Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Medical Matters

Jean Paul Sartre is, as everyone knows, eminently quotable – and his quote is, “Hell is other people.” There may be others, but I’m buggered if I know them.

[In the interests of research I have just been to a web site: which lists 27 {Is that a Sartre-like number} quotes and, yes, I only knew the one above.]


I was thinking of Jean Paul Sartre (as you do) when I accompanied Paul Squared to his hospital appointment. I have been to hospitals reasonably frequently over the past year and have become something of a connoisseur of those ante rooms of Hell: The Hospital Waiting Room!

Whatever the style or period of the building there is a similarity in the appearance of the rooms.

They are always just that bit too small for the number of people waiting in them. They are all (apart from children’s waiting rooms) painted in ‘restful, pastel colours’ which are difficult to give a name to.

They all have magazines which are irritatingly out of date and are not what you’d choose to read. This is of course an improvement on what they used to be when they were woefully out of date and from another parallel universe (or The Tatler together with Horse and Hound.)
They have chairs made by the same people who manufacture seating objects (to call them chairs is an insult to comfort) in airports – you know, those devices which seem to be constructed to ensure that no traveller falls asleep, or indeed, ever feels comfortable.

There is, also, the Colourful Image: the picture or poster designed to Brighten Up The Whole Room. I have tried to link the image to the subject of the room, but have signally failed: large shark and neurosurgery? A cute creature merry go round and dentistry? Medicine has reasons that only medicine knows!

But it’s the people; it’s always the people that tell you that you are in a Hospital Waiting Room. I have never been alone in a waiting room and that usually allows the full range of types that are essential to the waiting experience.

There is always one person who does not look as though they should be there. Indeed so incongruous do they look that they disturb all the other people waiting who did not realise that they were quite as ill as that, if such a medical disaster is waiting for the same people that you are waiting for.

There is the monologue chatterer. This is the sort of person who can speak on the in-breath and keeps up a sotto voce one sided conversation of stultifying inconsequentiality.

There are the lost: who? why? what? how? The ones who don’t really understand what’s going on.

My favourite is the Past-timer, the person way into his or her pension but clearly indicating what they used to be like in their youth; with men it is evidenced by a tendency towards Brylcreem and inappropriate jumpers and a vague look of wondering if all the fuss is actually worth it.

Well, people watching always passes the time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What next?

Sometimes displacement activity is the only action in town; the only thing that keeps you sane. Marking used to drive me to hoover; to brush my teeth; to clean my shoes; too play the keyboard badly and, in extreme cases, in an example of reversal psychology – marking!

Writing is both a chore and a release; for it to be coherent it demands, of necessity, structure in the form of grammar; the rules; full stops and capital letters; agreement of cases, person and sense. On the other hand it offers release in the form of the universe that the very language creates, and you create by your input and your imagination.

So where now? What imaginative leap will this writing allow me, where will it go?Disappointment invariably follows. Let it go where it will!

During the snatch of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Beyond Belief’ that I listened to while driving to fetch Toni from work, it transpired that a selection of representatives from a selection of world religions were talking about the importance of music in their respective faiths.

In was while listening to this programme that it struck me how like communism was Islam. I do not mean that they are exactly synonymous; that would be a ridiculous statement, though I’m sure that it would be possible to talk about authoritarianism and faith and hierarchy and a number of other aspects and link them with some degree of convincingness. As I listened to the truly disturbing reasonableness of the Scottish Muslim and his description of his faith, I was struck by the difference between what he was saying and what you can see in the world of the Middle East. Appearance and reality. And that is what reminds me of the ideology of Communism in relation to Islam.

Having read the Koran (in English) there are many aspects which are easy to identify with from a Christian perspective as well as others which are much more problematical. But, in essence it seems to me that Islam is a very ‘reasonable’ religion which seems to be ‘reasonably’ egalitarian and encourages the development of male and female with a degree of equality.

But where do we see the religion operating according to the Book? How many democracies are Islamic? Where are women given true equality in the Middle East? Where are the human rights of citizens protected in Islamic states? How many Islamic states allow the promotion of Christianity? The so called halcyon days of the Caliphate of Spain where the faiths coexisted seems far in history. The great advances of Islamic scholarship are far in the past and we are more likely to hear of oppression and repression from those fundamentalist Islamic states which vaunt their orthodox allegiance.

The faith is in favour of equality and freedom of worship and all the other positive aspects of a liberal faith; it’s just that there isn’t an actual country in the world in which an Islamic faith is practiced in this way. Just like Communism: all the positive aspects, but, unfortunately, no actual, real country in the world, ever.

The Islamic contributor in the programme was explaining the Islamic approach to music: he rejected the use of music which might be inclined to deprave and corrupt; that the use of music which encouraged the worship of god was fine, but music which, in the worship of god tended towards entertainment and a sort of self indulgent pleasure was wrong. Although he seemed reasonable, there was a steely sort of Puritanism in what he said which, I thought, was self defeating and self contradictory.

Ii think that music underpins the whole of our existence. Janacek used to listen to the speech of his fellow countrymen and in the notebook which he carried around, he would sometimes write down the ‘music’ of their voices in musical notation. We do not speak in monotones, so when we communicate we communicate in music. We cannot and surely would not want to escape it. And all the mealy mouthed apologies for an emotional response to music in terms of twisted religion are truly repulsive.

Why did music raise itself into my consciousness? Roads.

Roads. And more particularly the noise a car makes when it travels over roads. And why the music is different.

When I went to New York on my one and only visit to escape the grovelling television coverage of the Prince of Wales and his first wife, I ‘enjoyed’ the rampant success of capitalism but I was astonished at the state of the roads. It was during a time when New York was described as ‘dying from the roots up’ as the sewers, roads and essential services were neglected. There were potholes and noxious wisps of steam oozing from ill fitting and noxious manhole covers.

The roads of Cardiff are a metaphor for the world. (Oh god, I’m beginning to sound like a vicar!) Driving a normal journey through the streets of Cardiff you pass through a range of ‘countries’ from the affluent first world smoothness of a certain part of the Newport Road, where the sound you make is a whisper of the normal noise that surface noise makes to the third world experience of Widdecombe Drive in Rumney where every service seems to have cut the surface and left an uneven patchwork of bumps which makes driving an eventful experience and the music of the tyres more experimental. Even on a seemingly smooth road there are always undulations which create their own series of asymmetrical rhythms.

The rhythms of the road and a constant music to confound narrow ideologies.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The allure of gardens!

The spiritual presence of my father was vividly present today. Given that we are trying to sell the house, presentation is all important, so the winter denuded pots in the entrance have had to be rejuvenated. Rejuvenated suggests that what I have done is, in some way, to have encouraged the existing plants to flower suddenly and out of season, to bring them on so to speak.

I have not.

I am my father’s son and if he taught me nothing else (and I assure you he taught me lots, he was, after all, a teacher) he taught me that the only gardening is instant gardening. If you need colour in a garden, buy it in. Let it thrive. Take the credit.

He took his inspiration from Capability Brown who was well known for giving nature a helping hand. If Nature had not placed a lake and mountain in the requisite position then Brown would rectify God’s mistake and provide them exactly where the client would have wanted them if they had had the sensibility of Brown himself.

I feel it incumbent upon myself to continue this grand tradition and go to the garden centre and buy established growing plants and use my aesthetic sense to place them in intriguing juxtapositions causing the eye to rejoice in the exciting collage of shape and colour that is a well planned garden.

Or, to be more truthful, working erratically through trays of potted plants and putting them wherever a blank piece of earth presented itself.

It is amazing how much colourful vegetation is swallowed up in quite a small space in a garden. I am almost convinced that I need to purchase a small greenhouse to start some of these plants from seed or bulb. If following the Rees Family is so ruinously expensive, then god knows how denizens of country houses ever managed to fill their gardens!

For all the expense though, it is amazing how a blank space leaps into life with the addition of flowers, especially as they all now look as though they have grown there naturally and not been located there less than five hours ago!

I even remembered to scatter mini slug pellets on the freshly turned earth (all of which is in pots and baskets) though I’m not sure that this is the season for slugs. Do they hibernate or lurk elsewhere; this is after all is winter and the pickings for slugs in the form of luscious greenery should be limited. Global warming makes me less confident that the slimy devourers of my delicate plants are disinclined to obey the past definition of the seasons and stay away from the garden – so I erred on the safe side and spread snail death with reckless abandon.

Tomorrow a reassessment of what is to be done to compensate for the lack of colour in the rest of the garden. I discovered in my enthusiastic ploughing up of old pots that I was actually destroying growing plants – but growing plant bulbs beneath the surface of the earth! No good for me; but for the sake of honest decency I re-covered the nakedly exposed bulbs and hoped that I replaced them the right way up!

Ah, the wonders of informed horticulture!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fickle fortunes of Art

How fortunes change.

When I was growing up in the fifties there was really only one Welsh artist who lived the artistic bohemian life and had a reputation which reached well beyond the borders of Wales. He had painted the imperious cellist and iconic portraits of Dylan Thomas: he was the Grand Old Man of painting and revered as a Master. Augustus John.

The Indie has been issuing a series of posters of Art Treasures in Britain. The painters they included were: Manet, Van Gogh, Raeburn, Millais, Palmer, Gainsborough, Blake, Turner, Gauguin, Constable, Poussin and the Welsh artist. And the choice of Welsh artist ticks a lot of boxes for the Independent!

Poor old Augustus is confined to his past reputation, but the rising star and much more interesting painter is, of course, his sister, Gwen John: a member of an ethnic minority; a woman; a ‘used’ woman; a better painter – all the things that the Indie respects!

It’s too easy to make cheap comments about the list; after all any list is an open invitation to Outraged of Pseudsville to decry the omission of an essential art work, though, personally, I have nothing but praise for a list which includes Samuel Palmer, together with another great eccentric (euphemism) Blake. If they had included Fuseli, Dadd, Danby and Martin they could have had a bit of a theme of eccentricity going there; as well as some more than decent paintings. I am available as a consultant at any time.

The Indie seems to have taken over the education role of the newspapers that provided my grandparents with the collected editions of Dickens. I rather enjoy the educationally paternal stance of the Indie in bringing educated selections to its readers. Great Art having been ‘done’ it is now the turn of literature with a series of ‘banned’ books which have commenced with ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ I like the concept which drives this collection which allows for an astonishing selection of works, most of which, I realise I have read – but read in ageing paperback editions where the perfect binding is gradually exploding in a cloud of dry glue dust. You might have guessed that those last few phrases are my justification for buying all the succeeding novels; at less than four quid for a hardback, how can I resist?

Except. There is always an ‘except.’ I have made two abortive attempts to find a newsagent who will deliver my copy of the Indie. And I have failed to find one. I do not think that my area is actually served by a newsagent! I refuse to believe that this is true and I will continue, diligently to search for a deliverer.

We watched the film version of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ directed by David Frankel and I thought that the telling changes from the novel were not an improvement. This film is basically a vehicle for Meryl Streep, and she obviously had fun making the film, but I don’t think that the fun is commensurate for the viewer. I found the moments when Streep broke down mawkish and too much the great actress giving gravitas to the role. Having said all that, I enjoyed the film for what it was; a fairly harmless little fairy tale.

We also watched ‘Right at your door’ directed by Chris Gorak. I was astonished that a film with such a relevant and exciting premise of a dirty biological bomb being exploded in Los Angeles was so tedious to watch. It lacked pace and interest: a boring waste of a fascinating idea.

I much preferred the animated cartoon feature “Hoodwinked” an American take on the Little Red Riding Hood story. Although the animation was not what one has come to expect from films like ‘Finding Nemo’ it was more than rescued by the script which was full of self indulgent detail. At the end of the film I was not clear for whom this film was made: there were many phrases in the script which could only have been appreciated by an informed adult, but it also had twee little songs for kids. What the hell I always like films with clearly understood morals; it’s such a relief from real life.

Watch on!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Floating worlds!

As a symbol of frustration of futility, a small black toad riding hopefully but statically on the rear end of a floating wooden frog caught in the reeds of a garden pond, has to be fairly potent.

The inscrutable but visible (I love these Taoist enigmas) life of the pond continues in its diurnal cycle only impinging on my consciousness when the cold of winter finally clears the green floating algae and allows a deeper (literally) perspective of the hidden waters.

As far as I can see and know, none of the gardens in the immediate vicinity has a pond. Mine is alone. Isolated. A tiny speck of aquatic life in a patchwork of pondless gardens. So where do the frogs come from? Have they come from the reens (local name for drainage ditches) which are relatively near but only accessible via a forbidding (to a hopping toad) barrier of houses and pavements and streets?

The temptation is to type something into Google and pass off the information as my own, but I’m not sure that I want to know the prosaic reason for the repeated annual return of frogs (or toads) to my small pond.

I like to think of my toad (or frog) behaving rather like Landseer’s animal in ‘Stag at bay’: noble, silhouetted against the skyline, turning its noble head and sensing the sweet tang of escape and new pond water! Then the heroic struggle to surmount the almost impossible obstacles of hard unyielding surfaces; thundering mechanised monsters; high fences; hostile householders and domestic scavengers. Then slipping into the calm, fish filled and sometimes illuminated waters of my pond!

A Shangri-La of deeps and shallows; of rain refreshed waters with a kinky frogalike floating serenely and impassively on the surface to whet the appetite of the most jaded toad.

The goldfish, the permanent denizens, have already had their Saturnalia, evidenced by shoals of new citizens waiting to have their innocence shattered by the graphic cycles of life of which they are now part.

I have to say that the frustrated frog (or tortured toad) which has been humping the floating wooden reptile is a most repulsive creature and has been probably shunned by the rest of his kind, which explains his retreat to the inanimate to satisfy his amphibious lusts.

I only hope that the water being graced with frog spawn, the fish do not regard it as an extra source of food and devour it all before it has had a chance to mature. Going on past experience the spawn does actually produce tiny black creatures which look exactly the right size for a casual snack for the goldfish. Those are not fed so regularly that they can afford to ignore any passing food source with impunity.

I used to feed the fish on a daily basis until I was informed by the fountain of all wisdom (the man in the water section of Blooms) that they did not need this type of sustenance and that I would be better in not feeding them at all during the winter. You can see my problem: with global warming, the definition of winter (especially in the mild climate of Cardiff) is becoming more and more difficult to define, so the exact date on which I should start feeding the fish on a more regular basis becomes more and more problematical. I had the unnerving experience a few days ago of venturing out into the back garden and, standing on the top step and looking down towards the pool, I was struck by a row of fish seemingly looking up at me!

I then, fully, realised my status as divine to the fish. Imagine: every so often a shadowy figure appears and hovers and stays at the side of the pond universe; there is a movement and suddenly, the cornucopia is opened and foison is scattered along the upper limit of the watery world; the shadowy figure then retreats into the mystical distances above the world as the fish know it.

The row of fish was obviously waiting for the Umpteenth Coming! Goodness knows what strange piscatorial ceremonies they enact beneath the surface to ensure the reappearance of the Hand of Plenty, and much must be the finny worry during the hard winter months when the shadowy figure comes no more.

I wonder what part the frog (or toad) plays in their religion.

The temptation to write some sort of ironic pastiche of the theological basis for the Religion of the Pond and make snide parallels with the truly appalling religions with which we surround ourselves in our fragile lives is almost irresistible.

Almost, but not quite. Perhaps I am learning to ignore the more obvious and vulnerable targets.

Such consideration!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Equal pay for equal work!

It doesn’t take much to strip away the self control of prejudice denial for the beast to stride forth in all its unreformed glory.

I blame Francoise Durr.

Francoise was a French lady tennis player. Over the course of her career, Durr won 26 singles titles and 60 doubles titles. She was ranked World No. 3 in 1967 and was nine times ranked in the world's top ten from 1965 through 1976. She finished second to Billy Jean King in annual prize money won in 1971.

And I loathed her style of playing which, for me, summed up the absolute and total horror that was women’s tennis.

Durr served by throwing the ball through the troposphere, passing the tropopause and somewhere well into the stratosphere. When the ball finally re-entered normal space, she then had a sort of extended arms windmill approach to the serve which ‘bonked’ the ball, seemingly in slow motion, towards her opponent.

Her opponent had, by this time, committed suicide rather than endure the horror of subjecting herself to the slow torture of the tedious baseline return that was the basis of her ‘game’.

For me (in my unregenerate form) Durr’s tennis, stood for all women’s tennis, and anyone actually paying to watch such a third rate travesty of a world sport was incomprehensible.

Maria Bueno and Billy Jean King showed the way forward and women’s tennis soon developed into a more attractive alternative, especially when the men’s version developed the ‘killer serve’ which, in its way, was just as tedious and game destroying as the Durr destructive approach. I grew to enjoy and sometimes prefer women’s tennis!

Then, today, the announcement from the organization which has, through its ineptitude, ensured that we have not had a men’s Wimbledon Champion since Fred Perry, has pronounced that this year women will have the same money as men in the Championships. And, at once, the Neanderthal sexist took over my body.

This is where the title comes into force: “Equal pay for equal work.” But this, apparently, does not apply to the tennis players. In a game of tennis in the forthcoming championships the men can win with playing in a minimum of three sets and the women can win with a maximum of three sets. With men, even with the straight sets win, they must play at least three sets; with women a straight sets win is two sets.

This is not equal, this is not fair, and women should not have the same money. The logic to me is unmistakable. A man who is two sets up is in a strong position to gain that final set, but anything can happen, and part of the fascination of the male game is what happens given the complexity of a possible five set game. For the women; two sets - you’ve won. The same money? For what?

Equal pay for equal work!

This little diatribe is surprising given the fact that I was out to lunch with Dianne today which should have left me feeling mellow and at peace with the troubled world.

How do you tell the worth of a restaurant? You look inside and, if it’s full, you assume that it’s popular because of the quality of the service and food; if it’s empty – the opposite.

Our first choice of restaurant in Canton was closed so we drove on and ended up in Da Castaldo, which was empty; as we discovered when I stopped trying to get in through a window and used the door instead.

We were greeted with restrained enthusiasm by the waiter and allowed to settle in any place we chose. The service throughout the meal was attentive without being obtrusive and allowed us to talk and chatter and gossip and discuss to our hearts’ content!

The set lunch menus was small but more than adequate and, when I asked for cheese instead of the sweet selection, it was provided without fuss and was exactly what I wanted.

A sea food starter was followed by pan fried haddock with potatoes and carrots. My cheese was accompanied by coffee and the meal by a couple of glasses of wine.

As a lunch it was almost perfect: excellent company in our own private eatery! With good food too!

I must lunch more and more widely: there are places in Cardiff I have never been – and I should!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sky watching

When you are a glorified taxi service the horror of early morning overtime by your partner is only deadened by the fact that you are half asleep when the reality of having to move about comes home to you. The darkness of night convinces you that you should be tucked up snugly in bed and not stumbling ineptly towards the finicky business of contact lens insertion. Multi tasking shaving and brushing your teeth is not a convincingly combined activity when sharp and fully awake; it is merely a recipe for disaster when still emotionally in the Land of Nod.

There are few advantages in being up and doing before you have to be. There is the malicious pleasure in returning from taxi duty and swiftly passing all the stolid commuters resignedly crawling their way to work. There is the realisation that your tareas can be completed almost before the day has started.

But the real pleasure of early morning driving at this time of the year is the sky. Whatever develops during the rest of the day, it is often the case that early morning is one of the best parts of the day when you consider the weather. We have seen some wonderful skies on the early morning run.

This morning the sky was absurdly spectacular. The cloud was relatively low and the rising sun bathed the bottom of the clouds with bright orange, tinged with liquid gold with a few burning rays escaping though the clouds into the darker reaches of the higher sky. The picture was so beautiful that it almost became kitsch: a painting of what I looked at would have been dismissed as unimaginative and chocolate box Romantic. It was the subject matter of technically inept amateurs, but it was actually real and in front of me as I drove.

As I was driving someone to his work rather than going to work myself, I was able to indulge my aesthetic sense, but I wonder how many others were lost in the deadening effect of their immanent work rather than able to appreciate the wonders all around them?

Believe you me, the splendour of the skies didn’t last long. By the time the bread had been bought from Tesco’s on the return trip, the clouds had closed in and the dull skies of a Welsh February had re-established themselves with the courtesy detail of a wet windscreen from a sharp shower!

The one thing that being brought up in a damp island does for you is to encourage the ability to find positive in depressing negativity. The dark, grey wet days of winter do many things: depress the population; nip flowers with frost; confuse vegetation by not being consistent; rot wood; create puddles in irritating places and deny us the sun.

On the positive side the cold kills certain suspended vegetation that lurks in my pond. The water, magically, clears and loses its deep green tinge, or rather colouration and clears, revealing that, once again, the fish have survived.

Having a pond with fish in it is a constant source of worry. During what I refer to as The Verdant Months when the water of the pond is an opaque viridian, the complete lack of visible finny activity convinces me that the entire fish population of the pond is dead and rotting on the floor of the pond, each cadaver gradually filling with light organic gas prior to the entire tribe’s zombie-like resurrection as they float shimmering with putrescence to the surface – dead torpedoes of guilty accusation leaving a vivid message of neglect for the RSPCA.

It never happens! The clear water shows that The Verdant Months have hidden all sorts of knots and genderings of the finny folk and lo and behold! multitudes of small fish have appeared as if by magic! The large orange goldfish not only have survived but also have thriven and grown more stately.

It’s amazing!

As I type this Barca has just been defeated by Liverpool in the Champions League. I have never seen Barca play so badly (and over the past few years, I really have seen Barca play on a number of occasions) and give such a poor account as a team. There seemed to be no cohesion, no understanding of team mates positioning on the field, no finish.

I am still astonished that I feel so involved in a game of football; Toni has a lot to answer for!

Roll on the next round in Anfield!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Take care of the little things

That well adjusted friendly madman, William Blake, wrote that you can see “a world in a grain of sand.” Let’s assume that he hadn’t been at the laudanum (so he wasn’t having a Salvador Dali moment) and that he was actually saying something with the clarity of his humanist vision in the simplest and most direct way he could. Perhaps he would have been sympathetic with the title of Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things (1997).

I’m sure that William would have been joyously enthusiastic to endorse the sentiment which led to the title – though I’m sure he would have interpreted it in a more than individualistic way.

In some ways it is an unsettling observation: if something as inconsequential as a grain of sand can effortlessly contain a world, then why is it necessary to strive to create something infinitely more complex like the intricate painting on a roof in a chapel in a very small city? Was Michelangelo wasting his time completing all that back breaking illustration when the smallest particle of his paint pigment could, apparently, have contained all of his artistic vision and much more?

Blake himself completed drawings, paintings and prints, but I suppose that many of them (all of them?) are imbued with his own mystical appreciation of the world around him, so he never produces a prosaic representation of the world, but indicates the numinous in the quotidian.

In fact in a painting like his depiction of Newton at the bottom of the ocean he consciously rejects the attempts to circumscribe Nature by Science. Nature, according to Blake, can only be truly appreciated by much more than the intellect, hence the way in which he paints and writes.

It is now either an anti climax or a complete justification of the sentiments of Blake that I reveal that the inspiration for the preceding piece of writing is something tiny and domestic.
White sinks in the kitchen obviously look more stylish than clunky old stainless steel ones, but they do demand a more rigorous regimen of cleaning than a swirl of water which cleans the metal version. Bleach and soaking is necessary for the pristine whiteness to shine.

It reminds me of the disastrous plain red carpet in my parents’ house which covered the floor of the hallway and the stairs. A wonderful choice of carpet if you live a light footed singular life, but not the sort of carpet which lends itself to everyday life if you have a family and, more importantly, a molting yellow Labrador who liked to sleep in the sun on the red carpet in the hallway!

Constant hoovering would have preserved its integrity, but as Shirley Conran remarked about stuffing mushrooms, life is just too short. For moments after hoovering the carpet looked superb and then the dog would meander out into the hallway and collapse and shiggle about leaving a yellow haired impression on the now grubby carpet. They eventually got rid of the plain red and bought a multi coloured modern carpet which showed nothing until you got a shovel and dropped the dirt on it in conspicuous piles!

Back to the sink. I had run out of bleach and so took whatever was to hand and splooshed it with reckless abandon in the optimistic hope that quantity would obviate the necessity for specific directed work.

It was what I used that caused me to think. The cleaning liquid (courtesy of ‘Flash’) was truly and startlingly fluorescent! It looked like liquid yellow light – and smelled of lemons. It was so distinctive that I actually stopped cleaning (not difficult for me) and watched as it dripped down the draining board and formed fiery rivulets of light slipping down the plug hole. How in the name of god does yellow fluorescence equate with cleanliness? My alternative cleansing liquid was gel with a wild orchid scent. I could have used wipes with orange zest. Who decides the flavours of clean? And why are we so conservative about the selection of what sprays from the nozzles of our cleaning bottles?

I think that Dettol should be produced with the scent of fine Rioja. After all, we are not so naïf that we actually think that anything natural has produced the scent in the cleansing material. And we constantly see the good and the great sniffing fine old wines, so it must be a positive fragrance. It’s all just a factory produced amalgam of chemicals which tickle our olfactory organs in exactly the right way, and our wonderful scientists can produce the scent of anything. So why not Chardonnay table polish – at least the factory version would never go off, it could preserve that ‘just opened’ fragrance to give personality to the home. Why not espresso scented window cleaner? Mown grass toilet paper? Supple hide toilet cleanser? Burnt wood car freshener? The possibilities are endless and so much more interesting than the present pedestrian alternatives.

I think that by their disinfectants may ye know them. The way that a society defines ‘clean’ probably says more about it than the arid impenetrability of economic statistics and descriptions of political institutions.

What percentage of dead germs is acceptable? If a liquid kills 99% of germs, what about the other 1%? If everything else dies then doesn’t that give an incentive for the other one percent to flourish and multiply and take over the world? Perhaps it would be safer to leave a few more percent of germs alive so that they can form antagonistic groups and keep their numbers down by natural selection. Who knows what harm we are doing by upsetting the natural ecosystems of germkind with our thoughtless decimation (times 9) of their delicate hierarchical organisations?

It is said that there are more germs on a kitchen table than on the top of your toilet. What does this mean?

I think it probably says more about the fanatical British abhorrence of bodily functions and our natural revulsion to bodily waste resulting in a demented determination to eradicate all sights and smells and microbes and anything else associated with defecation than with the dirtiness of the kitchen table. All things are, after all, relative.

We should never ignore the small scented secrets of a sweet smelling style of survival!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Listening . . .

Two heaped teaspoons of instant coffee together with four sugars make a distinctive drink and not one that I could easily imbibe. While I sipped my gentle cup of tea I listened with growing admiration to the reminiscences of the coffee drinker as he chatted about his life almost seventy years ago. He made the stories he was telling me seem as prosaic as the description of an outing by charabanc to Porthcawl during Miners’ Fortnight.

What he talked about in an unpretentious way took in his being parachuted into enemy territory; blowing up a military base; inadvertently putting the army, navy and air force on alert; being part of a small group or airmen who took over a thousand enemy prisoners; being taken prisoner himself; sleeping next to the second pillar on the right of the Parthenon when it was used as an Axis prison camp; walking miles through snow drifts shoeless in tropical kit; being in the same prison camp as the Great Escape; being smashed in the face by a German guard; breaking away from the German guards in the face of the Russian forces advance; not getting shot; being rescued by a British tank driver; borrowing fifty quid from the Vice Principal of the college he went to when he was a mature student, and . . . well, you get the basic idea. A conversation when what you do is listen because you are hearing oral history, your history; a history that helped ensure you (well, my, at least) birth and safeguard your heritage.

In a wide ranging conversation I was acutely aware that my contributions could only be those of a concerned and interested commentator; a participatory outsider looking in to history – first hand history!

It was an exhilarating conversation and one that I will remember with respect.

My respect has been working overtime today as I started my morning by taking my camera to Ceri’s to photograph the paintings that he is thinking of sending to the London gallery for the forthcoming exhibition. The photos will be inserted into the catalogue and they have to be digital so they can be emailed to the gallery for inclusion.

Ceris’s paintings are growing in confidence and he is using his landscape inspiration with greater freedom. Some of the tonal experiments he has completed are remarkable essays in colour and use the layered depth of colour that tempera can give to achieve an intensity that is astonishing. His draftmanship is assured and his charcoal studies are silkily alluring. I always find it difficult to visit his studio as I feel like taking most of what I see back with me! I would very much like to own his sketchbooks as the quick drawings with written notes always give me a sense of the immediacy and excitement that must come when you are applying obvious skill.

Seeing what is possible with pen, brush and charcoal stick at close hand is not something which pushes me to emulate; the difference between my embarrassing efforts and what a professional is able to achieve the gap is too depressing to contemplate.

This makes the watercolour that I have done even more surprising.

The witless way in which I applied the paint and the growing depression that I felt as I witnessed the general failure of artistic ability, intention and technique detracted from the sense of achievement that I expected to experience from the whole artistic enterprise. What is the surprising thing? Well, it’s not the wonderful revelation that, as it dried, it showed its real genius; but rather that when I took a photo of it, it didn’t look half bad! I reproduce it here so that you can share the wonder of the artistic effect of miniaturisation which has altogether compensated for my lack of skill! It almost encourages me to try another! Or is that another example of vaulting ambition which o’er leaps itself etc etc?

My resolution to deny myself the self indulgent frisson of peril my fixing my seat belt while in motion and steering past other cars has held for one day. I have started to move the car without being strapped in, but I have remembered my intention to turn to the paths of righteousness just before I hit the road: thank god for a small but memory jogging driveway!

My second resolution is to get back into swimming. This will mean making a rapprochement with the Eastern Leisure Centre from which I have turned in recent years, succumbing to the middle class lure of The David Lloyd Centre. Having rescinded my monthly payment to the David Lloyd I will now have to retrace my penitent steps to the local leisure centre and negotiate for a Job Seekers’ Allowance holder’s reduced price membership to encourage me to swim with the regularity which was once an essential part of my normal daily routine. I will have to do this step by step and set myself realistic objectives, so just getting the membership card will be sufficient!

The chlorinated water calls!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

I am resolved!

It is now far enough through the year to be able to think about New Year Resolutions. One can assume that the common herd has made (and disregarded) the rules made at the woefully unfashionable period around the start of the year and it is now time for the more individualistic and fashionable to venture into the realms of Life Change.

I suppose that it would be more in keeping for a citizen of an ostensibly Christian country to utilize the festival of rebirth at Easter to affirm a new path in life. But I for one have never been fully convinced by the gnomic posturing that has accompanied the calculation of the date of Easter. I fear that much of our present confusion about the date for Easter may be traced to the deliberations of the Council at Nicaea. And we all know what that little committee led to. It really does put one in mind of the worst excesses of the French Revolution; but a French Revolution carried out by Sufis riding on the backs of Jains thinking Zoroastrian thoughts and mouthing tantric inanities. So Easter is out and Now is in.

Monday the 19th of February seems as good a time as any to resolve to resolve. Whatever that means.

In English essays which pretend to be of a factual nature, it should be a pen blocking procedure to start any essay with a opening like, “The Oxford English Dictionary defines “resolve” as . . . “ It is one of those clunking introductions that give you a very clear indication of what the rest of the essay is going to be like. And if the essay is written in light blue pen and you are marking it at night then you know that it is going to take the whole of your concentration to stop the words drifting into translucent nothingness beneath your sightless eyes. Or, alternatively you will feel the need to become a Super Hero Teacher wielding the red pen of truth and the literate way. But dictionaries have their uses.

I did wonder, in a casual sort of way, about the derivation of the word ‘resolution’ and lo and behold, it turns out to be a 14th century word derived directly or via French from the Latin resolvere to 'loosen up' and from solvere to 'loosen or dissolve'.

I do like the counter intuitive derivation which, ironically, seems to be the opposite of what the word has come to mean. However, I also like the idea that ‘resolve’ needs a dissolving of previously held concepts or perceptions; presumably to get back to a pristine state where the negative had been falsely added to a basic purity and the ‘resolution’ allows the superfluity to be excised and also allows a better life to proceed.

The idea of ‘loosening’ is also interesting which almost suggests that a ‘resolution’ is not an imposition, but rather an ordinary state which can be achieved by allowing the natural processes to take their true effect by a suppression of the more negative actions which bring the need for a resolution in the first place.

It follows, therefore, that resolutions should not be difficult because they should be actions which you want to complete anyway, elements that your essential personality should find naturally congenial.

All of this, of course, is pseudo intellectual justification and an attempt at bolstering my already fading resolution to effect changes in my behaviour – the hell with ‘dissolving’ and ‘loosening.’ What I find natural is the behaviour which calls forth the need for resolutions and any other interpretation is a wilful ignoring of self evident truth.

Years ago I made a conscious decision to be influenced in my everyday life by Jimmy Savile. Not everyone can say that, and indeed, not everyone would admit it! In 1971 Savile ‘starred’ in an advertising campaign to urge people to ‘clunk click every trip’ and ensure that they used their safety belts. I thought at the time that the campaign should have used a more ‘acceptable’ person that Jimmy Savile and I felt that the ‘face’ of the campaign should have been someone more ‘respectable.’ So, it was with a post modernist sense of fun that I decided that in spite of/because of Jimmy Savile being the personality I would be influenced by him and ensure that I wore my safety belt for each trip and I duly clunked and clicked.

And this brings me to my first resolution. As someone who clunked and clicked long before the wearing of seat belts was made compulsory I find that I now have to make a further logical adjustment to my precautionary driving skills.

If you live in urban area surrounded by numbers of commuters who all go to work at roughly the same time then you have to run the gauntlet of the equivalent of a motorised Scylla and Charybdis. As drivers leave the curb then, and only then do they decide to belt up, using both hands to secure themselves and leaving their cars to veer across the road at their own sweet will. A couple of male drivers attempting this complex multi tasking problem create a more perilous journey than ever Odysseus had to attempt.

I know that driving and putting on the belt simultaneously is stupid. I resolve not to do it any more.

And without the help of Jimmy!

Now say that I haven’t grown up!

Saturday, February 17, 2007


What is the fascination with crockery?

For those of you who have no understanding of or suffer no visceral jolt of identification with crockery, I dismiss you as I would a rabid dog. You (and you know who you are) are lesser breed without the law, lewd fellows of a baser sort and contemptible beneath a Conservative.

I say this by way of justification for the falling away from the paths of parsimony into the slippery chutes of spendthrift indulgence.

I can trace the path of my own destruction and there is, as you will see, a terrible yet justifiable logic behind the inexorable slide to penury.

I am not one to slum it by drinking espresso from the wrong cups. I am also not one to pass by a reasonable buy to fill a perceived need. So, when a person like my good self finds himself in a designer outlet and sees cut price Royal Dolton espresso cup in a classic design reminiscent of early Josiah W in stylish white at a more than reasonable price: there is only one possible outcome. The fact that I ended up with more cups than saucers was merely a note to the power of serendipity to ensure that sooner or later the requisite saucers would ‘turn up’ at some point.

Needing two small saucers, of course, meant that there was ‘purpose’ in all future visits to the designer outlet – a mission, a rugged determination.

Today was no exception. Shops for Toni: shops for me. And one of them of course was the Royal Dolton shop. Here I was presented with my first challenge or temptation. My dinner service is in a now discontinued pattern by Wedgwood called ‘Aztec’. A year ago I had given myself over to an orgy of ‘sensible’ buying when the prices of the Aztec service fell to prices when it is a certifiable crime to pass by bargains of this almost insulting nature. It didn’t have all the sensible pieces that I wanted, but what was there I purchased, assuring myself that, if necessary, I would devise new and strange forms in the presentation of food which would necessitate the use of the odd dishes that I had bought.

This time there were mugs. I had been waiting for mugs to appear at a reasonable price for months and had officially given up hope because the last sale had been of the end of the range. Now, as if by magic, mugs! It transpired that another store had shut down and the stock had been transferred to the one outside Bridgend and was now displayed for me delectation.

I am not entirely convinced that I do not have a selection of mugs in storage, but at half price, surely too good a bargain to ignore? But I resisted and drifted (feeling like a traitor to my mother’s shopping memory) towards the back of the shop and there was a single cup and saucer of the espresso type I was looking for. And the saucer was only £1! Half way there! Another one and I could get away only spending £2! A positive record! But this is where things began to go wrong. ~there were no further saucers at cut price, only at full (half) price (if you see what I mean, this was a designer outlet after all.)

At this point the shop assistants leapt into action: the discussed, planned, searched and gossiped and finally produced not only another saucer at £1, but also a multitude of cups at 50p! They also took 20% off the saucers. It would have been churlish not to have bought an extra half dozen cups and saucers and then in the general euphoria of buying I was moved to buy six mugs as well.

The paths to destruction are paved with porcelain.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Growing beauty

There is something immensely sad about buying your own flowers. I don’t mean the sort that you plant out in the garden, I mean the cut sort that grace various tasteful vases (how do you YOU pronounce that word?) around your home.

A man who admits to liking cut flowers and their arrangement is risking his public sexual persona because a man enthusing about a well selected bouquet of flowers is a Huysmanesque stance, a number of steps down towards the green carnation world of the man given wholly to sensual pleasure, and therefore, of course, not a real man.

Though it is worth noting that most of the truly great horticulturalists were men, and on television the garden makeover programmes are almost always led by men (with the signal exception of that strapping refugee from water features. Ms Dimmock) and the great illustrators of flowers were men and, so on.

You’ll notice the complete lack of illustrative detail of male nomenclature to give substance to my statements and the only real person I mentioned by name was female!

The rose as a symbol is positively Jungian: our responses hard wired into the very people or species that we are. You can trace the use of the rose through music, paining, illustration, tapestry, poetry, prose, photography, horticulture and wallpaper through hundreds of years, or more like a millennium, it is omnipresent part of the fabric of our lives. So why do men get uneasy if they are given a bunch. Is the rose so associated with the female that a bunch of the flowers is an embarrassment of riches an open invitation to deny the moral myth of monogamy on which our society is built?

I salute our Eastern European brothers who have been flaunting their use of flowers as an essential male accessory for ever. Who can forget (well, not me for one, I’ve only seen the newsreel footage) the first visit of the Moscow Dynamos to Great Britain for their series of football matches in the last century just after World War Two where part of the opening formalities consisted in the Russian players presenting their opposite number with beribboned bouquets before the start of the match? Or the cringing embarrassment of the British players as they took their unexpected gifts. But were our Eastern Brothers dissuaded from this un-masculine practice? No, they went on doing it, handing out pretty and strikingly arranged posies to weightlifters and hammer throwers and shot putters through all the various forms of athletic competitions that they staged.

They have now, to all intents and purposes, won. All competitions seem to be bonanzas for local florists as first, second and third placed competitors are all presented with their obligatory bunch of flowers which they can use to wave at adoring fans so much easier for them than yanking up their medals and almost garrotting themselves with the ribbon.

Competitors in major competitions now expect their floral tributes and all possible sexes accept them with grace and uneventful looks, a far cry from the expressions of earlier male athletes who always looked as they grasped their flowers in a studiedly casual way, as if they had just been presented with a dead duck billed platypus.

So, if it’s ok for muscle rippling male athletes to disport themselves with garlands gay, why has it not translated itself into a different attitudes displayed by ordinary male folk? Because it hasn’t. If you watched men buying flowers in advance of Saint Valentine’s Day it was painful beyond belief. What most men wanted to do was grab the first bunch of conventionally ‘Romantic’ looking flowers they could find. There was no debate, no mixing and matching, no holding the flowers at arm’s length to judge the overall effect. It was look, grab, go. Pure and simple.

Of course Tesco, where I do most of sociological research, does not encourage invention on the part of flower buyers. The bunches are ready-made for ease of sale. The most that you can do is buy a selection of bunches and then make up your own display, but the one or two more expensive blooms become ruinously so when you have to buy more than you need to create the tasteful melange you are striving to achieve. This is one more occasion when the economies of scale and the stripping away of assistants with an interest in selling more than the ready made units of consumer consumption that supermarkets supply works against the inventiveness of the individual punter.

It is only in the area of vegetables (and not always a full selection of those) that the purchaser is in some sort of control. With vegetables you can (should you so choose) buy a single potato, carrot, swede, parsnip, brussel sprout, green bean.

There’s a thought: Arcimboldo shows what you can do with an over active imagination and a supply of vegetation. We could tone down the wild extravagances of Arcimboldo and using a quiet methodology and flamboyant spatial awareness produce a vegetative display that would delight any man (or woman.)

Vegetables are beautiful too!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Picture that!

Everyone, it is said, can draw. Everyone, similarly, can sing and dance and cook. Truisms like this are, ipso facto, true, but are of no comfort when you are drawing, singing, dancing and cooking. Especially if you are attempting all these activities at the same time. And you can’t really ‘do’ any one of them.

Every so often I get a spasm of creativity when I feel that I have to make something. Now I like words and I am totally surrounded by a partner who constantly urges me to write something in the deluded belief that it will bring fame, riches and a villa in Sitges. I have kept him at bay so far by assuring him that my daily writing of a blog is a form of limbering up for the putsch towards the Magnum Opus which will achieve world wide sales on a par with J K Rowling. At least.

But sometimes words are not enough. I yearn towards the visual arts. And, let’s face it, I could cite an impressive list of art galleries through which I have traipsed, being the "ardent snob" “emoting furiously” (Herbert Read ‘The Meaning of Art’?) in front of some of the most iconic paintings in the entire world of white European dead male painters, mostly. I’ve looked at drawings, watercolours, oils, acrylics, gouaches, pastels, prints, etchings, woodcuts, constructions, collages, found objects, Schwitter’s Merz, Pollock’s drips, Rothko’s blocks, Andre’s bricks, Riley’s lines and I know I can’t do it.

I’m well aware that I started by saying the exact opposite of what I’ve just said (some might say that’s a characteristic of my normal conversation) but it does still have meaning. ‘Everyone can draw’ is a statement without distinctions; if it applies to everyone - it applies to no one; it is, in effect, meaningless. When someone talks about drawing, they usually have a fairly clear idea of what sort of final result they expect to achieve. I am well aware that art is a constant disappointment between expectation and realisation, between what you want to put down and what actually appears. But surely there must be an understanding that some end results are so far from being what the intendee wanted that it can, with some degree of justice, be outlined as a situation where the ‘artist’ could be fairly described as not being able to draw. And that’s me. Not being able to draw.

The clinching argument, of ccourse if found in the drawing themselves: take the caligraphic scribble of Picasso's head of Shakespeare or the effortless drawing of the lion by Rembrandt. How do they do it?

This is the perfect opportunity to find a course to do something about it. I have constantly heard that drawing can be taught. People in eighteenth century novels and early nineteenth century novels are often described as sketching or drawing or producing watercolours and they always have ‘drawing masters’. Methinks I should get one. I hope that there are still some left after city council cuts to further education and continuing education!

I have spent vast amounts (£4) on buying coloured and other pencils together with a sketch book. If I produce anything which is worth looking at (or if when photographed looks half way decent; and believe you me photography can compensate for lack of ability!)

Talking of lack of ability, I recently watched the American remake of ‘The Wicker Man’. The overwhelming question at the end of the film was, “Why have they bothered?” There are so many ways in which the remake either misses opportunities or changes elements to no effect. Nicholas Cage wanders his affectedly bemused way through this farrago of half baked directorial ‘ideas’ to make it different from the 1973 British original. It results in a total ludicrous failure, but has left me with a desire to view the original again.

The second film that we hired was ‘Click’ with Adam Sandler as a harassed architect with a magic device (a remote) which can stop, pause and fast forward time with surprisingly funny and yet poignant results. Apart from the use of a modern electronic device the motivation of the film was, to say the least, old fashioned. ‘Click’ is a distillation of all those sloppily sentimental American films which nauseate with their manic affirmation of white middle class family values. Intermittently funny and wholly familiar from scores of identikit films.

Far more stylish and satisfying was the fortuitous glimpse of the second half of a Robert Taylor and Lana Turner film noir called Johnny Eager (1942) directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The outstanding personality in the film was Van Heflin with his presentation of the drunken, articulate and sardonic buddy to the villain. Yes this film was stilted and wooden to modern eyes, but the quality of the acting had a harmony and completeness which was deeply satisfying. Compared with the two previous films, ‘Johnny Eager’ was head and shoulders better than both of them. Together!

At least my failed drawings will have integrity that ‘Click’ and ‘The Wicker Man’ both lack!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Anyone for books?

People (those mythical “people” you always hear about, who know everything about your life, but who you never meet) say that you rarely really feel older than about sixteen inside yourself, whatever your exterior might say about you. You get older and older with more and more responsibility and wrinkles yet the interior person remains a callow teenager.

This can be quite comforting, depending on how arrogant a person you are. Think of the logic of the situation: you know that inside yourself you are a sixteen year old; other people tell you differently; they cannot see the essential youthfulness of your soul and anyway, what the hell do they know? You can kid yourself along like this for a quite substantial period of time unless you come up against one of the TTMs that define your age. TTM are True Time Moments; those time specific incidents which clearly indicate your real age, and place your firmly in your own era.

For example, going to a supermarket and buying just a single apple. Nothing extraordinary in that, (though I could ask when was the last time that you went to a supermarket and bought a single piece of fruit, but let it pass, let it pass) but the TTM comes when you realise just how much you have paid for it (the singular piece of fruit) and then you translate the amount that you’ve paid in pounds and pence in to £sd. And you suddenly have a dark night of the soul when you realise the present day value of money!

Everyone has a different TTM: for some people it occurs when they visit the homes of younger friends with children and they see how the present generation is being brought up; for others it’s the pocket money their progeny demand; others go to church and find that they cannot sing a single hymn because the ‘traditional’ tunes have been abandoned; others when they attempt to operate a video or DVD recorder and others when they realise that anyone can go to Florida and eat avocados now, not just millionaires. These are all TTM moments, and we should cherish them because they define who we are, or at least they keep trying to tell us who we are and where (in temporal terms) we belong!

I had a True Time Moment in Rumney Library.

I was doing something quite innocuous: renewing my library books. I called into the library with the books before I picked up Toni from work. I brought them into the library and was greeted with gentle pity by the librarian who explained that I didn’t really need to bring the books in to renew them; I could just call in or phone; anything, in fact to make it easier for me. And that is the TTM for me.

I grew up in Cathays with my local library (opposite my primary school) built with money from Dale Carnegie. The library was built as a fairly imposing building, symmetrical and church-like with high windows, dressed stone with solid brick. It was a temple to books and the sacred extended to the self imposed silence which graced the interior. The ceilings were more akin to ecclesiastical roofs than those in public utilities and there was even a decorative spire (as I recall.) So my attitude towards books was formed by constant attendance at the Church of the Holy Text or Cathays Public Library. To me the librarians seemed to be custodians of the books more akin to priests than paid public servants. Books were there to be enjoyed but with the right attitude of respect and humility.

So, brought up with these attitudes to the supply of books, the attitude of the librarian in Rumney was something incongruous: today the customer is the person to be considered and present day life style is the determinant for the way that the library works; the supplicatory attitude of my youth towards the library supply of books is finally a thing of the past, hence my TTM – because it just doesn’t seem right.

But I can learn to live with it

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

How kind of you to tell me!

“For some reason it hit some kind of nerve.” This was Robert de Niro talking about one of his early iconic films. And it came to mind when travelling in the car to dear old Tesco’s for some tomatoes and other requisites for the perfect salad for dinner.

I have learned to curb my responses to the criminal selfishness that characterises the parking and driving characteristics of a significant minority of customers in supermarket car parks. I can now witness cars parked on double yellow lines, on hatched spaces, on motorcycle spaces, in disabled spaces, blocking entrances, across two spaces, non indicating, speeding, and ignoring other road users, motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, etc. with some degree of equanimity. I have become, you see, a much more balanced person since the daily grind came to an end.

But, isn’t there always a ‘but’? But there are still some very little things which manage to penetrate underneath the excluding defences of my toleration.

The clue is in the driving: no, not the use of mobile phones when driving; non indication; speeding; cutting people up; wearing baseball hats in the car; not wearing seat belts; smoking when driving; drivers whose heads are lower than the top of the steering wheel; lane switching; incorrect indication at roundabouts – none of these are the true irritant.

I have never liked signs on the back window of cars as I have taken the somewhat naïf view that in vehicles windows are quite useful for seeing out of, given the fact that drivers are surrounded by homicidal maniacs in fast moving metallic killing machines called cars. So, anything which obstructs the view is, as it were, counter productive and stupid.

There was also the one-upmanship of telling the world that you had “seen the lions at Longleat” before anyone else. Then the little triangular signs expanded to include foreign locations so the one-upmanship was taken to a higher level and some rear windows looked more like badly completed jigsaw puzzles than an essential viewing opportunity to preserve life and limb on the ever perilous roads of our fair country.

At the other end of the car the fluffy dice syndrome handing from the rear view mirror has the same degree of opprobrium for me.

So the large yellow (why yellow?) signs in the rear window which proclaim to all and sundry that the driver has active and potent sperm is something which does not command my immediate regard. Presumably the sign is there to inform, “Baby on Board”; but inform who, what? How is the driver’s behaviour supposed to change because of the information that there might be a child on board the car in front? Does it mean that the normal suicidal way in which a person usually drives will automatically reform itself because of the glimpse of a yellow sign? You think to yourself, “Usually I would drive straight into the car in front, but, as I see by the yellow sign that there might be a baby in the car I will be characteristically restrained and not try to destroy the car by forcefully smashing into it!”

This attitude is difficult to sustain when the little yellow sign reads, “Princess on Board.” I then have an almost overwhelming desire to stop my car and phone some sort of Child Protection Agency and have any defenceless infant which might be in the car taken into care away from such wilfully deluded parents who can so shamelessly and publically flaunt a sign with such an absurd message.

The signs which read, “Naughty Person on Board” are more interesting and point the way to more specific designations. Why stop there? Why not be more accurate: “Depressed misfit looking for Death” or “Last Night Drunk Dreading Work” or “Shopper with Attitude” or “I Make Yellow Signs” or something.

My favourite though would have to be the little yellow sign which said, “Baby on Board. Thanks for your patience.” I was amazed at the complexity of implied interaction with the driver following that the second part of the sign indicated. Was it some sort of Cathar-like apology for procreation? An ironic twist by a disciple of Jean Paul Sartre? Existentialism with a sense of humour? A sincere apology for the havoc that the future behaviour of the spoilt brat in the car was going to demand from an unsuspecting world? Who knows? Too complex for me.

I think I will have a sunny sign in my car which says, “I don’t like little yellow signs.”

I think that has a nice post modernist twist.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Where do you come from?

My family: both sets of grandparents; lived in the valleys. My parents got to know each other in Maesteg Grammar School. Although I had no personal experience of living for an extended period in the South Wales Valleys the majority of my immediate family had significant chunks of their lives in an environment which is essentially foreign to me.

The time that I spent in my maternal grandparents’ house in Vicarage Terrace in Maesteg was hardly the normal valley experience. Maesteg is not the conventional narrow sided valley; the main street is quite broad and, in my memory, bustling and affluent. Vicarage Terrace allowed extensive views from the window to the other side of the wide valley; the garden of my grandparents’ house stretched back (seemingly for ever to my juvenile eyes) into a field with a small stream bubbling over carefully constructed mini waterfalls, through a gate onto the side of the mountain, down which I had bumped my way on an improvised sleigh wearing a wildly unfashionable bobble hat at an age when I didn’t care.

My experience of the ‘real’ valleys was when we did a grand tour of the relatives and, as a child of some six or seven years old I was paraded, presented and kissed by a variety of kind, old, frightening (and hairy) men and women who all (invariably) told me that the last time they saw me I was only that high and now, just look at me. All of them, without fail, the same words. Cups of tea and hard biscuits. And on to the next.
It was during one of these epic tours of the valleys and the relatives that my father stopped the car on a mountain road, took me out of the car and indicated the small village at the bottom of the valley and said to me, “That is where I grew up!” He said it with pride and a sort of gentle affection. And then he looked at me. And I was staring with open mouthed horror at the idea of growing up in a place which so obviously lacked all the necessary requisites of a city. I may have been young, but I knew that green mountain sides and acres of open space could not compensate for the trolley bus that took me from the end of Dogfield Street in Cathays to the Empire Pool. I knew that the only safe open space was Roath Park, not the side of a mountain. I expected streets of shops not corner shops. And I knew that I liked the anonymity of a big city to the comfortable fraternity and community of a small town. It just wasn’t for me to the same extent as it just was for my dad and his siblings.

All of these thoughts came to the forefront of my mind when watching a BBC 2W film on the Rhondda Valley. I joke that for me Caerphilly is North Wales, but the number of times that I venture north of that town in Wales is somewhat limited. Uncle Eric is the only person I have visited in Maesteg over the last year or so. All my other relatives who lived in the valleys are mostly dead, or at least those great aunts and two-generations-ago-folk that used to populate the valleys for me.

It’s ridiculous to generalise from me to the city, but I do think that we Cardiffians have a problem with the valleys: they are so close and yet so far. My version of the Valleys is built on what my parents, their generation and my grandparents were and are: the economy built on coal and the primacy of education as the way out. The quality in depth in the valleys of educated people with socialist principles and the rest of the myth!

When I used to go to the valleys regularly there were still coal mines working. I did not experience the soul of the valleys being ripped out and a new entrepreneurial system being put in place.

The BBC programme used a photographer and art teacher to point to the colour and new spirit in the valleys and question the black and white picture of deprivation which, as Patrick Hannan has pointed out, often populates the holiday park of the past which is such a popular resort in Wales!

It’s a challenge.