Happy Christmas (six days late)

goodge placeThe sun’s gift that Christmas morning was to shine and shine.  Gallantly it made its way through the grime of the first floor windows in Goodge Place.  It traduced the fairy lights laced through Victor’s tree to a grubby yellow, and turned those around the gilt mirror almost invisible.  Walking into into the living room, Tom immediately wished someone else would arrive puffing merrily on a cigar: so seasonal would its smoke look suspended in the sunlight.  Instead, there was a smell of freshly-squirted furniture polish, and recently disturbed eddies of dust wavered in the air.

“There’ll be six of us, maybe eight,” Victor had said when he suggested they spend Christmas together.  Now, however, Tom noted, the table was laid for seven.

At the sight of this room: its table settings, its tree and the coloured lights, Tom sensed something akin to having arrived in a hotel on holiday. This wasn’t simply a place for lunch but he would be here for hours, in all likelihood well into the evening.  A whole landscape of activities and events might unfold in here of which complimenting Victor on the moistness of his turkey would only form a very small part.  Other than eating and playing games (he hoped there would be cards, Tom loved cards), there would shifts, developments and changing allegiances between those gathered around the table, mirroring the journey of friendships in life, but in miniature.  Victor had told him, quite sternly, gifts were not to be exchanged, but Tom nevertheless had felt he should bring something for his host.  In his bag therefore along with two bottles of wine, a bottle of the second cheapest champagne he could find, and a box of chocolate truffles there was also a book.  To counteract its gift status he had considered not wrapping it but in the end had decided that looked both antagonistic and lazy.  He intended to present it as a preemptive thank you.  He was holding it in his hand when Victor returned from the kitchen.

“Sherry?” He offered Tom a schooner, the type of which Tom had only seen in pubs with hunting scenes on the walls.  Bob then ambled in, silent as ever, never barking.  He sniffed at Tom’s shoes then went round and round in circles several times before finally slumping down, his jaw resting on Tom’s foot.  When Victor had taken Bob home as a puppy he had cried for the first three nights.  Victor listened as the little dog searched the dark flat looking for his mother.  He could hear Bob howl, then he would stop for a while and Victor would wonder if that was the end of it but before long he’d start up with the howling again.  The neighbours might start complaining soon, Victor had fretted.  On the fourth night, however, Bob stopped crying, obviously the small dog’s mother now forgotten to him.

“The table looks lovely, Victor,” said Tom.

“Thank you, my dear.”

They both admired it for a moment.  The moment being slightly too long.  Victor looked proud.  The candles were already lit, small sprigs of holly at their bases.  Tom had a sudden vision of making the Christmas news in one of those sad, tawdry stories the season specialised in.  Seven queens dead in table decoration inferno, Moira Stewart purred.

In the centre, next to a ramekin filled with cranberry sauce, squatted a ceramic brown frog.  “Ah, you’ve spotted, Toady, the mustard pot,” said Victor.  “An Xmas pressie from Diana.  It comes out every year.”

“Talking of presents, Victor, I know we said we weren’t doing them but this a little thank you, if you like.”

Victor took the book, looking quite serious.  “I haven’t got you anything.”

Tom felt something atmospheric change in the room.  “It’s not a Christmas present.”

Victor raised a doubtful eyebrow.  “Well, it’s very thoughtful of you,” he said, before placing it, unopened, on a small table by an armchair.

Something tugged a little at Tom’s sense of guilt.  His family back in Leatherhead would be eating smoked salmon blinis about now, not really so very long after finishing their Special Breakfast of scrambled eggs and grated truffles.  Throughout the year, everyone told everyone else how much they disliked the woody, decaying smell of the truffles, (jock-strappy, Tom thought) although no one ever told Dad.  So still they ate them.  An annual unwanted treat consumed two days after Dad brought them home, triumphant from a drive to a delicatessen in Dorking, holding aloft the small bag, his face etched with pride as if he’d gone out into the forest alone, on all fours, and sniffed them out for himself.

Suddenly, Bob barked at something.

“What’s the matter with you, you daft ha’porth?”christmas fairy lights

Bob’s jaws snapped shut on thin, Christmas candle-scented, air and Tom watched as a fly lazily flew upwards.

“Bloody flies.  They’re everywhere today.  Must be a dead rat under a floorboard somewhere.  Anyway, you calm down, Bob,” he said, gesturing at the dog’s basket.  “Happy Christmas.”

They clinked their sherry glasses; Bob closed one eye; and the fly settled, injudiciously, in the molten wax of Victor’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ candle, causing the flame to quietly sizzle.

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London Overground Wisdom

clapham junction aerialSomeone says something.  It appears to make sense.  Then by doing some actual thinking you shine a tiny light on it and you realise it’s utter balls.

“Never underestimate the power of denial,” said a man to the woman sat between us.  Good point you might think and then immediately change your mind to: What?

Rather than reply she was concentrating instead on applying thick and gritty gold eye makeup.  Maybe she’d heard this one before, possibly she was undermining his theory with her silence, perhaps she didn’t hear him.  It’s feasible: two weeks before Christmas the 22.44 London Overground from Clapham Junction was quite the party train.  I was loving it.

Also, she was essaying a variety of pouts and grimaces by way of facilitating her making-up so that may have been draining her cup of attention quite dry, too.

My final theory is that she was pissed.

They’d got on the train, seemingly together, at Wandsworth Road, and she’d been enslaved to this demanding makeup routine of hers ever since.  Her boyfriend, brother, pest, whoever he was, had a thin, handsome, aggressive, unappealing face, at sharp odds with the ludicrous things he was inclined to say.  Not having got anywhere with his power-of-denial schtick he tried something else.

“If 100% happiness for you is that you’d bungee jump naked but if you’re so unhappy even the prospect of bungee jumping wearing whatever you wanted would rate a zero, how happy are you right now?”

Schoolboy error.  He’d made no allowance for the person who is unable to express their happiness levels by reference to the internationally recognised Wandsworth Road Man Bungee Jump Scale, and so once again the woman denied him an answer.

For me, in a month when say most of my bills are up to date and the wolf isn’t hammering too hard at the door,  I like to acknowledge the event by bungee jumping wearing a pair of shorts but with two layers on my top half should the financial climes take a turn for the worse on the way back up.

But we’re all different.  Do please wear whatever you think is most telling for you.

I began to wonder whether they didn’t actually know each other at all but rather that he had just sat down next to her and proceeded to try and dazzle her with his chat.  Anyway, she was, at that moment, engrossed in the precision application of another slick of gold that lent her a foxy lady alien look so popular amongst the foxy lady aliens I remember seeing in episodes of Star Trek from the 1970s.  Keen suitor or whatever he was, he kept flinging out further nuggets but whether her preparations for that night’s festivities were a mere smokescreen, or indeed a genuine reason, london overground trainor she simply found him as irritating as I did she stayed resoundingly schtum.

Until we were at Denmark Hill that is when, having bundled away all her gold, she turned to him and said: “You are the funniest bloke ever, Steve.  You’re absolutely the fucking best.”

Peckham Rye hoved into view and as I stood up I faced them to see if a good look might unravel any of this little mystery.  No.  It was just a thin-faced man with words pouring out of him and a woman now swigging from a bottle of Chianti, her golden eyes screwed up in concentration.

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A new tomorrow

primordial swamp“Look on the bright side,” said the larger of the two beetles to his friend.  “Sure, I can see that it seems bad but really it could be a lot worse.”

“How so?”  Two of his side legs were now resolutely stuck in the solidifying tree sap.

“Well,” he continued, surreptitiously trying to edge back from the fresh ooze without being blatant about it, “you’ll go down in history, you’ll be preserved for posterity.”

“I’m going to die.”

“Yes, I’m not arguing with you on that point, but once that’s out of the way who knows what could transpire?”  He carved an invisible arc in the steamy air with a front leg in a chummy attempt to encapsulate the entire universe and the possibilities it afforded.  “People appreciate that kind of thing.”

“I’m stuck in this sap and instead of trying to get me out all you can chunter on about is posterity.  You’re unbelievable.”

“I’m only being realistic,” he said as he took another half-step backwards, “we’ve seen it happen to loads of others.  Remember Gerald?  Martha?  Bobo?  My suggestion is you breathe more regularly, stop fighting, and Enjoy It.”

“Enjoy it, you shit?” cried the trapped creature.  By now all his legs were entombed in this treacle-coloured gloop.  He had never given much thought to his legs before but now with only his head free if he squeezed his chin down to his chest he could see them all.  Infuriatingly the gloom of this standard-issue primordial swamp they called home only deepened around him and he couldn’t be sure quite how many legs he actually had.  More than a handful, for certain, and from what he could make out they struck him as pretty good legs really.  He’d taken them for granted before but now that they were freed from the burden of constant scuttling he could admire them for what they actually were: damn good legs.  Maybe his so-called friend had a point?

Catching himself before this rapture became too intoxicating, he looked up and although he hadn’t actually noticed his friend doing so he seemed to have shifted away from him a little, moving further down the branch.  “There was so much more I wanted to do,” he said, a rather pathetic whining having entered his voice.  “I hoped Lawrence and I might take that cruise one of these days or even that we’d choose a little place in the country we could spend our weekends and maybe, as the days go by, consider retiring too.  It’s all mad I know.  A beautiful cosy cottage made entirely from dung … perfect for two.” He suddenly felt hugely wistful.  “Do you think you could get Lawrence here before it’s too late?” he asked quietly.

“I could try…” his friend said but they both knew his heart wasn’t in it.  There simply wasn’t enough time.  “I’ll make sure he gets a message though.  Anything you want, however personal.  I’ll treat it in the strictest of confidence.”  There was a faint gleam of prurience in his words and so he tried to off-set it with a low-toned: “Really – anything.  You’re my oldest friend.”

They both knew they were seconds away from their final parting.

“What did you mean “go down in history”?”


“Earlier, you said that it could be worse because I might be going down in history.”

“Did I?”

“Yes,” he cried, quite annoyed that his friend was being so deliberately obtuse, “I haven’t got long so tell me what you bloody well meant.”

“Well … I’m … I’m not sure really, it’s probably a hunch, so don’t get your hopes up, but you know I’ve always had an eye for colour and form and…”

“Yes, yes” he interrupted him, quite frustrated by now at having to listen to this beetle’s self-aggrandising claptrap so late in the day.

“Well there’s just something about the way your body, and I appreciate this doesn’t actually feel great to you, but there’s something about the way it’s … err … set somewhat askew in the sap, that it shows your legs off to their best advantage, and I’ve a feeling this isn’t the last we’ve seen of you.”  His old confidence had returned and he emphasised the last few words with another of his universe-encompassing waves.

But by now the sap had formed a thin seal over the beetle’s mouth and he tried instead to make his eyes do the talking; his eyes had garnered a few compliments of their own, he recalled.

“All I mean is that I can imagine that at some point in the future -” he continued sweeping what little hair he had back from his eyes in a somewhat theatrical gesture which would cause his trapped and dying friend to experience as his final emotion one of deep, deep hatred, “- a time beyond our imagining that there might be creatures living in this forest more interested in – how shall I put this? – ornament and frippery than we are. They might think, possibly, that there’s nothing prettier than you … err … dead.  Sorry, I couldn’t find a better or less inaccurate word.  Dead anyway … set like some sort of jewel in this dried sap which they possibly might find a way to buff up, polish, make the best of it if you will and then – again this is all conjecture – I imagine thread on some sort of cord or chain and wear somewhere on their person.  Neck, for example.”

While all this fortune-telling was absorbing him his friend had quietly died, a tiny fragment of life in all the heavens that would never be replicated.  He had died feeling loathing but a sense too, mainly perceived through those arty-farty hand gestures, that this profoundly annoying, bumptious, self-satisfied so-called friend of his might, just possibly, have been evincing a truth about life, the sheer matter of existence, and his place within that incomprehensibly enormous tapestry.  He had died, if not happy, then at least with a little frisson of curiosity about the future.  amber jewelry

Exhausted from his musings on a time to come where his pals might become jewellery, the surviving beetle turned on his several heels and was just about to proceed along the branch when a great, hot, stinking darkness befell him, all scorching blood and iron.  In no time at all he had been grabbed by the long and strong and searching tongue of some creature much larger than himself and even now was resolutely crushed and starting to disintegrate in its digestive tract.  His thoughts of posterity had been for his friend and he hadn’t had even the shortest of moments to consider his own place in history; a mere snack, as it turned out.

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A little love story

Reflecting on the events of that night, from the comfortable vantage point of weeks and months later, when they were both very happy with the situation, Mrs Ryan berated herself for being oblivious to any clues earlier.  In fact, she never countenanced the possibility that there hadn’t been any clues.  If anyone suggested such a thing she would say, “I’m sure there must have been something but I was being very cloth-eared about the whole fandango.  He can’t have arrived out of thin air, can he?” which was an unlikely criticism to make because her hearing was never at fault.

Out of thin air was precisely, however, how he did arrive.  Mrs Ryan had gone to bed at her usual time of ten o’clock and had listened to the news for a moment or two, before tutting and turning it off.  Just as she was gently rubbing in her bedtime moisturiser with the tips of her fingers, as her mother had shown her how, a memory that always scorched a little as she had no one of her own to pass the knowledge onto, she first smelt the cigarette smoke.

How odd, Mrs Ryan thought, I can’t have stubbed it out properly, before remembering she no longer smoked and hadn’t done so for fourteen years.  She examined her sense of smell and considered whether it might be playing a trick on her, but no, someone was definitely smoking in the house, up here, near her bedroom.  Indeed, the smell wasn’t diminishing, the opposite, in fact.  Richer and riper it became, as if whoever was smoking was making sure he had his fill in case he would be too busy to stop for a smoke in the coming hours.  Oh god, her skin prickled as she considered this, what was he going to do to her?

With her heart beating fiercely no one could say Mrs Ryan was in the right frame of mind to assess the virtues of the mystery smoker’s choice of tobacco, so she surprised herself when she thought how delicious these cigarettes smelt.  She quashed the idea for a more appropriate one of concern. Gingerly she got out of bed, put her feet into her slippers without looking so she wouldn’t take her eyes off the door, shrugged off her quilted bed jacket and stood up.  Then she glanced behind her at the jacket, a pearly pale blue, and took in the sight of it as a talisman of some safer future than the one she currently anticipated.  She quelled all this anxiety by reminding herself she still didn’t know the brand of cigarettes and would like to have this information.  Yes, it really was delicious in the way only cigarette smoke can be for those who’ve put such stuff behind them.  She crossed her arms and went to investigate.

It didn’t take long.

She found the culprit in the airing cupboard.  A monkey was sat on her second set of bed linen, on the still-warm boiler, enjoying his cigarette.  Nearing the end of it, Mrs Ryan wondered what he intended to do with the stub.  Agitated at this aspect of the monkey’s thoughtlessness Mrs Ryan gave the monkey a hard stare and the monkey stared back.  The monkey and Mrs Ryan were looking at each other for quite some time and although she didn’t want to break his gaze, she also wanted to know what he had done with his ash.  She was due to change the sheets on Saturday and they wouldn’t be dry in time if she was compelled to wash them again now.  Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the pack of cigarettes.  Piccadilly!  A brand she hadn’t seen in shops for years, and not only that but her favourites.  She felt more warmly to the monkey for choosing the same cigarettes she had spent so many years, decades really, utterly devoted to.

“You might as well come out of there,” she said, enjoying the residual warmth from the boiler.

The monkey clambered down from the pillowcases and the fitted sheet and upon reaching the floor brandished his cigarette butt at Mrs Ryan as if to say, what shall I do with this?

“I’ll get you a saucer, I got rid of the ashtrays yonks ago.”  She turned to make her way down the stairs.  Calling behind her she said, “you stay there, I’ll be straight back up.”  When she reached the bottom she looked back, wondering if for a moment she was losing her mind and that there would be nothing there, panicking that her mother’s illness had launched a new campaign in the family and she wasn’t even sixty yet, it was all so horribly unfair.   But this wasn’t dementia, she wasn’t mistaken.  She relaxed.

There was the monkey still, sitting quiet as you like, still looking at her, but with his head slightly cocked and, although he was smiling, his smile seemed not altogether friendly.  He’s probably gasping for another Piccadilly, Mrs Ryan thought, as she went to find a saucer.

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Ambridge and the case of the mysteriously overblown drama

Yesterday in the Sunday Express I was all over the up-in-armsness that people are showing with regards to The Archers these days.  I’d like to link to it online but they haven’t put it up so here it is instead.  You should know now it’s pretty earth-shattering stuff.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.  X


sean o'connor archersSpare a thought for Sean O’Connor. He’s the editor of The Archers on Radio 4 and the poor chap is currently being blamed for the downfall of middle England, or specifically its fictional outpost, Ambridge. In an recent interview David Blunkett insisted he might switch off; disgruntled cast members have complained that they’re being recast; and gallons of newsprint have been expended on a possible road mooted to cut through the ancestral Archers family bailiwick, Brookfield Farm. Tempers have rarely been as high since the incarceration of Deirdre Rachid of 1 Coronation Street was debated in the House of Commons.

I suppose these things come with the territory of being a soap opera boss. The difference here is that audience figures are doing rather well, thanks very much, and the show O’Connor heads up strikes me, an ardent listener, as being in positively rude health.  When you describe The Archers to someone to who doesn’t yet listen it can all sound rather unpromising. Set in a village in a made-up county called Borsetshire (vaguely in the direction of Warwickshire) the residents essay a bewildering array of accents. Some yokel, others home counties, and even the odd one sounds like it might have once been within forty miles of the West Midlands. However, one of the piquant joys of The Archers is it’s the only soap in which the characters are a cross-section of British society. From the squirearchy of Brian and Jennifer Aldridge to once-upon-a-time tenant farmers, the Grundies. In recent years there’s been much made of the moribund nature of British social mobility, but if you listen to George, the grandson of Eddie and Clarrie Grundy, you’ll hear an accent that would put a young Prince William to shame.

As with all soap operas repetition is part of the landscape but at least in The Archers they make a virtue of it. archers b&w1Unlike television’s eternal cavalcade of doomed affairs, murders and trams leaping off viaducts here the rhythms are more muted. There’s the annual chaos of busybody Linda Snell’s Christmas show, Joe Grundy’s ferrets, and the nonspeaking but eternally difficult guests at Grey Gables hotel but most of all, however, there’s farming. The Archers was established in 1950 partly to ensure urban communities kept in touch with the rhythms of the land, and it still takes that remit pretty seriously. Someone or other is always lambing, fretting over a calf, discussing at tiresome length milk yields, or having a ding-dong in a polytunnel. Only time will tell whether Tony Archer’s line “I’m off to flail my potatoes” proves to be the most dramatic close to any Archers’ omnibus ever, but I’ve still no idea what it means.

One of the complaints about Mr O’Connor’s stewardship of The Archers is that it’s getting a bit too dramatic. I wonder if any of these people actually listen in? Truly, The Archers is often still quite as dull as it’s always been, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. When Radio 4 announcers introduce an episode by saying things like “And now Susan and Pat are enjoying a quiet day in the dairy,” or “Tomorrow at the same time Peggy is thinking about leaving the house,” I don’t find myself worrying I’ll be a jibbering wreck by the end of it all, but equally I won’t have been bored. Not so long ago a front room in Ambridge was being painted an unfussy shade of magnolia by pig man Neil Carter. This story went on for weeks. They had introduced a character, one Grandpa Horrobin, previously not a dickie-bird did we hear out of him, whose sole purpose was, as far as I could tell, to provide a front room for Neil Carter to paint magnolia. For when the day came that Neil’s paintbrush was put back in its jam jar of turps Old Horrobin disappeared and his front room with him. The magic of The Archers is that all of this was absolutely gripping.

archers b&w2That’s the curious strength of the show: although it rarely goes in for fireworks, millions of listeners are addicted to life in Ambridge, and what happens to its residents can seem very real indeed. Listening to it as I was washing-up the other evening I heard the doorbell go. Wiping my hands dry on a tea towel, I went and opened the front door. No one there. Bloody kids, I thought. And then behind me I heard Peggy Woolley say, “oh hello Carol, what a lovely surprise, do come in.” So engaging is this slice of radio that somebody can ring a doorbell in Ambridge and I peel off my Marigolds thinking to myself, “ooh, who can that be at this time?”  Honestly, if you’ve never listened to The Archers I beseech you to start. It’s the most wonderful old nonsense you can imagine.

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Old queens and their little jokes

It’s come as a bit of a horrid surprise to see how long it is since I last posted anything on here.  I’ve been busy with a quite a few different projects of late and blah, blah, blah.  (The word projects sounds so much more concrete and promising than any of these activities actually are.)  Anyway, no one’s noticed I’m sure, but to make myself feel better all the same below is the start of a short story I might or might not complete.  It’s got it all: suburban jewellery shops, a girl called Annette, sprouts for tea, and an old queen at the helm. 

ealing broadway 1957“The customer is always right. Unless he’s wrong.”
Annette had heard her boss make this little joke many times before. Nevertheless, David always found it funny; certainly, his tight-throated chortle was as much part of his performance as the words themselves.
At the end of Annette’s first week she’d told mum about David and his curious habit of saying the same things over and over again whilst seemingly believing them still fresh.
“He sounds a right unfunny bugger,” was her mother’s verdict as she put the crosses in that day’s sprouts.
This customer was barely out of the door before the words were out of David’s mouth. He then blew his nose as if to say he was brooking no argument on the matter. Annette smiled unconvincingly. Joan, who was standing behind David and arranging ladies’ watches in a cabinet, rolled her eyes at Annette and the young assistant’s smile became less forced.
“Not just a good quip, but quantifiably true, my dear.” He said this wetly, surfacing from his polka dots.
“Shall I make the tea today?” Annette felt trapped between not knowing how to respond to his stale joke and being desperate to avoid witnessing him scrutinise the contents of his handkerchief, like some sort of detective seeking clues.
“The cup that cheers,” said Joan,
Annette took that as encouragement and went from the shop towards the back room. Keeping her head high and her eyes deliberately unseeing so as to avoid the line of damp, grey hankies steaming dry on the radiator, she walked down the steps into David’s sitting room, and as always those two words felt enjoyably pinched in her mouth when she said them to herself. She was always surprised at how much she liked it here in David’s domain despite it being his handiwork. Even the morose prints of sea battles spoke of something more interesting than their bare walls at home, interrupted as they were by only that year’s unmarked calendar. There was the dainty tiled table with its three spindly legs, pineapple ice bucket, whisky bottle and two cut glass tumblers; and best of all, the large bay window overlooking the garden down to the river beyond. With its many small panes the room was lent the the air of a captain’s cabin. Seven or eight dahlias stood in a vase and their gaudy merriment railed against the shortening late summer afternoons. Filling the kettle, Annette tried imagining a world in which her mother would even own a vase.
Unlike their kettle at home, this one of David’s emitted a very odd little whistle when it came to the boil. It wavered like the cry of a small animal caught in one of her Uncle Elis’ traps, and Annette would let the gas burn just to listen to its sound. She saw her uncle’s face and the unsettling half-smile he wore when he despatched small animals as if it were a normal, easy thing, just another chore like filling the coat scuttle.
“A man could die of thirst out here,” sang David from the shop.
“And a woman,” chimed Joan.
As she put milk and two sugars in David’s, only milk in Joan’s, and the same for hers, she ate a biscuit in two quick bites. There were six on the plate already and she had to get one more from the packet to bring the tally up to the right number. Having brushed the telltale crumbs from her pullover, she went back into the shop, tilting the tray away from the gruesome row of handkerchiefs, and then placed it just to the right of the till so customers couldn’t see it. David grimaced and she knew what was coming next. “Two sugars, I trust?” he said, giggling. She had forgotten his sugar only once but David had added the mistake to his sorry reserve of mouldy little jokes. She smiled dutifully and handed him his cup.
On the bus home later, she still wasn’t fully able to make sense of what happened next. In the process of reaching over to hand Joan her tea she had somehow knocked her own to the floor. Joan yelped, and then she and David were immediately there, and the three were crushed by the till as the liquid spread between their feet. Bending down to inspect the damage, David suddenly halved their small space with his large, womanly backside sticking out and forcing Annette against the wall. “You could at least apologise,” he barked in a new tone of voice, “this was the last of Terence’s service.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know how it happened.”
“Well you were obviously not taking enough care over what you were doing.” His words were prim: she was a stupid child.
Joan was saying she was sure it could be mended and really there was no harm done but Annette could see David’s face had gone horribly red. Not knowing what else to do she ran to the kitchen to fetch water and a cloth. Returning with a bowl a moment later she held it out hoping it contained the answer to David’s rage.

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Carl Sagan and the milk float of eternity

NPG x27064; Naomi Jacob by BassanoNaomi Jacob is now pretty much forgotten but at one time, around the middle of the last century, she was Britain’s most popular romantic novelist.  Fond of wearing a very great deal of tweed and not the prettiest of ladies, the novelist Paul Bailey told me once that when he saw her in Harrods in the early 1960s, where he was then employed as a sales assistant, he mistook her for JB Priestley.  One of her many, many volumes of autobiography is called Me Again and I suspect I’m saying a very similar thing when I invite you to read my column in yesterday’s Sunday Express.  There or below:

On a 1962 album of his Frank Sinatra sings the Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn song sinatra-basie frontPlease Be Kind.  Infuriatingly, when my CD gets to that track I can hear a click accompanying this most recognisable of voices and the Count Basie orchestra which plays behind him.  The odd thing is the compact disc is actually in good nick and so the noise doesn’t come from that.  Rather my own imagination throws it into the mix like some out-of-time finger-clicker who has wandered into the studio.  There he lurks primed to snap into action whenever I listen to this song, and should I hear it being played on my iPod, or on the radio, or as I did once in a hotel bar in Brussels he’s there too.

The thing is my parents had this album on LP and at some point it must have got damaged; a result of which is this click, at the start of side one track two.  I played Sinatra – Basie a very great deal as a child and when years later I bought myself a copy of it on four-and-a-half inch plastic rather than twelve inch vinyl my mind seemingly made the executive decision to recreate for me the experience of listening to our cherished, if impaired, LP – wilfully ignoring the fact that was partly what I was trying to leave behind.  Why my brain decided to hold onto this aural gremlin I don’t know as the sound of physically damaged recordings is thankfully not one that bothers the average person in 2014.  By and large, clicks, bumps and scratches only exist unheard on un-reached for records in collections which are not being played on turntables that probably no longer work anyway.

manual typewriterAnd although digital technology has made extinct for most of us so many of those once everyday sounds such as the rewinding of a cassette, the fitting of a film in a camera, the retuning of a radio, or even the turning of pages in a book it isn’t only that particular advance that has done it.  Along with car engines revving up on a winter’s morning; coming to, cold and chilly on the sofa, woken up by the high-pitched squeal television channels used to emit after close down; the hooves of the rag-and-bone man’s horse; the mysterious mechanical chord produced by the compound of levered buttons cashiers depressed to register the price of something on a till; and the clack of chalk on a blackboard there are plenty of once common noises that have simply vanished, present no more outside our memories or specialist archives.

My ghostly Sinatra clicking came to mind this week when I read that a loudspeaker has been installed in the newsroom of The Times to broadcast a recording of manual typewriters whirring away.  Apparently as the deadline for the print edition approaches the tapping gets louder and more urgent-sounding supposedly spurring on those wearying hacks to file their copy.  As well as, I should imagine, making them come over all nostalgic for the days when almost everyone was willing to spend money in order to read a newspaper.  An object that not only told you what was going on, but behind which you could hide, and which on crowded trains you could practice your origami skills by folding it into a neat little square.

As Helen and Maurice Kaye of Bournemouth celebrated their wedding anniversary this week so many of the sounds carl saganwhich must have unwittingly underscored their eighty years of marriage exist no more.  And as with sounds so with language.  Research by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press indicates that the use of certain words – marvellous, pussycat, catalogue, for example – is on the wane whereas words like awesome, internet and treadmill are far more commonly encountered.  But as with my scratched record it will take a very long time indeed before these words that are losing favour become entirely obsolete and even then people still might take a pleasure in using them.

sinatra-basie backThe golden records that were packed aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 are still awaiting discovery.  Circling space, this product of Carl Sagan and his NASA committee, are an account of life on earth through a compendium of the sounds of both human activity and those of the natural world.  Whether they will ever be heard is anyone’s guess but if they are the samples of music from different cultures, of animal cries, the crack of lightening, and greetings in a multitude of languages may strike their audience as only marginally more alien than that which was the mere hubbub of the late 1970s does us today: the gentle burr of a milk float at dawn; the slow, deliberate noise of letters being formed by a Dymo label maker; or even someone saying cheerio.

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