Saturday, June 26, 2010


Today, walking through the streets of Littlehampton, I saw an image that was crying out to be photographed. On the pebble-dashed wall of a drab, 1950s house, an England flag limply hung next to a rusting satellite dish. It neatly encapsulated the spirit of the new Britain (not to mention England's performance in the World Cup).

But just as I started to get my camera out, a battered Transit van containing four bare-chested skinheads pulled up. It was their house. I slowly put the camera back in my pocket and started walking. I'd lost the photo, but saved a fortune in dental work.

I had decided to go to Littlehampton in a moment of desperation, after my wife made it clear that she wanted us all out of the house. I had a hazy, eight-year-old's memory of sandy beaches and amusement arcades and thought that Littlehampton would offer the right combination of shallow, sensory experiences for my sons. How wrong I was.

It was probably just as well that I had mistakenly parked my car over a mile from the beach, as this enabled me to enjoy the pleasures of the town centre. If you're ever in Littlehampton, you simply must visit the "Dinky Doo Diner":

If I ever get to the stage where I travel by electric wheelchair to an eatery that is named after male genitalia, please have me humanely destroyed.

One thing that Littlehampton certainly couldn't be accused of is being a clone town. There are lots of small, locally-owned shops, but this is because most of the big retail chains wouldn't be seen dead in Littlehampton. A combination of low rents and mild psychosis has resulted in a large number of shops selling goods of varying degrees of pointlessness. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there is a shop solely dedicated to hair nets or computer diskettes.

As we approached the seafront, we passed an army recruitment fair which I would imagine was very successful. What fear would a tour of duty in Afghanistan hold when you have already experienced Littlehampton?

A roadsign helpfully pointed the way to "The Sea", but when we got there it wasn't there. Where had it gone? The amusement arcade was still there, but wasn't what it used to be. Where were the laughing sailors and the elegant Chinese woman who carefully wrote a card telling your fortune?

I also felt that the clientelle had gone downhill:

I bought an ice cream from a lady who must have been at least 80. She had a refinement that seemed out of place with her flabby, tattooed, shaven-headed customers and I wondered if she ever hankered after the days when men wore hats and people minded their Ps and Qs.

"The people here are weird. Can we go home?", my eldest son pleaded. We started walking and after passing the shell of a new branch of Lidl, saw the home of Littlehampton's sole, middle-class inhabitant:

Littlehampton is not an affluent area, but even when people do have money there is a poverty of ambition. The owner of this car has been able to afford a personalised numberplate, but how do they choose to express their individuality?

I don't think any circumferences are involved in this numberplate, but I'm intrigued by the fact that someone has taken the time and expense to secure this registration. In the Republic of Steerforth (actually not a republic, because I'd rather have a monarchy than Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher as head of state), people with personalised numberplates would be subject to punitive legislation.

If you are in America, going to the "Hamptons" may have some kudos, but in Sussex it is something to be avoided.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sweets and Strangers

I've just found this slightly disturbing book from 1930:

I know that it was a more innocent age, but would you want to have a "chum-chat" with Uncle Reg?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Further Adventures of Derek

As some readers of this blog will know, four months ago I came across a large box of journals written by a man called Derek. They were about to be thrown into a skip, as they had no resale value. But when I started to look through the foolscap files of typed A4 pages, I realised that I had found something special.

At first I laughed at Derek's diaries for their Pooterish prose; but as I got to know him, I felt a growing respect for this seemingly ordinary man who was plagued by extraordinary thoughts and desires.

In addition to his devout Mormon faith and passion for books, Derek's diaries reveal a man of eclectic tastes, from this:

To this programme from 1975:

I can imagine Derek enjoying an evening of jolly fol-de-rols with the King's Singers, but his passion for wrestling took me completely by surprise.

The saddest thing about Derek's diaries was his constant use of the word posterity. Derek clearly believed that his carefully-typed pages would be cherished by his descendants, but instead they were disposed of as part of a job lot with his book collection.

I have just finished reading Derek's diaries from 1988. Here is a typical extract:

The day is cold and gloomy, though dry. I spent the morning repairing one of my temple garments; I also hit the street to renew a book at the library and also buy some oats and peas for the rabbits. While I was in the shop, a man in motor cycle gear asked me if the oats were for rabbits. He spoke curiously. Anyway, he then ordered two pounds of mixed molasses. I asked him if they were for a lion. The girl serving us broke into laughter; he did not.

I repeated my fatuous remark. He then said "I do not understand what you say. I am deaf." No answer to that!

Bikers were obviously a problem for Derek. On another occasion he wrote:

Over the weekend the town has been full of "bikers", scooterists from all parts of the country, who foregather in the open spaces and spend their time drinking endless cans of lager.

This would have been a perfectly innocuous sentence, but the addition of two words - scooterists and foregather - inject a Pooterish element into Derek's prose.

Derek desperately wanted to be a writer and as he approached retirement, joined a creative writing class:

Well, I read out my piece of work on the history of the View through a Window in class today, and Mrs Jones suggested that I either offer it to the local newspaper or send it to Pilkington's house magazine. But read out to Brenda at dinnertime, it did not seem to have the same quality; I thought it a trite piece of work, Try as I may, I seem unable to get into my writing that density, that texture that is the quality of true writing. My piece seemed only like a clever piece of sixth form tomfoolery.

I felt rather like Charles Ritchie who wrote in his journal: "...always this piece of staring white paper in front of me with the few and feeble words strung across it. Nothing could be more stubborn than my devotion, nothing more stupid than my persistence. After all, I have written nothing - I will write nothing. Twenty years have not been enough to convince me of my lack of talent."

And yet I have prayed about this matter, asking my Father for time and opportunity to write if my talent is real. I believe he has answered that prayer. I cannot believe that he has blessed my efforts to retire in order to cast me on a barren shore. There are riches here if only I will persevere. But it will involve me in taking life far more seriously than hitherto.

But I would argue that Derek's weakness as a writer - his constant use of Biblical words and phrases like foregather and persevere- is that very thing that makes his diaries so appealing. Derek has a voice that is very much his own and thanks to the internet, some of his writing can now have more readers than he would have dreamed possible.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bloggus Interruptus

After four years of being a full-time mother, my wife has a job. I can't stress what a huge relief it is to no longer be the sole breadwinner. Admittedly, it is only a temporary proofreading job, but there is a strong possibility that more work will follow. We could certainly do with the money.

The one downside of this is that I've had very limited access to the internet, as my wife has been using our (or as I prefer to call it, my) laptop almost non-stop for the last ten days. Blogging has been virtually impossible under these conditions, so I've been at a bit of a loose end.

If only I liked the World Cup.

I suppose if I was French, I'd have a mistress somewhere, but being British, the most I can hope for is probably a model railway in the attic. And anyway, how do people find the time to have illicit affairs? It's as much as I can do to get my shirts ready for the next day.

I've tried writing a blog entry at work, but it's not the most relaxed of environments. For a start, my employers tend to frown on drinking wine during office hours and second, people keep interrupting my train of thought with inane questions. The open-plan office is a terrible invention.

I even tried writing a blog post yesterday in longhand, during a train journey to London, but I was soon joined by a family of four who spent the entire trip eating malodorous food (those awful "wraps" - what are they all about?) and shouting at each other. To make things worse, the mother kept looking at what I was writing and whilst I'm fairly confident that my script is illegible, it was inhibiting.

Perhaps I should have tested the illegibility by writing something a little bit saucy about her.

As a result, I haven't been able to write about how much I enjoyed fellow blogger Ollie's poetry evening at the Lewes Arms on Thursday, particularly as it featured an eleventh hour appearance from the Incredible Dancing Man of Lewes. I was already in a state of rapture from watching the utterly beautiful Italian poet, Emilia Telese in her stunning Neapolitan fisherman-themed dress (you had to be there), so the IDM was the icing on the cake:

I suppose I could have written my blog entry on the blissfully quiet train home from London, but after five hours in a pub with some friends from university, I wasn't quite in the writing mood.

It was a good evening. We ended up at the India Club, where we decided to test the theory that no matter what you ordered, the bill always would always come to £10 per head including the tip. As with our last visit, the restuarant was like the Marie Celeste and we decided to leave and come back later. Just as we were going, a waiter popped up from behind a table like a jack in the box. He had been sleeping.

When I arrived home, I was pleased to see that a friend had come to stay for the night. She was in a rather serious mood and related a very sad anecdote about a friend of hers which ended with the words "and then she hung herself."

There was a long pause, then my wife looked up and said "You mean, she hanged herself." I suppose a week of intense proofreading had taken its toll.

I was equally tactless when our friend related another very harrowing tale of a friend who had suffered from a particularly aggressive form of cancer:

"The poor man's had part of his colon removed."

"How much?" I enquired

"Well, about half of it." she replied, looking slightly bemused.

"So now he has a semi-colon."

Luckily she laughed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Clean Young Englishman, by John Gale

Given the number of books I handle every day, it's remarkable how few make any impression on me. But today I found this memoir, which grabbed me from the first page:

"One night this year, on the walk home from the Underground in the falling snow, I had to lean against the wall of the crematorium where my father went up in smoke. I had had a few drinks. The wind pierced the short, old-fashioned black coat that had belonged to my grandfather. When I walked on a little unsteadily in the dark on the creaking snow, a girl passed on the other side of the road, her high black boots gleaming faintly. She looked across at me, and then went on in the bitter cold.

Our three children had measles; Jill was tired. The wind moaned beneath the doors ; we were keeping fires going day and night, and the insects cried in the blazing logs. Our house is small, virtually a cottage, among terraced houses built, originally, for artisans; the road is the appendix of the suburb, with wealthier houses not far off. I like our house: scarcely a piece of furniture, not a picture, carpet or curtain did we choose ourselves; all was given or passed on by relatives; all, or almost all, is incongruous, tasteless, but well used.

At times I feel the small house is the centre of the world. It seems a turning-point for aircraft coming in to land at London Airport. Their engines change pitch as they come in from east and west, booming and whining through the dusk, their navigation lights winking hope. When I lie in bed I distrust all aircraft: where are they going? People should stay at home. I prefer the sound of trains far off at night, the clink of a shunting in a cold siding."

The dustjacket blurb tells us little about John Gale, other than that this is the memoir of an Englishman who was born into a privileged background and enjoyed a rich and fascinating life until the day he went mad. Then everything changed.

Gale's autobiography was first published in 1965 and it must have been critically acclaimed, as the Hogarth Press thought it was worth reprinting in 1988, but there is a frustrating lack of information about John Gale on the internet.

I shall just have to read the book.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"You'll be a Man my son!"

I found a very instructive book today called "On Becoming a Man - A Book for Teen-Age Boys" by Harold Shryock, M.A., M.D., a teacher at the University of Loma Linda in California.

Published in 1951 it is, first and foremost, a sex guide, but has chapters encouraging financial prudence, good posture, regular church attendance and military service.

There is also a stern warning about the dangers of reading fiction, with a fascinating anecdote about a missionary wife who became addicted to novels during a stay in Africa:

"This young woman was not able to take advantage of the opportunity to do a work that would have made her a blessing to humanity - all because she had formed the habit of living in the realm of make-believe as created by the authors of the books she read."

Dr Shryock also takes pains to warn his young readers of another danger:

"There is a freakish manifestation of human friendship regarding which I shall take this occasion to warn you. I refer to those reletionships between members of the same sex that are included in the term homosexuality."

Like some of the Victorian self-help guides that I've mentioned on this blog, "On Becoming a Man" is a curious mixture of sound common sense and the sort of utter nonsense that must have made some of its readers feel completely awful.

On the plus side, it does have some great illustrations:

"Any youth is wise who controls his special friendship"
(No they're not. I deeply regret behaving so properly in my youth)

"Teen-age boys think very differently from teen-age girls"

"The remarkable growth of a teen-age boy is often a source of astonishment to his friends and his family"
(I've always wondered what The Proclaimers' home was like)

"A worthy counsellor will not be arbitary in his judgements"
(But beware of the man in the basebell cap who always has his curtains drawn)

"For each teen-ager, each new venture brings with it a new thrill and a new opportunity"
(Whatever happened to angst and alienation?)

"The habit of saving should be established early in life."
(So that you can blow it in your early 20s on loose women and poker games)

"Reading is without doubt one of the best means of personal development."
(In this young man's case, he's learning how to build a small explosive device)

This photo is from a 1968 reprint:

"Jack and Joanne had been special friends for about a year. Because of of common interests, it was natural for them to begin going steady."
(Hopefully a common interest in saucy photos)

If a "teen-age" boy can heed Dr Shryock's advice, then this is the golden future that awaits him:

After all these years, I can finally see the appeal of Jack Kerouac.

Monday, June 07, 2010

I Beg to Differ...

Found today:

"Now, what top shall I wear for the front cover photo session? I know, the blue one with the horizontal stripes. That'll look great!"

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Four Things

Thank you to Motherhood the Final Frontier and Katyboo for mentioning this blog on a list of awards. I've spending the last couple of weeks racking my brains trying to find a worthy response, but have failed miserably.

I managed to come up with a few random "things-you-don't-know-about-me", including my brief and unlikely appearance as a science expert on Radio Five, the time I nearly killed Kenickie in Tunbridge Wells and the vicar who asked me if I minded whether he masturbated, but most of these anecdotes diminished in the telling.

I also began a shortlist of blogs to recommend, but the list grew unmanageably long.

In the end, I decided to change the rules and instead of personal trivia, I've listed four things that I feel passionately about. There are many other things I could have mentioned, but in the blogosphere, less is more.

As far as recommending other blogs goes, I'd rather take the opportunity to say why Katyboo and Motherhood are such compelling bloggers. Although their blogs are very different, they both write with a refreshing candour about the agonies and ecstacies of trying to reconcile their hopes and dreams with the demands of parenthood.

With Katyboo, there is a gripping, confessional, warts and all account of her daily life that is far removed from the twee, sentimental nonsense that appears in many magazines. Motherhood has written one of my favourite blog posts of all time, encapsulating the challenges of reconciling desire and duty.

And now on to my random selecting of four things that make life worth living. Most people reading this blog will, I'm sure, be aware of the magic of "A Matter of Life and Death" (US title "Stairway to Heaven"), but just in case there's anyone left who hasn't seen this remarkable film, here's a clip:

This is an extraordinary film. On the one hand it is quintessentially English, but on the other it is thoroughly atypical, written by a Hungarian, with an international cast. A Matter of Life and Death is witty, imaginative and humane and must have been a breath of fresh air when it appeared, a year after the end of World War Two.

Next, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major - a wonderful, life-affirming piece of music that fizzes with energy. Born in 1874, Ravel became associated with the Impressionists and his early works are rich, luxuriant compositions that encapsulate the spirit of the fin de siecle culture before 1914

Ravel served as an ambulanceman in the First World War and if he'd been killed in action, posterity would have regarded him as a gifted disciple of Debussy. However, Ravel survived and in the 1920s, discovered jazz.

A French composer in his 50s might have been shocked by the vulgarity of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but Ravel loved it and when he was asked to compose a piano concerto, he wrote a vibrant, jazzy work that exhuded youth and passion. This is the first movement and this unusual performance features Leonard Bernstein performing and conducting:

I love the energy and complexity of the music - it really does send shivers down my spine. The first pianist to perform this work remarked to Ravel how hard the music was was to learn. He replied "You should try writing it!"

What's particularly wonderful about this piano concerto is the contrast between the fast, jazzy outer movements and the heart-breaking beauty of the middle one.

Next, The Swimmer:

Based on a John Cheever short story, this film is remarkable in so many ways, from Burt Lancaster's performance as the New England WASP who decides to swim home via his neighbours' swimming pools, to Marvyn Hamlisch's haunting score. Released in 1968, The Swimmer captures the spirit of the age, but its themes are timeless and the film's denouement is one of the saddest things I have ever seen.

Finally, Vaughan Williams' Symphony No.5 - a work that was first performed during the 1943 Proms season in London. Before the concert began, the audience were told that in the event of an air raid, they were welcome to leave the building but the orchestra intended to carry on playing.

The 70-year-old composer walked up to the podium, looking like a slightly dishevelled gentleman farmer, and began conducting.

Vaughan Williams' previous symphony, written in the mid-1930s, had been a violent, angst-ridden work, but the new work had a serenity that, for some, seemed to offer spiritual consolation in the midst of war. For others, with its predominantly pastoral nature, this was the swan song of a composer whose musical language had been heavily influenced by English folk music.

In fact, this symphony was the work of a man who had fallen in love with a woman nearly 40 years his junior and this movement, in particular, is a passionate, heartfelt outpouring:

In the 1950s, they married and for the remainder of his life, Vaughan Williams was blissfully happy. As for the 5th Symphony, it was no swan song. Vaughan Williams went on to write another four, composing his last when he was 85.

So there are four reasons for living. I apologise to Motherhood and Katyboo for slightly bending the rules of blog awards, but it was either this or nothing.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The last of The Last of the Summer Wine

Breaking news: the BBC's longest running "comedy" (and I use the term loosely) series is finally being axed, after 37 years. If you have the good fortune to live outside the UK and not know anything about "The Last of the Summer Wine", it's about a trio of retired Yorkshiremen who, no longer constrained by the need to make a living, discover their inner child and become increasingly eccentric.

The series is much loved by the sort of people who like the poem "When I am an Old Woman I shall Wear Purple" and whilst there is something to be said for raging against the dying of the light, the cloying sentimentality of "The Last of the Summer Wine" is one of the most convincing arguments I've come across for euthanasia.

Apparently the last episode will be accompanied by special, Yorkshire-based editions of Countryfile and Songs of Praise.

The controller of BBC One, Jay Hunt, said "I am delighted some of the channel's other heritage brands will be helping to say goodbye in style."

Heritage brands? Where do people find phrases like this?