Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

I wrote here about Christopher Hitchins having been diagnosed with oesophagal cancer, well, he has now sadly succumbed to this evil disease.

It's hard to believe that the great voice is now still, that the mind so erudite and acerbic, profound and witty is gone, the brain, so crammed full with learning, literature, history and experience is now just so much meat.

I think the only other occasion when I was so moved by the death of someone I had never met was when John Lennon was shot in 1980. And maybe it's for the same reason.

Reading Hitch or listening to him speak, you had the feeling that you knew him. He was honestly stating his truth with incredible eloquence and facility - maybe you agreed, maybe not, but you knew where he stood.

The above is a short compilation (credit: SETH - YOUTUBE - THETHINKINGATHEIST) of some great Hitch moments, but I would urge you to search the web for more.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Life is Life

We gathered on Friday at a beautiful funeral service on a beautiful day to pay our respects to Helmut and take our leave. There were over two hundred people there and I am sure many more would have liked to attend. Helmut's parents were there, his sister, his wife, his children, his best friends, his work colleagues. Some of us spoke, some played music; we all shed tears and then smiled, laughed and grieved.
It was a celebration of Helmut's life but also a celebration and an affirmation of life itself. A confirmation of how precious it is, how good it can be, of how tenuous our grasp on it is, how it can vanish from one heartbeat to the next; a kick up the backside to get those things done which we really want to do, to get those things said that we really want to say, a reminder to make sure that those we love know that we love them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

See you, Helmut...

I'm trying and failing to reconcile two concepts or entities: Helmut and death - the two just don't go together in my head. And yet, in harsh, uncaring reality, sadly, unbelievably, they must.
I first met Helmut in 1983. We were expecting our first child and being in deepest Bavaria, far from grandparents, had decided to look for a couple in a similar position to share a house with, and share the experiences of parenthood. We met a few couples but hit it off with Robin and Helmut. We found a house where we could share the ground floor, living room and kitchen and where we would each have a floor for ourselves with bedroom, bathroom and children's room.
Amazingly, given that we had only met via a newspaper advert, and seeing that I am a cantankerous bastard who doesn't really like people at the best of times, it worked really well, and we ended up living together for 7 years, by which time there were four and a half kids, Andy, Nicky, Michelle, Biddy, and Christopher on the way.
I went to football games with Helmut, he introduced me (as anti-sport-playing as you can be) to squash, a game I came to love, we shared jokes and stories, he was honest and straightforward, generous and helpful, simply a really nice guy who loved being alive and who knew how to enjoy life. In thousands of little and big ways Helmut touched and enriched the lives of people around him.
Well, now Helmut is gone, he is dead, in the blink of an eye the finality has enfolded him; Helmut and death are one. We are using the past tense for him, we are speaking about a funeral for Helmut - a what?? A funeral?? For Helmut???
And I don't know what to say, I don't know how to grasp it.
Everyone is helping, everyone is grieving, everyone is doing their best to help everyone else but now everyone also bears an empty, black, Helmut-shaped hole inside them.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Sevvie; Oh howe are the myghtie ouerthrowen

The Sefton Arms Hotel was once a proud drinking establishment, built on the very entrance to Aintree Race Course and less than 50 yards from the train station which was named after it, "Aintree Sefton Arms". The hotel would reach its apotheosis each year during the Grand National racing meeting.

It was also our local pub, the place where my mum and dad spent almost as much time as they did at home. (There was also, just 20 yards along Warbreck Moor, the Queen's Arms but that was 20 yards too far and its only claim to fame was as the punch line of the joke which the regulars would tell, "what do we have in common with the Prince of Wales? We've all had a drink in the Queen's Arms!")

The Sefton was a big rangy pub with rooms upstairs for racing punters to stay and rooms downstairs, snugs and lounges and the bar, where various groups would gather to chat or play cards. As a kid I passed it thousands of times on my way to the bus stop; of course I never went in, there were no children's rooms in them days.When I finally was old enough to go in, more or less legally, I managed to go in about 5 times.

Then they knocked it down.

In a fiendishly mocking way it rose again from the ashes as a grim parody of its former self. The new version of the Sefton Arms was thrown together on the site of the old stables; the spot where the old pub had stood became a mere car park. Locals, still shocked by the destruction of their beloved old stately drinking hole, referred to the new incarnation, not unfairly, as "the Rabbit Hutch".

Still, it was a pub and sort of ok and, as soon as the locals drifted slowly back in again, it became a relatively cosy Rabbit Hutch.

For me it became important because I spent many an hour in there with my dad, drinking pints of Higsons - and on more than one profligate occasion, copious rounds of gins & tonics - and I can hardly imagine the place now without the sound of my dad's voice telling me his stories of the war or of his days in the Wine & Spirits trade (you could hear the capital letters when he said "Wine & Spirits"). We talked philosophy, family history and basically set the world to rights as the pint glasses emptied inch by inch, swallow by swallow.

It was also the place where my dad and I drank our last pint together and I still recall vividly how the conversation skirted with intense awkwardness, an awkwardness we had never had before, around the subject of what we both knew was his imminent death. How I wish I could rewind that conversation and broach the subject with him; there was so much left unsaid.

I had lots of great nights out in the Sevvie with my best mates Dave and Neil, other nights when I was trying out a diet and drinking bottles of Carlsberg Special Brew instead of Higgies because I thought I'd be drinking less as the bottles were small, and ended up totally pissed having drunk 3 times more than usual precisely because the bottles were small.

Uproarious nights, drunken nights, cosy afternoons, smoky Christmas lunchtimes, stories and laughs, sadness and jokes and a good few diced-carrot pukes in the bog - everything a local should provide.

I did a few stints there as a barman too, when I got to know the serious drinkers in the bar and their idiosyncratic habits: Bokker, the failed alcoholic boxer who, at closing time, would regularly buy a bottle of the cheapest sherry to have for breakfast, George the toothless mild drinker who would grip the bar fiercely with both hands and rock back and forth and who nearly had a fit one day when someone was standing at his place on the bar, Dominik, the social security bandit, who knew the system better than the civil servants, holding court with his band of dole-fiddling cronies, Harry the papers, Eric the train driver and Jimmy Fish the busman.

In the mid-nineties, by which time many of the old regulars had suffered their final closing time, the Sefton was "renovated", the old lounge bar was moved, the room where the beer tanks and coolers had been was converted to a Family Room. A beergarden was plonked on the edge of the car park. The pub got emptier, the intimacy leaked away, the tables got stickier and the beer flatter.

It became a dump.

I would go in for nostalgia's sake when I was in Liverpool visiting my mother while she slowly died. I even had a very pleasant night in there in 2007 with my older daughter Nick.

Then it closed.

Then it opened again, not as the Sefton Arms but as "The Red Rum Bar".

The concept was: renovate, renew, refill with new young moneyed punters - the reality is that it is even more of a dump; the punters are pale, battered-looking, bronchitic drunks. The atmosphere is that of a pub caught in a time loop where it is always 10 minutes after drinking up time.

It was there I watched the footy on Saturday, drinking, to my shame, pints of Fosters (they advertised Marstons Pedigree outside but when I ordered a pint I was told, "sorry luv, we donave da any more).

At one point in the second half one of the drunken wraiths creaked to his feet and shouted, "how are the mighty fallen!" I don't know, why or who or what his words were directed to but as my dad often used to say - only a few yards from that very spot - "there's many a true word spoken in a pub".

Saturday, October 29, 2011


It's probably quite fortunate that people pronounce DIY as "dee, eye, why" and don't say the actual words the acronym is made from -oh, hang on, it's not an acronym is it? Because you don't pronounce DIY as "diy", but it's not an abbreviation what is it?

I could look it up for you but, well, DIY!

And indeed, that is my point - if people didn't go around saying "dee, eye, why", they would be saying "do it yourself" and even if this is said in a totally neutral tone, I just can't help hearing a sort of sigh or groan at the start, an emphatic expletive somewhere in the middle and an exclamation mark or two at the end, which turns it into something more like, "(Ah,) do it your (fucking) self(!!).

Anyway, it just happened that I was looking idly in the Internet for loft insulation; no real reason except the fact that this old house in Liverpool radiates as much heat out of the back windows and the roof as the profligate of a nouveau riche family of suns.

We have a B&Q and a Homebase just round the corner here, but I decided to check the Wickes website first and duly found rolls of loft insulation with different thicknesses and different other-qualities-which-everyone-knows-about-and-I've-never-heard-of, and then I saw the price next to the picture of a roll: £36.99

"That's not bad," I thought to myself, but then I saw the sort of small print next to the picture, "buy 1, get 3 free!"

This kindled the avarice in my tight-fisted auld bastard heart (can a heart be tight-fisted?) I mean, whatever it is, a "buy 1, get 3 free" offer should quicken your blood, shouldn't it? Well, my blood was quickened and so I jumped into the car and sped off to Wickes. Now, cases like this of rash enthusiasm are normally followed shortly after by a little cool skepticism, so, on the way, I started thinking about it.

"Buy 1, get 3 free" is a bit too good to be true, isn't it? Must be a catch...maybe the quality is rubbish...maybe 1 roll is actually 4 narrow rolls together and so you end up having to buy 4 for the price of 4...maybe the material has been discovered to be dangerous!! Asbestos poisoning...maybe, maybe...

I wandered into Wickes, feeling totally out of place as I always do in these places, surrounded by weird machines for hitting and cutting stuff and strange materials for sealing or covering other stuff and people who knew-what-it-was-all-for, and found the loft insulation material section. There, indeed, was roll upon roll of loft insulation and signs everywhere saying "buy 1, get 3 free" It's no use, I'll have to ask...

I loathe asking staff questions in these places - always assuming you can find a staff member; they all seem to recede from you at increasing speeds whenever you need one, like Hubble's galaxies, blue-shiftedly racing away from our own Milky Way.

However, I succeeded in cornering one member of Wickes staff, who had been determinedly on his way "somewhere" but hadn't seen me lurking, and I blurted at him, "this 'buy 1, get 3 free' offer, does it mean one of these rolls counts as 4 or what?" "No, mate, you get 4 o' dem big rolls..." "Ah, and which, erm, thickness would be..." Too late, I made the mistake of looking away from him and when I turned my gaze back he had already dematerialised and been beamed up to a different section of Wickes space.

Meanwhile, two other lads - customers - had arrived with a trolley and they were also checking the rolls, and looking at the offer.
"I'm a bit wary too," I said to them.
"Yeah, a'know, mate, bu'rar John said dese are berrer dan B&Q!"
"I'm just not sure what thickness..."
"Well, am gettin' dese tin ones, cos it's for a rented 'ouse, bu' ye myraswell get the tick ones if it's for your 'ouse."

Right, bloody well will! do I get them to the cash desk? Ah, trolley. Where are the trolleys? Outside. Went outside, got a trolley and trundled back in. Loaded four rolls onto the trolley and trundled to the cash desk. How am I going to get them home!!??

"I'm not sure if I'll get all these in the car."

"S'oright, mate, jus' bring 'em back in, if dee don' firrin de car."

Trundled to the car (rented car). Hmm.. jammed 2 in the back seat. And now?

Brainwave! Fold down back seats!

Brilliant! Jammed them all in. Drove home.

Dragged them into the hall. Mission accomplished!

All I have to do now...


Monday, September 12, 2011

Sapphic Apple

Οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ' ὔσδῳ
ἄκρον ἐπ' ἀκροτάτῳ· λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηες,
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ', ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐδύναντ' ἐπίκεσθαι.

That's a fragment of old Sappho for you...

What?? You want a translation..???

Ok, first here's GoogleTranslate's version:

Quasi the glykύmalon ereύthetai akrῳ on ysdῳ
welding on akrotάtῳ; lelάthonto he malodropies,
My Man eklelάthont 'But owc edύnant' epίkesthai.


Ok...bit more literal:

As the sweet apple blushes on the end of the bough,
the very end of the bough which gatherers missed,
nay, missed not, but could not reach.

Or, with rather more poetry:
At the end of the bough--its uttermost end,
Missed by the harvesters, ripens the apple, Nay, not overlooked, but far out of reach,
So with all best things.

(Photo courtesy of neighbour's apple tree)

Friday, September 02, 2011

Zen and the Art of Washing up by Hand

As a musician, I loathe and detest background music. This is becoming more and more difficult to avoid; supermarkets have had it for ages now, pubs unfortunately too, of course - that awful piped musak. Now you get it on the phone when you call, say, the gas board about a leak, “...all our operators are busy at the moment - please hold the line - your call is important to us - dah da dee, lah la la...doo doo dee dah...”, on planes when you are waiting to take off, in offices and factories; it's even creeping in to news programmes on the tele to underscore the drama of the events - like the piano music in the age of silent films – as if we are all so totally and utterly disconnected emotionally from our fellow humans that we need the music to make us understand if the news is good or bad, hellishly shocking or heart-warmingly uplifting.

Well, I can't abide it. As far as I'm concerned you either sit down and listen to your music or you don't have it on at all!!(I am aware, by the way, that this is an extreme view!)

Joggers, cyclists, commuters, they all have their audio receptors plugged in to some insidious little device which goes on pumping sounds into their brains, squeezing out their thoughts and giving them all that uniform vacant, zombie look.

And just what is this background music for??? I assume it is to relieve whatever monotony a task or journey or whatever may entail by filling in the space in your brain where you might otherwise run the risk of being forced to think about something.

Monotony = boredom = today's most incredibly uncool situation.

But, could it be that monotony or the performance of repetitive menial tasks might free up some space in your brain for some bursts of creativity?

I think I first noticed that this could be the case during a tedious summer job in a bakery when I was a student. I was a dough turner-overer...basically, dough was extruded into baking tins on a conveyor belt by some mysterious dough extruding machine above my head and I had to make sure the “seam” (bakers out there will surely roll their eyes and mutter the correct term to themselves) was facing upwards so that the loaf would bake with a crusty split at the top. That was eight hour shift of checking squidges of dough as they rumbled by. Tedious beyond belief but highly automatic and it left my brain with enormous freedom to go where it wanted...writing songs, composing letters, stories – these days possibly blog posts. With no one near me to distract me with idle chat and with the constant noise of the machine drowning out any piped music there might have been, it was possible to drift off into something like a meditative state. I also experience this on long drives in the car – the radio firmly OFF of course. And on camping holidays, the walk to the washing up facilities with a bowl of plastic plates and then the washing up itself was also a chance to be alone and undisturbed for a while...

And lo and behold, the monotony becomes a feature.

Give people a dishwasher and they moan about having to fill it up or empty it, but give them a bowl, some hot water, a dollop of fairy liquid and a stack of dirty dishes and you might put them on the road to meditation - the Zen of washing up by hand.

As I said, I can derive great pleasure from washing up, as long as I only have to do it now and Zen.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Verily, this blog has endured a Time Of Great Silence in the last months. Forthwith, I shall endeavour to be more loquacious. I can extend no guarantee that my efforts will bear fruit - but I'll have a bash!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Welcome to the Fold

When my daughter Nick phoned up late last year and said, "hello daddy, erm, I'm engaged!", I thought she meant she had a long term gig with her band Liza23.

I said something like, "oh, good, where are you playing?"

She replied in that tone which daughters seem to reserve exclusively for their slow-witted dads, "No, daddy, enGAGed!!"
"Ah, enGAGed, ok, erm, that's great... isn't it?"

Well, it turned out that it was great - she was delighted - her boyfriend/fianc´e, let's call him Dave, had proposed to her all correct and proper as they had got off the tram on their way home.

He's a good lad; I knew him before he started going out with Nick which means that there is now a sort of two-level relationship between us, the one a kind of standard bloke-bloke relationship and the other a sort of relationship via Nick, he being her boyfriend and me being her father (for me a much more nebulous thing because I don't really know yet how it functions).

Anyway, Dave is from New Zealand and at the moment is over there visiting people - so when I awoke the other morning and heard there had been a pretty serious earthquake over there, I contacted Nick to find out if he was ok. Fortunately he was, but this led me on to thinking that he had obviously now crossed a strange psychological border whereby my subconscious had put him on my priority list of people-to-worry-about!

Had I been asked before I would have said that an individual becomes part of another family through some sort of official ritual, such as adoption, engagement or marriage or weird native American blood-sharing ceremonies or whatever (glad it's not the latter) but clearly there are other subtle, surreptitious and quite unconscious forces afoot.

So, Dave, welcome to being worried about!