Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The quince makes it into spring
© Jago

Leaves are so fashionable
© Jago

Au revoir

Well that's it for a month or so, friends. I'm off to see people in France and Italy, and may or may not get near a computer with enough intelligible going on in my head to commit to the great out there. I'll take a camera. Meanwhile I leave not only you, but my seedlings. The heartstrings twang. Hasta luego.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Heroin and fragmentation bombs

Whenever a drug dealer’s £50,000 motor goes by I think, tax them.
There are two top criminal enterprises in the UK; the drugs trade; and the MOD/”defence industry”.
When I say criminal, I don’t mean, as in morally wrong. I mean, as in criminal.
Tax the drug trade, give less to the “defence industry” (clearly I don’t mean skimp to the very edge of terminal scandal on the equipment of actual soldiers, sailors and airwomen, as has been the “winners do what it takes” philosophy since at least 1979. I mean take away the astronomical topslice that goes to the big league criminals.)
The drugs trade.
One legal.
The other not.
Just reverse them .

Monday, May 08, 2006

Wilfrid Ewart

Tomorrow in the battle think of me

Wilfrid Ewart was my grandmother’s brother. He is a significant, if bizarre, player in Javier Marías’s novel Negra espalda del tiempo. Having survived a large part of World War one in the trenches Ewart was found shot through the eye, a pool of blood on the balcony, in his room in the Hotel Isobel in Mexico city on the morning of New Year’s day 1922. He had written a successful novel,Way of Revelation, a period piece; and also - to my mind one of the all-time great bits of journalism about the Irish troubles - A Journey in Ireland, an account of a walk from Cork to Belfast in 1921 when he was captured both by the English and the IRA.
Marías draws on Hugh Cecil’s The Flower of Battle but my memories of my great uncle, derived from a sort of time travel to an old country house where apparently some of the dead end up, are different. Here is one:

I was sitting in the boothouse with Jack, and in comes Wilfrid, tall, hot cheeked, exquisitely turned out, distressed, still holding his starched linen table napkin with `Lion and Garter Hotel, Oxford` embroidered in one corner.
"Wisha," says Jack, reading the symptoms, "what’s wrong now?"
"They were making the most unsavoury suggestions."
"Who, now? Come on and be sitting yourself down and I’ll pour you a cup of tea."
"It’s not the hour for tea. I’ve just had coffee." But Wilfrid sat himself down on the stool, in a triangle now with Jack over towards the big coke boiler and the tea things and me on my jam tin under the small window so thick with webs that it let in only the gentlest and coolest of the light. Jack got up and went to the stove and the blackened kettle that also did as a teapot. He poured tea for no-one but Wilfrid, nor did he ever take Wilfrid at his word when he said he didn’t want the tea. Sure what was the point of coming to the boothouse at all if you didn’t want a cup of tea.
"Oh very well, as you will." Wilfrid took the mug and sipped noisily, slurping off the surface ripples under his perfectly trimmed moustache.
"Now," said Jack, "tell us what ails you."
"Nothing ails me. What should ail me? Fit as a flea. It’s this unwholesome obsession with sexual matters."
"Oh aye, and how did that come about?"
"They were having another go at me about Dolly Rawson’s breast."
"And which one was that?"
"Which one, how should I know which one. What do you take me for?" Wilfrid closed his eyes with a put-upon expression, almost as if he was about to whimper. "The left," he said, after a few moments.
"Beneath which the heart beats," said Jack. "No, I meant which one was Dolly Rawson. I don’t recall."
"For Pete’s sake, man, get a grip of yourself. There’s only one Dolly Rawson."
"Of course," said Jack, "of course there was."
We were on difficult ground. Wilfrid was so fastidious.
And yet Marías, making the point that the putative site of Ewart’s death, by stray bullet, in a puddle of blood, became a selling point for many hotels in Mexico City which could only fraudulently make that claim, writes: `El poeta canadiense Witter Bynner y su amigo William Johnson siguieron a Lawrence (David Herbert, el célebre responsable de El amante de Lady Chatterly) y su esposa a la ciudad de México en marzo de 1923 para descubrir que Lawrence les había reservado alojamiento en el Hotel Monte Carlo. Los dos se escandalizaron al darse cuenta de que por un extraña coincidencia su cuarto anteriormente había sido ocupado por un amigo de los cuartro, un inglés llamado Wilfrid Ewart.`
A friend of all four of them! Wilfrid, this great uncle of mine sitting in the boothouse talking about "unsavoury suggestions" was a friend and presumably an admirer of the writer of Lady Chatterly whose gamekeeper, as I remember, says things like... well, you’ve no doubt read it yourself.
"Look," said Jack, "did we not have this very conversation every day for the last infinity of days, did we not have it but an hour ago, and did we not say that, would you want Dolly Rawson to be not a girl, not a young woman at all, but a fine young boy, clean of limb and golden of mien and as beautifully spoken as you could wish and entirely of your own mind, then sure would that matter a jot or a tittle, and sure it would not."
Wilfrid turned his cold patrician gaze upon the black boot boy. "Why?" he said. "Why this obsession among the low born, the prospective bride’s mother, Boots, with perversion and vice? Have I ever, for one moment, suggested that I was a secret sodomite? Have I ever suggested that I entertained within my bosom a festering desire to commit lewd and unnatural and deeply repellent acts?"
"Well put like that," said Jack, "no, I suppose you haven’t."
"Suppose?" Wilfrid had an unpleasantly petulant shriek for so tall and imposing a man.
"Och calm down, for Christ’s sake," said Jack. "I’ll tell you the beginning of a wee and very short story, and you can tell us the end."
In fact I recognised the story, it was some Irish man of letters, not Joyce, certainly not Becket, possibly Yeats though a bit common for Yeats, maybe St John Gogarty, or Synge; I bet it was Synge, almost certainly Synge. But Jack it was who seemed to recall, "I was walking once between the bog and the mountains, oh it was one of those days of summer with the bees in the heather and the smell of the whin flower on the breeze, and larks never the one wasn’t singing when the other dropped to earth, and I’d been on my feet since dawn, and not a soul had I seen but the odd turf cutter in the distance, and one cart upon the road, and up afar a wee cabin, back from the road, with, you know, roses and willows, so I turned towards it to get me a drink of water and maybe a bit of bread, and I came to the half door, and knocked upon the lower half which was closed, and there came a woman, a fine young woman, and all she had about her was her skirt wrapped at the waist, and she said, I’m all alone, ‘tis a month back since my only man was buried.' "
He stopped. Wood pigeons cooed in the elms. A large tortoiseshell flew in the door, and out again. The coke stove muttered its acrid internal flare, deep within its huge cast iron belly. There was, inevitably, the murmur of innumerable bees.
"Well?" said Wilfrid.
"Let me read you a minute." Jack went over to the dark back of the room where there were shelves of a sort for his equipment and tools, and took out a volume bound in green linen. He sat down, opened it, and began:

But a mile further on a shifting patch of blue vividly contrasted with the hillside’s emerald green. A dark-haired handsome girl accompanied by a child came down the roadside.
“And where might you be making for?”
“Have you your fiddle with you?”
The girl looked meaningly at my rücksack.
“Are you not the fiddler from Tullamore? Will you play us a tune?”
“I am travelling though Ireland. Perhaps I shall write an account in the newspapers.”
“Is that so? Will you give me one then?”
To be taken by the same person for a local fiddler and a vendor of newspapers is not everybody’s experience. Our colloquy continued for some minutes. When I continued my journey the girl and child were laughing amazedly, still unable to make me out…
After a while I sat down to rest near a cottage. An unkempt peasant woman brought me a glass of milk…

Jack paused, his finger on the page. "Well?" he said.
"Well what?"
"Do you recall her countenance?"
"The unkempt peasant woman. She was not attractive. She was a slattern."
"Ah come on now, sir. She gave you milk, you took the milk, you drank the milk, she refused payment. She was a decent woman. Just a little déshabillée, maybe."
"Killing. Absolutely priceless."
"What’s that then?"
"Your lingo. I mean, Boots… Déshabillée. Priceless."
"Je voudrais," said Jack, unperturbed but steady and meaningful, " vous rappeler que pendant la guerre quand nous étions par example à Paris q’étais moi-même, d’habitude, quand nous nous metions dans quelque mauvais pas, c’était moi qui pouvait nous nous tirer de la merde, par ce que vous, monsieur, vous parlez Français comme un cheval."
"Didn’t I say he was killing?" Wilfrid turned to me, almost giggling.
"And was she?" I asked.
"Was she what?"
The shutters came down again. "Certainly not. As my man here has pointed out, she was a perfectly decent woman, if scruffy."
"Ah, but it’s the other," said Jack, "that dark-haired handsome girl, that your man here is interested in. Now what was she saying to you there?"
"I have written it as it was. It is transcribed from my notebook."
"No, what was she saying to you? She asks if you’re the fiddler, she says will you give her a tune. You talk about newspapers. She asks will you give her one then. Man, sometimes I think you are the dumbest individual on God’s whole earth."
Wilfrid glared at him with a very confused expression.
"Was she beautiful?"
"I’ve said, she was handsome."
"Was her hair up or down."
"As I remember, it was gathered at the nape of her neck. She loosed it as we talked."
"Oh, Jesus, there’s some great tragedies in this world. Was it lank, was it dull like a donkey’s back?"
"It fell in coal black glossy curls all the way to her waist."
"A hunched back was it?"
"As straight as a hazel wand."
"And loins like a lyre, no doubt. Well, the legs on her, maybe they’ll be the saving of us yet, the legs on her, are we talking Mullingar heifer here, are we talking beef to the heel?"
"As I remember, they were good enough legs to dance the night away."
"A slender lass - but, don’t tell me, with a chest as flat as a board."
Wilfrid sobbed.
"History, repeated as farce," said Jack in perfect mimicry of Wilfrid’s beautiful pre-1914 accents.
"It was not a farce."
"But you write, `When I continued my journey the girl and child were laughing amazedly...”`
Wilfrid put his face in his hands and wept, and Jack made no attempt to comfort him. Eventually he raised his noble head, a few spikes of the manly coiffure sprung free, as when bits of veneer are lifting. "There was a child with her, for god’s sake."
"Waiting to be sent home with a silver sixpence."
"I don’t believe in droit de seigneur."
"I’m sure no more did she. I don’t know what she believed in. Sure I don’t know what my own Ma believed in, but I was real enough, and none the worse for it, no more than your average human being, conceived, born, not yet dead. All I’m telling you is the honest truth."
"You’re telling me nothing, nothing, nothing," screeched Ewart. A stagger and lurch, the door like a camera shutter opening and closing its tall rectangle of blinding light.
Jack sat twiddling his thumbs for while. "Huish," he said.
"Clos," I agreed.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Jago&Son take the children to the playground
© Jago

Jago&Son take the children mountain biking
© J

SVT again

The next time my heart started beating at three times its resting rate I knew what caused it. We were staying with friends. The previous day I’d had a hard bike ride, then we’d driven up to Cumbria, and him now known as Renman and me had sat down late at night to finish a bottle left over from supper and then, you know how it happens sometimes, drifted into that state where duty, however painful the consequences, prevents one going to bed until every available bottle has been emptied or one falls lifeless.
The next morning, Sunday, J and I went for a walk on the shore, I walked up a sand-dune, and bingo, rat-ta-ta-ta-tat.
Four hours later, and this time I really did need persuasion, I ended up in a doctor’s surgery in Wigton, though the doctor was not a man of Wigton, he expatiated on what he told me were dissident but undoubtedly correct Russian theories while he spent an hour or so connecting me to his laptop. Then he spent another twenty minutes looking at the screen before suddenly muttering a name I didn’t catch, sending for an ambulance, and fiercely listing all the pleasures of life known to man, finally thundering that they were not for me, no more, not one, not ever.
After ten minutes of this the paramedic and ambulance driver entered with a wheelchair. I said I had already walked about three miles in my present condition and could for sure make it to the ambulance. They spoke of regulations, they were liable to be sued and sacked if I didn’t comply, I sat in the wheelchair, was wrapped in a blanket, tied in with a leather strap in case I fell out, totally invalided and infantilised in ten seconds flat, wheeled twenty metres to the ambulance. Which I was allowed to enter under my own locomotion, put on a bed, connected to a beeper, given a tablet which I had to keep pressed against the roof of my mouth, and we set off for Carlisle with J following behind in the car.
Somewhere on the way I dozed off for a minute. When I came to my heart was beating normally. I told the paramedic my news. We could stop, transfer me to the following car, we could all go home.
This was not the case.
Instead I ended up in a room of my own in the hospital, looking out through the window onto a ward where people of both sexes, most of them getting on a bit, were lined along the walls in beds so close together it was a wonder the nurses could work between them. My room was spacious and full of high tech equipment to which I was connected by many wires.
My heart was constant at about seventy. I felt fine. Nurses moved around me. One, a short young woman, had a clipboard and was asking me regulation questions. She came to religion.
“None,” I said.
“No,” she said, “what religion are you?”
“I’m not,” I said. “Honestly.”
She started to rise slowly and smoothly into the air. My eyes were fixed on the successively revealed zones of her body, waist, hips - when her shoes went past I would know, but I didn’t want to leave it that long.
“I’m whatever religion you are,” I gabbled. “Your religion, that's what I am.”
She seemed irritated. I looked away. The whole room was rising. Or rather a nurse the other side of the bed had pressed a button and my bed was slowly and silently sinking on its big metal slider.
“OK," I said, "no religion.”
She stabbed the clip board with her pen, sighed, and departed.
A houseman came to see me. We hit it off, one of those easy relationships that seem to have been there for ever, though you’ve never seen each other before and never will again. He looked at the computer analysis. “There could be, just a chance, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. I’ll go and see what my Registrar thinks of that.”
In his absence an elderly auxiliary with another clipboard came and asked me what I would want for supper. I said I wouldn’t need any, I was going home.
“You’re right” she said, “you don’t want to eat here. This is a PFI hospital. It doesn’t have a kitchen. The food comes up the motorway from Manchester in containers. The scrambled egg is frightening.”
The Houseman came back. We chatted a bit more. Then he sighed. “My Registrar thinks nothing of the Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome hypothesis.”
I began to commiserate. “No, no he said, "it’s excellent. He’ll come and see you, then you are free.” He gave the impression that no such joy was in sight for him.

The Registrar was very like the Houseman, but older, at least thirty, and wearier. He gazed at me objectively for quite a few seconds. “People like you” he said. He paused to let the unsaid sink in. It sunk in like this; my heart had probably cost the National Health Service - what? - £1-2,000, half of which would have gone in accountancy fees, management costs, failed management severance allowances, PFI repayments, PFI re-mortgaging for profit withdrawel, headquarters costs, the cost of transporting warm scrambled eggs in sealed containers the 170 kilometres from Manchester.
I started to say that it wasn’t my idea to come to the hospital, it was the women in my life, it was the doctor in Wigton...
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, “with his Russian theories.” I had already realised that whatever I said was just digging the hole. He told me a couple of things to do if it happened again, basically a sudden compression of the thorax, coughing or trying to suddenly expel air while holding your breath. “Bye,” he said. He too was a pleasant man.
I thanked the nurses and J and I walked out through the long PFI style ward with its beds of old people too close together for the nurses to work properly. When we got back to our friends she who is now known as Renwoman had cooked a delicious, convalescent friendly fish pie, with which I drank only a small glass of wine.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Above Dollar Ogo
Go back fifty years at the right moment, this punt would be at sea below.
© Jago

Labour burns

Reports are coming in that the NewLabor shuttle, attempting to return with 87% of its heat shield tiles damaged or missing to its now alien home planet of Democracy to pick up much needed supplies (which the Captain had boasted they could survive indefinitely without) has burnt up on re-entry.
This has not yet been confirmed.
Sadly, I have no idea whether this is true. It came to me, as of a voice from the heavens (oxygen starvation) near the top of a lung-bursting climb.
No doubt the few remaining rank and file Labour loyalists would complain that it is just this sort of childish nonsense which drives their bosses into extremes of knee-jerk authoritarianism. I am suitably chastened.


Last week my heart started skipping a beat. That’s how it felt. It would beat fifty-six times quite regularly, and then - the fifty seventh wasn’t there. I had to wait for the fifty-eighth. At first I thought I’d just missed it, moved my finger or been distracted. I asked J to take my pulse. She confirmed the phenomenon though, as we never see anything in quite the same way, she described it slightly differently.
I’ve had trouble with my heart before, but it’s been straight supraventricular tachycardia where the heart beats between 140 and 240 times a minute, sometimes for several hours. (Should you already be touching the corner of a handkerchief to you eye, deeply affected by my matter-of-fact heroism, I should mention that am no more on the verge of death, or even debility, than normal, which is not much so far.)
A slight digression about death. Daughter T and son M were up for Easter with their children. This being a 1790 merchant clothier’s house (of which we inhabit a third), the second storey was once a weaving room, with something like twenty six windows, and is now our living room. It covers the whole of the house, with the main chimney stack, a substantial block of masonry, going up through the middle.
Every night in the summer J goes into the garden last thing to hunt for slugs. This particular evening as we’d sat long at the table, she decided to go out on her slug hunt as I was clearing up the kitchen. She told me she was doing that. I registered that she was doing that. I then, when I had finished in the kitchen, a quite automatic routine, completed that routine by locking the outside door, and I went upstairs to join everybody else.
After maybe fifteen minutes M said, “Is that the bell ringing? Where’s Mum?”
“She’s out in the garden catching slugs,” I said. Then I connected two parts of my brain which had been out of contact.
J has many wonderful qualities. Sweetness of temper under all circumstances is not one of them. I was down the stairs, two flights, spiral, in 1.7 seconds (possibly the onset of the ectopic superventricular episode, though I haven’t made that connection before). J had been standing in the cold night for ten minutes. I made my peace with her, referring to the romantic beauty of the stars &c., as best I could, which was imperfectly.
An hour or so later, when we were again relaxed together, M had said that while we were downstairs T, the eldest, had instructed him and A that when we got back up again nobody was to, under any circumstances, laugh. Everybody had agreed that this was a good plan. She had then, as J and then I crested the rise, run to hide behind the chimney, making strangulated noises, and only emerged two minutes later, eyes wet.
The kids got into recounting difficult moments with us. E.g., the day before M and I had been up at a quarry on our mountain bikes. There was a particular drop that I wanted to try, but only when someone else was there to pick up any remains. It turned out to be straightforward, but from above, about a metre and a half of it looks vertical - nothing to the hard guys, but scary enough to the likes of me. M said that while I was doing it he was thinking to himself, “I hope he doesn’t kill himself now. In the general scheme of things it would be no bad way for him to go, good in fact. But - I’ll have to tell Mum. How do I do it? Do I ring her on the mobile and say, yes, yes, we’re having a great time, but, oh, and by the way.... Or could I sneak back, take the car and drive back to London, abandoning wife and children, and wait for things to sort of sort themselves... or... And wine being the trigger to much invention, we joined him in this amusing speculation.
So my death, like everybody else’s, is a permanent possibility.
The first time I had ectopic superventricula tacychardia our GP gave me a special note for A&E which got me straight through the waiting drunks and sports injuries and onto one of those hi-tec beds from the starship Enterprise, connected to a machine that went beep-beep-beep twice a second.
The young registrar - I use that term at random, I know nothing about the hierarchies of doctordom, but he wasn’t a consultant - was beside himself with delight. He was going to administer a massive (I may have added the “massive”) bolus of drugs straight to (I may have imagined the “straight to”) my heart. There were many, many doctors, young nurses, auxiliaries, cleaners (OK, OK) who had never seen this procedure, and when they had all been summoned, which might take some time, the maestro would proceed.
I liked this idea. I am one of those quite shy people (my family don’t totally agree with this characterisation) who doesn’t mind getting on a stage and acting. This was both live theatre, and just like being on telly. What more could I want?
Then the other bit cut in. Bolus. Massive. Drugs. To the heart.
I saw Dracula. I saw the stake. And the breast was mine.
A whumppff! of sheer horror.
Which clearly hit my sinoatrial node a violent wallop and jolted it back into action.
By which time the crowd was gathering. The registrar was just out rounding up the stragglers, and then the circus would begin.
He re-entered the theatre glowing. I didn’t know how to mention it. “Look,” I said, “I’m terribly sorry, but... you know, it’s stopped.”
“Stopped? Don’t be silly. You’d be dead.”
He pointed to the monitor for confirmation that I had not passed on.
Gradually the awful consciousness of what his ears and the steady 64 a minute beeping must have already told him, registered, and the joy drained from his face.
The news went round the crowd. Disconsolate and muttering they began to drift off.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I really am sorry.”
“Well, I suppose... not really your fault,” he murmured.
What a colossal-hearted man.
(To be continued).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Quizás como el nacimiento del Cuervo, pero mas pequeño.
© Jago

Political parties, national fear and loathing, local elections

If all the hopefuls in Thursday's local government elections don't want our vote to be affected by the behaviour of the two largest political parties, then why do they tie their colours to those twisted masts? Why don't they start different, less loathsome, even quite likeable local government parties, with local government policies, that we could vote for with enthusiasm?

Not a moon, down the barrel of a gun.
© Jago

Holes in the brain

This is a comment on Pedro's blog, but so you should know the worst I put it here too:
Visual memory is perhaps not the worst to be lacking. I have no spatial memory - not in the sense that I can't for instance rotate 3-D shapes in my head, but in knowing where things actually are. Yesterday I was explaining the shape of the house (an old mill building) to a friend. Suddenly I was puzzled. I pointed to a wall and asked my wife, "Surely the bedroom above can't be that small."
"What do you mean?"
"Well.." I gestured at a small space inside the front door, "that wall..." (I assumed the bedroom was the same size as the space I was looking at).
"And," she said, "what is beyond that wall?"
"The house next door," I said (with that "of course, do you take me for an idiot?" intonation.)
"Well, go and have a look," she said.
"What, next door?"
"No," she said, "into the study."
I didn't have to. At that point I remembered that in the study, where I am sitting now and sit a substantial part of the day, is a sort of anomalous stone platform to my right where I keep my two road bikes. It is where I gaze absently when nothing else is going on in my brain - that is, a lot of the time. And yet in explaining to my friend the layout of our house, in which we have lived for sixteen years, I had entirely forgotten about this 1.5 metre wide platform, and subjected our spare room to a procrustean fate, cutting 1.5 metres from it's length.
My wife gave me that look... those who have been together a long time know the one. Not despair, exactly, and, you hope, tinged with affection.