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.

Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.

We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

My brother in the snow

My brother has just moved back to Britain to take up a new job. It’s been ten years since he last lived here and he’s never lived in London, or any other big city at all. As a result he’s a bit shell-shocked. For me it’s an interesting experience. I’ve grown used to my brother being ebullient and independent – a successful man of the world; yet in a moment he seems to have been transformed back into my kid brother, the boy who was desperate for me to sew the legs of his trousers tighter, so he’d look cool at the school disco (tight jeans were the fashion at the time). I daresay it won’t take him long to find his feet, and then things will return to the way they were, but that only makes me treasure this period of vulnerability and dependence more.

Meeting with him in last week during the snow i was reminded of a time when it snowed particularly heavily when we were kids. The two of us decided to go down to the river – probably to see if it had frozen (it never did). The journey took us across fields and on our way back one of us fell into a ditch. Now the strange thing is i can’t remember which of us it was. Sometimes i’m sure it was him and other times i think it was me. One moment i can clearly recollect seeing my brother waist-deep in icy water, the next i can recall the sensation of being in the water myself. Yet of this i’m sure: only one us fell in.

I’d ask my brother, but i know he won’t be able to tell me. It’s just another of the many, many ways in which we’re complete opposites: i am full of – some might say weighted down with – childhood memories; he is virtually empty/free of them. I sometimes joke that he’s not my brother at all but an alien imposter. Not at the moment though. Right now he really does feel like my brother. My little brother.

One of life’s little questions

Why do i love The Sound of Music so much?

Could it be the cracking songs? Well, i’m sure they’re part of the reason but the fact is i’m not generally a fan of musicals or that type of music: too contrived and controlled for me. Could it be the beauty of the landscapes? Stunning indeed – and not just in their beauty but in their scale; but in these post-BBC nature documentary days there are plenty of other opportunities to see panoramas as lovely as the those in the film. What about the romance between the Captain and Fräulein Maria? Definitely a factor. Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews are magical together; it’s a great shame they haven’t been reunited more frequently.

All these things contribute to my enjoyment – as do the moments of humour and the flight from the Nazis at the end – but, on reflection, i realise they aren’t critical to it. No, for me it’s the joy and genuine sense of family that the kids, especially the younger ones, bring to the film which raises my spirits. They shine out from the television, obliterating the wintery greyness outside. That same joy also renders me oblivious to the movie’s obvious sentimentality. Even their mistakes are joyful: in the “My Favourite Things” scene for instance the little girl playing Marta is mouthing the words to a song she isn’t supposed to know. She’s can’t help herself.

Bottle that joy and you could make millions. And of course that’s exactly what the film makers, if not the children, did. As for me, joy is something i’m sadly short of in January.

What to do…?

There are so many things that i would like to do; and I would do them, I tell myself – if only i could find a way to do without sleep and/or win the National Lottery. It seems to me that with each year that goes by i have less free time, and often the free time i do have isn’t really free. It’s packed with ‘things that need doing’ and tinged with guilt because something somewhere is always waiting to be done or else someone somewhere is always waiting for me to get in touch with them. Now i know that there are many, many people in this world who are worse off than me but, nevertheless, this is frustrating.

Of course, work is the main culprit. I could write at tedious length about the way that work tends to eat more and more deeply into your life the longer you pursue a career, however i’ll spare you! I don’t think it’s just that in any case. Part of the problem, in my opinion, stems from an increasing realisation of your own limits. Early on in life it still seems entirely possible that you can learn each and every language that you might want to speak; visit each and every country in the world; read each and every book that interests you.

Gradually, that optimism fades. You become aware of time ticking away, notice the way that it seems to be forever speeding up, and begin to grasp that you do not in fact have an infinitude of possibilities. This process begins while you are still a child on the day that you comprehend that you won’t ever be an astronaut or a professional footballer. You surrender your impossible dreams but still, at this point, retain your great hopes.

Bit by bit the erosion of confidence proceeds. You discover the tyranny of money. Hopes follow dreams into the sea of limitations and constraints, careers and bills; and so it goes on. Look around you: how many people are there camped out on a last little island of ‘next year’s holiday’, ‘a new car’, ‘paying off the mortgage’ – or just ‘having enough for this week’s groceries’?

I daresay it’s my colleague’s recent death which has put me in this frame of mind but i’m very aware of how marginalised my inner life has become. Struggling, in a state of exhaustion, to read a book on the train home does not constitute having time to think. Similarly, my tired tramp along the road from the office to the railway station does not qualify as ‘a walk’.

What to do…? Some things seem obvious: time spent pursuing other people’s routes to happiness, when these are not also your own, is wasted. Yet, this is too pat. We have obligations to our friends and families. Our happiness, such as it is, stems at least partly from the time and effort those people have invested in us. We have obligations to the world as a whole for that matter. Likewise, it’s all well and good pontificating about not being in thrall to material things; but material things – books are also material things for instance – form an important part of what a truly happy life means to most of us.

I’m never going to be able to do without sleep and i’m never going to win the National Lottery. Really, what to do?