Sunday, 7 October 2018

To Swim In Unfamiliar Waters, And Emerge Enlightened

Being as on-trend as I am doesn’t come easy, and this post is an example of that. Over the last couple of days, I have had an obsessive relationship with a rap album by the actor and rapper Riz Ahmed. For a little while, I thought I had discovered a hidden gem, but it turns out that it is, in fact, two years old and has even been reviewed in Newsweek.

No matter. I love it, and this blog is about things I love. First, though, I need to indulge in a little self-justification.


For many years, I have sought serenity in music, rather than challenge or enlightenment. My escape from the depression and desperation of my twenties and thirties caused a change in my musical tastes. Rock, pop and dance gave way to classical, jazz and (my secret shame) lounge electronica. Ideas are there, at least in the classical and jazz, but they are behind the music, giving rise to it, for the most part; not written into its performance.

Hip-hop and its descendants have had hardly any impact on me. I used, sometimes, to listen to Trevor Nelson on Radio 1 when I was delivering pizzas in the year after I graduated from university, and, I bought Dre Dre’s 2001 in a burst of curiosity after hearing it played by colleagues when I ran a warehouse office, but my feelings about it mirrored the summary on its Wikipedia page: “2001 received generally positive reviews from critics, many of whom praised the music although some found the lyrics objectionable.”

I was a taxi driver in Portsmouth when Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in Da Corner filled radio with a convincing British rap voice. I was paying off a deep swamp of debts then, though, and living in insecure housing, so buying music was a rare luxury. When I did go to gigs or copy a CD off a mate, it was with a group of students I’d worked with before I got my taxi license, and they favoured the bland brit rock of the time – Snow Patrol, Elbow and Muse – , or the type of American rock that I imagine was what U.S. army tank crews listened to as they shelled villagers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and targeted Arabic journalists: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Green Day, but not Blink 182, whose fifth album, for reasons I cannot now imagine, I broke my self-imposed austerity to buy. Jungle, Dubstep, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Grime; these were for young people living metropolitan lives, and I was no longer young, and was stuck in a provincial city where local radio playlists ruled. Years later, for a year or two, working in the virtual campus in Camp Hill Prison, I was surrounded by young men for whom music was rap, Grime and their subsets, leavened with a little R&B. It was the people who excited me, though: their stories and attitudes, resentments and hopes. The music they championed left me cold, and feeling excluded. I realise the irony of this.

So, I enjoyed the grime I heard on the radio, but I didn’t take it to heart or listen to it in a way that brought it alive to me. Similarly, although I used to occasionally listen to the BBC Radio Asian Network when the taxi I hired had a DAB radio, and was quite a fan of DJ Nihal for a while, I have not really followed the influence of British Asian voices on pop music. I am too old for the anger and lust and demonstrative introversion of pop music now: the season of semen and sin has passed for me, and the pop and rock music that does reach me all sounds so alike, so much a variation on half-a-dozen repetitive themes, that none of it rises above the status of background noise.


Via an interview with him on The Daily Show (for which you’ll need a VPN service unless you’re in the United States) I came across Riz Ahmed’s music, released under the name MC Riz. He and Trevor Noah discussed his first released track, Post 9/11 Blues, which was banned in the U.S.

I searched for him and found he had two albums on Bandcamp. Neither included this track, but I streamed the more recent one and was mesmerised. I paid a fiver, downloaded it, and put it on my little music player, then I took the dog for a walk and listened through the album. I came home, plugged the music player into the kitchen speaker, and played the album through again as I cooked supper. This morning, the first thing I wanted to do was to play it through again.

It’s called Englistan. I’ve embedded it at the top of this page. If you haven’t clicked play, do so now.


n.b.: I’ve transcribed the lyrics in the quotes below as I hear them. I may have made errors.

The album – he calls it a mixtape – is a series of meditations on the pressures of identity. Specifically, he is concerned with the conflict between his Englishness and his identity as the child of Pakistani immigrants.

Since we were small/we’ve been taught a certain way to be is law/It’s deep-seated, like genes are for/”My son, our people came to these shores/with nothing/honour is all we brought/so keep your culture/keep the thought, son”/Last of the Mohicans talk/Since we felt like outsiders/this helped define us/and we made it our choice/but now, I’m just confused/half-Mohican, half-cowboy/Cos life slips/ideas mix/Is it best of both/or two lives I live?

For a white, provincial, middle-aged man like me, for whom mass culture pretends to speak, it is difficult to imagine the specifics of such a situation. Again and again, Riz’s lyrics are revelations.

‘Scuse me moosh/Pardon me/nah, don’t mind me/I’m usually lost/hard to see/…the usual crop of wannabes/all get in the way/hiding me from public view/I’m not included/in any scene as a useful unit/Hybridity gets low YouTube hits…Paki till I drop/UK till I lose it/Never fitting in/Let the beat prove it

However, While that is a central issue, it is only one element in a rich set of themes, and much of the result is broader and more universal than just Asian representation, important and credible as that concern is. The title track, and the first one on the album, sounds, at first listen, as though it mocks Englishness. The chorus says…

God save the Queen/now she ain’t mates with me/but she keeps my paper green/Plus we are neighbours see/On this little island/politeness mixed with violence/This is England

This is not a specific view. Even on the Isle of Wight, his list of grievances about the sheer awfulness and sordidness of the state of England now resonate vividly.

Where the money you make/And the man you are/stand in opposites/so you drink too hard/Where the banks rob you/and the news is half the truth/wrapped up in boobs and arse/Pigs hit kids so/bricks hit windows/and the high street burns/with broken dreams and herb/Only thing you can’t find in Tesco/is that/and a sense of worth/

However, there is affection, and this line gripped me every time I played the song.

Is Britain Great?/Well, hey! Don’t ask me/But it’s where I live/And why my heart beats.

Isn’t that a central conflict in Englishness for all of us: the weary, stupid prejudice of English exceptionalism, constantly being pumped out at us against all evidence? I have felt this; what he says. This stupid myth of British ‘greatness seems to me to be a national leg-iron, smothering the more realistic love that we feel for the idea of a national identity that is at the root of how we are aware of ourselves.

If Englistan had simply stuck to these themes, continuing to explore them, I think I would have found this a fascinating and enlightening album, but on the fourth track, Sunburst, Ahmed changes tack, to a far more personal topic.

I was caught out by this song. I was depressive for two decades, and it has left its shadows, although I rarely think, explicitly, about it now. Nothing that anyone says about depression is new: its mundanity is part of its cruel strength. It is a paper tiger; an ephemeral bully that, when it has you in its grip, feels all-powerful and inescapable.  Ahmed tackles it head-on and comprehensively. Inertia, self-loathing, exhaustion and, centrally, the apparent uselessness of all the trite remedies that only work against despair when you are already through the worst of it, are muttered urgently through clenched teeth in just over four minutes. Through it, though, an R&B refrain repeats and builds the only remedy any of us can offer a depressive: reassurance.

I want you to know now/sunburst will soon come/after rainclouds

Riz duets this chorus with the guest singer, Tawiah between two verses of bleak descriptive rhyming, then there’s a break, and he sings a final verse of brave, common-sense defiance and advice.

First things first/don’t beat yourself up/it makes things worse/It’s not your fault/it’s all just chemical/You’re not a prick/You’re sick/it’s medical…You’ll ride it out and then you’ll laugh/Please believe that this too shall pass

Behind this verse, Tawiah’s voice gradually comes to the fore, repeating the reassurance. I’ve not found it easy to get to grips with R&B voices, but her lovely, emotive, crying voice is used perfectly here.

I was impressed by, and drawn to, Ahmed before I got to this track: I felt close to him after I had heard it.

In the next track, A Few Bob, Tawiah features again. This is the first song to use a narrative structure to carry its theme. Bob, a hapless everyman, is caught in debt and the financial crash. Tawiah sings:

When the house of cards/comes falling down/I’m left holding the joker/Did we come so far/for it all to fall down?/I gave you my dreams and you broke them.

Incidentally, last night Amanda and I went to a screening of a film about the NHS selloff, whose most shocking revelation was the degree to which the dismantlement of the U.K. state has been planned by American corporations and their treasonous British lackeys. This song reflects the fact that young people, who don’t share my lingering delusion in the fundamental decency of the British order, have been perfectly aware of this treason for years.


I didn’t mean this to be a track-by-track review of the album, but each song is compelling in a different way, building on what has come before without repeating. I wanted to talk about the production, which is as much a part of my fascination with Englistan as the vividness of the brilliantly observed lyrics. The electronic music is cold, restless and often disruptive, playing a part in the dramatic structure of the arguments or stories the songs tell. Much of it is in minor keys; the musical theme of the title track is one of the few obviously Asian-influenced segments: a looped phrase of, perhaps, bansuri? My ignorance shames me. I know hardly anything about Indian music, and just as little about how electronic music is produced. I assume it’s all done on Cubase on a Mac.

In other tracks, there are string duets and acoustic guitar trills, echoing, to my ears, Philip Glass or Max Richter minimalist loops. On Sunburst, this is reflected in an atonal opening theme, and the song is punctuated by anxious organ tones and percussive bell strikes until what sound like harp arpeggios lay a suggestion of hope and optimism over the darkness. However, it is on the penultimate track that the modern operatic voice comes to its powerful conclusion.

Benaz is theatre as song. Ahmed’s comic acting chops shine in the final track, I Ain’t Being Racist But…, but in Benaz, it is pure, sincere acting. It is a poem-play about the murder of Banaz Mahmoud, an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee who fell in love with an Iranian Kurdish man and was killed by her father and uncle. The true story has been sensitively and exhaustively documented in a 2012 film, Banaz: A Love Story, which, I warn you, makes hard watching. Ahmed’s rendition of the story is an imagined one, and it is beautiful. He takes her experience and makes it day-to-day; how inescapable young love is, even in the context of a life lived subject to tyranny; especially when the love is the only apparent hope of an escape from that tyranny. It is Romeo and Juliet set in pebble-dashed Greater-London terraces and fluorescent-lit Tesco Metros, with the hope of escape represented by woodland and wet grass. Woven through it is the dance of cello and violin, acoustic guitar and restrained electronic chords that heighten the tension.

It should be a story of unrelieved defeat. That it is not is thanks to a refrain sung by Ayana Witter-Johnson. It seems trite typed below, but, in context, it is gorgeous.

If I knew I’d live in shame/Just to be near you/I would do it all again/I would do it all again.

But even with that redemption, it is impossible to escape that this is the story of a reckless, stupid, ugly and bitterly cruel crime against a gentle, kind and brave young couple. Banaz Mahmoud and her lover, Rahmat Suleimani, are in my prayers, as is her braver-than-brave sister, who now lives her life in hiding.

Part of the discomfort of the film about Banaz is the way in which this family and community tragedy became a political theme and then a racist trope. This is expressed baldly in the final track of Englistan, a satirical monologue without music, in the voice of an archetypal (although unconvincingly literate) white supremacist ranter. It is funny, but it is also a catalogue of despair, especially in the context of all that has come before.


In the Newsweek interview to which I linked at the opening of this post, Riz Ahmed is quoted as saying,

I describe it as a love letter to modern Britain, which is multicultural Britain…A lot of people feel like they’ve been jilted by their country recently, or alienated, or wronged. Their country has cheated on them in some way in the past couple of years…Love letters do sometimes contain complaints.

What he has done, for me, is to describe his and my country in terms stripped of all the comforting bollocks: all the mythopoeic fog that is constructed to preserve a privilege-zone of hierarchical certainty for a subset of English identity. I love my English culture, but I know just enough history to understand that culture is not fixed: we remake it every day, and that is a beautiful thing, if we acknowledge the vitality of our variety as a national group. The idea of a fixed and unchanging England, that has been ‘betrayed’ by change is a lie, and it is a lie that hurts us, belittles us, makes us sordid and stupid.


I am a long way from my areas of authority writing about rap, and about British Asian voices. I have approached this review as a fellow-Briton, in admiration for a work of art that has gripped my imagination and touched many of my concerns. If I have said anything stupid, made any dad-mistakes while writing about an artform about which I have barely any education beyond the research I did for this post, forgive me. I mean only respect for an album that has lit the past few days for me, doing what art should always try to do: opening up the world for me, touching something within me and, ultimately, enlightening me.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Remember Me…

I meant to sit down and write a books post today, but I have been distracted, and in the most enjoyable way.

Last Christmas Eve, I mentioned in a post that I love the album ‘An Evening With Bach‘, by the American early music ensemble, Voices Of Music. Since I made that post, they seem to have revamped their website, because it now hosts a video playlist of over 130 high definition videos of their recordings. Sadly, Schlummert Ein, the aria from the cantata Ich Habe Genug, that I love so much, is not among them, but you can listen to it here, if Magnatune’s website is behaving, which it often is not.

Another find today was the libretto of the cantata, which is here. Knowing the aria so well, I felt a sense of familiarity: the meaning of the German poetry, which I did not understand, seemed to have already formed itself in my love of the music. The first aria, Ich Habe Genug, will linger as a favourite poem, I think:

It is enough.
I have held the Saviour, the hope of all peoples,
In the warm embrace of my arms.
It is enough.

I have seen him,
My faith has impressed Jesus on my heart;
Now I wish this very day
To depart from here with joy.

The video posted above is of Dido’s Lament, from Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell. The recording of the opera I favour is the 2008 CD featuring Simone Kermes, which appears to have had a reissue last year, with a moody new cover image. I prefer the earlier one.

Anyway, just for comparison’s sake, I’ve embedded a copy of Kermes’ performance below. I didn’t choose the picture, BTW.

Entirely unrelated to her corsetry, I think Kermes has a remarkable, unique voice, and her phrasing seems to me naturalistic in a way very few operatic singers achieve. Thanks to Dido and Aeneas, I have become a fan, and have bought the CD of her recording of Blood Wedding: a setting of Lorca’s play by the Danish Composer Hans-Erik Philip. It is beyond lovely. A highlight is embedded below.

Anyway, all this fanboyishness doesn’t take away from my enthusiasm for Anna Dennis’ performance with Voices of Music, which I think is spectacular, particularly as the orchestration is probably much closer to what the seventeenth century audiences at the court of Charles II would have heard. I’d encourage you to click on the link to Voices Of Music’s website, and let their videos play through good speakers. Look out for David Tayler’s lute performances and, in particular, his accompaniment to Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist’s effortless performance of John Dowland’s Flow My Tears (Lachrimae). It’s another beloved piece of music that this remarkable group give new life.

Book reviews will have to wait.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sticking My Nose In The Nutmeg Pot

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 than four blog posts. Instead, I listened to Harry Potter audiobooks as I cooked, or sat staring out of the window, or as I walked the dog.

Tia sniffing, as she does.

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.

“The sodden meadow and the grey arc of the Medina”.

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.

All was well.