Archive for July, 2017


A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

Read Full Post »

standing stoneThe Ryoan-ji is an ancient rock garden in Japan, in the Zen tradition. It’s a so called dry garden, consisting of groups of large stones place upon a bed of smooth-worn and finely raked pebbles. I’ve studied Zen as an amateur student for years, but it’s an enigmatic subject, difficult to gain purchase and try as I might I still know virtually nothing about it. In a similar way I’m no doubt entirely ignorant of the deeper meaning of this garden. One of its intriguing and more talked about features however is that no matter what angle we view it from we can only ever count fourteen stones.

There are actually fifteen stones, but one of them is always hidden from view by the others, so we can never know for sure that there are fifteen, presumably without flying over the garden and viewing it from an elevated perspective. So, how many stones are there? Answer, obviously fifteen, but how many in our experience? How many from our every day perspective?

I’m not sure if this is an important Zen teaching, or if I’m creating a tangential one of my own, but it’s a useful concept none the less, that reality is always subjective and cannot help  but conceal both it’s true nature and, by inference, our own.

On a not unrelated subject, about twelve hours ago, I ate breakfast in the garden of a cottage overlooking the North Sea, a little to the north of Scarborough. I sipped coffee as I contemplated the changing shades of blue, and I tried to hold on to the scene, to imprint it in memory, both visually and emotionally, because I knew I would shortly be taking my leave of it and it would be a long time before I came this way again, indeed if ever.

Like that fifteenth stone the view is now hidden. I know it exists from some other perspective, but what I’m left with now, as I tap this out are the fourteen stones of a more mundane reality.

The ability to hold on to an awareness of the fifteenth stone is helped by having seen it in the first place. No amount of being told of its existence can substitute for the experience of seeing it. Merely being told it’s there requires faith and trust, when you cannot see it yourself.

Of course what I was looking at this morning was a reflection of my own self in a reality that was closer to the truth of who felt I am, of who we all are when not pummelled into a different shape by the repetitive and habitual lives that normally contain us. For a short time though, on holiday, we escape, we gain a different perspective, we view a different emotional landscape, we see and feel ourselves differently and wish upon wish we could be like that all the time. It is this transcendent essence that is contained for me in the symbolic meaning of the fifteenth stone.

But the truth is we have all seen it from time to time, and even though the evidence of our own eyes mostly denies its existence, we have only to shift our perspective slightly, do something, go somewhere a little out of the ordinary, to reveal its presence and realise it’s been there all along.

Read Full Post »

IMG_2745As I sit here in this garden, staring out at the sea, I realise with some disappointment the perfection of the world can only ever be approximated by the descriptive eye. Blue does not describe the sea today, nor any day, nor grey nor green. It is too approximate. The fancy writer can borrow from the artist’s pallet, attempt words like cerulean, indigo or cobalt, but these suppose the reader is familiar with such flowery synonyms and anyway they similarly fall short of being definitive. We also have teal, turquoise, beryl, utramarine, aquamarine. I take a chance on Beryl, but find it comes in two shades – one blue green, like I imagine a clear tropical ocean, and the other closer to sapphire and how I imagine the cold Atlantic on a sunlit winter’s day.

This is a warmer blue, a mid-blue, I suppose, but threaded with sinewy bands of a paler hue, tending towards – all right – towards aquamarine. These bands are also of a finer, smoother texture than the wide expanse of mid-blue which is finely stippled with the grey of wavelets. But in the time I have taken to describe it, it has already changed, a pool of something paler in the broad sweep of the bay opens up as the waters steadies, and the tide slackens. It will be different again in a moment, and in a minute, and in an hour as the light changes and this July afternoon deepens towards tea time. There will never be a moment or day when it is the same as it is now, this moment in time.

On the horizon, gliding south, seemingly on the line between sea and sky, there is a coaster, long and low and white, a handful of pale pixels in the great scheme of things. The sea, this same sea, will be different out there as it butts up against the clanking, rust streaked hull, a different dynamic to the passage of a ship and the turn of water and the way it catches light.

A writer might as well just say the sea was blue, or perhaps grey, if it was that sort of day. More useful is to accept the transience of the moment, its indescribable nature, and instead to read the sea for emotion.

Warm and languid, that’s the North sea on this sunny afternoon, under a long hot, clear skied bake of sun. Just now a pleasure cruiser out of Scarborough, bobs into view. It’s white, with Britannia bunting hung from fore and aft masts, Union Jacks fluttering. It has a jolly, perky feel about it. But when we feel the scene we have to realise we are seeing ourselves reflected in it and that once again we are failing to see the beauty of the world as it truly is, with acceptance and abandon.

I have never seen as many varieties of birds as I have this afternoon, just sitting here in the sun. I have a handful of names for birds but my vocabulary, such as it is is entirely inadequate. I resist the camera. I do not want to capture them for later classification. I try not to want to know their names in case it robs them of their  beauty.

And then we have the scent. To a former anosmic, the reintroduction of scent into the world is a dramatic thing, nothing short of revelatory, and one simply must know the source of every scent as if greedy to restore lost memory. It has a sweetness to it, like a freshly mown lawn, but drier somehow, a little dusty, damp and warm – though how scent can be dusty I do not know. It’s the wheat, I think, the vast expanse of it, like a straw coloured foreground bowl that contains the sea. The wheat is stagnant, stupefied by the heat, animated only by squadrons of wood pigeon that over-fly it in number. It is hauntingly aromatic – haunting in the way it triggers memories of childhood summer dusks at play in harvest meadows, memories forgotten until now, in passing.

Four thirty and the shadows lengthen to a few yards. The eastern face of the house affords cool and shade now. And though I continue to write, to scan my lines, I am not thinking of anything, desiring nothing but the eternal elongation of this moment.

But I suppose I shall have to be thinking soon about what I want to make for tea.

Read Full Post »

The A59 starts in Liverpool, heads north and east, across Lancashire, into Yorkshire, finishing at York. I pick it up on the Ribble at Salmesbury Bottoms, near Preston, after a short run up the conveyor of the living dead, the M6. I’m heading for Scarborough. This isn’t the quickest way – that would be the M62 to Leeds and on from there – a journey of around three hours or so. The A59 adds forty minutes to the run at least, but I can do it with the top down, I’m thinking, unless it’s raining, which it isn’t. And I want to do it with the top down. There’d be no pleasure in that on the M62. As it turns out, there’s not much pleasure on the A59 either.

It must be thirty years since last drove this route much beyond Blubberhouses, and it was quieter then. The traffic today is impressively heavy, grinding to a stop start as we come within sniffing distance of Harrogate, then more stop start at Knaresborough. In fact it’s pretty much one long traffic jam from Harrogate to York.

This is the fourth summer with the little blue car, now fifteen years old, and with eighty five thousand on the clock. She holding up well, back wings beginning to bubble a bit like all MX5’s of this vintage do, and I’m at the point where I’m worrying she’s not going to look quite so tidy for much longer. So do I have some restoration work done? Best guess for that is it’ll cost over a grand. Or do I sell her on and spend the money on a newer model? I don’t know,… she’s mechanically sound, running well, and I trust her, I simply can’t bear to think of parting with her. But nothing lasts for ever, no matter how much we want it to.

That said, one of her quirks is a bit of a kangaroo clutch to which she’s more prone the hotter she gets. You can compensate with a more delicate touch on the pedals, but heavy traffic make it hard on both of us. We are neither of us built for this kind of journey.

There have been the usual pre-trip nerves, the feeling the clutch is “funny” through legs tense at the prospect of a longer run. There’s also a week’s holiday riding here on the reliability of an old car, which makes no rational sense when I’ve got a newer one sitting on the drive at home that would eat this journey in the blink of an eye and allow me to haul more stuff. But this is not about common sense, or stuff. This is about the road and the dream of something else.

A little flight bag for my clothes, and a satchel for my bits and bobs, and the boot’s full. But I’m not going to the moon. I’m going to Scarborough, and I know where the Cooperative store is.

My bed tonight is in a cottage with a view of the sea, wheat fields, and the company of barn owls. Four and a half hours to cover a hundred and thirty miles? It was worth it.

Goodnight all.

Read Full Post »

paul jobinSince the beginning of my eccentric fascination for the sensibly priced, mass produced gents dress watches of yesteryear what I have always wanted to acquire is a Paul Jobin.

The house of Jobin was a fine Swiss maker, and like many a fine Swiss maker, all gone now, swept away by the advent of quartz technology. I’ve been watching them on Ebay for a while now and noted these pieces tend to be expensive for vintage mass market tickers – at least relative to my tinker-toy budgetary limits, so when I bid a little over a tenner for this one, I wasn’t expecting to win, but then you never can tell with Ebay.

The seller said it was running “a bit”, but I’d prefer to say it was limping, then stopping to rest. Permanently. I wasn’t altogether hopeful then that after a quick tinker I was going to end up with anything more than another addition to my spares box. As usual the glass looked like it had been grit blasted, and the gold plating on the lugs was worn back to brass along the edges and corners. Removing the glass though revealed a pristine dial and still shiny fingers – and brass, when polished with Autosol, comes up like gold anyway. It was worth a shot, and all depended on the state of the movement.

It has a hand-winding mechanical movement, an ST 1802/3, by the much respected Swiss maker Anton Schild. We can look this up in an online catalogue and it gives us the date of manufacture as being 1965. Part of the fascination for me, as in childhood, is opening up an old watch like this and seeing the movement. They are incredibly beautiful things:  small, intricate, designed to run faultlessly for a lifetime – even on cheaper pieces – and quite probably haven’t been seen by a human eye since the day the back was first sealed, fifty, sixty, years ago. As a lesson in design and volume manufacturing they also speak of untold miracles. And by now they have become, in spite of their worthlessness, otherwise quite precious things. I no longer resist my obsession. I am tooling up. I am moving in deeper.

Fortunately most watches from the “vintage” period have probably lain quietly and safely in a drawer since the advent of quartz, around 1978, and the chances are if they’re not running any more it’s because time has aged the oil to gum, and all the thing needs is a strip down, a clean and some fresh oil to get it going again.

small parts.jpgYes, the parts are tiny, but with practice and patience and a smattering of cheap tools, it’s a skill anyone of a mechanical bent, and steady hands, can acquire. After a year or so of practice, and with the aid of online guides written by old watchmakers, I’m getting better at it, my last two examples having actually survived my efforts and gone on from their dubious conditions on arrival to make surprisingly accurate and attractive timepieces.

And so it has turned out in this instance.

After cleaning and oiling, my newly acquired vintage Paul Jobin has been running well, keeps time easily within a minute over a couple of days. In the fullness of time, a change of glass, costing all of £1.50, will enable much of that original sixties charm to once again shine through. Until then, this sterling little ticker can be my companion piece for my upcoming trip to the North Yorkshire coast. It’s perhaps no coincidence that most of the pieces I’ve acquired are as old as me, that in reviving them, in keeping them going, I am keeping myself going as well.

I close with a little excerpt from the Sea View Cafe – not altogether irrelevant:

the sea view cafe - smallHome was where love was. And when love died, it was time to go. But you couldn’t just run out on people, could you? You couldn’t just run out on a life you’d spent your whole life building from the ground up!

Could you?

The waitress brought his coffee, a fancy little biscuit on the side. She was trying hard, he thought, and not without appreciation, but this was still a small seaside cafe and seriously out of season – there was only so much altitude to be gained here. He noted a neat little badge on her breast which said: Hermione. He noted also she wore a man’s Paul Jobin wristwatch, gold plated, from the pre quartz era. Finn’s era. It had stopped. Beside it, a cheap plastic fashion branded thing kept up the time, all black but for the fake diamond hour markers.

“Thanks,” he said, and then, impulsively: “There were caravans once.”

“Sorry, darlin’?”

“Up on the hill. Caravans. I used to come here on holiday as a kid.”

“Caravans? Before my time. What about you John? Do you remember caravans on the hill?”

John ‘Squinty’ Mulligan had taken out his newspaper and was hiding behind it. He shrugged, grunted. Squinty remembered the caravans of course, remembered them very well, but preferred not to be drawn. Let the stranger pass on through, unenlightened, he thought.

See you in Yorkshire.

Graeme out.

Read Full Post »

miceThe more literary kind of story has a habit of fluffing its conclusion, of building you up through a series of struggles, pointing to one final decisive conflict, but just as one is hopeful of a whizz-bang ending, it veers off the mark and cuts to the credits without having resolved anything at all. Critics do effusive somersaults over the subtlety of this sort of thing and provide a multitude of their own subjective interpretations based on impenetrable literary theory as espoused by someone you’ve never heard of. As for the rest of us, we can only trust the whole thing was not a deceit, that the author simply didn’t know how to finish things other than by saying it was all a dream, so he trails off instead, fades away like a ghost.

In similar vein I swear I did not dream of mice last week. I saw them, heard them, chased them, tried in vain to trap them. But I’ve not seen one since, nor been disturbed by one in the night. My house is now bristling with traps, baited with all manner of treats – currently pieces of KitKat stuck in tasty splodges of peanut butter. Yum!

Nothing. No bites. No dead mice.

I’ve been round the outside of the house looking for any means of mousy ingress – tiny holes in the corners of walls and where the drains poke out. I have applied cement here, there and everywhere, just to be sure. I know they’ve definitely been around and where they’ve lingered longest because there’s an eye watering smell of ammonia coming from behind the cupboards in the conservatory. For weeks we thought it was a pair of my son’s trainers, and grumbled for them to be stored elsewhere. But the more savvy visitors tell us this pungent signature scent is actually mouse-wee. The cupboards are fitted and it will take a week to dismantle them, remove them, check for ingress, clean up, put back. Understandably I’m resisting the trial, hoping instead the mice have gone and the smell will fade if we keep the windows open.

No firm conclusion, you see? We trail off into the literary never-land. No bang, no snap of the trap and a clear indication of the saga’s end. It goes on until memory fades, hopefully along with the smell, and some other slice of life takes centre stage. So for now the mice have become ghosts to manifest at every creak or sigh in the night, but without actually materialising in tangible reality at all. Only their smell remains.

I hope.

Goodnight all.

Read Full Post »

The Mouseman Diaries


Day one

There’s a mouse in my house, more than one, probably. They’re bad for your health. Mouse wee stinks, their faeces carry bacteria and parasites, and mice can be covered in ticks. Do you really want them anywhere near your food, or where you prepare food, or where you lay your head to sleep?

No, mice aren’t great house-guests, they keep you awake at night, listening to their scratchings and meanderings. You imagine them running over your face, nibbling your earlobes. It’s all very room 101. I like mice, really, I do – they’re quick, nimble, spookily intelligent creatures possessed of supernatural senses, but you don’t want them loose in your house.

I have a trap, of the humane tipper variety, because I’m a bit sensitive that way, but felt compelled to borrow more, three of them in all – just to be sure of catching it or them. These were of the regular snapper sort. I don’t like to kill creatures if I can help it, but once mice settle in they can cost a fortune in raided and ruined groceries, and they can make you ill, so I felt I couldn’t afford to be choosy. There’s a limit to what’s sensible in terms of compassion. So I set the traps, baited them with bits of Yorkie Bar and gave my guests a choice between the way of life and the way of death, all be it with the odds by way of fate stacked heavily in favour of death.

It took a day before we heard the first trap snap. It seemed the mouse had chosen death, but on closer inspection we found it had escaped, almost, the trap coming down on its tail, so it was flailing, dragging the trap with it. I don’t think it was after the bait. It was just wanting to clear the trap with a leap and hadn’t quite made it. Mice it seems are not partial to Yorkie Bar.

A dead mouse isn’t much of anything really, other than a relief when you’re plagued with them, but one desperate to escape while dragging a trap by the tail cannot help but garner some sympathy. It also slowed it down sufficiently to allow me to catch up with it. So I took it outside, took it up the street before releasing it. But I wonder now if I took it far enough because the little brown blur of a thing seemed to head straight back in the direction of my house.

Day two

There’s nothing in the traps first thing in the morning, so I’m hopeful the problem has gone, but then my good lady texts me at work to say she was startled by another mouse in the kitchen – she’s a mousophobe, or something. Did it have a crooked tail? I asked. There came no reply worth repeating. So, I don’t know if it’s the same mouse or not. I’d like to think not, because then I’ll feel stupid for not killing it. How does one kill a mouse, anyway? With a shoe? A hammer?

More traps ordered from Ebay. Of the humane variety.

Day three

We spent a troubled night last night, mice wearing clogs thumping across the bedroom floor. I switched the light on around 1:30 am in time to see one dropping from the curtain. It shot under the bed, then seemed to vanish into thin air. What with lying awake listening to the house and stiffening at the slightest sound, then snapping on the light and tearing about the bedroom in pursuit, I managed just a couple of hours sleep, then up at six thirty and out to work again.

I’ve felt wobbly tired all day.

I picked up several more traps from B+Q on the way home – they only had the regualar killer variety but by now I’m not so squeamish. We have eight traps, all armed and primed with a special bait that comes in a tube – you place a blob of it on the trap and the little rodents can’t resist, apparently. I hope we have a better night. It’s odd, in twenty years, we’ve never been troubled with mice at this house, but after last night it’s feeling like a plague. Worse, my good lady has now moved out, moved back to her parents, until they’re gone.

Evidence of mice? Yes, one was sitting on the pillow of my son’s bed, bold as brass, as if to say what are you looking at? Another one came skittering across the kitchen floor and disappeared behind the fridge – or it might have been the same one. I couldn’t get the fridge out because the numpties who fitted the kitchen have jammed it in tight which makes me wonder how we’ll get it out when it breaks down. Odd how these things come to light.

The longer term solution to all of this is a cat. My mother always kept one for this reason, but cats bring their own problems and anyway, I’m allergic. I just need more traps, and a good night’s sleep.

Day Four

Didn’t sleep much better. There were more scratching and fidgetings in the bedroom, going up for midnight. Putting the light on seemed to subdue this activity, so I slept with the light on low like a scaredicat until morning but I don’t think this is conducive to good sleep. You know you’re tired when you wake feeling hung over and you’ve not been drinking.

All eight traps were empty. So much for the special “irresistable” bait. The traps I ordered by post could not be delivered because no one was at home. Delivery will need to be rearranged, or more likely I’ll have to waste my Saturday morning queuing up at the sorting office to collect them. Sometimes I hate internet shopping!

By three pm I can feel myself shutting down, wanting to sleep. I’m tempted to succumb, even at the risk of being sacked, just for the sweet delirium of it – except I’d probably be dreaming of mice.

Researches online point me to Peanut butter, or chocolate as bait – Maltesers in particular. But I’m not so sure. I think these mice have come from outside and are used to feeding on birdseed, so I bait the traps accordingly and hope for the best.

I inspect our foodstores, a tightly sealed pull-out larder. All looks fairly secure – no tell tail holes nibbled through the cereal boxes. No mouse droppings. I remove the bird feeder from outside our back door, dispose of the seed – I imagine the birds look glum, and I’m sorry, but this is war and there is always collateral damage.

Traps set, off to bed.

Goodnight all.

Read Full Post »