Monday, 16 January 2012

Nail it down. Reflections on the gloomiest day

16/1/12 (The gloomiest day of the year)

Fifty years ago England was a different place; there were penalties, there was shame and social oblique. In those dark and distant times, alive in the memory of only a few, TV pundit and panel game star Isabel Lady Barnett committed suicide after being caught stealing a tin of fish from her local shop. One Proff Joad, a popular broadcaster lost his whole career, popular and academic, after being caught without a ticket on the underground.
The accusation of theft no longer brings with it great shame, in fact it’s the norm. Last Sunday our church held its annual charity auction of our advent calendar. This was made of paintings done by local artists, a somewhat truncated affair this time as four of the paintings had been stolen.
Last year we had all the lead from the roof lifted. Outside the church there is a mournful notice pinned to a tree showing a drawing of a stolen tortoise. It joins the numerous notices lining our streets showing pet cats, usually ones with good thick coats, eager looking dogs, and fashionably lop eared rabbits, all vanished from their gardens into oblivion. Coarse fish are stolen from our rivers, and I’ve just heard news about the grave of a poodle being smashed apart as there was a rumour that it had been buried in an expensive collar!
London is now more than ever a place of strangers and thieves but this nonchalant attitude towards honesty seems to be nation wide.
It seems that teenagers regularly shop-lift and their parents now regard it as a bit of a lark. Or perhaps they are at it themselves. Some £4.4 billion worth of goods was stolen from British shops last year, and prosecutions for shoplifting are rising.
Something called the “Global Retail Theft Barometer” estimates that British shop-keepers losses add £70 to the bill for every man, woman and child in the country, compared to £65 in France and £50 in Germany.
In picturesque, law-abiding Henley, where many people go to escape from the crime in the Great Wen, a wealthy TV chef has just been nabbed for stealing from Tesco’s self-service checkout machines. Fishermen on our coasts can no longer leave their lobster pots on the harbour or they will be snatched, even if empty. A friend of mine in rural Staffordshire, a former farmer, who has advanced cancer managed to chop some wood for his stove last week. It took him a lot of effort but he relished any chance to do physical work. When he went to collect the logs they’d gone. One of his neighbours did it, he could tell by the tracks of his vehicle in the mud.
If you want to keep it, nail it down, keep it in doors, put up CCTV and only take your dog to the park accompanied by heavies.
This is England; a soft touch, a place of kind prisons, un-paid fines. Our institutions are racked with cupidity and peculation at every level, and externally we are being overwhelmed by barbarians whose custom it is to steal. I once used to think that the “barbarians” must be allowed to come, but now they’ve arrived life is somehow degraded for everyone.

Remembering Viv


I heard the play Tom and Viv on Radio 4 on Saturday 14th. Written in 1984 by Michael Hastings, it vividly describes the relationship between T. S. Eliot and his first wife, the upper crust Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
It’s one of my favourite plays; so many issues held together so brilliantly in such a tight structure.
Some time in the 1980s I saw it at the Royal Court starring Tom Wilkinson, and I heard this radio version with shouty David Haig playing Viv’s chump of a brother last year.
Listening to it this time I realised that poor Vivvy is really an unknowing Dadaist. She behaved like those teenage girls you see in almost every current middle class play, on TV and stage; the shouting out of unconnected remarks, odd gestures and emotional interest in the world economy.
Her actions had a wild, distorted point to them; pouring copious amounts of chocolate through the letter box at Faber and Faber because her husband had become bitter and unpleasant. Chasing the Bloomsbury group ladies around London with a trick knife because she thought they had ruined his talent. Even throwing herself across her husband and grabbing the steering-wheel while he was driving, because she was upset that he was moving away from her.
Marinetti the Italian Futurist would have loved that one as she was harnessing the new technology to make her protest. Except of course he didn’t like women.
Her main problem was that she was a woman and an upper-class one, expected to behave very well in public. If she’d been a man, of the much loved Anthony Blanche or Boy Mulcaster type, she would have got away with it. But she could never see herself as an autonomous person; her self-consciousness was miles from that of what we would now call a “performance artiste.” She saw herself as a wife, and later as a mad one. With all the rigidity of her class background she let her enemies, and she’d annoyed many, many people, far more than Tristan Tzara ever did, to lock her away in a genteel loony bin. She spent most of her adult life shut away, unvisited, forgotten. Despite her vivacity, cleverness, promiscuity and desire to shock, she somehow managed to move from flapper to unwanted Victorian wife. Quite a performance in itself but much too tragic for Dada.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Winter walk


Walked to Turnham Green Terrace, along its prestigious row of shops up to the High Road, turned round and walked back – as a way of doing something.
The year has not even begun to rev up, still dormant and everything feels quite flat and almost unreal.
Shoppers braving the cold and wet looked listless and a bit apprehensive – could be the thought of that whole year stretching out like a blank page on which we are forced to write. The festive spirit gone they are alone with the old routine and the future, to quote Andrey Kurkov in Death and the Penguin, his grim but comical book about economic and social collapse.
A dignified woman in smart hat brushed against my hand. I apologised automatically but she turned and looked daggers at me. Oh well, TGT is one of the rudest shopping streets in the world. They should put that on the local road signs. People will cut in front of you in the green grocers and Waitrose, insisting they are first, as if samphire and morels are almost unavailable.
One of its largest boutiques is closing down, everything on sale, even a glass chandelier winking rather weakly above us, its red ticket hanging reproachfully down. Handbags are reduced from hundreds of pounds to a paltry £60 which is still beyond me. There are stands of reduced garments including brightly coloured turkey fluff bolero jackets, macks lined with strange looking purple fur, made in the Congo, and slender emerald green satin evening dresses. A table is crammed with evening bags with some of their jewels missing, girly pendants while above us on their mushroom shaped hooks hang stylish hats shaped like those favoured by Audrey Hepburn.
I wonder how could get them into a suit-case without completely squashing the high crown and wide brim. They are for people who have trained staff to do the packing.
Beside the stonily silent till, the young Chinese shop owner pours out her
sentiments to an American lady customer: “I have to close. Very sad. England will have double-dip recession soon. I lose all my customers and good friends, like you.”
I had a feeling she didn’t know this woman from Adam but had fixed on her to unload her retailer’s remorse.
“I am to blame,” she went on. “I am not flexible enough. I had two partners, both left last year. I should have stopped. I am not flexible enough.”
The American was doing well making sympathetic noises. I felt almost guilty that having lost my job some time ago, I didn’t have any money to spend in her shop. I might have bought the orphaned chandelier, to hang in the nice big flat I would now, should now be inhabiting.
“I have tried business,” she went on mournfully and relentlessly. “It has not worked. I have to sell. But I have learned a lot. I am now going to be a Chinese teacher.”
She seemed almost unhinged with the failure of the shop.
“There will be no small shops here soon,” I heard her cry as I left, wishing her a Happy New Year.
Out on the pavement again the light was failing and people passed by looking increasingly like ghosts, heads down, silent. A young woman who works in the little health food shop waved through the window, her smile barely visible through a small space between cotton wool and glitter spray representing seasonal snow.
Her aim this new year is to sell people good health in little bottles with complex labels. Like other cancer survivors mine is to try against nature and all odds to see out this new year, and the next. At least she will never go out of business.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Back to the forge

It was a good Christmas, quiet, (not much screaming) and sociable (we visited my mother’s friends) Most of the time I felt a real delight at being there, walking on the same carpets, seeing the same tree lights and arrangements of cards hanging down the chimney breast.
On Christmas Eve I crossed the fields at the top of the village to visit a friend. He has advanced prostate cancer. Two years ago doctors told him he had 18 months to live, but he is still going fairly strong and they are keeping it at bay. He’s cool, doesn’t make any fuss or show any fear, but his brain once occupied with physical work is more and more activated towards finding lotions and potions via the internet. His kitchen surfaces are scattered with bright little pots from Holland & Barrett. He is pursuing the mysterious Vitamin B17, which American pharmacologists say is not a vitamin, the properties of crushed apricot kernels and getting them to work with some enzyme found in pineapple. He has also supplied himself with pure water, putting a filter system under his sink.
He will do everything he can to save himself, but human nature being what it is, when he first had the symptoms of cancer he ignored them in favour of driving his Porshe around the Italian lakes.
I was only there for coffee but he drove me to Tettenhall, a posh suburb of Wolverhampton, to visit some of his friends. Sitting up high in the 4 X 4 which actually has mud on its flaps unlike the same vehicles I see in Chiswick, I was able to survey the surviving south Staffs countryside.
His pals were an architect and wife, with a big home, full of drawings and maps and machines for making giant photo-copies of plans.
As we arrived he was watching Leonard Cohen on TV. I was surprised as I don’t expect that in the Midlands, and he didn’t expect me either, surprised that I was also a fan.
“She’s better than the ones you usually bring,” he said to my friend.
The walls of the kitchen were lines with architectural drawings of Rome, and mountain peaks where he goes walking. His wife fed us delicious canap├ęs. I didn’t know what they were but they squirted cheese and melted in my mouth. This was really like Christmas, hospitality from unknown people, and a bit of an unexpected adventure. It was like being young again. But so was my growing feeling of unease.
My mother was getting the lunch and she would have it ready by 12 noon or at best 12.30pm. I had not told her I was going out for so long and didn’t have my mobile. I rang her from the house. Her voice sounded remote, her speech was clipped and abrupt. She was not pleased.
In the warm kitchen we were all drinking too much wine and more delicious little knob things and home made mince pies were appearing. But we had to get going.
At 1pm I felt such relief when I climbed down from the car but in the kitchen she kept her back to me turned to the stove. She put my lunch on the table in silence, deeply offended that I had gone out like that, and worse, was late.
I remembered when I was young how this silence signalled terrible danger, I was out in the cold and the world was about to end. She seemed to hold the power of life and death over my brother and the kitchen was particularly her domain.
I offered to take her out for the afternoon, to a garden centre. She didn’t want to go. “It’s too late now,” she said angrily, “specially if I have to cook another meal tonight.”
This business of cooking, she doesn’t have to do it at all. But no one else has ever cooked in her kitchen, or I think, opened the fridge without permission.
But the mood passed, she did not sustain it. Things would be OK this time.
I exhaled and realised that the old anguish I used to bring home with me, about not being married, and not giving her any grandchildren seemed to have melted away. It just wasn’t there anymore. I realised this when I was speaking to my brother’s girl friend, joking about finding romance when I became a pensioner, and I realised that it didn’t matter any more. That long anguish had given up on itself at last, packed up its siege weapons and gone away. A neighbour’s two young daughters came round and we enjoyed talking and playing with them. We did some drawing and there was an uncomplicated enjoyment at seeing them.
Maybe my anxiety and feeling of failure had been driven out by a greater fear, because I now faced the strong possibility of death from cancer. Over Christmas I wasn’t conscious of that very much, just odd violent twinges. I’d left the last check-up feeling very confident, but then I’d looked through last year’s diary and seen the words from a doctor talking to me on the phone: “Very few people have long remissions,” she’d said. “Most people come back for a second and third round.”
Then what? Well we know the answer to that. So she was saying quite matter of factly down the phone that my life was going to be very short – but she was not seeing me or my notes, just going by stats.
Then there was the anxiety about my mother’s age, the nagging thought that when she dies she will take Christmas with her. As we watched “Pointless” and Celebrity Mastermind, death seemed to be stalking us both. In the day time I felt good and remained cheerful but evenings were more tricky and at night there were some grotesque dreams – children whose arms suddenly extended into snakes.

My friend with cancer came back for lunch on Christmas Day. All cooked by my mother as ever, with all the trimmings.
“I hope I didn’t keep Jane out for too long and make her late yesterday,” he said joshingly.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I am very flexible about these things.”

A London Doctor's lament


At a dinner party on New Year’s Eve I sat next to a GP from Clapham, south London, who told me that his area has had a radical demographic change and most of his patients are white and middle class, the women thin as X-Rays.
He has no trouble with them except that when they consult him they have usually studied the internet first and want to give him their diagnosis, and he said, “they have real trouble with accepting serious illness.”
They just can’t believe it has happened to them. I can sympathise with that. When I heard I had cancer I couldn’t believe it, sometimes I still can’t. Then I remember my mother reminding me that cancer is, “No respecter of persons.”

Towel Heads say no to towels!


The infant year is kicking well: In February I am going to the Maldives to write about a new hotel and luxury spa. I have even got a commission to write it as a “Spa Spy” piece for the D Telegraph. Turned on Radio4 this morning and heard that the government of the Maldives has given in to pressure from minority Shia Muslims, and closed down all health spas which they say are, "Un Islamic"!
Times have changed. I was there covering the Miss World contest for the Daily Mail. The contestants were all enormously tall, a kind of bikini clad Strelzi, and after they'd all gone home and my work was done I spent a week walking about on an island completely naked. My bottom got badly burned and I developed a raging fever. When I returned to my thatched beach hut, a nice looking South African man who worked in the bar came in with some ice-cubes in a pink napkin and pressed them onto the wounded skin. It partly worked, my temperature came down, but his went up.

A Battle Long Forgot


During the great rush up to Christmas I went all the way to Waterstone’s at Piccadilly to meet a friend for coffee and to exchange gifts and cards.
While I was waiting I skimmed through the sleek new tomes on sale nearest the door. One of them was Arnhem, The Battle for Survival, by John Nichol and Tony Rennell. Published by Penguin/Viking.
I hauled it down as my Dad was in that battle before being taken prisoner. I skim books about "Operation Market Garden" half jokingly, just in case there is ever a photo of him, the unlikely chance of his face staring up from a page, among the 35000 “sky soldiers,” hunched together in gliders, covered in straps and camouflage.
This time he was there – on the third page of photos following page one hundred, standing with a group of British soldiers and Dutch civilians just after landing on September 21st 1944.
He looks so young, ready for anything, gently smiling at the photographer. You can also see in his face, leaner than I ever saw it, a look of his sad eyed father. He didn’t usually resemble his Dad but in this photo the older man is there.
I had a rush of emotion, my eyes filled with tears as I thought how it would have been to take the book home at Christmas to show him, hear about the morning on that road. I could also have given the information to the book’s authors. But he’s long dead and nothing meaningful was ever said between us. I felt tears running down my face and I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak about it when my friend arrived.
I bought the book, took it home and showed it to my mother. I told her I’d been moved to find the photo. “You silly thing,” she said and laughed. She glanced at the page for about three seconds and agreed that it was him. She repeated a bit of the story of how he had ended up in a house in Oosterbeek owned by the Minjau family. They had been down there in the cellar with their own small children during a bombardment. A field hospital was set up in the cellar but unfortunately they had hardly anything effective to treat the wounded. The house was blown up, they were captured and Mr Minjau was taken off to prison.
“He looks like his father in that picture don’t you think?” I said.
“He never looked like his father he was like his mother,” she snapped, and that was that.
My brother grabbed the book and went home with it. When he bought it back he didn’t say much and my mother didn’t want to look at it again.
“I don’t want to be upset,” she said. A bit unlikely, and I think she was not really interested. She is 89 now and sometimes her old age seems to affect her like a terminal illness. A lassitude comes on her and there are things she just can’t be bothered with any more, and Dad at the battle of Arnhem seems to be one of them.