rain and slight thaw had made the footpaths treacherous: great patches of glassy rinks covered large areas. There was, though, hardly any traffic: for the first time since I have lived here, I could hear no traffic noise for long stretches, and I walked in the road, through slush.
We headed to the estate, and it was transformed. The snow had not made it any prettier, but it was alive. There were people everywhere, mostly in family groups, with sledges and tin trays, having fun together. I did not, of course, photograph people: that would have been weird, but I walked Tia through the estate laughing and chatting with people having an unexpected holiday.
It’s snowing again now, but lighter. I am going out in a while, to buy my Friday beer. I am hoping for warmth. It’s been nice, but I want spring to start.
I have been back at work for a month and, in any other year, I think Christmas would have been largely forgotten by this point. This year, though, even as we enter February and we begin to notice that nightfall is getting later, I am nagged by a lingering nostalgia for my Christmas holidays. I keep bringing it up in conversation, this sense of a break, not just from work, but from the dull trudge of life itself, as if some spell was cast around our lives for a fleeting, precious fortnight.
My parents had said that they wanted Christmas alone, to celebrate my father having had a year without needing hospital treatment. In the week before the Christmas holidays, my boss had cancelled classes for training and paperwork which, in the end, amounted to only one day’s compulsory attendance, so there was a lazy week running up to the break. Thus, time between my last class of 2017 and the first class of 2018 was, unofficially, my own. Best of all, the holiday itself was calendrically perfect. Christmas day was a Monday, so we had a clear week off: a weekend, followed by a week, then another weekend and a bank holiday Monday before I had to return to teaching. It felt like the ur-holiday: the holiday upon which all holidays should be patterned.
I did not read or write, other thanfourblogposts. Instead, I listened to Harry Potter audiobooks as I cooked, or sat staring out of the window, or as I walked the dog.
I walked the dog a lot. I loaded her into the car and took her to Firestone Copse, where I let her run gleefully through the woods as I ambled in an autonomous daze on the circuit round the main path, letting Stephen Fry’s beautiful reading of Rowling’s richly layered fantasy insulate me from any serious thought. I puffed on my vape and enjoyed bright cold or grey drizzle in the same steady happiness.
Amanda stayed busy, and was often out, buying stuff or meeting friends or family. When she had the car I took Tia through the new estate at the top of East Cowes, out of town to Whippingham village, and then along the footpath behind the church, and over the stile into the farm by the river. There I could let Tia off her lead and walk across the sodden meadow, staring down at the grey arc of the river Medina, while Harry, Ron and Hermione puzzled over the escape of Sirius Black. Tia ran great, delighted circles in the long, rough grass, stopping only to come running up to me, to collect a treat, before haring away again.
At the far end of that field is another stile into another field and, at that one’s far end is the wood with the demolished factory site, fenced off because of contamination. The woods have a poisoned character; bewitched by their pollution, but there is a path through them that leads to the road down to the Folly Inn. On a particularly heavily-clouded, drizzly morning, I went through the woods with Tia and we walked down to the pub. Inside, the pre-Christmas weekday feeling was like manufactured cosiness: I bought a pint and Tia sat beneath my chair as I drank it, lost to real life.
One afternoon, in the week before the official start of the holidays, when my boss had let me know that I could work from home, I finished updating a load of student folders and took Tia out in the mid-afternoon, with perhaps an hour and a half of daylight left. We walked along the top of the new estate, and I intended to go along to the Whippingham field, but as I crossed the road at the far end of the estate, I looked back and realised that there was a path down the final street, behind the line of trees that marks the edge of the housing before the new road. A woman was walking a dog there, and I noticed, for the first time, that the houses, modern and cramped as they are, are built in the style of Georgian town houses, in a sort of model-village style. I was intrigued. I walked back and took the dog down the road that the woman had come from, imagining that there was a village, with life and interest here, rather than a dormitory development of off-the-shelf compartment houses for people who never interacted.
The terrifying sterility and isolation-in-a-crowd nature of the estate is belied by some clever but deceptive design. There is a fake village green, around which some fake-georgian terraced houses with attic room gables are painted in various ‘authentic’ colours, but the residents have already let the upkeep slide, so that mould is showing on the fascia and soffits, and the blue-painted houses, in particular, are looking weathered. And, apart from the occasional dog-walker, there is no one about. This is an estate designed for driving to and from. You have your allotted parking spaces and you lock your door, and you live your life away from the place where you live. There are no shops, no pubs, no church or community centre. The estate is a lot of bedrooms and TV rooms. The closest thing to a community facility are the construction business offices: Barratts, Wilson Homes and one other, whose name escapes me, maintain showrooms there, to persuade people to make their homes in this abandonded filmset of a non-community.
Harry Potter seemed to suit this bizarre environment perfectly. The place is the Muggle state in redbrick, render and wood-frame. It is even less life-enhancing than Little Whinging, in that most of the houses here do not have gardens. They have strips, with pots. There is quite a lot of artificial grass.
I became a little fascinated with the area.
Further down the new road, as it bends back along the bottom of the estate, and follows the river back towards East Cowes, there is a small development of ‘self-build’ plots. These challenge the uniformity of the rest of the estate with an alternative conformity of cuboid grandiosity, all cladding and glass. At dusk and after dark, the lives within the ones which have been completed and are occupied are on display to every passerby. You have to remind yourself that these are private dwellings, and it is rude to look, because their lights seeps out across the road, like pollution. Wall-mounted TVs of migraine-inducing vastness make it appear as though the flatpack palaces are inhabited by two-dimensional giants. The people within might be projections; a new Google project of a pixelated populace: Homo Alexa.
At the end of the self-build development there is one house, not yet complete, that defies the pattern, in detail if not in dimensions. Like all the others, it is a vast, three storey block, occupying the entire space of its uniform plot, except for the obligatory multiple car parking space that replaces any garden. However, instead of the wall of windows, it is plain-fronted, with a long, Elizabethan-style gable of nine small windows. It is strange and rather beautiful, this defiance of the Grand Designs norm. It hints at a shadowed interior lit by reading lights and standard lamps, rather than LED spots: dark wood pannelling and bookshelves rather than magnolia paint and flatscreen hugeness.
We walked on. The elite section, with the self build plots, is bounded on its far end by a large area of grass and woods, creating a break between that odd island of conformist creativity and the brick homogeneity of the rest of the estate. A drainage ditch that will probably be known as ‘the stream’ by generations of children who grow up in the area runs round the edge of the wood. There is litter in there: a plastic barrier section, and a fire extinguisher: barbed wire that the builders didn’t bother to remove trails through the undergrowth. I let Tia off and she disappeared into the woods. On my headphones, Harry, Ron and Hermione heard the execution of Buckbeak in horror.
Over the following week, I explored the estate. I tried to get out of the house by about half past three, although I was not putting my watch on most days, so got it wrong sometimes. Some days I took Tia out on my own, and on a few days Amanda was free and would come with me, and we might go up to Carisbrooke Castle or to Firestone Copse, but I kept drifting back to the estate. Darkness fell by four thirty, and I often walked in the dark, although I liked to be home by five, ideally, to start supper, with Stephen Fry transferred to the bluetooth speaker in the kitchen.
On New Year’s Eve, Amanda and I took a walk and I tried to explain my fascination with the place. We walked around the estate on the route I had taken on my first exploration, then, as I had done on that first occasion, we let Tia off her lead to run in the woods. Amanda became nervous when Tia didn’t come back after five minutes, so we walked around the edge of the woods, to the top, where the bottom of the main estate reaches. Tia appeared, bounding ecstatically up to us, her ears flying behind her and, instead of going back down to the bottom road, along the Medina, through the new road that is as yet undeveloped, we walked up through the middle of the estate.
Amanda’s not a Harry Potter fan, and is amused and slightly embarrassed by my enthusiasm for it, but, in the gathering dark, she listened sympathetically to my explanation of how the events of the audiobooks had laid themselves into my memories of the estate. I was close to the end of The Goblet of Fire by now, and the wonderful sense of time passing, and events piling up like lived memory that is such a strength of the series, had taken full hold of me. We held hands, in thick gloves, and our conversation drifted. We were gearing ourselves to go out for the night, which we both knew we would enjoy, but which felt like hard work just then. Neither of us was eager to get home, to get dressed and ready to go out, or to be sociable. We were savouring one another, reflecting on the lazy week we had shared and wishing that life could be like this all the time.
It was, though, a wonderful evening. Several of our friends were planning to give up alcohol for 2018. I had drunk steadily through the holiday, usually having a first whisky as I cooked and drinking a couple of cans of beer through the evening, so I was planning to do dry January. New Years Eve was, therefore, a blowout. Amy, a dear friend of Amanda’s and the wife of my friend Andy, was on particularly fine form; her gift for acerbic comedy at its sharpest. We had planned to get home early, because we were worried about fireworks disturbing Tia and the cat, but we stayed until two, playing a card game that I had not heard of before, but which suits the sort of vulgar humour we enjoy with our friends.
In the morning, I was hungover. Not blindly, agonisingly hungover, but low-battery and grateful for Amanda’s painkiller stash. We had arranged for Amanda’s parents to visit for lunch and so I cooked and she cleaned and we had a very nice lunch. In the afternoon, Amanda’s sister and her partner came round and we all sat in the sitting room, drinking tea and chatting. The afternoon drew on and we realised Tia needed a walk. I got my coat, scarf, hat and gloves on and left the warm family gathering to take her out.
We walked up to the rec, by the old estate, onto which the new one, which had been my weird stomping ground for the past week, has been grafted. Harry Potter was in the maze, on the final challenge of the Triwizard Tournament, still trusting the fake Mad-eye Moody, being drawn towards his nemesis and the final destruction of his childhood innocence. Half in Hogwarts, half in East Cowes, I pulled Tia into the old estate, finding my way through streets that I hadn’t visited yet, of well-established houses, with some tidy front gardens, some messy; with cars on blocks and bicycles leaning against front walls; some litter, some mess, but the clutter of an established community. I got a little lost, finding my way down a street that ended in a communal car park and a wall and retraced my steps, passing an old victorian house outside which a discrete noticeboard advertised that it serves as a residential home for people recovering from substance abuse. There was a brightly lit kitchen with posters and artwork tacked all round it, but no one there. All the same, it looked warm, protective, loving.
The road bent round, but an unpaved alley led up to the main road, Beatrice Avenue. I took the alley, which was lined with winter-bare trees, and Tia sniffed her way along it, pulling at her lead, enjoying the rich stench of litter and leaf moss. As the view ahead cleared, I could see across the field beyond, up towards Osborne House Park and, slightly dimmed by a streetlamp, a glorious moon dominated the sky. Remus Lupin leapt into my thoughts, but so did the love by which I am surrounded and the sheer luck I enjoy, to be alive, housed, married to Amanda, free to take the time to daydream and waste my consciousness on a silly fantasy like the Harry Potter books. The awareness that I would be returning to work the next day had been playing on me, but it suddenly seemed less of a hardship, and more like a privilege. I stopped to take some photos, struggling with gloves, pockets, and Tia’s excited rummaging, and these were the shaky results.
Last night, a Saturday night, the night after the first full moon since New Year and a month into my back at work routine, I made soup. I had finished the Harry Potter audiobooks in the second week of January and resisted the urge to go back to the beginning or start reading the books again. Instead, I was listening to a recording of The Daughter of Time, by Jospehine Tey, from iplayer, beautifully read by Paul Young.
The soup was just about ready, the bread baked. I was tasting and seasoning and I grated some nutmeg into the pan. As I do with spices, I sniffed the nutmeg pot as I put the clove back and something about the smell seemed to stop time. I was a month back, and the Christmas holiday flashed across my inner eye like a tapestry suddenly lit up: the memory of discovering the strange estate on the edge of my hometown; the precious comfort of Christmas Eve, decorating the tree with Amanda, the smell of a glass of whisky and a lit fire; the peace of walking home from midnight mass at one o’clock on Christmas morning; watching the new Star Wars with Iain and Jo and enjoying their friendship; the feeling of wet clothes and waterlogged ground underfoot as I trudged across the field behind Whippingham Church.
I had tears in my eyes. I thought to myself, “I’m happy”, and it seemed like a weird condition, although I do not think of myself as an unhappy person. I took the food through to Amanda, but couldn’t find a way to tell her what had just happened to me. It didn’t matter: it was good soup, and to enjoy a meal with her, in front of the fire, with the dog sleeping in the corner, was enough.
It’s half-past-nine on Christmas Eve, 2017, and we’re still here. The world still lives and breathes. Eight hours ahead of us in the U.S., Donald Trump will be waking up in an hour, all excited about what naughty Santa has brought him, and preparing his tantrum if he hasn’t got what he wants, but we are still here. It’s been a funny old year, but we’ve almost made it through it.
In Danceswithcats Towers, we have a fire lit, and we have put the tree up. It’s a somewhat reduced tree this year, as we have to raise it out of reach of Tia, who is not routinely destructive but tends to express her curiosity by eating things. Still, it looks lovely, and its presence has made me feel, at last, that sense of security and warmth that is loaded onto the mid-winter festival.
Each year, my anticipation of Christmas has to war with the clamour of obligation and commercial pressure that Christmas bears. We spent yesterday in a bit of a panic shop, as we lost the previous day to a strange adventure: I had, we think, given myself nicotine poisoning making e-cigarette liquid and passed out three times in twenty four hours. Doctors don’t like to hear about fifty-year old men passing out, and so we spent several hours in A&E as I was given blood-pressure tests, blood sugar tests and an ECG. All perfect, I’m proud to report, but I’m fairly sure the doctor who interviewed me has me marked as a drug addict.
Anyway, the fridge is full, our presents to one another are wrapped, our cards to our neighbours have been distributed and we have finally relaxed. We don’t put up Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve: I’m fussy about that. I hate the way seasonal decorations gather dust over a festival extended by commercial exploitation: twelve days is quite long enough to have silly lights on a plastic tree, and it gives Christmas Eve its own purpose.
We have also had the Sting Christmas album on for the first time this year and it sounds as good as it has every year for almost as long as we have been together. I am not a particular fan of his, but Amanda has a soft spot for him and I bought her the album the year we married. We played it to death that Christmas and then put it away, not to be touched again until the following year and we have continued to do that every Christmas since. It is a very beautiful thing: mysterious, familiar and old.
Amanda had an early start this morning, so she could make biscuits and chocolates as presents for friends and family which she distributed this afternoon. She’s off to bed now but I’m staying up to go to midnight mass in an hour or so. I’ve got another favourite album on: An Evening With Bach by Voices of Music. This is an album I had forgotten that I owned. I’d downloaded it when I was a member of the wonderful-but-odd Magnatune.com. I paid a monthly fee and had access to its entire library and this was one of the gems. I was reminded of it this evening as I was cooking supper and doing some prep for tomorrow. I had the radio on and Radio 3 had an evening of Bach, including a Bach-themed episode of their wonderful series, Words and Music. It included a snippet of Schlummert Ein from the cantata Ich Habe Genug, BMV 82 : I can’t tell you how beautiful I think this little aria is. It is both sad and wondrous, vast in tone and yet a small, modest piece. It has the same underlying awe of God that marks his Masses and Oratorio and yet, it is just a single voice, singing for only a few minutes; a few repeated phrases and some very contained ornamentation in the string quartet accompaniment.
Unfortunately, they haven’t posted their recording of the aria on their excellent You tube channel so, to hear their performance, you’ll have to buy the CD or join Magnatune, which is now very expensive, to get a download. Most of the Youtube versions of the aria seem to be sung by tenors, which I don’t like the sound of at all, but there is this one by Janet Baker. It’s with a full orchestra and it’s all a bit richer and more flowery than the Voices of Music recording, but I love Janet Baker’s voice and the music, speaking as it does of the longing for God with simple perfection, transcends the differences.
I am gradually coming to terms with dog-ownership. I still struggle with the presence of a restless and demanding animal in the house and her talent for destruction. This afternoon, for instance, she has eaten the lace on my new pair of vegan boots, for which I have saved for some time. Nevertheless, on the whole, Tia is extremely sweet-natured and is beginning to understand commands and, when she’s not distracted by smells, birds, the cat or other dogs, is attentive and obedient enough. I’ve walked her without Amanda a fair bit, and I am beginning to really enjoy the time I spend with her.
It’s a Norman castle, with a high keep and a large bailey that has a variety of buildings within it, as well as a lovely walled garden. The bailey walls are almost complete and you can walk around them, which offers amazing views of the Island in all directions. The first picture above shows Tia, on guard, this morning.
There are fields and outer battlements, mostly Elizabethan and eighteenth century, around the outside, and dogs are free to run off-lead there. We started our visit with a circuit round the outside of the castle and Tia galloped about, inquisitive and gleeful, disappearing into the woods that ring the area before reappearing, with a look of joy, and racing towards me like a happy hare. One of the tricks a dog owner needs to develop is confidence in their animal. I am gradually learning that she will always return. She may wander, but she won’t go far without checking back with me.
After we’d had our gallop, we went into the castle. It was still early and the staff were getting ready for the last day of half-term events. We stopped at the donkey stables, which Tia wasn’t sure about, and then went up to the tea room, which is in a beautiful castle building, nestled against the bailey wall. We sat in the courtyard and I had my coffee and, unasked, a member of staff brought out a dog bowl of water for Tia. I was very moved by the kindness.
We were up in Suffolk for a few days this week, visiting my parents, who were charmed by the dog. Amanda wanted to do various bits of shopping, so on Friday I took Tia over to West Stow Country Park, which I loved when I was a child. There is a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village there, but it is fenced and dogs are forbidden. However, the park itself is large and contains a lake, made from an old gravel pit, and has several long trails looping through it. When I was last there, fifteen years ago, it was still quite a bare place, with only young trees. The woods have thickened and matured now, and the lake looks quite natural. A river, the Lark, is well-maintained and is the only place I have ever seen otter trail in the wild, although that was when I was in my teens.
Tia and I walked around the lake, on a lovely late-autumn afternoon, with the sun low in the sky. We saw only a few other people and she was in her element. Unfortunately, there is a ‘dogs-on-leads-only’ rule; Bury St Edmunds, being Tory to its very core, seems to be a place that loves rules for their own sake, as I can’t see what harm a dog running around in that large open space could do. However, I am an example of obedience, so Tia didn’t get to canter about, beyond the speed I can manage.
She seemed to enjoy it, though, and I achieved the peace that, as I am learning, a long walk in the company of a dog can inspire.
Yesterday, before we left Bury for the tedious journey home, we went into town to do some last-minute shopping. There is a science fiction exhibition on at Moyses Hall Museum and various cosplay people were standing outside, wearing Star Wars and Judge Dredd costumes and that expression of defiant embarrassment that cosplay fantasists maintain. I asked the stormtrooper to hold Tia’s lead while I took a photo, but she was unimpressed and failed to pose. The sweet young jedi made up for Tia’s failure. I have a feeling I will treasure these images.