Thursday, 26 November 2015

Flamingo Footed

Is it possible to run out of things to say? Think, even?
Can words and thoughts flee as if pursued by a shadowy monster? Chased away to a far off land, up hills, over dales, through mountain passes never to trace their way back home ever again. To lose themselves. To begin a new life in a foreign land and become something else. A person hyphenated like a double-barrelled surname, trying to bridge two different cultures. Be born in one, but mature in another. Learn and adapt to White Ghost ways as the Chinese might say. The next generation born in the adopted country but taught to recognise the land of their ancestors as their natural home, a home where they've never set foot, as here their family's traditions are rooted, and these will be upheld along with new foreign ones.
Where does loyalty lie? Where does language reside?
How do the children of or visitors to cross that gap? For it cannot be jumped. A rope must be tied and a ladder placed between one side and the other. There has to be metal rungs and a hand moved slowly along the rope-rail, one hand over the other. Don't look down! Never look down! Don't think, act or look like a Fresh Off the Boat! FOBs always stand out. They're pushed aside and picked upon, even by their own more established settlers, since they haven't yet learned how to conduct themselves in a European manner, and so bring shame on themselves and their origin. Any reflection of themselves is a reflection of others. Their voice is too loud, their language not as muted; their gaze challenges rather than accommodates; and their attire is more rumpled than fashionably smart or demure.
But for Heaven's sake, don't make yourself too westernised! Don't forget, born there or not, your humble beginnings, the wars that have been fought in your name, and the customs of your homeland: the festivals, the ceremonies, the gods. Better yourself, but send money to relatives; climb that ladder rather than just walk across it, break through the glass domed ceiling. Exceed your expectations and those of others, or failing that, at least give the appearance of doing so. Lie through gritted teeth, sweat like a pig doing jobs White Ghosts don't want for less pay, cry unseen lonely tears of rage but tell back-at-home relatives everything's great. You're so glad you came here! Save face.
America is a pure gold mountain; London streets are paved with solid gold; in Europe, trees have copper leaves which when they fall turn to gold and silver coins. There are no shanty towns, there is no hardship. The West has many lands of opportunity where all are made to feel welcome.
Untrue claims don't ease the passage of this journey, not for those on dry shores, not for those mid-way, in the middle of an ocean or packed like sardines in a lorry, and not for those in the observational waiting stage. And if, when, they make it, they live with a foot on one soil and five toes dipped in the pool of another. Frozen in a flamingo stance, caught in a state of uncertainty. A longing to put down roots but with no straightforward or easy means to do so, and so an up-rootedness persists. They wander, displaced and lost, in this disappointing valley. Poised on one earth-bound foot, trying to determine whether the foot that's slightly raised should take a step forwards or two steps back. What have they done? Why have they done this? Where is the promised milk and honey? The places they're grudgingly offered refuge in lack in substance and the kindnesses they presumed would be given freely.
Nobody ever admits they were wrong, in the wrong for their thoughts, outspoken beliefs or actions, and that equally applies to those actively escaping and seeking a better life, and to those who righteously declare they, and only they, should have it. All of us, in our own fashion and regardless of caste or creed, are extolling the virtues of inclusiveness and engendering permanent disengagement. Perpetuating half-truths or whole untruths, spreading blatant lies, because in this revolt of disintegration there are no lands of plenty.

Picture Credit: American Flamingo (on left), Cyndi Sellers

Thursday, 19 November 2015


When I was a boy I liked to watch the sky; I'd stand still with my binoculars on a hill and imagine a spitfire coming into view rather than a Boeing 747. A few times I've been lucky enough to hear the supersonic rumble of a Concorde, but its pointed nose and angular wings usually stayed hidden behind a solid mass of white cloud, and it's been over a decade since its flying days were numbered, and still, it never quite had that imaginary thrill of spotting military aircraft.
The dog-fights I envisioned overhead, reaching back beyond my years to when my father and my grandfather were boys, when such sights would have been less rare, a part of life, and not as prized if they were in the skies now. A terrifying, an awing sight. For Britain was at war, a real war being fought on the ground, in the skies and on the seas. A war that's become rose-tinged for all its loss. A longing to revive that life, to see some kind of action. Peace offers boys no adventures; the horrors of combat not confronted until the moment is made real – those camera images stretching away on the unsighted side of the horizon for each boy thinks they are made of stronger stuff, they are inviolable.
Wars are fought differently now. It's still about territory, there's still operations and peace-keeping manoeuvres, but the enemy somehow seems more concealed with the advancement of technology, and the reports on the news are unlike the experiences older generations recount. But then perhaps some of their memories have mellowed with time; a little yellowed with age, their corners peeling. Perhaps some of it doesn't seem real any longer, impossible to believe it was lived through.
I never had to test the unique quality that all boys, and girls for that matter, think they have as nothing I would go through would come even marginally close to a world war. No risking of life or limb. No sheltering from bombs or cowering from gun fire. I grew up in a time where people lived under the cloud of war, a storm cloud that threatened to rain fire and hung daringly low overhead, and with it, there came a unremitting tension, a crowding round the radio and television, a making do, but a relaxation whilst trying to return to old or improved ways. And yet, this life that I led was mundane: an idyll childhood, allowed to roam and play where I wanted; a whimsical education, leaving school at fifteen and apprenticing myself to a car factory; a terraced house and a tolerable marriage with two daughters, both of whom are now married. The quiet events of my life mapped out like any other working beast put on this earth.
I'm a man of few words. I'm not impolite, just succinct; reserved but solid. I listen, I consider when I unblinkingly gaze into a pint at the working men's club surrounded by a haze of smoke. It's the only time I can morosely chase my unfulfilled dreams or indulge in my childhood, as when the dregs are drained home beckons and a wife who rarely leaves me undisturbed. A good wife, but she does like to talk, through dinner, over the evening news, and as she goes between the kitchen and the sitting room; her voice varying in pitch like a mosquito that you swat away only for it to come back in a few moments later. She means no harm, it's just her way, but sometimes I come mighty close to losing my temper and have to fight my irritation. Don't women realise that what sounds like conversation to them, to men sounds like nagging?
Children like us, born in the aftermath of war, were not encouraged to follow our hearts in times of austerity, in a era where nations were trying to rebuild, to reconstruct a more normal, peaceful mode of life. I could dream, but realising that dream of becoming a fighter, bomber, cargo, transport or commercial air pilot was for other more educated boys. I was supposed to hope that war would never reach these shores again, yet I longed for that Hollywood movie exhilaration; to be grazed, to thank God I was alive.

Picture Credit: Gliding, Roland Vivian Pitchforth (CEMA)

Thursday, 12 November 2015


If I lived in the 1880s or earlier I'd be put away or confined to my room for having a nervous disposition, for dissolving into madness when the world gets too much. Flights of fancy. Insanity. For wanting to be coddled and take to my bed, to be nursed and be idle.
Hysteria was often the only way women of a certain class could escape from the clutches of proprietorship. They didn't belong to themselves, they weren't their own person. They were taught compliance and repression and made to be so; overburdened in spirit, if not in body, and having to answer to everyone - overbearing mamas, aloof papas, hard-to-please husbands and children crying to be fed – in order to set a good example, to uphold a moral accepted code of conduct and seen very much to be doing so.
More biddable, sensitive types when pushed to or beyond their limits have a tendency to display erratic, illogical, irrational behaviour, often deemed as 'out of character' or as a having a 'nervous crisis', but was it? Is it? Weren't/aren't these 'symptoms' just a facet being prohibited from being shown? Suppressed for so long that when they erupt they surprise people. No, it must be the work of the devil or the possession of a spirit. It wasn't possible that it could be caused by feeling duty-bound to someone or something in their home-bound life. The result: restricted even more to the home or packed off to an asylum. Forever chaperoned.
Females must silently bear and not air their complaints. Particularly if they were one of the haves and not the have-nots, one of the more pampered with hired help and less need for economy. Yet, they were still never their own property. The house was their domain, but it belonged as they themselves did to their fathers, brothers, guardians or husbands – passed on like an ancestral title from the care of one male to another. Were men at fault or was it society? Both, because men were society and didn't dare to or care to address it, and some women too held these same views.
Women were a little better than children, seen and most definitely heard if it involved the running of the household such as daily confabs with Cook, or in the employ of suitable activities: piano playing, cross-stitching, reading, talking about going to see and going to plays. The dutiful daughter, the doting wife, the over-attentive, ever-watchful mother. Driven out of their minds with boredom. Consigned to charitable works, administering to those less fortunate, usually women, under the direction of a man. Being dismissed by men because they didn't have qualifications and despite the dissimilarity in sex and differences in biology they knew better; supported by men because they were judged without intellect and had no means of their own independence.
The weaker, frailer sex. Prone to bouts of fatigue, listlessness. Prescribed rest and an ordered life. Rigid routine or eternal leisure. Looking after the needs of others rather than focusing inwards on themselves.
Is that a fair assessment? A fair summary of how it was?
Probably not. I'd be lying if I said it was. It's the impression I've gathered from historical fictional and non-fictional accounts, but then impression is also formed by how I choose to see it. And that too can change.
I do however think it's naïve to assume those sensitive, highly-strung types no longer exist, or are rarer in number; they're still here and they're still hidden. There are still unspoken pressures and women still want to, need to, long to escape. Yes, men now suffer, more openly, too, but it's not the same. And some women do still carry shadows of that almost-forgotten era: it's in their physical frame and how their mind works, their temperament desperately tries not to, yet betrays it. There's a nervousness, an edginess, a restlessness, an uneasiness visible in their manner or pattern of speech, and this tenseness cannot be relieved because they're still being squeezed by a too-tight corset.

Further Reading: Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
Picture Credit: In a Corset, 1910, Lovis Corinth

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Where There's Smoke There's Fire

Can you right someone else's wrong? And if so, even if it's years later?
That's a two-part question I've been working on for almost twenty-five years, and the more I try to apply it to different situations the more tied and tangled I get.
You think if you take just the first part it will be straightforward, but it's not. If you're directly related to or an acquaintance of the perpetrator then perhaps, but most distance themselves or hide; some deny any involvement with the offender, and in a few cases that denial is true, but still wouldn't you want to redress their actions? Or at the very least try to understand why, how they were led there?
Can anything undo the hurt, the harm, someone else has intentionally caused? Probably not, not even if in a twisted sense it's opened up doors that were previously unseen or closed.
I was once assigned a story along those lines, and the questions it raised have bugged me ever since. At the time I was a baby-faced reporter, I still only had a vague idea of how the real world worked, when this supposedly feel-good tale came into the news desk from an anonymous caller.
I didn't take the call myself, but apparently this low-gruffed male voice gave the barest of outlines: said a woman had shown up a year ago and started doing good, nothing big, just small deeds: volunteering with local charities, befriending the confused and elderly, and generally going out of her way to be helpful, and he was suspicious. Nobody did this much good for nothing! Her name was Angela, he said, and she was renting the flat above the dry cleaners. That was it, he rang off without leaving his name or contact details.
The paper had been running a weekly article on local heroes, good Samaritans, that kind of thing which the public could nominate, and this call was so bizarre it was interesting, so the Ed dispatched me to the village where the call had been traced to interview this woman.
And this village was small, the smallest in the Surrey county; the sort of place where everything, every cruelty, every kindness, every stranger, was noticeable. I did what I always did in chasing up a lead, dug around and flattered the locals. Everyone seemed to have some anecdote or something 'beige' to say about this Angela who'd just pitched up one day about a year ago, although everyone was vague as to the exact date and month she arrived. Other than her good works, nobody I spoke to knew much about her – her last name, age, where she was from, if she had family, all those usual things you might exchange when you're getting to know somebody, and their ignorance made these informers blush and stammer, look down into their drinks and mumble. A handful, however, their tongues loosened by a free drink or lunch, were openly mistrustful; wary of this woman's do-gooder motives.
Who was she? What was she doing this for? If she was a Christian why didn't she come out and say so? Those were the kind of questions they put to me, confiding in me as someone unknown and neutral, when all I wanted to know was where would I find her? And how could I arrange a meeting? I'd located her flat but nobody answered when I knocked and the owner of the dry cleaners had no interest in her comings and goings. Whoever she was she didn't seem to want to be found. By me. Word gets round in villages.
Yet despite my methods I never did get to see or meet her for on the night I and the emergency services gained access to her flat, all that was left of her was a smooth lower leg alongside a pool of oil as rich as butter. An greasy offensive odour, like the smell of deep-fried chicken, hung in the air and clung to the walls and floors, but apart from that the furnishings were untouched. There was just the leg, the oil and some greasy soot in front of a high-backed armchair placed near a stone fireplace. I'd heard of such cases before, though I never imagined I'd be a witness to one, when the coroner confirmed the cause of death as SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion).
In the after-event the story was spun that she was an Angel with many demons thrust upon her.

Picture Credit: Where is Mr Krook, Bleak House by Charles Dickens