31 January 2010

Stonehaven

Let me tell you a story, a true story.

As I recall it was late April 1977. I had a university pal called Zippy who looked like the bass guitarist out of The Bay City Rollers. He was a keen Glasgow Rangers fan. Someone had let him down so he asked me if I would like to travel up to Aberdeen with him to watch his team in an end of season match. Loving football and having never been to Aberdeen before, I agreed.

We went up by train on the Friday afternoon. It was one of those clear springtime weekends when the sky is as blue as a robin's egg and the sun sharp but slightly honeyed . We stayed in a student house near The Granite City's university.

At 3pm on Saturday afternoon, we were in Aberdeen's Pittodrie stadium along with several thousand Rangers supporters who both outsung and outnumbered the host club's fans. Many were steaming drunk. In Glasgow, football has always been a kind of religion. Downtrodden workers from the mean streets of Easterhouse, Maryhill and Clydebank look to football for escape, joy and the fulfilment of dreams. It's not just about watching twenty two men kick a leather ball around.

I remember little of that match except that Aberdeen won 2-1 and that Rangers had the great John Greig in defence and the almost equally great Derek Johnstone on the wing. Surrounded by seething, frothing Glaswegians, Zippy and I made our way back to the railway station, pleased that we wouldn't be on one of the notorious football specials. No, we would be taking the slow train - a service train that would eventually bring us to Stirling after numerous stops.

It was an old train with compartments and side corridors that ambled along the coast towards Dundee before cutting inland bound for Stirling and finally Glasgow. To our disquiet, there were lots of Rangers fans aboard - singing and shouting, intimidating other passengers and generally being yobbish. With no empty seats visible and conscious of my English accent that could have easily been like a red rag to a bull to these neanderthals, Zippy and I stood in the rear corridor of our carriage next to the window - aiming to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Two stops down the line at Stonehaven, we noticed a few people on the platform, naturally oblivious to the fact that their usually quiet coastal service had been turned into an unofficial football special. The yobs were yelling their obscenities, beating on the windows, singing their tribal chants. The bespectacled old guard, nearing his retirement had already made a creditable but hopeless effort to control the hooligans before retreating to a safer part of the train.

In my mind's eye I can see her again now - as clear as that blue sky day though it was over thirty years ago. She was about sixteen - maybe seventeen. Perhaps she'd been into Stonehaven for a Saturday afternoon treat - a little shopping, perhaps meeting friends. She was of medium height with shoulder length ash blonde hair. Her skin was clean and unblemished. Her tidy coat was camel hair coloured and she was holding a black shopping bag. This girl, somebody's daughter, conveyed an air of innocence mingled with self -assurance - the sort of girl who comes from a "good family" and does well in school.

Realising the train was full, she stood on the opposite side of the corridor looking out of the window as the train set off again. Glancing her from the first compartment, a couple of the hooligans came out to her and in spite of her protestations insisted that she take a seat in their already crowded compartment. Finally, they literally pulled her in. At first, there was salacious laughter, hoots and yells with the girl's protesting voice no doubt being quelled by stolen kisses.

The train was going clackety clack on its way to Montrose and then the terror properly begun. We could hear the girl's protests turning to primeval screams of terror as the laughing yobs sexually assaulted her. We asked each other what we should do and realised that we could do nothing. If we entered the compartment we would be dead meat and the same would happen if we pulled the emergency cord. They would know that we had pulled it.

I can still hear that girl's futile, agonised cries. At times they have haunted me, tormented me - made me wonder what I might have done, made me wish that I had had superhuman powers - as in the movies whereby I'd have hurled each of the miserable predators off that train and saved that poor girl's innocence, ensuring she wouldn't have to live each succeeding year with the horror of what happened that early evening in April.

At Montrose, fifteen or twenty minutes down the line, they released her, tears streaming down her face, her hair dishevelled, her bag gone. Traumatised and speechless, she was standing on the platform as the train continued its journey. Raucously, the animals congratulated each other before gradually quietening - no doubt excess of alcohol was taking its toll.

Of course we reported the incident to an official at Stirling railway station. He took our names and addresses and a few other details but that was the last we heard about it. And we never saw the pretty girl from Stonehaven again but if by some remote chance she is reading this I would like to say how very sorry I am that I didn't do something to protect you and also how sad I am that your adult life has undoubtedly been blighted by your memory of that terrible journey.

Stonehaven station

27 January 2010

Tuamotu

Toppled moai
Tuamotu

Lying nose down
In the dirt
For what...two hundred years?
This was the effigy
Of Tuamotu, he the stardreamer
Whose word in Poike was revered.
He who traced his blood back
To Hotu Matu'a
And the disembarkment at Anakena
He was our lord.

We hauled his likeness here from Rano Raraku
All the able men of Poike
To the beat of a drum
Day by day
Inch by inch...
But he was Tuamotu
What would we not have given
To honour his memory?
Day by day we hauled
With womenfolk and children
Bringing mud and leaves
To slide him along the moai road
Till before two moons had passed
We brought him back to our beloved Poike
And raised him
Inch by inch
Sinew by sinew
The old ones chanting,
Advising, applauding
Inch by inch we pulled
Stones and sand wedged him
Till there he stood
Tuamotu - on his ahu at last
Lord of Poike
Surveying his people
Again.

We made him tall and strong
So that he would endure
Long into eternity
Like the stars he dreamed of
And the west wind
Rushing over the cliffs of Orongo

But there he lies
Nose in the dirt
Kissing the land that he loved
But with his back
To the stars
He dreamed of

Poike peninsula

Glossary

Hotu Matu'a - The legendary founder of the island race who came from the west

Anakena - the sandy bay where the first settlers reputedly landed.

Rano Raraku - A crater where 95% of the moai were created

Poike - The mysterious peninsula in the north east of the island.

26 January 2010

Sorry

Sorry. I bet regular visitors to this blog will have imagined that I had ceased harping on about Easter Island. Wrong. It's still in my thoughts a lot and I am currently reading "The Enigmas of Easter Island"(2003) by John Flenley and Paul Bahn. Fascinating new speculations rooted in available evidence.

When I was on the island, I began scribbling a journal which until today I hadn't looked at since I got back. After years of battering away at computer keyboards, I had almost forgotten the rather different and somehow more intimate process of handwriting at length. I filled a notebook hardbound with a Jacquard silk design that a science teacher in my old school had given me on the day I left. Thank you Barbara.

And another apology. Regular visitors may recall that occasionally I will break out into poetry. I have seen several psychoanalysts about this, even tried electric shock therapy but it's an urge I just can't control. I successfully suppress it for weeks and then it floats back to the surface like a rubber duck in a bubble bath. The trip to Easter Island - Te Pito te Henua (The Navel of the World) - inspired me to scribble several poems in my journal and here's one of them. I wrote it on the five hour LAN flight back to Chile:-

Hanga Roa

In Hanga Roa panting dogs
Pursue a bitch in season
By the supermercado
And Tavake's bar
As a moped whines past
Pursued by a silver-starlight four by four
Made in Japan

Once the moai makers
Walked here
Marveling at the dying of days
And these vast night skies
Pricked with uncountable
Platinum peepholes
To the other world

By fires of toromiro branches
They respun old stories
Of their island-world and
Of the endless sea and the enveloping sky
As the moai cast
Elongated moonlight shadows
Over their ancient ahu

Those dogs scurry off
Behind the Hotel Orongo
You can hear the Kare Kare dancers
From Tahiti
Their harmonies tangling
With the pack's expectant barking
As lights from the east
Predict another LAN arrival
From Chile faraway.

Mataveri airport

Glossary:-
Hanga Roa - main settlement on Easter Island whose primary source of income is now tourism
moai - the familiar stone giants
toromiro - the island's native tree, now virtually extinct
ahu - the stone platform on which moai were erected
Hotel Orongo - named after the ceremonial "birdman" village to the south west of the island
LAN - Chile's national airline

23 January 2010

Hymns

Yesterday, a murky rain-soaked Friday, we went to a funeral. It was for Shirley's Uncle Arthur who had just passed his eighty third birthday. This man lived and worked all his life in the north Nottinghamshire village of Misterton, apart from a brief period between 1949/51 when he completed his National Service - travelling to such faraway places as Jordan, Egypt and Palestine. He was a machine fitter and gave forty eight years of his working life to the same small engineering company during which time he and his late wife Madge raised a family of five daughters.

There were three phases to the funeral. Firstly, the cremation at the Woodlands Crematorium in Scunthorpe, then a memorial service at Misterton's imposing Methodist church and finally a social gathering or wake in the social club attached to Arthur's old engineering works. A poignant discovery was that Arthur's wake would be the very last event to be held in the social club which is due for demolition next week. He had been there at its inception and for many years was the club's secretary and chief steward.

Misterton Methodist Church

At the crematorium we sang the rousing "Abide With Me" by Henry Francis Lyte (1793 - 1947), a hymn which is always sung on FA Cup Final day followed by "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" by William Williams (1717-91) with the familiar first verse ending:-

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven

Feed me now and evermore

Feed me now and evermore

Two emotional and memorable hymns that everybody felt comfortable singing. Then on through the January gloom to Misterton.

In the chapel, the grim reverend preacher was dressed like a vicar from Dickens. His loud and superior enunciation cut you like a knife as he gazed superciliously over his horn-rims. The prayers and the blessing were delivered without any illumination from the light of the Lord but like bitter instructions to a firing squad. During one of the hymns, he seemed utterly detached even bored, polishing his spectacles then adjusting his microphone while peering from his wooden Victorian pulpit under the organist's even loftier perch. However, the hymns were once again worth singing - old and familiar.

Praise my soul the King of heaven!
To his feet his tribute bring.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven
Who like me his praise should sing?
Praise him! Praise him!
Praise him! Praise him!

Praise the everlasting King! (again by Henry Lyte)

And the final hymn by John Ellerton (1826-1893) - "The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is Ended":-

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren 'neath the western sky
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high

The hymns were well-chosen for singing goodbye to Arthur. A couple of them I hadn't sung since, at the age of fourteen, I resigned as a choirboy from our local church. Strange how the tunes came back to me straightaway - as if they were imprinted in my genetic program. Those hymns emerged from a God-fearing world in which churches were filled on Sundays and few doubted the creed that said there was a better world beyond this if you could just learn to be good and live a pious life. But Arthur will know no other life. His heaven was here on earth with his wife, daughters, grandchildren, friends and workmates. Why would you want it any other way?

21 January 2010

Milestone

I grinned inanely when I saw it in "The Showroom" programme for January. Did they really mean me? Am I really that old? On Thursday mornings, they were offering people aged over fifty five the opportunity to attend an early film showing plus a coffee and a piece of cake in the bar - all for a mere £4. Today's film was "The Road" (2009) directed by John Hillcoat.

So I took to the "road" and left our house at 9.30, striding out down Ecclesall "Road" and all the way into the city centre - 2.6 miles to be precise. The Showroom was teeming with over fifty-fives - all of them looking old enough to be my parents! Did I miscount the years somewhere along the line or had I entered a time warp? Or I'm the new Dorian Gray!

Anyway - the film. I thought it was brilliant. I accepted it for what it was having never read Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. By all accounts, it's a brilliantly disturbing book that is both desolate and, in parts, horrifying.
What I saw was a post-apocalyptic struggle to survive. No sunshine. No colour. Only vestiges of the world we inhabit remained - abandoned petrol stations, stripped supermarkets, decaying roads. Civilisation was well on the way to total evaporation with gangs of marauding cannibals scouring the countryside for prey. "The good guys" were hard to find.
Travelling south through all this ugliness and desperation are a man and a boy. The man is played by Viggo Mortensen and the boy by Kodi Smit-McPhee. I couldn't fault them - fantastically convincing performances and both roles called for enormous emotional commitment and understatement.
At the end of the film, the man is dead but on a windswept beach the boy finds a ragamuffin family to help him along the next stretch of "road". It's a hopeful message in a film that is so bleak.
It all somehow reminded me of Samuel Becket's existential "The Endgame" and "Waiting for Godot" with a sprinkling of "The Book of Dave" by Will Self and King Lear on the heath. Visions of a world stripped bare - "Nobody comes. Nobody goes." Yet ultimately, I don't see "The Road" as a vision of some hopeless future nor do I see it as a parable for mankind - a sort of warning shot across our globally warmed bows. It's just a story - an imagined story of a father and his son - travelling on through a nightmare world - trying to reach somewhere better and trying to hang on to their core decency and hope. It's all in the eyes of the beholder but for me this was a superb five-star film and so I recommend it to you.
Afterwards, I walked home along "the road", stopping at the Moorfoot Fisheries for fish and chips in the rear seating area. The whirlwind of a waitress pointed at the laminated "Pensioner's Special" notices. "I'm not that old!" I half snarled. "Oh no, I didn't mean that love," she said. "Anybody can have it". And so for £3.70 I enjoyed fish and chips with the obligatory mushy peas, a slice of bread and butter and a pot of tea. I guess I must be the last of the big spenders!

20 January 2010

Eh?

What a difference a day makes! Yesterday the BBC News headline was "Burglar Attack Appeal Fails" - describing how the Court of Appeal had thrown out Munir Hussain's appeal for a rethink on his thirty month sentence. Today the headline is "Jailed Businessman Munir Hussain Freed by Court" and the story describes how the same Court of Appeal has decided both to reduce the jail sentence to twelve months and to have it suspended. Eh?

Outside the court earlier today, Munir's relieved twenty three year old son Anwais recalled the fateful evening: - “It was indescribable. Unless you've been through it you can't imagine what it was like. You relive it every day – I don't think any of us are really going to get over it. It was everything that you see in the movies that you think will never happen to you. Even now I find it hard to sleep. I don't think our family will really get over it. "

By all accounts, Munir Hussain had been a model citizen until the night the burglars struck. A family man running a local business, he had never been in trouble with the law before. On the contrary, he was a fairly devout Muslim - a regular attendee at his local mosque who guided his children to live decent lives. Currently his family live in a state of some trepidation as the burglars and their associates have repeatedly threatened revenge for the retaliatory assault on Walid Salem.

Munir's brother Tokeer had his sentence reduced to twenty four months. It seems that he was the dominant assailant as the brothers fought back against the criminal scum who had invaded their lives and traumatised their family.

The Hussains' home in High Wycombe

19 January 2010

Justice

Tony Martin - still waiting for his knighthood.

Popular culture might insist that we should all have heroes. To tell you the truth, I am not hot on the idea of heroes. If pushed, apart from my family and friends, I'd say that for me there's the legendary Bob Dylan, there's Dean Windass the former Hull City AFC striker and there's Tony Martin. They are my heroes. But I hear you saying - Tony who?
In August 1999, Tony Martin heard intruders downstairs in his isolated Norfolk farmhouse. Emneth Hungate Farm was a ramshackle place and eccentric bachelor Martin lived a disorganised sort of life there miles from anywhere. He had been visited by burglars before, including the two "travellers" who arrived that night. Frightened and angry, Martin grabbed his shotgun, crept downstairs and soon afterwards blasted the pair of them. The youngest - Barras - aged just sixteen - was shot in the back and died at the scene. The older one - Fearon - was permanently "disabled" - Martin shot the guy's "crown jewels"!
Anyway - and I still find this incredible - Tony Martin was sentenced to three years in jail. The judge concluded that he went beyond the boundaries of reasonable force and had no right to take the law into his own hands like that. What is more, though he was a model prisoner, he was not considered for early release because he refused to show any remorse for his actions that August night. Instead of being sent to jail, I still believe that Tony Martin should have been presented with a medal at Buckingham Palace for services to the community and for being brave enough to fight back.
Another case has recently received a fair amount of news coverage. Back in September 2008, Mr Munir Hussain was returning from his local mosque in High Wycombe with his family. As soon as they stepped over the threshold of their home, they were confronted by three burglars in balaclavas. These guys tied Munir and his family up and made them crawl from room to room as they ransacked the house looking for valuables. Munir and his brother managed to untie themselves almost as soon as the gang departed.
They chased them down the street and cornered Walid Salem whereupon they beat him. Munir hit him so hard with a cricket bat that it broke. The career burglar with a criminal history as long as your arm is now allegedly "permanently brain damaged" but he continues to commit crimes in his area. He was not jailed for his crime at the Hussains' home. Munir was sentenced to thirty months in jail and his brother Tokeer received thirty nine months. At first my instinct was to bracket the Hussain brothers with Tony Martin - heroes - but in spite of myself, I tend to agree with the judge that their brutal revenge attack probably went too far.
Nonetheless, in the end we need to ask ourselves what we would do if we came across intruders in our own homes. Natural justice would tell most of us to fight back, to defend our loved ones and our property, to teach the feckless self-seeking intruders a lesson they would never forget. If put in the same situation as Munir Hussain, perhaps I would have given chase and bashed Walid Salem's brains out. In the heat of the moment you never know how you might react. It would be difficult to take a backward step and think coolly about how best to respond. What would the two judges in these cases have done if Barras and Fearon or Walid Salem had crept across the gravel, past the dove cotes and the double garages, to enter their palatial homes?

Munir and Tokeer Hussein

16 January 2010

Remembering

Mum at 81 - a recently scanned photo.

It's two years, four months and three days since my mother died. I have thought about her every day since then. In some ways it is as if she hasn't gone at all. She was, as small children might claim, the bestest mum ever and very broad-minded but I will tell you a tale concerning her that I have never shared with anyone before.
As you might imagine, I was a precocious child. I grew up in a largely male household - Dad and three brothers. In some respects, the world of femininity - women and girls - was a total mystery to me. But from a very early age, I was starting to ask questions about the position in which I found myself. Who was this God fellow? What was this "Bible"? What was that war all about? Where is Korea? Where do prime ministers do? Why did they drop a bomb on Hiroshima? And rising above such questions grew a curiosity about girls, women and the processes of reproduction.
Some time probably late in 1960 or 61, on our brand new television set we were watching a black and white drama in which one of the female characters was talking about "deciding" to have a baby. I piped up - "How can she decide? Babies are just born aren't they?" I noted the knowing glances between my parents and words unspoken.
Curiosity was aroused and weeks later, I found myself in our bathroom where my mother always got dressed after her early bath. In the absence of deodorants, she liked sweet smelling talcum powder and like many middle aged women of the time, squeezed herself into a rubberised Platex corset or girdle each morning. It had clips on it where she could attach her stockings - rather like the clips on suspenders. Tights hadn't yet appeared in rural East Yorkshire.
"So what you said mum is that girls don't have willies. So what do they have instead?"
"They have a hole that babies come out of.."
"A hole? Are you sure?"
"Yes I'm sure."
"Well can I see yours then?"
"No you can't."
"Why not?"
"Because you just can't. It would be...embarrassing>"
"Why? I just want a look."
I was eight years old and mum was reddening like a beetroot. But like a scientist, I just wanted to understand - to see this hole she was talking about - this hole that later I learnt was called a "vagina". I repeated that secret new word over and over with my eight year old mates who shared my inquisitiveness.
Perhaps a year later, my family and I were on holiday in Germany - in a public park in Munich where a flowing stream had been cleverly harnessed by the city authorities to provide a safe but exciting water experience - finishing in safety rigging.
A few yards away from our grassy base on the lawns that edged the stream, I saw a German girl of perhaps six or seven. She was laughing and jumping about with glee before venturing into the stream and she was stark naked. I could hardly take my eyes off her. No visible genitalia, just a kind of crease. And I remember absolutely nothing else of that Bavarian camping holiday - just that naked girl splashing in the flowing stream.
So what mum had said was true. It's funny how certain memories stick and others just evaporate. And I think of that innocent request I made in our bathroom that morning. Of course she couldn't show me. The weight of morality and civilisation was just beyond the bathroom door. What would I have done if one of my children had innocently made a similar request? Like mum, I'd have blushed and turned away.

14 January 2010

Haiti

Of Haiti's current horror, what can one say? What can one do? I would love to fly out there to the rubble of Port au Prince, find one devastated family and bring them back to our house, look after them, feed them, keep them warm until returning seemed safe and sensible. But the authorities would never allow such a thing.
Those collapsed shanty towns. Those people digging desperately with their bare hands. Those poor Haitians with their desperate history and their broken economy. Those neighbours lost. Those uncles and cousins, sons and sisters, mothers and grandmothers wrapped in tattered blankets and left on the kerb for collection vehicles. Those mysterious ways of that heartless "God".
Like millions of others I will donate money to the Haitian earthquake appeal and hope it does just a little good. Meanwhile, we live with our minuscule worries, our holiday plans, our New Year's resolutions, our bills, our appointments, our quarrels, our ideas for tonight's dinner. It's all nothing - meaningless compared with what has happened in Haiti.
I urge fellow bloggers to give generously. We are all earthlings.

12 January 2010

Hedley

Fancy a wing Hedley?

Once upon a time, there was a young hedgehog called Hedley. He was an independent fellow who knew how to look after himself. As winter arrived, he found himself a snug place to enjoy a much-deserved semi-hibernation close to the vent of a central heating boiler under somebody's wooden decking. His instincts told him he'd be safe there and would only need to stir from his slumbers once in a while for food - preferably delicious pink and juicy earthworms tunnelling temptingly through the chocolaty soil.

On January 12th, Hedley's empty stomach drew him out of his state of suspended animation. He sniffed the air. It smelled different somehow, as if the usual odours of nature were suppressed by something. Although Hedley's hearing and sight were unexceptional, his sense of smell was acute and he could pretty much tell what was going on for many yards around simply by drawing air in sharply through his nostrils. His parents - Daphne and Robert had taught him well, before they met their inevitable pancake-like end on the nearby main road - a stretch of tarmac that Hedley had vowed never to cross. After that, he had been raised by his Nana Sofia in the village of Grenoside. She hugged Hedley so hard that her prickles hurt him.

He squeezed out from under the decking to see an ocean of whiteness - the like of which he had never seen before though his Uncle Ian, who later emigrated to Florida, had once told him a terrifying story about a snow queen who inhabited an ice castle in a white world covered with, what was it Uncle Ian said, snow - yes that was it - snow.

Hedley snuffled beneath some fallen bracken only to find that the soil was frozen solid. It was like iron. "Oh dear," he moaned to himself. "I will never find any worms in this soil. I shall starve to death!"

Two tiny hedgehog tears trickled from his shiny little black eyes but then very faintly he smelt something a couple of yards away. What was it? It seemed to be coming from beneath the white stuff. It wasn't worms or grubs or those bulbous caterpillars he loved to gorge on in the summer but it was certainly meaty. He just had to investigate.

Poking around under the snow with his pointy nose and his little front feet with their tiny digging claws, he discovered a turkey's wing bone. There were some strands of icy meat clinging to it though it already seemed to have been gnawed by another creature - perhaps Basil the Fox who sometimes called in this garden when doing his nightly rounds. "Oh dear!" said Hedley, "I'm so hungry!" so he began to peck away at the bone, knowing that he needed nourishment to help him sleep through January's remaining bittercold nights.

Hedley didn't notice when a big human creature tiptoed slowly over the snow-covered decking to snap photographs of him and he also didn't notice when the same big man snuck up behind him with a tin of Somerfield chicken and tuna cat food which he placed quietly next to a terracotta plant pot. Moments later, Hedley smelt something mouthwateringly scrumptious in the air and was magnetised towards the cat food like a stage hypnotist's victim. "Mmmm!" Hedley growled contentedly. He would sleep so well after this.

Slow down Hedley!

10 January 2010

Signs

Years ago - when I was at university - perhaps unsurprisingly, I mostly concentrated on the two subjects which would form my joint honours degree - English Literature and Education. However, I also took some subsidiary courses in my first two years - Swedish, Religious Studies and Sociology. It was in the last subject that I was guided to learned articles and research evidence surrounding non-verbal communication.

Of course, all of us read non-verbal signals. It's part of everyday communication. At the most basic level - at least in the western world - a nod of the head signals "yes" and a shake signals "no", a smile suggests pleasure or contentment whilst a frown suggests displeasure or anxiety. Moving onwards and upwards from that base level, it is possible to read a whole range of much less obvious non-verbal signals. It is a fascinating area of study both for lay people in everyday life and for social psychologists seeking better academic understanding.

On Saturday night, Shirley and I broke out of the igloo, tied tennis racquets to our frostbitten feet and trudged down to the local pub. It was warmer in there than at home. Across the room we noticed a group of respectable thirty somethings, conversing while they drank their favourite tipples. A man, sitting perhaps nine inches from a blonde woman had his hand behind her seat and was persistently fingering and feeling her hair. His other hand sat upon his crotch and only moved from there to lift his glass. The woman's head tended to incline away from her boyfriend. The two of them made virtually no eye contact in the five minutes that we observed them. Meanwhile another man had his elbows on the pub table but his right hand, always hidden from his companions under his left elbow, fidgeted incessantly.

What was going on? It was unexceptional and undramatic behaviour but was the hair fiddling some kind of subconscious sexual foreplay? Was it threatening - as if to say - I really want to take this mane of hair and drag you back to my cave. Was it harking back to the man's realtionship with his mother or was it simply a statement such as - I want to care for you and look after you. The simultaneous crotch touching probably suggested a sexual undertone and the coquettish turning away of the woman's head may have suggested that though he was the pursuer, she was the final arbiter.

The man with the hidden but ever-moving fingers was clearly displaying a posture that he hoped would spell out comfort, ease and relaxation but the fingers were surely telling another story of frustration and feeling ill at ease.

We all have our own non-verbal foibles. When deep in conversation, my eyes will sometimes glance away from the person I am speaking to to focus on thin air or whatever uninteresting inanimate object is nearby. This seems to help me to concentrate on the words I am forming, giving respite from the eyes and face of my conversational partner. So often when I do this, the other person will look away in the direction of my gaze and many times I have had to explain that I am simply concentrating on what I am about to say. It is a type of non-verbal behaviour that could so easily be mis-read.

Although I was never a fan of "Big Brother", occasionally there'd be an expert commenting on the housemates' body language and so often that commentary made perfect sense. In a recent episode of "Airline" an Easyjet manager at Luton found himself being confronted by an angry passenger. The passenger was wide-eyed and demanding, even though he had missed his plane through his own stupidity. He moved into the duty manager's personal space so that their noses were less than six inches apart. It was at this point the unfortunate manager said politely "Please get out of my face!" before walking away - having I think correctly read the signs that physical aggression would be the next step.

That spell at university taught me that non-verbal communication, body language and gesture provide a wide range of information that can be read either with ease as in the case of the headshake or with much difficulty when the signs are more subtle and driven by subconscious memory, prioritisation and urging. At one level you might say that all of us spend our entire lives trying to read the signs that may or may not accompany spoken words.

7 January 2010

Lennon

There has just got to be more to life than ice and snow. Any moment soon, I am expecting a big woolly mammoth to come lurching down our road, tossing Corsas and Fiestas onto the snowy verge with his monstrous tusks. Anyway, today I decided to break out of our igloo and journey into Sheffield's city centre - always known as "town" by the local eskimos. I was going to The Showroom which is our city's only independent cinema.

I sat in the dark and soon the film came on - "Nowhere Boy" directed by Sam Taylor-Wood and only released at the tail end of last year. It's about John Lennon's life between 1955 and 1961 and is eminently watchable.
Only Japanese pilots still hiding in the jungles of Malaya and Borneo will not know at least some fragments of John Lennon's story - how he grew up with his Aunt Mimi in a fairly affluent part of Liverpool not far from Strawberry Field, how his unreliable mother Julia died young, how he met Paul McCartney, how he formed a band called The Quarrymen and how he became captivated by the newly emerging rock and roll music of middle America.
Above - scene from the film - Lennon and Julia at Blackpool. Below - A young John Lennon with the real Julia - his mother.
The film brings it all alive rather tenderly. Aunt Mimi is portrayed as a staid, emotionally repressed, snobbish and yet dependable figure in Lennon's life while Julia ably played by Anne-Marie Duff comes across as fun-loving but vulnerable. The actor who played Lennon, Aaron Johnson, bears only a slight physical resemblance to him but he convincingly conveys some of the torment and anger that coloured Lennon's youth.
Do you remember when the great white shark first rose from the sea in "Jaws"? The whole cinema jumped. There was a similar moment in this film when quite unexpectedly Julia is killed by a car. I listened to myself gasp with horror even though I knew that such a moment would occur somewhere in the film.
The movie's backdrop is nineteen fifties England with its austere postwar climate but also with a growing sense of emergent youth cultures such as the teddy boys. Young people are starting to define themselves in new terms and The Beatles are in the right place at the right time - ready to provide their restless generation with anthems to rally around.
I guess it was in the early eighties when my friend Tony and I travelled from Sheffield on a "Beatles Magical Mystery" coach excursion. We saw Aunt Mimi's house, some of the places where Paul McCartney's family had lived, the grand house with its surrounding trees known as Strawberry Field, the site of The Cavern Club, the bus shelter at the top of Penny Lane, Liverpool Art College where John and Stuart Sutcliffe were students and the job centre in Speke where, at the time, rejected Beatles drummer Pete Best was working. Not only did "Nowhere Boy" bring memories of that great day out back to mind but it also successfully showed the family circumstances which were fundamental in shaping Lennon's ambitions and his talent.
Surprisingly, songs and music never overwhelm the dramatic human story in this film but I would have liked it to end with Lennon's plaintive song to his late mother who meant so very much to him even though she had let him down so badly...

Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you
Julia Julia Julia
Ocean child
Calls me
So I sing a song of love
Julia Julia
Seashell eyes
Windy smile
So I sing a song of love
Julia Julia

5 January 2010

Snowbound

Do you remember "Deano" - our friendly garden gnome in his smart Hull City kit? Well today he seemed to have the weight of the world upon his little gnomish head and was threatening to turn into a snowman after five inches of snow had fallen upon Pudding Towers within three hours. Here he is:-Global warming? The entire Pudding estate is clogged with snow so tonight's masked ball has had to be postponed and tomorrow's pheasant shoot is also off. Birds that inhabit the estate are having much trouble finding titbits of food. However, earlier today I watched in horror as a sparrowhawk plunged from a high branch to take a young blackbird for his lunch. It was so quick. All that was left was a mess of black feathers fluttering in the snow. I felt bad because the unfortunate creature had been nibbling at the old Christmas pudding I had scattered in the centre of the lawn. It was as if I had unwittingly laid a trap.

Actually I am also feeling trapped. No vehicles are moving up or down our street. The buses are off. Manchester Airport was closed just twenty four hours after Frances had flown back to The States.

As the kitchen staff were unable to get in, I was forced to make some turkey soup myself - pearl barley, swede, courgette and dumplings added. It was ready and piping hot when Shirley walked in at two o'clock after completing a half day at the medical centre. In the midst of all this snow, we decided to book a February weekend break at Ely in Cambridgeshire - somewhere we have never been and something to look forward to. More pictures of the snowbound estate:-

The red Christmas light rope should come down today - twelfth night.

No barbecues in the near future

3 January 2010

Earlier

How short the days seem at this time of year. Roll over in your warm bed and before you know it it's close to midday with daylight already beginning to fade. Earlier, I took a walk around our neighbourhood, through Chelsea Park and along Psalter Lane....
Sunlight bounced from leaded windows
Chelsea Park with sledgers
Psalter Lane leads into Ecclesall Road

Our snowbound street with my elongated shadow

And then the evening came. After Sunday dinner, it was time to take Frances to the railway station. On that snowbound slope, I had it all on to prevent our car from sliding into a parked vehicle. We hugged Frances on Platform 6a and waved her off to Manchester Airport knowing that we won't see her in the flesh again until mid June at the earliest. I guess the snow will be gone by then.

2 January 2010

Hiatus

In the supermarket, they are selling off the last remnants of Christmas 2009. Pork pies, shiny Christmas crackers, biscuits for cheese, little string bags of chocolate coins, selection boxes, tubs of brandy butter. It's well and truly over. All that feasting. That drinking. That consolidation of family ties. For many of those fortunate or unfortunate enough to be in work, the return date is Monday January 4th - Black Monday. There'll be thousands of glum faces that morning.

I should have been getting up early to drive our daughter Frances over the Pennines to Manchester Airport for her return flight to Alabama via Atlanta but with the Snake Pass being closed and the prospect of more icy weather, we are not taking any chances. I have booked her a hotel at the airport ready for an early morning start on Monday. I doubt that Mr U.F.Abdulmutallah, languishing in a Michigan cellblock, will be even vaguely aware of the inconvenience his unforgiveable actions are causing to legitimate air travellers. What a shame that his unsuccessful chemistry may have blown away his gonads!

Our lawn remains frozen. Habitually I am out there every morning spreading birdseed and leftovers, pouring hot water into the birdbath etc.. The plump carcass of our Christmas turkey is now no more than a thin avian skeleton. It has been pecked at and chomped on by a variety of garden birds, a couple of neighbourhood cats and Basil, our friendly local urban fox.

I never want to go away at Christmastime. We have dwelt in this house for more than twenty years. There are echoes of previous Christmases when we had parents of our own and when our children were little. Perhaps it was in 1990 when I woke very early on Christmas morning and heard the quiet rustling of bed clothes from our son's room, then a little more rustling and movement before a sleepy voice whispered "He's been" which grew into increasingly sharper more excited declarations - "He's been! He's been!" I went into Ian's room and saw the brightness in his eyes. I let him take just one parcel from his bulging pillowcase and unwrap it before I kissed him and tucked him in again.

This Christmas he brought his pretty girlfriend Ruby for Christmas dinner. He's twenty five now but something of that old Christmas sparkle remains. For the one and only time last year he stayed over in his family home on Christmas Eve and in the morning we all had champagne and bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon for breakfast.

On New Year's Eve we just went down to "The Banner" - our local pub. Ian and Ruby were there too with Ian's "boys" - young men he has known since schooldays. The pub was merry and friendly and I knew half the people there - such a comforting feeling. Hugging and hand shaking and kisses - wishing each other a happy new year and all aware that happiness is a precious but fragile state that can so easily be shattered.

On New Year's Day my younger brother came over from East Yorkshire for another seasonal feast - another turkey with all the trimmings. A roll-up smoking bachelor, he still lives in our mother's house and works as a hotel maintenance man on low wages - griping and grumbling about each and every aspect of his job. Nothing's ever right. There's a lot of bitterness in him - partly born out of the realisation that the bright potential of his youth stopped shining long ago and cannot be relit.

Hull City lost woefully to Wigan in the cup today and our street is once again being feathered with snow as I write these words. It has been great having our lovely daughter home again and I know she has enjoyed the rest, the food and simply being looked after. With her gone, these dark plains of winter will seem even broader as birds peck at the monochrome lawn and we ask ourselves - will springtime never come?