Thursday, 31 December 2015

New Year Blues

I'm in a land I no longer understand; a land I no longer want to.
What a cheery thought on New Year's Eve. And yet it's the most depressing time of year. But then again, whilst these two sentences are true the time frame is not for I'm typing this in September. Ahead of the game by a long shot. Projecting my feelings by a few hundred miles. Same again. A repeat of last year. A waiting, a sitting it out. When will it be over? When will Jules Holland and World War III going on outside stop?
Oh God, do we have to hug? Sing? Join in with the Big Ben countdown? ...4, 3, 2, 1!
Oh Lord, I forgot to switch my mobile off. HAPPY NEW YEAR! flashing at intervals on the screen as if I didn't already know how this night would climax. And as usual, I stubbornly refuse to reciprocate. Leave me alone people! Maybe when the New Year feels more official, say in a couple of days...maybe not.
I hope I'm wrong...I bet I'm not. I know myself too well.
Doom and gloom. Scrooge. Grinch. Party pooper. Yep, all of those.
What are we celebrating – the end or the beginning? Nothing will magically change when the clock strikes midnight. This is not Cinderella. Riches to rags. Rags to riches.
One digit of the year. And the month. That's it. The days will continue to be short and the nights dark. In deep, bleak winter.
I'll shiver, swaddle myself in numerous layers and tense my shoulders from the wind-chill. And all my movements will feel constricted as my blood struggles to pump around my body. The inner cold causing my brain to freeze, my joints and muscles to stiffen. My hands and feet encased in blocks of ice that never thaws or chips. A longing to be warm, but oh the pain. The throbbing, the tingling, the redness. The chapping of cold and heat. The extremes.
Give me a temperate climate. I'll take the dull days, a bit of a breeze, some rain. Just the briefest glimpse of the sun, a slice of blue sky.
But the world will turn as it always does. And it relies on its seasons, regardless of how I cope or don't cope, or that the overlaps between them seem to be ever-changing. The narrow, they widen, they alarmingly morph from one season into another and then back. In a matter of hours, not days. There was a time when you used to know approximately what each season would be like. Cold, wet, crisp, warm. More chance of showers, gales and storms.
Hell, there was a time when I used to know where I would most likely be, what I would be doing. Now there's no routine, no stability, but often a stifled boredom. Even enjoyment in any capacity has lost its appeal. Its sparkle. Too much effort, and I just don't have that energy to waste. Or the inclination to want to.
Who knows what I will have been through when we actually make it to this pivotal point? Or what state the world will be in? It will probably look nothing like it does now. Overrun with extra peoples with no infrastructure to support the tilting. The end is nigh. Armageddon. The approach of yet another year always brings that prophecy out, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it. As if I'd failed somehow. Any writer worth his salt would do so: beef up the science fiction slant, invent a theory about the void between 11:59 and 12:00am. A tiny black hole we could all plummet through.
However H. G. Wells is not my bag.
To read occasionally but not to write. I like things that don't make sense, but could feasibly happen. Time altered states. Loss of time and memory. Sudden disappearances with no explanation. Conspiracy theories. Leaks and cover ups. Occurrences that cannot be scientifically proved.
Nothing explains the Blues. The melancholy notes that often announce themselves when you should feel joyful, or at the very least contented, so that you spiral down. Like a human log rushing down a water flute, no armbands, no rubber ring, or giant inflatable killer whale to leap on, to the accompaniment of a poignantly played saxophone.

Picture Credit: Bleedin' Gums Murphy, Moanin' Lisa, The Simpsons

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Olive Groves and Lemons

A Spanish woman gave me two important lessons: how to be watchful of the people around you and how to be gracious with it; how to take pleasure in what you have and not what you think you can get. She said it was better to use wind-fallen apples than shaking the tree or picking those that felt ripe but weren't ready. Everything has a time, she said.
How M came to be living in England I don't know for I don't now remember if that information was ever shared. I vaguely recollect being told that this wasn't her native home and that the land she came from was warmer. Where they were olive groves and lemons. And that stuck because at school the girls played Oranges and Lemons said the Bells of St Clements in the tarmacked playground. The song sung whilst a neat pony-tailed, cotton-socked line skipped under the human steeple until someone was caught in the middle, their head chopped off.
M was just there, already a fixture, when my family moved in to the house next door in the mid 1980s. I was five, going on six. I can't recall our first meeting. Perhaps I was shy or concerned with other childish fancies, or perhaps I didn't give it a thought as my parents have always tried to be friendly; neighbourly as in running errands, being helpful, or talking over fences or walls, or in driveways and back gardens. Although they drew the line at inviting people in and only partially opened the door to Jehovah's Witnesses and double glazing salesmen to politely but firmly say 'Not interested thank you.' In other words, go on your way, don't bother us here, and they usually did with hang-dog expressions.
We hadn't moved far, ten minutes by car from my first known home, from my primary school, from my ageing paternal grandparents, but the neighbours were different here. Houses were semi-detached and not terraced, and kids didn't play out in the streets but in the large park at the end of the road. There was less camaraderie as if the rules you lived by before didn't apply or there was still a series of tests you had to pass.
We must have passed at some point, not with flying colours but with a grudged acceptance. We were obviously here to stay despite making little headway with relations on either side, including M who I came to like for all her eccentricities.
M, in her late 70s, was a tough nut to crack. A sun-dried widow, harmless and deadly. Small in height, dumpy in figure, a warm brown colour and wrinkle-faced with a temper similar to that of a scorpion. The English sun had aged, not sweetened her. She accused people of stealing personal property and liked poisoning plants. That was how she welcomed you to the neighbourhood, although I don't know if she tried that ruse on us. I guess she must have. But then the family on the other side were complainers: you couldn't sneeze without the mother coming round to request we keep the noise down. Our old dog was regularly told off for playful barking; she was not a fan of animals or of the shared walls that she once dramatically declared gave her a 'splitting headache.' But when they moved we got W and I and Tiny, their Yorkshire terrier, and it couldn't have been more different. And although all three passed on a good twenty years ago I've never forgotten them.
M, though was always an enigma. She drew you in. Unwillingly. Because she was like a nursery rhyme or a Roald Dahl figure - she could be nice, she could be horrid. You could feel revolted by her or you could want to follow her like the Pied Piper. She was a character that stirred your curiosity. Sometimes she wanted to engage, sometimes she made it plain she wanted distance. She was lonely, but then resented the intrusion when she had invited it. From inside, she observed outside goings-on; outside, she acted surreptitiously. But she did thaw towards us. Somewhat.
Perhaps even as an English child I was narrow-minded for M was not like the Spain I believed she came from. Sun, sea and sand. Siestas, fishing ports and villas. Tapas, paella, and sangria. Catholicism. The Spain she epitomised was the salty tang of olives and the citrus of lemons.

Picture Credits: 
Spanish Woman, Benidorm '68 courtesy of P R Francis
Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Furrowed Brow

Escape will not come when I'm worried. When I'm hell-bent on trying to find or force a new course. Worry infiltrates my every deed, fills my body and surrounds like a disease, multiplies and spreads like the Big C. Cancer.
Except this is not that, there's no terminal sentence attached to the Big W. That I know of, if this is that. Can you die from, of Worry? Some people die of a broken heart, the heart pining for someone its lost; others from shock, a sudden tragedy or financial ruin. Some linger in sadness or pain, others disappear like a light going out, the power cut off from their body. Some desperate souls take action, planned or on impulse, because the other Big W: the World and trying to live among its peoples, can get too much, and nothing, so it seems to them at their lowest ebb, can ever remedy this. Life will always be a struggle regardless of their intent or outward situation. Nothing is ever what it seems.
Didn't Lewis Carroll's Alice say that? My brain is so fuddled, I can't think. I feel like the sozzled dormouse in the teapot at the Mad Hatter's tea party. Oh, wait, perhaps I'm confused... Wasn't there a similar scene in Anne of Green Gables? With a mouse drunk on Marilla's famed cordial...oh, hang on, wasn't that Anne's bosom friend, Diane Berry? Anne playing hostess and unwittingly plying her friend with a fortified wine or brandy. I'm sure there was a mouse somewhere at any rate...something involving pastry...?
Anyway, what I was trying to get at is too often we take things at face value and don't think or want to delve deeper. Our lives are so busy....we don't have the time...we don't wish to intrude...but then those with perpetual furrowed brows never ask for help, and it's so easy to believe them when they say they're fine. Just peachy. No other details are ever given. The conversation is flippant because after all worries are difficult to explain. Words are too often inadequate to describe the exact fear and why it may have arisen. Worries are personal, sometimes sensible, but mostly absurd.
As is Cancer.
Cancer cannot be reasoned with. And it normally strikes at a time in your life when you're unoccupied, which is something else it shares with Worry. Some people are able to distract, to avoid whatever is causing them angst; I find I cannot and so this leads to another Big W: Writer's Block, which only maddens me further and removes an anchoring measure. My mind infuriatingly going round in circles like a dog chasing a cat, a cat a mouse, a mouse... what does a mouse chase? A chunk of tempting cheese in a trap pulled along on a string? Tea? Pastry? See above. Once again the mouse conundrum strikes.
No, I refuse to return to that. I do not wish to be sent off on some wild goose chase, although at least my mind is now contemplating fowl and not rodents.
But this is what happens when the mind resists other offerings, and mine constantly defies my will. There's no discipling or training it, it will pick and pick until no stone goes unturned; every tiny bit of adhered grit dusted off, each clean form memorised and surface eye-balled. The stony heaps grows as does the worry. It's worse than a dog worrying sheep who won't listen to simple commands such as a gentle 'Come' or a roared 'Leave Off!' And so nimble on its feet that it runs rings around its red-faced owner. Can't catch me, catch me now. Fooled you! I'm still going...
Virginia Woolf said a writer should have a room of one's own; that's all very well, but what if within that room your mind at times declines to be inhabited. It only wants to engage in the Big W, allow the tractor wheels to throw up clods of mud and plough crookedly. The wrinkled brow, narrowed eyes, and pursed lips rise and indent the already visibly creased surface. The lungs inhale, exhale, shallowly, the pulse beats erratically. The stomach churns, the skins erupts. The joints click and creak like an old house withstanding gale force winds or defending against a violent storm.

Picture Credit: Ploughed Field, 1830, Caspar David Friedrich

Thursday, 10 December 2015


The camera can be a weapon as deadly as the gun. A press of the shutter release, click, and it can wound. The photographer has got the shot, but once captured it may live with him forever, instantly transport him back to that time and place. The scene, the smells, the sights...the devastation, the camaraderie...the dead, the living, the frenzied or slow-motioned activity, the death-like stillness. The adrenaline will pump as it did then. The camera removing him one step from the incident as the situation escalates or dissipates around him, his clicking like the rattle of a machine gun. Diving into a doorway, taking cover on the ground or on the floor, adjusting the focus and still firing. The need to record such a strong compulsion that it overrides sensible risk.
The boundaries shift as does fear, both pushed beyond reasonable limits. Acting the part of a solider with artillery, a camera instead of a gun slung over their shoulder, which won't inflict bodily damage but can nonetheless maim, scar or haunt. The camera, a witness to rebellions, oppression, destruction. Images can communicate what voices can't. Reach tens, hundreds, thousands, millions of people. Assault the eyes, discharge ungovernable responses.
Photography is like hunting; hunting is like photography. The differences only in the choice of weapons and victims, and yet even in these there are similarities: lining the target up within range and perspective, the click when taking the shot, the suspended posture of the unfortunate, and the reaction of the hunter to the prey's affectations. Another pull on the gun or shutter release as the intended escapes, runs from a barrage of shooting and from having a part of their soul or whole life captured. Both in the moment and under fire as around them the day darkens or lightens, the weather changes. And neither survive unaltered from the experience, for these, each in their own way, are bloodthirsty sports. There's a stubbornness bordering on hostility in the photographer-hunter because they find themselves subjected to an unstoppable force; whereas in the hunted-down victim there's a docility, a lack of caution, a general unawareness, an unvocalised contract to be shot. And yet for both the tables can be turned...One can swiftly become the other.
Sheeplike, following in the trail of armed khaki-clad men, rolling trucks, and marching boots, or left behind on the blood-watered soil as an unidentifiable body. A non-being. No name, no history, no home. No longer belonging anywhere or to anyone in that warring state. Just an exposed shrunken, greying, decomposing corpse watched over by birds, observed by passing troops, and said a quick prayer for by fleeing civilians, as it slowly returns to its origins. And it's these images of bloodied, wounded, dead matter that could be human or animal that are unforgettable. As witnessed by present or distant eyes or through a viewfinder of a camera or rifle.
The same hunger prevails in stalking an animal as it does in stalking a country or a dictator; only in the peoples it decimates is the hunger real - for escape, for survival, for an end to the tyrant or conflict – except it fails to account for the loss, for the loss of life and limbs. The other type of hunger felt by those documenting or directly involved in obeying orders has to be fed regularly. The camera carried as a soldier carries a pistol, armed and ready.
But photographers with the semblance of foot soldiers don't always dodge the bullet. Each time one comes out the other side uninjured, it's blind luck: luck of the draw, a lucky star, a token they touch or kiss, a prayer they say. For some unknown reason, those that keep being saved begin to believe infallibly in their good, and often rare, fortune. And ones like these become a talisman of war to those they know and work with in the field. Nothing bad will happen if that unassailable person is in the vicinity, so that when/if it does it's inconceivable. Luck runs out as does the number of chances you take. Cats have nine lives, and possibly humans do too.

Picture Credit: Endre Friedmann, AKA Robert (Bob) Capa
Further Reading: Waiting for Robert Capa by Susana Fortes

Thursday, 3 December 2015

A Tranquil Sketch

I'd like to be shot with a tranquilliser gun.” she uttered with a deadpan face, but with her hands tightly held in her seated lap.
You've been reading too much Hemingway.” He replied without even bothering to lower the newspaper he was concealed behind, his eyes scanning the world news and political articles before turning to the back sports pages.
No, seriously,” she returned, “I'd like to be darted right now. Ring for the local vet or a game or zoo keeper.” Said in a tone that gave nothing away, no hints or wavers, no rising hysteria, no misgivings, a flat calm to her modulated pitch. 
Now look here. It's not as bad as all that,” he began to remonstrate sounding like a wearied school master lecturing to a worried pupil, or a father trying to reason with his tiresome daughter, “you're over-thinking as per usual. Meeting my mother is a light matter and not something to request being shot for. You'll love her and she will in time love you once she gets to know you better.” Which was said whilst peering, almost severely, over the top of his rustling paper at his seemingly perfectly composed partner sitting opposite.
That's not very reassuring,” she muttered, before raising her monotone voice a little, “you'll just lucky both my parents are dead, God rest their souls. You have nobody except me to impress, and you don't even try very hard to do that.”
Yes dearest.” Being quite a bit older he was old-fashioned in his colloquialism, and had found this was by far the best way to appease worrisome women. It demonstrated you were listening, even if you weren't, to whatever they were prattling on about, and it was most helpful to have a newspaper to hand to hold in your feelings and avoid any unnecessary unpleasantness.
She sighed. A long deep woe-is-me out-take of breath.... a sure sign that she was waiting for more of a response to her self-inflicted drama. He chose to ignore it, ruffling his paper and blowing a corner to turn the large page over, and when he succeeded after much to-do continued to study the football scores, despite not having much interest in the sport itself. He was more of a cricket man, but you had to know what's what if you wanted to keep in with the ol' boys, and the young ones too, that he sometimes found himself in the company of.
Again she sighed, a shorter exhale this time and a little huffier.
He grunted, closed and folded his paper and flung it down on the coffee table beside him, and tried before he began to desist from becoming across as condescending. A timbre of kindness was what he was after. He hemmed and hawed and observed his about-to-bolt partner, “My dear girl, stop this ineffectual worrying. The doorbell will ring, you'll answer, invite her in, take her coat, compliment her on her hat for the old girl will wear one I can assure you of that, and show her into the sitting room. I'll pass the time while you make the tea and serve the dainties that you spent a lifetime dissecting. The conversation will flow, the time will go quickly, and before you know it we'll be ordering a taxi to take her home. Or perhaps I could take her...but we can come to that later...”
Leaving me to clear up I imagine,” she interrupted, her brow furrowed with creases, “it sounds as though you've had it all planned from the beginning. The good little woman looking after her hard working man.”
He held up his broad palms in mock surrender, “You know I can never win in this situation. All women see each other as competition regardless of their position, but my mother is not the dragon you picture. She's harmless, as are you when you play nicely.” He smiled hoping his attempt at humour would produce a mirrored smile, but she only stared back at him glumly and visibly seemed to sink lower into the seat of the armchair, her shoulder-length brunette hair swinging around her tired and drained face.
Oh God, this is going to be awful, he thought inwardly groaning, but before he could deliberate more, the doorbell chimed and before he could swear blasphemously his partner had catapulted herself through the open patio door and scrambled over the fence.

Picture Credit: Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565