Uncertainty and uncertainty

Well, here we are – another month has come and gone. It feels at the moment as though i’m in limbo, waiting to see whether i’ll be one of those who loses their job in the Great Purge of 2010/11 and, even if i’m not, waiting to see what other nastiness may come knocking at my door. And yet in other ways i’m having the time of my life: i seem to be doing more and going to more places than in any year i can remember. Uncertainty can be motivating as well as paralysing – in different areas of the same person’s life.

After a summer spent touring art museums and the like my spirit appears to have turned to music – live music that is, something i love, ironically enough, because of the uncertainty inherent in a live performance. Even with the greatest of musicians something can go wrong or just go right without going anywhere special. But when things do go somewhere special… what a feeling to be there and hear it happen!

In the past couple of months i’ve heard Central Asian devotional music, attended a day devoted to contemporary Classical composer Helmut Lachenmann and danced in the aisles at a Ruby Turner gig. And much much more. Probably the highlights, apart from the events i’ve already mentioned, were a recital by Classical trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger at the Wigmore Hall and a performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass by the London Symphony Orchestra. Hardenberger is the ultimate trumpet virtuoso and, although that doesn’t mean he’s the ultimate trumpet player, in recital he is thrilling – almost luminescent in his skill. As for the LSO’s performance of the Glagolitic Mass, i was sat behind more double bass players than i could count (need i say more?) and the choir were fantastic. The mass itself felt more like a Slavic pagan orgy than anything Christian. As many commentators have pointed out it’s a mad, throwling blur of anguish and passion.

Now Christmas is approaching (courtesy of the retail sector, it seems to advance on us earlier each year). Although i can feel a wariness about the future dampening down my normal joy at the thought of carols and Christmas trees, it can’t put the fire out altogether. There’s a part of me that is eternally about seven or eight years old, that jumps with joy at the sight of crepe paper decorations, a steel tray of satsumas and brazil nuts, a wrapped present.

Yet of course i’m most certainly not seven or eight years old any more.  Nothing brings that home to me more than the fact that my brother – my little brother – will be forty next week. He of the angelic voice (which i heard once again just recently on a tape of us my dad made of as children), sticky out ears and solemn smile.

Time moves on – i’m reminded of a poem by Shelley, The Daemon of the World, with its recurring line:

The magic car moved on

I remember reading the poem for the first time aged about sixteen and being amused at the image of the ‘car’ which i couldn’t help picturing as a ghostly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, even though i knew Shelley was using the word to mean ‘chariot’. I thought the poem was beautiful and it certainly spoke to my inner goth – and most teenagers have an inner goth, whatever subgroup they may belong to – but the heart of the poem, its message about the transience of life, passed me by. That car has well and truly ‘moved on’ for me.

My dad’s eldest brother, Uncle P, who has always been the ‘alpha male’ of the family and who terrified me when i was small, is seriously ill with Pancreatic Cancer. My mum says he has lost so much weight he’s shrunk to almost nothing. After much procrastination i finally phoned him last month – but then couldn’t think of anything to say. What do you talk about to someone staring death in the face? How can you talk about future plans to someone who may not have a future? And how can you ask someone what they’ve been up to when you know what they’ve been up to is coping with chemo and  lying exhausted on the sofa?

The cliché at times like these is to reflect on how we should all be grateful for our health and not get sidetracked by the little things – like money for example. Which is true on one level but it’s also true that as long as we have our health we’ve got no alternative than to concern ourselves with money. The living must eat and they also need somewhere to eat – not to mention sleep.

Beyond that there are also bigger issues of money. The changes on the far horizon to the Higher Education system augur fewer places and higher fees which in turn raises the spectre that my son may never be able to go to university despite his passion for learning and hard work in self-studying. I’m determined that he give getting a place his best shot because i know he’ll do brilliantly if he can just get in somewhere decent but i really don’t know what his chances are – any more than i know what my chances are of still having a job this time next year. And yet at the same time i’m excited at seeing him at the beginning of adulthood, full of wonder at how clued up and capable he is.

So it goes on. Uncertainty and uncertainty. Worry and anticipation. Thrills and foreboding.

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Morecambe & Hamlet: the Christmas double act

Morecambe and Hamlet: one unexpectedly disappointed, the other just as unexpectedly thrilled.

I went to see the play Morecambe about the comedian Eric Morecambe on the 23 December as my pre-Christmas treat. Well, that was the idea. Eric Morecambe was my childhood hero. I have half a dozen books about him or Morecambe & Wise as a double act, the DVDs of their TV series – you know the sort of fan. More to the point, i also saw and loved the show which the Right Size did about Morecambe & Wise some years ago, so when i read about the new show – and read its rave reviews – i got very excited indeed. The fact that Ernie was reduced to a puppet in the play did vaguely perturb me, but i shrugged the feeling off. None of the reviewers had suggested this was a problem.

On the night though i realised i should have paid more attention to my misgivings, as within five minutes of the show’s start it was clear that it simply didn’t work. Not for me anyhow. The play was a monologue, but Eric’s comedy was all about conversation: on stage, ‘in the flat’, ‘in bed’. Without the ebb and flow of that conversation between him and Ernie the jokes felt flat and clunky. On top of that the actor, Bob Golding, had a voice that was too high pitched and a tendency to gabble his lines – unlike Eric who knew when and how to leave spaces.

So that was that. I left at the interval and, making the best of the situation, went off to the supermarket to finish my Christmas shopping. Fast forward to Boxing Day and i decide to watch David Tennant in Hamlet, which i’d recorded earlier the same day. I was in two minds about whether to bother and, after the Morecambe debacle, the glowing reviews were more suspect than seducing. In the end it was the lack of an alternative that induced me to press play; there just didn’t seem to be anything else on worth watching.

As with Morecambe i realised my error of judgement within minutes: the production was marvellous! David Tennant, who i’d previously dismissed as a gurning ferret, was simply a revelation in the title part; and both Patrick Stewart (Claudius) and the actor who played Laertes were great. In fact, the whole cast was good or better. The actors played their roles in modern dress, which initially i wasn’t sure about; but which very quickly made total sense – and the language! My God, i’d never realised just how beautiful that play is.

I suppose the moral of the story is the old one about being wary of assumptions. The people behind Morecambe probably assumed Ernie was more or less superfluous and i assumed that David Tennant couldn’t act. Wrong, wrong.

It is getting lighter!

Christmas is over and a new year is almost upon us. Traditionally this is a time for reflections and resolutions but for me this is time out. I’ll reflect and resolve as best i can in January. It’ll help take my mind off the cold and dreary darkness. Did you enjoy your Christmas? I enjoyed mine, but then i almost always do. Some part of me returns to childhood at Christmas, and while i don’t regress as far as actually believing in Father Christmas, i do get that same thrill of anticipation. It feels as is anything could happen.

This year i stayed at home in London, instead of trekking up to North Wales as i usually do. On Christmas Eve, with all the food bought and my presents arranged round the Tree –  a real tree this year! – i settled down to watch (and of course listen to) carol services from Cambridge and Llangollen; and later watched Midnight Mass from Westminster Cathedral. Carol services make Christmas for me, but i can’t sing so i prefer to observe them from afar where there is no danger of being “invited” to participate. Afterwards, i took myself off to bed, glancing sadly at the Christmas Tree on my way. Every year the same thought: if only it were possible to have both the magic of the gifts round the Tree AND the gifts themselves. Never mind, at least i’ve got gifts.

In the morning it was time to unwrap and marvel at all the things i’d received, especially the books. There were over twenty of those ranging from a bilingual selection of poems by the Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rahman to a biography of the actor Claude Rains and Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine. My favourite however was a book of facts and photographs about the place where i grew up. It was written by a local historian and my mum went to a great deal of trouble both to source the book and then to get it signed for me by the author. About half way through the book i found a photo of my old headmaster, he of the beige everything.

I also got a CD containing a reading in the original Anglo-Saxon of the poem Beowulf. I am very excited about this but am waiting for the companion present to arrive which is the bilingual Anglo-Saxon/Modern English edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem. I want to be able to follow the text as it’s being read. And i got jigsaws: three in all. Equally pleasing, the presents i bought for friends and family all seemed to go down well. Panic over.

Later in the day i walked over to a friend’s for tea and chat. Christmas Day is a wonderful day to go walking as hardly anyone seems to leave their house. The snow had all melted. Only on the way back, walking along the river, did we encounter ice. After that it was two days full of a cold and feeling sorry for myself; but once that passed i was able to go out walking again and journeyed across London to spend a very pleasant day with friends. It was just a shame that making that trip meant i had to meet commuters who were working through the Christmas period. It rather spoilt the magical feeling that time had been suspended. Again, never mind. Good friends are a treasure – and, anyway, there’s a limit to the number of times that even i can sit watching The Sound of Music.

Now i am home again and waiting for the New Year. Unlike Christmas this depresses rather than excites me. I think i am always aware of how little i have accomplished. But it’s also because once New Year’s Day is over time starts flowing again. The spell is broken. By Monday i’ll be back at work and hoping that, for once, January – that interminable month – will fly by. I comfort myself with the fact that we have now passed the darkest point in the year. It is getting lighter! Remember that.

That song about a youth hostel

Ah, the wonders of shuffle mode on an iPod. Today, for instance, the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People popped up. This has the distinction for me of being the first song i ever bought – or rather the first i ever got my mum to buy for me. I was ten years old and we were holding a concert at school, or maybe it was a talent contest; i can’t remember now. At any rate, everyone was being encouraged to join in, so i got together with another kid, C, and we decided to do a dance routine. “Y.M.C.A.” was our soundtrack. What a dance routine it was: all high kicks, claps and those other ‘groovy’ moves: drop to the floor, turn around, make a funny little circle gesture with your arms*. We thought were it!

The song itself, i didn’t really understand. I vaguely imagined the “Y.M.C.A.” was some sort of American version of a youth hostel. Not that i’d been to a youth hostel, but there was one on the main road that led to my Nan’s, so i knew they were big old houses that hikers stayed at. Who knew why anyone would write a song about one and quite honestly who cared? The main thing was that it was catchy as hell and one of the guys in the group wore a “Red Indian” costume. How i loved that costume.

Gay references? What did ‘gay’ mean? Mind you, to be fair, i didn’t know what ‘straight’ meant either. I quite naively believed that sex – which i was aware of in an anatomically incorrect sort of a way – was something married people did. Nor do i remember anyone worrying about the political correctness of spoofing a Native American (or whatever the current term is). It was all about fun and energy. AIDS was just round the corner, about to bring with it a different, darker image of homosexuality – at least in the short term; but also an increased openness. So that these days most school kids know what it is to be gay – or at least think they do, which is much the same thing when you’re ten.

Anyway, back to that concert (or talent show, whichever it was). Only as an adult could i appreciate how painful it must have been for the assembled parents to watch us. Or rather mothers, because back then it wasn’t yet the done thing for men to take time out for their kids, at least not in Britain. Children are so innocently self-centred that the idea that their audience might not be enjoying watching them as much as they’re enjoying being watched doesn’t really occur to them. And if it does, it doesn’t cause them much guilt. Yet it must have been torture: dance routines (ours wasn’t the only one, oh no), songs, magic tricks, ‘comedy’… even juggling i think. Everyone had to have their spot in the limelight. ‘That’s what you get for not using birth control,’ i thought to myself smugly when i looked back at the scene.

And yet… when my own son went to school and entered upon his own round of nativity plays and concerts i made an interesting discovery. Other people’s children are indeed tiresome, but your own are wonderful. Bona fide talents no less. His Jimi Hendrix routine was marvellous (no cheesy disco for him!), his leading role in the anti-smoking polemic which prefaced it no less so. And as for his interpretation of Shepherd #1 (or possibly #2 or #3, i’m not entirely sure) paying homage to the infant Jesus in the school nativity play… well, words fail me. Unfortunately, the camera failed me too, so i have no pictures of that one.

So, maybe my mum did enjoy the imaginatively choreographed dance that C and I performed to the song “Y.M.C.A.”. Or maybe she too was wondering why someone had written a song about a hostel.

*A bit like demonstrating how a wheel works while wearing a muff**
**As in ‘handwarmer’!

The beige years

What do you remember about the Seventies? I remember they were beige. The bank in which we used to queue for hours for example: beige carpets, beige wallpaper, beige uniforms – I swear, even the wood of the counters was beige. I could be misremembering this of course, not least because beige is contagious: once it gets into one of your memories it spreads until it contaminates them all.

So my school too was beige: the headmaster’s suit, his shoes, his hair. Actually, I lie: his shoes weren’t beige, they were tan (even worse!). And they squeaked. My main memory of the school, apart from the headmaster’s feet, was the odour of “posh” instant coffee. Does anyone remember when there was such a thing as posh instant? Douwe Egberts for instance, such a step above Nescafé – though even Nescafé was better than that stuff made of chicory which came in a bottle. What on earth was that called? The teachers drank posh coffee. Their staff room, that mysterious place strictly forbidden to us, stank of it when the door opened. But then they were middle class and that meant something then.

Looking back, the Seventies is all about school for me. When weren’t at school we were on holiday from school. The summer break (six weeks!) was heaven. In my memory every summer was hot and sunny. Health & Safety hadn’t yet been invented so we ran wild “down the meadows” and in “the woods”. We swam with our dog in a river full of whirlpools. We dared one another to walk along a high wall of crumbling brick – with concrete on either side. We played football. We got into fights.

Easter i’m a bit vague about but Christmas was “ace”: suddenly beige was no more! The ceiling would be covered with crêpe streamers: pink, orange, green, red and blue. There would be balloons, there would be cards, a real Christmas tree (always huge in my memories) which we’d cover with tinsel and shiny balls, and then top with a star. Of course there were presents, almost all of them from Woolworth’s and only a few of which i can recall: a blue bike, a Monopoly set, two Tell Me Why books. Food: brazil nuts and tangerines. Television: Morecambe and Wise.

All too soon though it was Twelfth Night and time to take the bright colours down. Back to beige and back to school.

— For “M” —