The 12 Blogs Of Christmas Part 9 – Death

 

In November 1997 my Nan was admitted into hospital again.I didn’t think it was anything terribly serious, but another case of water retention. Oedema, I believe it is called. A year or so before she had suffered with it, her hands and ankles swelling up like balloons. A doctor came out to see her, a lovely lady, who checked my Nan over and decided she needed another hospital stay. The odd thing was though, I clearly remember this doctor, having finished with my Nan, poking her head back into the living room and quietly motioning me to come and speak with her. I went into the kitchen and shut the door.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I stared blankly. “Fine,” I said. And she seemed to scrutinise me with her eyes and then nodded and that was that. It was only many years later that I realise her question was loaded with so much thoughtfulness and meaning. She was asking if I was coping, being on my own, caring for my grandmother. I was never very good at expressing my real feelings, thinking that I had to be strong for the sake of Nan, so whenever anyone asked me this type of question I would always say I was fine. With hindsight, a period of respite for myself would have been a helpful thing during those seven years, but hey ho, life goes on.

My Nan was admitted into St Woolos hospital in Newport and so each day, I would leave the lovely two bedroom house we lived in at Hollybush, Cwmbran, and take the bus to Newport. I would pick up anything my Nan said she wanted – grapes, or liquorice (her favourite sweet), or some shortbread (her favourite biscuit) and walk the long steep hill, up past St Woolos church, and into the large, sprawling and often unusually quiet hospital. I would arrive early in the afternoon and sit with my Nan, who would never have the energy to say much. She would ask, in a slow, thoughtful way, about trivial housekeeping matters. She would have her tea at around 4:30pm and, it being hospital food, never ate much. Again, a warning sign and something I should have acted upon but I just thought everything would be fine, she would be home soon and our lives would carry on as normal.

During those times when her tea was served, I would stroll down to the hospital canteen and have a hot drink. Very occasionally I would buy a meal, but not often. I was in charge of my Nan’s benefits and would claim them dutifully each Monday, along with my carer’s allowance. I was good at buying gas and electric stamps (a now obsolete way of saving towards utility bills and a method I genuinely enjoyed. It was the collecting aspect of it I guess!) and making sure everything was paid that had to be paid. I would make sure I kept the weekly fare to the hospital. I think my Nan ‘gave’ me weekends off from visiting her. I know for sure that I didn’t visit on Sundays. I’d like to think I visited her on Saturdays too. As I sit here, twenty years on, I want to feel I showed her as much love and attention as possible.

As it grew closer to Christmas, I had no doubt she would be home. But the closer that important date came, the realisation began to dawn, for both of us, that it would not happen. Nan was quite philosophical about it. Her deeply wrinkled liver-spotted hand would hold mine and she would say “It’s only Christmas love, I’ll be back soon in the New Year.”

I can’t quite remember everything I did during that Christmas of 1997. Did I cook myself a small turkey and a Christmas dinner, just for myself? I do not know. I have a vague memory that my sister was able to persuade her partner at the time to drive us to see Nan on Christmas Day. I have a misty memory of a very quiet hospital ward with tinsel garlands hanging from the ceiling and my Nan in her bed, wishing us a merry Christmas in what seemed to be an increasingly frail voice.

I would return to an empty house, with just our cat, Suki, for company, and make a coffee and sit in my armchair that was next to my Nan’s. I may have placed a glass of port on her side of the small living room table, just for comfort. That’s what we would have been doing on that Christmas night if she had been home, sipping port and laughing together at this and that, as she had a wicked, dark and bizarre sense of humour like myself.

She passed away on February 2nd 1998. Although since then I have had many memorable and wonderful Christmases, I think for many of us it is the Christmases that we spend with family that are the ones are hearts are drawn back to and the ones we remember the most as the years pass by.

The picture below is from around 1990 I would guess, when my Nan was still relatively healthy and before I became her full time carer (though was living with her).

As my Bamp died in 1987, I have a strong feeling that this is the Christmas immediately before, 1986, when he cooked the largest turkey he had ever cooked before and after a long day of tending to it and basting it, uttered “Never again!” He was proud of it though and I think it was he who asked me to take this photo (on that years birthday present I had received from them – a Polaroid 600 Instant camera!)

The 12 Blogs Of Christmas Part 8 – Alcohol

It’s Monday 4th December 2017. I am tipsy. Or drunk. I am never sure of the sliding scale of insobriety. We were never taught that in school. We were never given a little cardboard scale with an arrow that could be adjusted between sober and blotto. That lesson was sorely lacking in the curriculum. So as I was saying, it’s Monday, blah blah blah and here I am, drunk on a good quality spiced rum and listening to a compilation of Christmas music. It’s the sort of compilation where Enya’s Silent Night follows Slade’s Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. In other words, every three minutes the mood shifts and I don’t know whether to jump up and down in my luminescent pink 80s leggings or kneel and thank God for giving us The Krankies.

Right, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this blog. Alcohol. Growing up in the late 70s, my father, who called himself a Muslim but wasn’t, strictly observed a select few of the tenets of this faith that he arbitrarily believed in. One of the tenets he randomly observed without ever explaining, was abstaining from alcohol. Beating my mother and sexually abusing my sister was fine, but alcohol? No way. If the prophet Mohammed caught him drinking alcohol, all hell would break loose. He couldn’t even do it when Mohammed wasn’t looking, because Mohammed would know. This aspect of Mohammed was kind of cool when I was a kid, but I still preferred to read Whizzer & Chips and play Top Trumps. I did sometimes wonder if there could ever be a ‘God & Prophets’ themed Top Trumps set as it would be interesting to see if Jesus or Mohammed would win in the ‘omnipotence rating’ category.

So he never drank alcohol. I think he was so vigilant regarding not letting it into the house, he didn’t even allow luxury mince pies laced with alcohol to enter our home, or even chocolate liqueurs, which oh my god I loved. Because you see, visiting my white and Welsh grandparents every weekend, they would often let me eat both chocolate liqueurs AND bacon. I loved them for this. Being 8 or 9 years old and biting on a chocolate liqueur, enjoying the crisp crunchiness of the inner sugar coating that formed the container for the alcoholic liqueur, and then feeling the warmth of the liqueur wash around my mouth, was an important part of my pre-teen years, as was the eating of a bacon sandwich straight afterwards.Which reminds me – bacon flavoured alcohol. That’s a gap in the market I hope to exploit one day.

But thankfully my parents divorced in 1981 and so from that point on alcohol was on the menu. My mother, whom upon reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, probably had mild ‘learning difficulties’ which were either a product of or exacerbated by her severe epilepsy, took to alcohol like a leper to a skin graft. She ended up becoming a party-giving, alcohol-loving promiscuous reflection of her former self. My sister was a mirror of her, having numerous boyfriends of which my mother would suggest should live with us. Many of my sister’s boyfriends drank too and I remember one morning, having got dressed for school with my mother remaining in bed as usual, sleeping off last night’s antics, I opened the fridge and saw a four pack of Carling. I was about 11 years old and had decided last week that I was going to ignore the usual career paths and become an amateur anarchist instead. In the spirit of amateur anarchy, I tore one of the cans from the flimsy plastic holder and walked to school. I met my friend Wayne Weston on the top floor of Middle School and we stood outside our form class where I proudly retrieved the can from my bag and we drank half each. I’d like to say that the half can of 4% alcohol had a hilarious and memorable effect on my 11-year-old brain, causing much merriment and hi-jinks for the rest of the day. It didn’t. I think I burped twice and then sat through double Maths in my usual disinterested way, occasionally snorting up sachets of pepper stolen from the canteen through my empty Bic pen.

My next significant memory of alcohol happened when I was about fifteen or sixteen. A gang of us – myself, Gareth Davies, Marcus Stoole, Wayne Weston and Roger Boeing, went to the Rose & Crown in Old Cwmbran. I think I drank about ten cider’s, each with a squirt of blackcurrant to ‘take the edge off’. I am not sure what edge this was referring to and it didn’t seem to matter in the end. I was absolutely drunk and I remember being supported between two of my friends during the long walk home.

But really, this is a Christmas blog and is supposed to have a Christmas theme, so I shall dispense with these early and slightly chaotic memories and jump to my early 20s when I was living with my Nan, as it is the memories of drinking alcohol with her that prompted me to write this blog in the first place.

My Nan loved port. It’s fortified wine. Now, being a gamer from an early age and playing games such as Civilisation, ‘fortified’ to me means reinforcing a structure with a battalion of archers, a catapult and maybe a legion of artillerymen. Port had none of this and just came in a bottle marked Taylor’s or Cockburn’s. Incidentally, Cockburn’s is nothing to do with a slightly singed penis. It’s pronounced ‘koburns’ in the trade, which is a shame really as they are missing out on several witty marketing campaigns.

But I digress. My dear beloved Nan loved her port, and in the early 90s I have strong memories of us sitting there, drinking port from these very delicate but elegant small port glasses, so-called as they were actually intended for port, and laughing at this and that together. I used to have camcorder footage of us doing that very thing, drinking port in front of our six foot artificial Christmas tree sometime in the early 90s, but that footage disappeared when my hard drive fucked up ten years ago.

She liked her Stilton too of course, a classic accompaniment to port. Oh and Advocaat! Yes, that traditional Dutch beverage made from eggs, sugar and brandy and looks like custard and has the same consistency. Both my Nan and Bamp loved that. I do remember trying it in my late teens, when living with my Nan and Bamp, but never really took to it. I wonder if it still has a reputation as a pensioner’s drink? I’ve actually just read the Wikipedia entry on it that states in Holland and Belgium it’s traditionally served on waffles. I have no idea what my grandparents would have thought of that idea.

I started writing this blog about two hours ago and since then have got distracted by television and consumed a lot more spiced rum. So apologies if the rest of this is not as meanderingly concise and witty as the previous sections were.

Well, that’s it really. I could turn this into some deep, thoughtful dissertation about the effects of alcohol on society and how it will be used by the New World Order to control the populace, but I can’t be bothered.

Have a good Christmas everyone!

Next in this series is going to be my long overdue review of The Amazing Mr Blunden, which I think is the quintessential Christmas film, even though Christmas itself is barely referred to.

 

 

The 12 Blogs of Christmas Part 7 – My Nan

I became the full time carer of my grandmother at around the age of 22, in 1993. Her husband, my Bamp, had passed away in 1987 and so it was just us two living together from then on. By 1993 she was becoming increasingly frail and after several assessments by the Social Services, she was awarded disability allowance and I became her official carer, netting me a £10 a week carers allowance payment in addition to my dole money. Our Christmases together, particularly in the immediate years following my Bamps death, were frugal. Not because of lack of money but simply, in a strange way, neither of us really knew what to do. It was our first Christmas together, just her and I, and we opted for a Bernard Mathews turkey joint – a lump of turkey moulded into a cylindrical shape and surrounded by an artificial layer of fat. Here’s a blurry fuzzy picture of one that I found on the internet.

You wouldn’t really want to see a hi-res pic of one, trust me.

In 1988, the first Christmas without my Bamp, my Nan still took on all the cooking duties. It wouldn’t be for another two or three years until she became too frail to do that anymore, so she cooked that turkey breast for the both of us, along with some roast potatoes (each potato dutifully sprinkled with a pinch of salt, as was her way), sprouts, stuffing and gravy. A jar of beetroot was on the little living room table and that’s how we ate our Christmas dinner together, the plates balancing on our laps, in front of a television that had a scraggy artificial Christmas tree on the top of it that was barely two feet tall. Feeling that we were missing out on something music wise, I spent a portion of my hard-earned YTS money on some Christmas music as all we had were vinyl records belonging to my Bamp, such as the Jim Reeves Christmas album and…well, that.

So I spent around £8 of my £27 ( that I earned from sitting in an office at Gwent Aluminium on Avondale Road and not answering the phone as I didn’t know anything about aluminium and had a fear of phones) on The Christmas Tape, a compilation by the same people who produced the NOW series of compilation albums that are still going to this day.

This lasted us for a few years, until around 1993 or so when a change, instigated by myself, happened. To this day, I don’t know why the change happened or the nature of the instigation. I suddenly thought to myself ‘We could get a nice big six foot artificial tree and try listening to other types of Christmas music instead of Stop The Fucking Cavalry year after year’. So in 1993 I bought this. The picture below is recent, from a few days ago, as I managed to track down a copy of this twenty-four-year-old compilation on Ebay. The third track on Disc 1, Jolly Old St Nicholas by Ray Conniff, remained a favourite of hers for many years to come. Well, I say many, but she died in 1998, but in 1993 I just believed she would live for a long time and not pass away just five years later. I can still see her now, sat in her chair with her favourite red tartan blanket pulled up over her chest, moving her shoulders in a silly and fun way as she sang “Jolly old saint nicholas, lean your ear this way! Don’t you tell a single soul, what I’m going to say!”

My sister and her current partner (they changed a lot) would often visit. I can’t quite remember if they used to visit on Christmas Day itself. I don’t think they did as Nan and I preferred it quiet and the hustle and bustle of cooking for others would have been an exacting task. These days if ever I have the opportunity, I would gladly cook for others on that special day, but back then my Nan and I were kindred spirits in the sense we liked little bother or interruptions. We would drink a glass of sherry in the afternoon, eat our dinner, watch Morecambe & Wise in the evening and then I would give her a little kiss on the cheek and go to bed. I would stay awake until I heard the grinding motors of the stair lift clunk it’s way upstairs, hearing her step off it and into her room, and then I knew I could rest easily and go to sleep.

It’s funny, as here I am, on the afternoon of Saturday 2nd December 2017, writing about Christmases of 25 years or so ago when I feel that I should be focusing more on the present. And I am grateful for the present and the friends in my life, but the past will always remain a blue note inside me.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F Scott Fitzgerald ‘The Great Gatsby’.

Movie Review – IT (2017)

 

 

Think of any horror story you have ever read. Got one? Good. Was there a jump scare in it? No, there wasn’t. By definition, any horror story you *read* cannot have a ‘jump scare’ in it, no matter how cleverly the author is crafting their words. The best you can do is ‘Suddenly…’ followed by a description of the scare you are trying for.

Suddenly the picture fell off the wall. Suddenly nobody made tea.

Suddenly, the latest movie adaptation of IT has hit the cinemas and is a mixed bag of old tricks.

I first read IT in 1986, at the age of fifteen. I had always had an interest in horror, ever since reading The Omen when I was 10 years old (and spending the rest of the summer grooming my friends heads, wondering if I’d find 666 on any of their scalps). Although I did find IT a little slow to begin with (the book is nearly 1,200 pages after all), with a whole chapter given to the backstory of each of the seven members of The Losers Club in the first hundred or so pages of the book, I persevered and slowly but surely was drawn into the world of Derry, Maine. Since 1986 I have read the book at least twice more, that I can recall, much to the consternation of Tolkien incidentally, who never understood why anyone would read a book more than once. Quite ironic considering he wrote a book that everyone that I know of has read it at least three times or more.

But I digress. I’m good at that.

So when I discovered that a new movie version of IT was to be released this year, a vague trembling, quivering feeling came over me, not unlike the sort of feeling I once had when waking up, after a hard night’s drinking, on top of the Arc de Triomf. Anyway, being the sort of movie fan that gets influenced by reviews, I was aware that IT was garnering very good reviews indeed so, when an opportunity arose to finally watch it, I settled into the movie seat (at the VUE in Paignton no less) to watch IT on the big screen.

Firstly a thing about spoilers and this is the complicated bit. Anything I say in this review is only a spoiler if you have *not* read the book. Because if you watch the film without reading the book then you’re not really going to have any meaningful grasp of the plot elements they removed. Agreed? Then carry on.

I shall continue like Rob Fleming in High Fidelity, with a list. I’m a bloke and I like my lists.

1. They have changed the timeline in the movie. In the book The Losers Club (which is the name the seven children give themselves, who encounter and battle IT) takes place in the 1950s. In the movie the kids story (which is the whole of the first movie – the second movie will take up the story when they are adults) takes place in the 1980s.
Here’s why I think this is a mistake. The 50s was the golden age of horror B movies, such as Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Blob, It Came From Outer Space, Attack Of The Giant Leeches, and many many more. This is significant as IT preys on the fears of the members of The Losers Club and transforms (or manipulates their dreams) into creatures from those movies – that’s why Eddie sees Dracula or Mike gets chased by a Werewolf or Patrick is killed by giant flying leeches.
The 50s had relevance.
By changing the timeframe to the 1980s, yet keeping true to the monsters the kids encounter, the story loses much of its impact. In the 1980s we had far fewer ‘classical’ monster movies and more Gothic horror (such as the Hellraiser films or From Beyond – movies with clear Lovecraftian influences rather Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley).
So changing the timeframe was a no-no as far as I was concerned, especially regarding the other crucial point that IT only awakens every 27 years to spend roughly 8 or 9 months ‘feeding’ before going to sleep again. So the revelation regarding IT’s previous waking times during the American gold rush, for example, becomes skewed and a little confusing now that they have brought the children’s segment of the story into the 80s.

2. In the book, each chapter jumps from the 1950s, to 1980s, to 1950s etc. This makes for some beautiful and engaging transitions regarding memory, where, for example, Beverly as a forty something woman is walking along a road and hears a school bell, and begins the thought ‘school is…’ and then you turn the page and it’s a new chapter and we have the twelve-year-old Beverly finishing the thought with …’out!’ And then we follow her point of view in that particular chapter. Not the best example but please believe me that this was a wonderful, warm and engaging technique in the book and worked very well. I missed that in the movie.

3. Okay, this one could be a genuine spoiler and it’s also the cause of my greatest disappointment. It’s also going to be difficult to explain and you may think I’m on drugs (I’m not, just whisky).
So, in the film, the climatic scene between The Losers Club and IT is basically a physical punch up.
That’s it. A fist fight. I was sorely disappointed with this.
In the book… oh fuck it. Here goes. This is gonna be a long ‘un.
In the book, it is clear that there is some strange external force that is intervening and giving the kids a mystical power from time to time. That power is more to do with their own belief in ‘magic’. For example, Richie Tozier, known for his impersonations, particularly an ‘Irish cop’ voice, uses this voice against IT during one occasion, but for that single moment the voice that comes out of Eddie is like an amalgamation of all the cop voices ever heard, coming out of his mouth with a burning intensity which buys him some time as IT is chasing him. Or another example is with Eddie, who is asthmatic and uses an inhaler, and during another one to one encounter with IT, in desperation he turns and squeezes his inhaler at IT, and again, something comes out of the inhaler that shouldn’t have been there, a vapour that contains the essence of ‘good’, causing IT to falter and buying Eddie some time. Again, for people who have already seen the film, this will mean nothing as you won’t even have the barest hint that any scenes like this were omitted. For those who have read the book, you will fully understand the dramatic and strangely touching moments that these scenes (and the other similar scenes featuring the other five Losers) had upon you.

4. The above is what makes IT wary of them and that causes IT to suspect that the Turtle is still alive.
Okay, the Turtle. None of this is even vaguely hinted at or visualised in the movie’s final climatic battle with IT but in the book, the following happens.

The Losers Club encounter IT deep within the sewer system of Derry and then invoke the ‘Ritual Of Chud’ where their minds ‘clamp’ onto the mind of IT and their spiritual bodies get thrown into the ‘Deadlights’ which is the macro universe – the world between worlds. As they fly through the Deadlights they encounter a Turtle, a huge turtle as big as ten football pitches, and they soar gently over him. They sense the Turtle is omnipotent and the Turtle wakes and just tells them, in a kind and loving way, that they are doing the right thing, and then goes to sleep again. They also sense it was the Turtle that gave them powers earlier in the story (Richie’s ‘voice’, Eddies inhaler etc).
The Turtle appears to represent some incredible power of ‘good’. It’s written in a very enigmatic way and the backstory regarding the Turtle and the origins of IT (save that IT crashed on Earth millions of years ago) is never explained, nor should it be. Some things are best left to the reader’s imagination. But the way it was written in the book was beautiful and the Turtles importance is apparent (the Turtles voice is heard sporadically throughout the whole novel, as the symbol of some higher being of ‘good’, though of course they don’t realise it is a ‘turtle’ until the end of their first encounter with IT).
Yeah I know, the above all sounds like a mind fuck, but I would urge you to read the novel.
So the fact that in the movie the final scene is just a fist fight left me feeling cheated. Would an audience who have never read the book enjoy it? Clearly they do, going by the latest box office receipts and reviews spread across the internet. To me, however, the movie has completely dispensed with the ethereal and slightly spiritual aspects that keeps drawing me back to the book.

5. Okay, some good points. I did think the children acted their guts out. Only one was 16 when the film was made. The others were 15 or younger (and all of them did look the 12 years old they were supposed to be). Sophia Lillis, as Beverley Marsh, gave a particularly fine performance, considering the difficult sub-plot of her character. Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozer was also excellent, giving a fun and engaging performance. There were scenes that touched me, scenes where the seven kids would be on their bicycles, cycling beneath the hot summer sun along the streets of the town, laughing and carefree. Because you see that was the real message and power of the book – it’s depiction of the strength of friendship in childhood and the power that can have. Stephen King was particularly good at writing about childhood as The Body (filmed as Stand By Me) was also exceptional regarding that. So yes, in IT, there were some beautifully realised scenes focusing on the simple pleasures found in childhood friendship.

‘I never had friends later in life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?’ – Stephen King, The Body.

After all that, will I go and watch part 2 when it’s eventually released? Of course I will! I’m intrigued as to how they will deal with the adult part of the story (and the actors cast in those parts).

The thing about IT which makes it unique is the fact that it’s children who overcome the monster. There have been children’s horror books featuring children and aimed at children of course, but as far as I know Stephen King’s IT was the first time that children had a major and significant part to play in a horror novel that was written and aimed at adults. That makes it unique and remains the biggest appeal for me.

 

If you have watched the film but not read the book, please leave a comment and your review below as I would be very interested to hear from you.

Marcus and his 21st Birthday Bash – Part Two

Milk

My Sainsbury’s online order was delivered this afternoon. Due to me not checking my current stock levels, I now have 47 x 1 litre cartons of milk. If anyone would like to help relieve me of milk, please meet me at The Red Lion pub in Avebury this evening at 8pm. I’ll be wearing a raincoat, fedora and sunglasses. Under my right arm will be a newspaper. We can make the swap in the pub car park and after that, I never want to see you again.

Anyway, sorry for that digression. Here, now, is part two of the account of Marcus’s 21st birthday celebrations.

Theo - The Riddler

He began, of course, with a riddle.
“My first is in Weather but never in bed
My second’s not blue but always in red.
My third is in tea, but never in coffee.
My fourth is dessert – tart or banoffee.
My fifth is a dialetical analysis of a priori conjecturing, that postulates a transgression.
My sixth is a blancmange…”

A pause.

“I need to rethink this,” he said.

It was The Riddler. And yet…I knew it wasn’t. I knew that lurking beneath that plush green suit with the strange hierogrlyphics was a certain Theo Wethered.
Theo Wethered.
I am sure that name conjures just as many images and scintillating tales of wonder and delight as it does with me. Many a time I have regaled an interested thong with stories of Theo’s derring-do. Tonight was no exception as –
Hang on a minute.
Yes, yes, I see that.
That should read ‘throng’.
Anyway, as I was saying. Theo has inspired many people throughout is brief time on Earth and so, in homage, I have put together a video in which I feel perfectly reflects this.

I circled around some more, raising my glass occasionally and smiling. Alcohol is a funny thing. You can go for minutes without taking a sip and then, the next time you do, it feels like the first sip all over again. I gazed at the milling people, just…milling. In my alcohol-fuelled detached state of reality, I wondered if any of them were actually millers. I wondered if millers would mill together, at a party, or just huddle together swapping stories of wheat.
And then –
“Ahoy there!” came a voice I recognised.
Orlando

It was Orlando, dressed as a miller.
“Hi Orlando!”
This was my stock greeting for people I liked. People I didn’t like were subjected to “Sorry but I’m closed today.”
“Are you enjoying yourself Riaz?”
I found this question a bit personal. In fact, it was downright audacious. We had only met a handful of times previously and yet, here he was attempting to understand my psyche, to probe my ego, to reveal the tempestuous fires that burned within my heart.
“Yes,” I said, playing it safe.
“Ahoy! Jim lad!” he said playfully.
My name wasn’t Jim, I wasn’t a lad and I had never been to Hanoi. Apart from that he had everything else right.
We talked for a while. Outside, flashes of light intermittently lit up the dark study. The wind howled against the window, and the sound of gunfire could be heard in the distance. Tomorrow I would visit Horsell common once more to try and discover more about the Martians, but for now most of London was asleep, and the real terror was yet to begin.
War Of The Worlds

The night wore on. My ageing decrepit body constantly argued with my young fertile mind, pleading with it to be taken to a place of safety, such as a bed. At the completely unsociable hour of 11pm I stepped out of the tent and slowly walked back to my flat.
Very slowly, as it happened, as there was nothing to light my way, save for a glimmering beacon of hope.
But I found my flat, kissed Joni goodnight, and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning I was advised to meet everyone back at the tent for breakfast, so at 10am I moseyed on down to the bottom of the field again. I had drunk a fair bit the night before and had trouble coordinating my many complex and trustworthy simian appendages. I reached the tent and an orderly queue had formed in front of an orderly table that had a selection of breakfast goodies on it, arranged in order. I chose scrambled eggs in a bun, with some bacon and a large paper cup filled with hot steaming coffee.

Morning Breakfast

I sat there, contemplating my existence as I chewed slowly on strips of crispy bacon. The party had been a success, I felt. Marcus’s father, Adam, had given a rousing and very witty speech at the close of the night. There was much dancing, fun and laughter. All in all a fantastic night and I’d like to thank everyone who made it possible.

Okay, I have a bit of space left now, so here’s some classified ads.

LOST & FOUND

Found – one needle. It was in a field near my home, right in the middle of a haystack.
To claim, ring 01633-999888111.

FOR SALE

LIBRARY CARD – Only done two hundred books. This year’s registration. One previous owner. Will be accepted at most Libraries in Wiltshire.  £30 o.n.o. Contact Mr R. Ealie-Phunee on 01799-977611

JOBS

Cladistic taxidermist wanted to accompany time-travelling proletarian salesman.

Marcus and his 21st Birthday Bash – Part One

The tent goes up

Late last week I noticed a pavilion being erected in the field outside the barn that I rent. It irked me, because I was planning to pitch a tent in the very exact spot the next day, along with a shrubbery, but now a pavilion was being erected. As I stood watching I felt a strange stirring in my loin. Can one become aroused by a pavilion? As pavilions go, this one was as seductive as Ally Sheedy when she eats a crisp sandwich in The Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club - a fantastic teen movie and wonderful 'coming of age' film from 1985. One of my favourite films ever and if I can give it a gratuitous plug in a blog, then I will.

The Breakfast Club – a fantastic teen movie and wonderful ‘coming of age’ film from 1985. One of my favourite films ever and if I can give it a gratuitous plug in a blog, then I will.

It turned out that the pavilion was actually for the 21st birthday of Marcus Wethered. I had got to know Marcus a little by this time (see my previous blog ‘Man Of Steel – Not a Movie Review’) so was honoured to receive an invite from my illustrious and gloriously kind landlady, Diana™

I enjoy parties but have always had trouble mingling. ‘To mingle’ as the great philosopher Socrates oncee said “Is to subjugate the masses and produce a corporeal dystopian reality.’

Which probably explains why he hasn’t got a Facebook fan page.

Even so, I am drawn to parties. The socialising, the networking, the drinking, the flicking peanuts into the plant pots, the dignified vomiting. I am not a huge party-goer mind you. I remember the first adult party I went to was when I was 17 years old. It was at my sister’s, in honour of her surviving a cesarean section. It was full of people a lot older than me – surgeons and foreign diplomats. I can’t quite remember the guest list, but it was on pink paper with a floral border.

So next – what should I wear? I picked up an interesting Dickensian shirt from a charity shop in Devizes the other week. Should I wear that?

IMG_0464

Nah. Maybe not. I found a pair of jeans and a red fabric shirt I had bought in a Nepalese shop in Newport some months ago, and walked down to the pavilion.

I had been watching the cars pull into the farm for the last hour or so and there were already a fair number of people there. I felt nervous. I was a lot older than them. These were all healthy, vibrant twenty-somethings at university. I was only 16.
Mentally.
42 physically but let’s not dwell on that.

I reached the glorified excuse of a tent and peered cautiously inside. I knew no-one. Coincidentally, no-one knew me either. Also, everyone was in fancy dress. I saw Superman, Hannibal Lector, Spiderman. I even saw Catwoman arm in arm with a Roman Legionary.

Batgirl and a Roman Legionaire

And then, thank goodness, I spotted Marcus.

On the far right, Marcus Wethered. I never did find out why he was holding an axe...

On the far right, Marcus Wethered. I never did find out why he was holding an axe…

“Marcus!” I said. “I guess I am gatecrashing.”
“Not at all,” he said. “Let me introduce you to some people.”
And he did. If only I was a suave and as debonair as him when I was 21. He exuded confidence like a sieve from Asda. I could barely say hello to the girl behind the counter in my local library without turning bright red when I was 21.
But in all seriousness, Marcus, Orlando and Theo had always been polite, pleasant and friendly towards me and I was grateful for that. However, they had an older brother and that is who I was introduced to next. Although they introduced him as ‘Tog’ which confused my tiny brain. Diana had told me she had four sons, naming Tarquin as her eldest. How was I to know their pet name for him was ‘Tog’?
I shook his hand.
“I’m Riaz,” I said. “I didn’t realise they had another brother. They never mentioned you.”
“They didn’t? The bastards!” he said.
I felt a bit awkward.
“Maybe I just forgot.”
“No,” he seethed. “They probably just didn’t mention me.”
Suddenly, in the tiny recesses of the thing that I call a brain, two synapses that had previously hitherto been enemies, suddenly became friends.
“Oh hang on a minute. Tog…are you Tarquin?”
“I am,” he said. And order in the universe was regained once again.
We chatted for a while and he introduced me to another of his friends, George. George introduced himself as a sort of dogsbody within the world of investment banking. Now investment bankers were the butt of many a Monty Python sketch and as he talked to me, I couldn’t help but smiling inanely. I think he picked up on my inaneness and general inaneability, but was too polite to mention it.
“And what do you do?” asked George.
“Well my day job is a support worker in a mental health rehab unit. But really, I am a writer.
“Oh yes,” said George.
“I’ve written a memoir. It’s called My Life With Kate Bush. It’s about me, growing up in a welsh town in the nineteen seventies and eighties.”
“A memoir?” said George. “Is it all true?”
“It’s not completely true,” I conceded. “I have embellished parts of it of course, purely for reasons of entertainment. And the conversations I had thirty years ago are, well, approximations of the truth.”
George nodded. “It’s a writer’s prerogative.”
“I mean, if I write up an account of this party, most of the conversations that I will put down on paper will be embellished. Do you realise I was once married to Sandra Bullock?”
George nodded and began to rise slowly into the air. “Anything to entertain the reader, I guess,” he said, and then exploded.

The food was free. The drink was free. And I took advantage of that – what author wouldn’t? I drank a few cocktails of something or another – I’m not quite sure what they were. As a direct result, my confidence suddenly knew no bounds and I went up to a girl dressed as Caligula’s best friend and began chatting with her.
“Hey!” I said. A bit of an opening gambit but its worked for me in the past.
“Hello,” she said and we began chatting.
“I am studying history and politics,” she said.
“Ah. They compliment each other,” I said knowingly. “History and politics. The two last bastions of the empire, aloof and yet not alone. Have you ever heard of Mark Knopfler?”
I realised that my confidence had now began to work against me and I was beginning to sound like John Noakes.
There was a pause. Possibly an uncomfortable one as her eyes started roaming around the room.
“Nice talking to you,” she said, “but I am just going to get a drink.”

And then I saw him.
Theo Wethered - The Riddler
It was The Riddler. Arch Nemesis of Batman.

This could be interesting…

TO BE CONTINUED…

What Saturdays Meant To Me

Saturdays were always magical to me. These days, being in my mid-forties, most Saturdays I am working. I've been a shift worker since the late 90s in an assortment of jobs. My current job allows me two weekends off a month so I still get to enjoy the Saturday experience, which mainly comprises of me waking up around 8am, switching on my laptop, staring at the screen for an hour while I think about the bleakness of my existence, throw some clothes on and go out and start drinking until I encounter oblivion, which usually happens to be a hedge along a quiet lane at 2am.

But in 1980 I was nine years old and already had dreams of being ten. I knew that once I hit double figures I would have to give up reading comics and start saving for cigarettes. It would be tricky as I only got 50p pocket money each week, which was enough to buy two comics and an assortment of sweets and chocolates. That money came from my grandparents. After school on a Friday my Bamp's car would be waiting for me, a red Vauxhall Viva which always reminded me of the General Lee, the car in the Dukes Of Hazzard. I would hop happily inside and be whisked off to a beautiful kept house on the outskirts of Cwmbran, spending the weekend with my Nan and Bamp, only returning home on Sunday evening to my alcoholic and promiscuous mother. The alcoholism and promiscuity was a badge she had earned, working hard at it weekend after weekend since my dad left some years earlier. That badge should have become a trophy, by all accounts. Saying all that, she was still my mother. She died in her early fifties in the late 90s and I miss her.
So, on Saturday mornings I would wake, often around 8am due to the call of my Bamp. The call would usually be 'Breakfast!' which often comprised of two soft boiled eggs presented on a plate with an array of 'soldiers' – toasted bread slices into thin strips, spread with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper. I loved the simplicity of that breakfast and all it represented to that ageing man with love in his eyes. They had both lived through the war when such things as eggs were hard to come by and even in 1980 they still seemed to be so thankful for the simple things in life, like eggs and cars.

We would then visit town and my Bamp would slip 50p into my hand and I would make a beeline for Martin's The Newsagents, running inside and then standing and salivating in front of the four tier rack of comics that I remember so well, picking out my favourite.

Whizzer & Chips sounds like something illegal that you would first snort up through a straw and then eat with salt and vinegar. But it was nothing of the sort. It was a comic that I treasured above all others. A smarter and cooler friend of mine swore by 2000ad which was a comic full of science fiction and fantasy stories. It was adult in tone, the Judge Dredd strip in particular being quite violent and graphic in many ways. For some reason I was never into that when I was ten. I just wanted to read about boys who loved sweets (Sweet Tooth), a girl with a pointy nose who had a range of very specific opinions (Fuss Pott) and a mother who had extraordinary strength and speed and looked after her kids in a perfectly loving way (Super Mum), amongst many other equally vibrant and memorable characters that graced its pages.

Then I would choose some sweets, pay for it all, and slip my hand back into the large, wrinkly, liver-spotted hand of my Bamp and we would walk around the town for a while as he looked for this and that, before returning to his house.

And then the second wonderful part of the Saturday would commence. The two children's shows on at that time were both three or four hour epics – Noel Edmunds Multi-Coloured Swap Shop on BBC1, or Tiswas on ITV.

Swap Shop was middle class, not that I knew what middle class meant back then, but it was quite reserved in many ways. It featured Noel Edmunds sat at a desk taking telephone calls. Sometimes he would switch to a sofa accompanied by other people who would all take telephone calls too. Often though he was sat behind a desk with a phone in his hand. The whole phone thing was quite exciting back then, as my grandparents had a trimphone, which produced a shrill and attention-seeking warbling sound whenever someone rang. It was the only one in the street, as my grandparents were quite well-off.

So I would often ring Swap Shop in the hope they would call me back so I could fling open the front door and all the neighbours would hear the annoying trilling of this plastic beige brick and would bristle with envy.
It never happened.

Tiswas, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish. Or should that be 'bucket of custard'.

Tiswas was chaotic, anarchic, zany and stupid. Oh it also had the Spider-Man cartoon which made it much cooler than the Godzilla cartoon that Swap Shop would show. But Tiswas fitted my personality far better and I would become mesmerised by the two or three hours of zaniness that unfolded before my eyes each Saturday morning as I munched on packets of Monster Munch while simultaneously flicking through Whizzer & Chips. I could multi-task back then. These days my concentration is so poor that I can only multi-task being asleep and dreaming.

By around noon the shows would both be over and it was then the turn of my Bamp to hog the television as World Of Sport hosted by Dickie Davis would begin, featuring an hour or two of the wonderfully homo-erotic sport of wrestling. Those muscular, sweaty men who kept trying to grab hold of the other man's shorts kept my Bamp happy and out of my Nan's way as she cooked dinner. I would sit on the sofa, reading my comic over and over again, nurturing the autistic child within by examining the detail of every single pane of every single cartoon strip.

And that was my Saturday, or the morning at least. But it was often the mornings where all the magic happened.

The 12 Blogs Of Christmas Part 6 – Dec 6th 2016

It’s Tuesday the sixth of December 2016. Yes, I know. The first five parts of this ’12 Blogs Of Christmas’ series was published in December of 2015. In the words of Patrick Solitano in Silver Linings Playbook, “I got stuck.”

But here I am, a year later. I could say ‘And what a year it’s been!’ for dramatic effect, but in fact, I don’t feel it has been that dramatic. January to late September had it’s fair share of fun moments and only one or two dramatic moments. My mood, despite being unemployed (broadly speaking), was fairly stable. I only had two blips, one in January if I recall, which is completely usual for me after the Christmas festivities, and one in May when a friendship I had broke down. The term ‘broke down’ is quite funny really isn’t it  when describing the ending of any sort of relationship. It makes you think you’re supposed to call a plumber or an electrician or someone from the RAC to help put things right again. “Oh, my relationship broke down, so I called a flooring expert specialising in carpet underlay and now everything is fine again.”

Anyway, it’s nearly Christmas. I have a new job, am hoping to move in the next few months (to be closer to my new job) and have already eaten one Marks & Spencer’s chocolate log, all to myself. My Nan and I started buying them back in the early 90s I believe. They weren’t covered in ganache back then, but were incredibly delicious nonetheless. When they first introduced the chocolate ganache on the outside, which I think was sometime in the mid 90s, it was challenging initially, due to our belief that a proper chocolate log should have a thick layer of hard chocolate on the outside, not something that was the consistency of fudge. However, after a while, say fifteen of the new breed of logs, we got used to them.

That’s all for this blog. Just needed to say that.

Charlotte of York

Charlotte Castle

Riaz and Charlotte.

I was messaging my friend Charlotte. She knew how low I felt after my previous weekend and invited me up to see her. North Yorkshire is a long way away from Avebury and I knew that financially I had little hope of scraping together the train or coach fare.

“We can do the touristy thing,” she said happily (insofar as happiness can be ascertained via messaging through the strange digital world of social media).

“I’d love to visit, but…” and listed all the obstacles in my path, including lack of finances, a strange skin tag that had developed on my right cheek, and my concern about the fluoride content of toothpaste.

I had met Charlotte through Facebook a couple of years ago. It’s how I make most of my friends these days. I turn my nose up at actually chatting to strangers in pubs, gyms, clubs or Waitrose. That’s way is far too dodgy. It’s much safer to interact with someone on social media, hoping that they are who they say they are and not some forty stone bald-headed man in a string vest sat in front of a computer somewhere near Barry Island.

In a tent bought from Aldi’s.

Our friendship formed sometime in June 2014. She was a writer too – her book Simon’s Choice is still available on Amazon – and was and still is intelligent, beautiful and funny. She had visited me in November 2015, a rather spontaneous visit in which we had great fun and since then, had spoken several times of meeting again.

So here was an opportunity but I just could not afford it – until another friend intervened. She offered to send me money to go and visit Charlotte as she knew how much of a knock I had taken regarding my encounter with *name deleted*, and the money she offered was a lot – enough for me to get the train and to have a little spending money too. I ruminated over this for sometime, torn between accepting the offer and the weight it would bear upon my shoulders, knowing that I would not be able to repay it easily. But I also knew that visiting Charlotte would be good for me. A healing visit, where my mind would be able to repair itself a little. Because us sensitive folk have fragile minds. And it’s funny because Charlotte herself is very similar to me, her sensitivity creating conflicts in her mind, both of us fighting battles, some imaginary and some real, with our hopes and dreams.

So in the second week of July, six days after returning from Leicester, I set off on my travels again.

Bloke in reflection doing a facepalm. Oil on canvas. £765

Bloke in reflection doing a facepalm. Oil on canvas. £765

I love train journeys. Coach journeys aren’t bad either, but there’s something about being on a train. That huge feeling of throbbing electrically induced motion between your legs. There’s nothing in comparison. Except maybe Marmite on toast.

I changed trains at Bristol Parkway and then began the three hour journey to Leeds, where I would have to change once last time to reach Harrogate. On arrival at Leeds I took this photograph.

Leeds Train Station

Leeds train station. The last bastion of hope for all mankind.

And then, shortly thereafter, I arrived at the beautiful town of Knaresborough. I am kicking myself for not taking a picture of the town as the train trundled across the viaduct, for the vast expanse below me not only revealed a green and lush valley, but also an undulating vista or roads and ancient houses, all rickety and twisted, that looked as if they had been drawn on to the landscape by an artist of prodigious imagination and an impressive cellar of wine.

Gosh, I’m quite pleased with that previous paragraph. I’ll be a writer yet. Just you see.

So the train arrived at Knaresborough and there was Charlotte, with her two children, waiting to meet me. I was expecting her to run towards me, maybe shouting “Daddy! My Daddy!” just as in the closing scenes of The Railway Children, which wouldn’t have made any sense but boy, it would have been a funny sight for the onlookers. We smiled, laughed, hugged and chatted amiably as we walked slowly into the town. After a brief stop for some provisions, we arrived at Charlotte’s house.

That afternoon and evening was wonderful. Relaxed, comfortable and serene. We watched a movie or two, chatted, drank wine, enjoyed a take away and laughed and chatted some more. It occurred to me that I felt comfortable with her, more so than I did with *name deleted*, and that all of us give a little and take a little something different from each friend we have. For each friend that has passed through our lives, we gain something and lose something.

The next day we visited York. Well, what can I say. York is truly beautiful and I absolutely loved our stroll around this ancient city. It was, apparently, founded in 71AD, making it nearly two thousand years old. Nearly as old as Swindon.

Barley Hall is just one of the many museums in York. It was originally a medieval house, the earliest parts dating from around 1360. They have turned it into a delightful exhibition of life in the 15th century, when it belonged to William Snawsell and his family. Like Avebury manor, visitors can interact with everything – from the fake food on the table to dressing up in replica costumes from that period, as this delightful photograph shows!

Marc Bolan and Jennifer Saunders

Marc Bolan and Jennifer Saunders

After leaving here, we strolled around some more, making our way merrily through the streets, becoming slightly lost, becoming slightly found and just having a swell day. I’ve always wanted to use the word swell like this, but without the ‘gee’.

We also visited a street called The Shambles. Surely this was the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books!

The Shambles

The Shambles

And that was York. I had nowhere near the amount of time to see everything but I know there will be other opportunities in the future.

That evening, my last evening, we chatted some more. I sipped on a vodka and cola and Charlotte drank wine, and she listened patiently as I spoke about my fears and insecurities regarding my previous weekend with *name deleted* and how that had all gone terribly wrong. Sometimes, all you need is just to talk to someone and then the answers to your problems come from within. I had a few light-bulb moments (and I’m not talking about how my 6’4 frame occasionally collides with ceiling fittings) and realised that actually, I’m an alright person. Like anyone, I have my flaws, I struggle with my doubts and lack of confidence, but I’m pretty much okay and mean well. It made me realise that the loss of a friend that I felt so acutely just three or four days ago, didn’t matter as much as I thought it did. It made me realise, as corny and cliched as it sounds, who my real friends were.

Here’s to you Charlotte. Thank you so much for your kindness and hospitality. May we meet again soon X.

 

Market Harborough (part 1)

Waiting for the train to Market Harborough

Waiting for the train to Market Harborough

“Let’s start at the very beginning,” sang Julie Andrews once upon a time as she sat by a lonely goatherd.

Well, sometimes beginnings are boring. Sometimes it’s fun to start in the middle and then work backwards (or forwards) as your whim dictates.

So this is just another memory snapshot. In the course of writing my memoirs, I can refer back to these posts and reproduce them and expand on them as I write about my life. I feel a bit like Marcel Proust! If I can replicate just some of his success, I would die happy! Instead of the six volumes of his In Search Of Lost Time, I would run to seven volumes. Just to, er, show my competitive spirit!

So this is just a little reflection of my brief but happy friendship with Amphelia Strange, with me wrestling with my thoughts, making sense of what happened and just pondering over something that was loved and lost.

On the Saturday morning we weren’t sure what to do or where to go. Leicestershire is a gorgeous county but without transport – and neither of us drove – then our choices needed some forethought and planning. We both liked castles and stately homes and so initially I did a little research into nearby attractions such as Belvoir Castle and Rockingham Castle.

“Rockingham!” Amphelia smiled. “Just the sound of that one makes me think…of rocks!”

I nodded. “Right.”

To get to Rockingham was tricky but doable. It involved a bus to Leicester, then a train to Corby followed by a taxi to Rockingham itself. Sorted. We could do it. Amphelia was still pottering around upstairs and so I was doing my usual thing of pacing up and down her living room, going over the plans in my head and the timing of it all. Then, something made me think of actually ringing them. I don’t know why. I think just to confirm the opening times. So I tapped in the number and waited.

An answering machine and a recorded message began.

“Thank you for ringing Rockingham Castle,” the female voice began. “We are open Sundays, Tuesdays and Bank Holiday Monday’s…”

What? Hang on a minute. This was Saturday! I listened to the message again and, with a frustrated air, passed on the information to Amphelia, who was now in the kitchen, making wooden spoons dance on the worktop.

“Oh well,” she said. “Market Harborough it is then!”

We had spoken of Market Harborough a few times and I was certainly open to the idea as I love small rural towns rather than large cities. Then again, Leicester city centre was quite nice, full of nooks and crannies and wonderful shops. Basically, what I’m saying is, I’m easy going and love everything!

So we got a bus to Leicester and then a train to Market Harborough. Amphelia had been there before but briefly, so I understood, and she did not really recall much of it. We arrived and started walking towards the centre of town. It was one of those sunny showery mornings – bursts of hot sunshine followed by brief smatterings of rain. Oh and wind! Quite a breeze was blowing and it was something else I discovered about Amphelia – she wasn’t too keen on the wind, bless her!

We then passed a shop. Not an antiques shop. It was a sort of emporium – a mix of the arcane, the modern and the archaic. A strange collection of cuddly, fluffy toys and these, wot we spotted in the window.

Military Deer
The one on the right she fell in love with. It was £135. We went in, had a look at it, got into a good rapport with the shopkeeper and then continued on with our day. She said it would be perfect for her online shop. She could dress its antlers with her homemade jewelry, bracelets, beads and earrings, photograph it and then those images would make great pictures on her online shop.
She loved it.
So I bought it for her.
I used my haggling skills with the lovely shopkeeper of course, and managed to get it down to £110. Er…okay, so maybe my haggling skills aren’t the best as some of you lot, but I thought a £25 reduction wasn’t to be sniffed at!
So I bought it for her.
I am unemployed, scrimp away every month, but I had fortunately come into a £500 windfall, by way of a tax rebate, and it was that amount I took with me to Leicester.
She is constantly in dire straits financially as she has no job either, for various and genuine reasons, and relies on benefits like myself. So I left her £20 for taxi fare too, to take her cat to the vet, as he is poorly and her only constant companion and she loves him to bits. So I left her taxi money to take him to the PDSA.
And I left her another £20 which I hid in a book in her living room, just for food.
And I bought her £60 worth of shopping from Tesco – cat litter, toilet rolls, food – some food and alcohol for both of us too, during my stay.
I bought us breakfast, dinner, lunch. Paid for all her train fares.
So I spent just under £300 on her, at a guess.
And you know, I think many people would be swearing at this point. Cursing and berating themselves for being so silly in spending so much on someone they hardly knew. But she was vulnerable and had led such a troubled life. I thought I could just sprinkle a little sunshine upon her, for those couple of days.

And I can’t even bring myself to be annoyed at giving so much. I feel I’m *supposed* to be. That money could have been for my own bills, my own cat. I could have given it to a friend I have known longer, and has been there more for me, whose washing machine broke down recently so I could have helped her instead. But I spent it all on someone who, within 72 hours, decided they never wanted to be in my life again.

So how come I can’t feel angry? I only feel love. I only have tears in my eyes now, wanting to give her a hug and tell her that things don’t have to be so heavy. That these differences, these misunderstandings, aren’t as serious as she thinks. They could, if she allowed, just drift away on the summer breeze and be forgotten about. Everything could be so light and easy and we could just laugh again. I guess some people find that so hard to do, for many different reasons.

I miss my friend, but life goes on. And when people say ‘life goes on’ it gives an impression of a strong, stoic stance and a hardening of the heart. ‘Oh yes!’ you cry. ‘Life goes on!’

But I think what people mean is that you can’t do anything about the hurt. You can’t make things better. For now, at least. In time? Who knows. But for now, you just have to miss the person you cared for and try your best to carry on.

TO BE CONTINUED…