“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”

IMG_20200329_093916

This is the new view from my desk – OK it’s not brilliant but it’s outside; I can see the sky and the clouds and I can watch the comings and goings of our neighbours in the car park. The view from the front of the flat is far nicer, but this is sufficiently mundane not to distract me too much. It’s only possible because my piano has gone to Birmingham.  I don’t mind because I wasn’t able to play it in this building – but as if by magic, Madame has put on one of our Mose Allison albums just as the piano has joined the long list of ‘might have beens’ in my life.

If you dislike my seriously political deliberations you should probably skip the next two paragraphs – it gets slightly more rhapsodic after that!

Meanwhile the lock-in continues. The equinox passed by the Potwell Inn without being noticed  – we were all too preoccupied with the weather, the weather of events, that is. Huffing and puffing about the failures of others, or our lamentably deficient government takes away the pain for a bit but the black dog comes back, sniffing around the bins of our lives and lifting his leg against our certainties. We’ve tunneled so far into the mountain of greed that the entrance has collapsed and there’s no way out any more.

The media have decided that what we need more than ventilators and nurses is – a metaphor. ‘The blitz’ is winning hands down at the moment; it’s cheap and cheerful but there are no supply problems and it focuses all our attention away from the real problem and on to our personal response. In fact, they hint without spelling it out, that this is an opportunity – an opportunity to show what we Brits are made of and so the miracle of diversion is accomplished so effectively that public opprobrium falls more heavily on those who refuse to celebrate this opportunity for self-transcendence than it does on those who disregard the distancing measures – not least cabinet ministers.

Today marks the beginning of British Summer Time.  I’ve no idea why I find that as exciting as I do, but I guess I like sunshine a lot more than I like fog and rain and the odds are on the summer providing more of my favourite days. I will contradict this statement later in the year when I declare the autumn to be the finest season by far, just before I settle ‘finally’ on the joy of frosty mornings. The only safe approach to anything I write is to say accept that change is inevitable and variety is a jolly good thing.  However (and you knew that was coming) there are some unexpectedly lovely things, even in the midst of a pandemic, that can wake you up with a smile. So today we lay in bed and heard a church clock chime seven.  It wasn’t even a very nice church clock, in fact the bell was a bit of an old boiler, but it filled me with joy and reminded me of my childhood when I would listen to the clock in Page Park (similarly washboiler tuned) chiming out the hours at night when I couldn’t sleep.

The rationalist in me points out immediately that it’s Sunday morning (i.e. less traffic) and there’s a north easterly wind carrying the sound across from Julian Road or wherever the church is.  But there’s more to it.  We’ve had Sundays and north easterly winds before and only once heard the clock in over four years. But this crisis has resulted in a dramatic fall in traffic through Bath.  The constant ambulances which, in order to negotiate the jams, always used their sirens now cruise silently and unhindered to the hospital a mile away. We can hear birds singing again and the moaning of the wind in our leaky windows, and our neighbours in their flats. The cloud of polluted air over the city has lifted and the streets are empty.  The tourists have all gone, and the holiday rentals are empty – it’s a disaster by all the conventional measures, and yet I wonder whether anyone is anxious to return to the status quo ante bellum at the end of all this.

It only takes a few empty shelves to demonstrate what we’ve all known in our hearts for a very long time, that our present way of life offers a huge diversity of things to buy, but at the expense of almost everything else we say we value. What’s the value of a line of identical tasting breakfast cereals to ‘choose’ from when the wildlife on the earth they were grown in has been poisoned out of existence?

So back to believing impossible things because I’ve always been deeply interested in the mechanisms through which we are able to ignore the evidence that contradicts our presuppositions. We once lived on a farm in Wiltshire and our walk to art school every day took us down Middlewick Lane, in which there was a cottage with the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. In three years we’d watched it through the seasons; we knew that the owner was an elderly man called Mr Monks who lived alone.  We even knew that he liked a pinch or three of snuff from the handkerchiefs drying on the washing line, stained yellow from his useage. I can’t, after all this time, say exactly what the garden contained but it remains in my memory a pure Gertrude Jekyll cottage garden with the addition of the most wonderful vegetable plot to one side.  After an age of scurrying past and trying not to stare, we graduated through nod to friendly nod and eventually we spoke.  He even gave me a pinch of snuff once but it blew the back of my head off and made my eyes water. Just before he died we finally plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been hovering in our minds for several years – how did he grow such a magnificent garden, so free of pests? He answered without hesitation or any embarrassment  “DDT” he said. Suddenly the garden crumbled in our minds like the picture of Dorian Gray in the Dickens novel. There were still many years to pass before we saw our first raptors in the sky again.

We seem to persist in our belief that our culture – the way we do things round here – is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and nothing seems to shake us from that belief – except when we are overtaken by a major breakdown, and we see the promises of everlasting growth, plenty for all, more choice, more power, more leisure, more everything, as the false prospectus it has become.  Leibnitz’s kindly God whose benign hand was thought to be behind all that was good in the world was put out to grass, and a smart new manager called “the economy” was drafted in to conduct the affairs of the earth with more efficiency ‘going forward’. Statisticians say that football clubs who change their managers in the hope of better results are misguided. When you actually look at the statistics a change of manager is no more successful than leaving the old ones in post. The point is, we want it to be true, and we’re quite prepared to add it to the list of impossible things before breakfast in the hope that it might become true. 

There is an exception to the football manager statistics, though. When the season ticket holders are sitting on their wallets, the fans on the terrace have stopped cheering, the team are all looking for other jobs and the grandstand collapses for lack of maintenance it might be a good time to take a look around.

The earth managed herself successfully for millions of years  – let’s get her back in charge!

A room of my own at last

IMG_20200319_083356

Thank you, by the way, Ms Woolf, for the image. At last I have a space to work in – as opposed to the corner of a desk in a lumber room.  The trouble is, its principal function seems to be a  place to worry in. The piano left the building yesterday morning. Three removal men (is there a description for removal men that doesn’t include the word  ‘burly’? – probably not I fear, it sort of goes with the territory); so three men of assorted sizes but all very strong, turned up at the crack of 10.00am and made lightish work of maneuvering a full sized music school upright piano out of the flat and down three flights of stairs. Three men, all Brummies: two of them tea with two sugars and the other coffee, also with two sugars. Three men, only one of whom qualified for the triple whammy as burly, cheerful and Brummie, and the other two with diminishing amounts of the first two qualities. I think it was one of those bizarre encounters fuelled by the British class system that ensured that everyone was looking down on everyone else.  Final score, real world – three points; bookish and weird – two points. We all parted amicably; me with a room of my own and them with a substantial amount of cash, as they were doing a foreigner. (You can Google the term – it’s Midlands slang). Madame and me were talking about it afterwards and we agreed that we’d achieved the supreme paradox of both marrying beneath ourselves.

Needless to say, the unofficial and unelected chairperson of the Tenants Association – which hasn’t met since we moved here – found time to harangue them about possible damage to the walls, (which there wasn’t). Meanwhile the cleaner was lamenting the fact that she was being told either to work at night (less chance of meeting anyone) or lose her contract, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And so the rest of the day was spent in rearranging the furniture, shredding old documents and throwing others away, and afterwards curating the books in my unique version of the Dewey system.  Books I’m actually using at eye level alongside me, arranged by subject and all the rest somewhere else – but no more crawling under tables.

Meanwhile the bad news was leaking in like a faulty drain. One son’s job has gone up in smoke leaving him with no money because he’s neither sick, nor redundant nor unemployed but surplus to a business with no customers and big borrowings. We watched the news conference given by the Spaffer in Chief waiting to see if anyone in government was concerned about anything except businesses but they didn’t say a word about the people who work (or no longer work) in pubs and restaurants. There are probably tens of thousands of workers in this situation but hey! So a family with three children, one needing constant care because of a genetic disorder is thrown into potential disaster

Our youngest is still clinging to his job in the same business, but he’s between flats and he’s discovered his (ex) flatmate has has been stealing the rent and council tax money and hiding the resulting letters from banks and bailiffs. So he’s sofa surfing now. Our only properly solvent son was promoted two days before the Spaffalogue announced the school closures and so he’s become second in command of a large academy just as the shitstorm breaks.  He said that members of the management team were in tears yesterday when the enormities of trying to feed and protect their most vulnerable children had to be confronted.  We allowed ourselves half an hour outside the flat to collect our artworks from the exhibition which has closed prematurely

We are stretched.  Madame went to the supermarket at 8.00am in the hope of finding something on the shelves but the locusts had swept through during the unobserved pensioners hour.  If anyone dares to mention the spirit of the blitz to me I’ll scream. It’s everyone for themselves and let the weak go to the wall. Strangely, the worry feels completely different from anything we’ve ever experienced before.  We’re floating in a surreal state almost like we’ve been sedated, leaving us conscious and cooperative – but with every piece of bad news flattened out. The anger won’t seem to come – perhaps my ever vigilant superego has declared a state of emergency somewhere inside.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” they say. Oh not Spaffer ……. please – not Spaffer!

 

Piano Story

IMG_20200318_085041

It’s a sad day because my piano for – I guess – about twenty years is about to be collected and driven up to Birmingham for our son. I bought it because I began (almost accidentally) trying to run a church music group where everyone else was a better musician than I was. I was a moderate but very rusty acoustic guitarist and a half reasonable singer but apart from guitar notation I couldn’t read music. My critics, and there were many of them, voted mostly with their feet when I tried to introduce new music to the church, but enough of them remained to fight a guerilla war with me and the musicians and ensure that there was a constant supply of scorn and hostility on offer. The only alternative was to get better at what we were doing and so initially I got some proper guitar lessons and when I was on top of that instrument I bought the piano and found a teacher.  Actually I had two teachers – the first, Bryn, was a lovely man who would reminisce about his days playing the piano at strip clubs and how his dad was a star at the local pub but only ever played on the black notes because he reckoned it was impossible to play a dud chord whatever notes you hit. Hmm ….

My second teacher, David, was a brilliant musician, composer and choir director who would rap my knuckles with a ruler when I made daft mistakes. I never became a real pianist but I learned to read enough music to resolve most of the disputes that arose in the band.  I took a couple of courses in music theory at the university too, and as the music group grew I taught myself to conduct and, ‘though I say it myself, we were pretty good for a bunch of amateurs and we had a lot of fun too.

Sad to say, since I retired and we moved here to Bath, I haven’t sung at all and the music has slipped away. Our flat is in a cast concrete box and so sound travels very easily. Piano practice is repetitive, noisy and downright antisocial so the lid has remained closed and the music is in my head. Bach has been a great consolation. Meanwhile my tiny study has become a pit and so after a clear out of books I knew I wasn’t going to read (I’ve more than replaced them with new books) the piano is the next thing to go and today when the removers leave I’m going to turn the desk around so I can look out of the window at last, and I’ll be able to get to the shelves that I’ve had to crawl under the desk to reach.

So a bittersweet moment to contemplate, but with months of incarceration to face, it makes sense. Yesterday we heard a commotion outside on the green, and about fifty gulls (lesser black backed) were circling around in a highly agitated state. Then we caught sight of a man down on the green who was flying a falcon – a Harris Hawk I’m pretty sure. The gulls surrounded it and harried it from a distance but the hawk was having none of it, nonchalantly perching in the trees for a breather and then setting off to menace them once more.  I guess this is a new council attempt to discourage these visitors who make the most tremendous racket during the breeding season, and tear open rubbish bags, spreading their maggotty contents across the streets. It was wonderful to watch the hawk working.

Outside the streets are uncannily quiet and the supermarkets are struggling to cope.  Our son’s partner was almost elbowed to the floor in Waitrose yesterday as the middle classes fought over the toilet paper.  Later she witnessed a fierce argument at the checkout when one customer was not allowed to buy two four roll packs  when the customer behind was allowed to buy sixteen in a pack.  This morning I got a rebuke from Facebook for posting a completely innocuous photo of a joker in a hazmat suit because it ‘breached their community standards’ – I’d copied it from an online newspaper so I guess they’re a little behind the curve in their attempts to stifle discussion. These are strange times – I hope we’ll be able to get up to the allotment later today, I’m going stir crazy already.