Follow the sun (and the lightning), Late May Bank Holiday 2018

“Go west, young man,” that piece of advice given to American pioneers who loaded up their wagons and headed into the vast expanses of the unexplored US has been my own mantra when it comes to the slightly less epic short holiday out of Portsmouth. 

What lies west, I considered, are all the good bits in easy driving distance. Dorset, Devon, Cornwall – and further up the Welsh Borders and Wales proper.

The best, however, cannot be said of the weather. When the Anglo-Saxons pushed in from the Continent and chased the Celts into the hills, I’ve often wondered whether it was a distaste for that bloody Bank Holiday weather that left them poking their camp fires at Brighton and Lyme Regis, so that by the time they’d bred a race hardy enough to handle the dispiriting rain, all that was left to their descendants was to show off their resilience by inventing the drizzle-soaked seaside holiday. 

Despite this, I had never really considered going east. I’ve made a few trips that way, but I have to admit that Brighton, with its huge hotels, infinite seafront and wrecked pier leaves me cold. Once, when going further east on business, I broke down (or more accurately my car did) in Rye, but I never saw the town, since I was struggling with driving home along a busy road sans clutch. Roundabouts were impressive.

The weather for this bank holiday, however, promised Armageddon, what with storms, thunder, lightning and possibly fireballs and / or falling fish all neatly scheduled by Notan (the ancient English God of Bank Holidays) for the entire west.

Time to follow the sun. Looking at the weather maps, sunshine was forecast for East Sussex and Kent, and so, with an acceptance that it might not be as fun as the wild west (covered wagons or no), we headed out into the eternal tailback at Chichester, which, black-hole-like, holds all south-east coast traffic circulation in its orbit, slows time, and in the crawl crushes you to a singularity, before you reappear on the other side.

We drove on, toward the rising sun (quite a bit after it had risen), past the great castle at Arundel and the dull mass of Brighton, stopping off for a bite at Lewes and then heading on again. 

East. East into the green countryside and the comfortable villages of East Sussex. Noticing a real difference in architecture – clapboard houses and flint cottages, so different from the whitewashed thatched confections of the west. And something else. Flags. Flags fluttering everywhere, in red, white and blue, as if the entire country was a confused and indignant elderly relative who kept ambiguously asking: “Do you know who I am?”

Stopping briefly at Hastings for a cuppa, we were struck by the extremes. Rows of caravans stood rotting on the seafront where the poor had taken up makeshift residence. Homeless people huddled in seafront shelters in St Leonard’s, where the paint from abandoned hotels peeled like tree bark. Yet, further up the road, expensive housing and smart bars thronged with visitors, overlooked the sea. 

The road diverted as we swung past the net shops – the black clapboard towers the fishermen used to store their gear. Soon we were out in the countryside again, passing attractive villages adorned with yet more flags. Union flags everywhere, run up poles, hanging from bunting in the streets. I felt a sense of unease at the instinct that leads people to want to hoist a flag of any colour, and to overlook all the terrible things done under its shadow.

We passed through bright country roads, through Winchelsea looking super picturesque, down past the low stone structure of Winchelsea Castle, where cows grazed in buttercup fields, and onwards to Rye. 

I was curious about this place, having seen on the BBC’s Mapp and Lucia (a series in which two rival middle class ladies – one, a fierce Little Englander furious at having her world dislocated by the other, a sophisticated woman of foreign-sounding extraction, fought battles for influence in the social milieu of an English idyll), and we climbed up to find an ancient town atop a hill. 

It was beautiful, full of half-timber mediaeval houses, with a church surrounded by nestling cottages on cobbled streets. It seemed like a little slice of historic perfection, as if someone had mocked up the quintessential English town, with bar-gates, and ruins, and pubs and shops. Walking the streets, I got a sense of the closeness and tight scale of English village life, and marvelled at the melted houses where the beams had bowed under the weight of centuries. I realised then that I knew nothing about this part of England.

That night we stayed at The Bell at Iden, just outside Rye. We pulled up in the camper and were immediately greeted by a super-friendly barmaid who welcomed us as we walked in and who told me it was no bother to park in the car park and stay overnight. Cosy. The place was cosy and friendly, and I felt surprised at the chattiness of the locals. Portsmouth, after all, can be famously terse.

So the weekend began with a warm welcome both meteorologially and figuratively. The following day, we drove out past Camber Sands on a military road, past a firing range and army training ground where mocked-up villages await trainees in urban warfare to do our flag’s killing work, and onward past the towering metal box that is Dungeness nuclear power station, which sits on the west side of the nature reserve.

There, away from the great green expanse of the countryside, we arrived at what in urban myth is known as the UK’s only desert due to its low rainfall (a story denied by the Met Office) and gazed over the great shingle headland, dotted with makeshift huts where people live and work in sparsely dotted homes, some of which were made from old railway carriages. The feeling was like a Native American reservation. We almost expected to see tumbleweed blow down the road. To add to the effect of the Wild West was a steam train, though the Old Lighthouse (next to the new one), and the fact that some of the huts contained art studios, and were overlooked by a gigantic nuclear power station somewhat lessened the impression – as did the fact that the steam train was narrow gauge and we were taller than it. 

It did, however, add to the sense of an alien landscape, unmade and ill-formed, and both of us loved its eery otherworldliness.

Onward again, to Dymchurch where a classic British seaside town crammed along the coast road, and stubborn donkeys allowing small children to sit on them while they were dragged across the sandy beach made me feel like I had suddenly gone back to the 1950s.

Then out into bright and massive countryside, full of greenery, through yet more flag-fluttering clapboard houses in villages bearing Anglo-Saxon names like Lympne, Bilsington, Hamstreet and Tenterden, with each hill we climbed opening up massive vistas and views across yet more startlingly beautiful countryside. 

Finally, we arrived at Bodiam, and explored the castle. It was great. A proper castle, with a moat; the sort that schoolboys might have consulted Disney and fantasy writers to make. It was built in yellow sandstone in the 14th Century by contractors working for Sir Edward Dallingridge. I’m precise about this because although the National Trust tells us Sir Edward “built it”, Dallingridge himself was far too busy terrorising peasants, and generally slaughtering and murdering the innocent as part of the Hundred Years War, to do anything so useful as lifting a trowel. “On the backs of the workers,” etc.

The story of Dallingridge seizing his opportunity when King Edward III decided on a whim that, actually, he owned France and declared war on his neighbour, is a useful one as a clue to the whole of human history. 

Like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, mediaeval businesspeople also saw disruption as an opportunity, and so Dallingridge went out in a gang run by Sir Robert Knolles, a man so cruel and ruthless, the National Trust film informed us with what seemed like misplaced pride, that French people threw themselves in the river at the sound of his name. Ha! That showed ’em. Damn Frenchies, I can imagine one of the flag-flyers saying, not realising he probably had more in common with the poor French peasants than the psychopath who was murdering them. But there it is, when we imagine history, we are selective about those with whom we identify. That is the problem of history in a nutshell.

In the same film, we were informed that, like most of his contemporaries, Dallingridge was extremely concerned about the afterlife. Which, considering all that he’d got up to in this one, will come as no surprise. This may also explain why Jacob Rees-Mogg is a staunch Catholic. Thankfully, Dallingridge died quite soon after going back to the wars, and certainly didn’t make the whole Hundred Years of it, which must have been a relief to the French. It is not recorded whether his personal chapel in the castle made any difference to outcomes thereafter. Jacob Rees-Mogg, take note.

Opposite the Castle was The Castle Inn, which some lucky landlord must have named in the hope that someone would put up a castle. What were the chances of that, eh? Here we spent another night, again, warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely pub with a long lawn leading down to a river, where children played and families congregated in the summer sunshine to eat and drink and socialise.

That night, we were woken by the most extraordinary thunderstorm. It went on for hours, the thunder rolling on and on to create a constant rumble, and the lightning striking so often it felt like we were in daylight, and I wondered if I had been perhaps a little too disrespectful of Dallingridge in my private thoughts that afternoon. Then I reckoned it was probably the ghosts of all those murdered French and English peasants, and I thought I had probably underdone it.

From Bodiam the following morning, we went to Great Dixter house – a gorgeously combined mixture of 14th century farmhouse, 16th Century Yeoman’s Hall and Lutyens-designed modern house that creates the most beautiful scene, surrounded as it is by perfect gardens, the whole being set in yet more stunningly beautiful countryside. The patriarch who bought the place and made it his project, I learned, made his money in the first flush of sophisticated Victorian advertising, in which the modern nature of publicity, branding and mass-produced consumer goods meant worldwide sales to a public grateful for the reliable and the familiar. This meant he could retire at the age of 42. Which puts a new spin on the phrase “it pays to advertise.”

From there, we headed to Battle, which was decked out in red, white and blue bunting, and there were yet more Union Flags in people’s gardens. We stayed the night at this quintessential English town and drank French Merlot at a Trattoria, looking down the High Street at this place so central to mystical English identity. It was when I realised all those Union Flags had been bought on the proceeds of businesses in a town whose whole raison d’etre was to celebrate being invaded by the French, that I profoundly thought: wtf?

On again the next morning to Cuckmere, past the Long Man at Wilmington, supposed to be either neolithic, Celto-Roman, Saxon or modern, depending on which archaeologist is talking. Like so many other villages in East Sussex, the streets were cosy and warm and picturesque. 

They were also flaggy. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. You’re proud of this part of the country. It’s stunning. It’s genuinely something to be proud of. But this part of the country is not represented by a Union Flag (convenient political concoction born of debt and oppression) or a Cross of St George (dodgy myth about a Turkish knight). No, what really makes it distinctive is the hop fields and the oast houses with their white cowls used to dry the hops one tastes in English ales – hops that were originally Dutch imports. Even the word clapboard comes from the German root klappen – meaning to split. And all those flags – they are probably made in China. But hey. I get it. 

Then, down to the Birling Gap via Cuckmere, to walk along the coast and see the Seven Sisters, the great white cliffs. They reminded me of the cliffs at Dover, associated with all that safe, reassuring, misty-eyed patriotism, though I thought they could just as easily stand for upheaval, seeing as they are massive uplifted seabeds dotted with flints that were once sponges, long before flags were even thought of.

Next, over to Eastbourne to meet with a friend. And then, back to the Cuckmere Inn, where we stayed in the car park and – after a bite to eat and several pints of fine English ale – we walked down to the sea, waded the river and walked up by the meandering elegance of the snaking Cuckmere.

It was there, as the sun set and the birds made such a noise in the fields and the skies, and the cows lowed, and the gulls cried, I felt such a sense of sudden quiet and eternity and such a passion stirring inside me, that I too felt proud and awed to be, though it be for only a short time, a citizen of this world.

The next day we came home. And I have to say, East Sussex is beautiful. Despite those darn flags.

“We’re proud of England, see our flags flutter!
You can just feel the history: In High Weald’s
fossil-rich chalk downs, in bells of butter-
cups, clapboard houses and hanging hopfields.
Look! That oast house dried hops brought by the Dutch;
this stronghold’s built with gold that reeks with stench
of war. That Battle street, decked in so much
colour, celebrates defeat by the French.
Yet we welcome you. We know who we are –
we Sussex English, comfy in our skins,
grew up in this place. Though you come from far –
our distant ancestors saw it all begin.”
And Seven old Sisters don’t even shrug
at fleeting flags, knights, and Union Jack mugs.

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Trip to Dartmoor, May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

I’ve just got back from a real surprise. And that surprise is Dartmoor. I mean, I just had no idea.

True, I went to the National Park when I was a kid. My dad was in the Royal Navy, and had gone along as a natural expression of the ruggedy outdoorsy thing that he was connected up with as Exped Officer.

My memories are: dad struggling up a hill with a caravan (attached to our car, obvs), a cute antiques shop in a small village where I saw a badge depicting a Nazi spreadeagle clutching a swastika in a laurel wreath and big, open empty spaces. I was young.

I’ve also crossed the edge of the moors on a number of occasions, often in the rain, and have been struck by its complete bleakness.

This time, we headed west on Friday afternoon of the Bank Holiday in the camper, and spent our first night part way there in the The Haymaker Inn, Wadeford, Chard – a real local’s boozer, which did great pub classics – my ham, egg and chips had high quality crumbed ham and was just yumptious. The team were welcoming of a camper van, and we slept well after a few beers.

Early next morning, we headed on our way – torn between Exmoor (which we love) and trying out Dartmoor. Both of us had the idea that Dartmoor was a big, bleak open space – but we decided to give it a try, just for a change.

What a great choice that was! The first day we headed to the wonderfully named Castle Drogo, a Lutyens-modelled modern castle, where we stopped for breakfast in the impressive entrance driveway, before heading up into the National Trust car park and taking a walk down to the valley floor. It was a steep drop down in glorious sunshine, and we made our ways through luscious woodland in light that seemed to have have been specially laid on for artists. It’s a weird effect at this time of the year that I’ve also noticed previously in Exmoor – as if the trees have not grown, but been drawn by a fine draughtsman, with black shadows and startling deep green mosses and lichens on trees whose newly-sprouted leaves make them the sylvan equivalent of life-loving teenagers. There is something beautiful about trees at this time of the year, with luminescent greens overhead spreading deep cathedral light.

At times, the path opened up to stunning views across the valley where the soft leaves cotton-woolled into  emerald clouds.

Jackie and I walked with a kind of joyous anticipation at what was next. The valley floor vouchsafed a kingfisher and a yellow wagtail, and so much greenery and reflections on the river that it was like the world was new-made. The climb back up took us out to a viewpoint in which the hills spread out far into the distance, and it seemed that someone had fashioned the perfect landscape with us in mind.

A bite to eat, and a drive through more gorgeous and verdant woodland took us to the village of Moretonhampstead, where we mooched in the shops and I couldn’t resist an antiques buy. Then, newly provisioned after chatting with the locals who were super-friendly, out, up, on to the moors.

Taking a side road that squeezed and turned and twisted and dipped, single tracks with passing places and an occasional local farmer hurtling round corners with wild abandon, we climbed up on to the moors proper and found a space to park. We were up, now, in the sky, with the coconut smell of gorse bushes around us, and the steady khom khom khom of ponies that were sculpted by sunlight. Here we came to rest, sitting in the blaring silence that drowned everything else out, and feeling the slumber that sealed my spirit come upon me – that calm at the centre of being where the true me is. Except it wasn’t slumber. I didn’t sleep, but passed into eternity, the zen state where time reveals itself for what it is: illusion – and the world turns on its axis oblivious to the minutes and seconds of man. I was the same as the horses and the stones and the pools with the waterboatmen and the gorse in muddy green and the shaggy blonde of dried sedge.

Reading up here gave every word concreteness, and I read a novel, The Red Sailor, with joy as Jackie sat and crocheted, and we drank tea in the silence, and the sky came down to kiss us.

That night, I woke in the darkness to see the stars bewilderingly bright. The constellations seemed to be changed, and though some of the sky was familiar, it was teeming with new-bred stars. I aligned the centre stroke in Cassiopeia with the tail of Ursa Major to triangulate Polaris, but could not see it. Someone had stolen my night sky and filled it with milk, or the semen that fills the belly of the sky and creates newborn worlds – and I felt primitive and modern and bewildered and holy all at once, while the ponies stood around me, stock still, as old as the stones.

The next day, we headed through perfect countryside, and I felt as if we were suddenly in a fantasy world. Down into Widecombe where one of Dartmoor’s signature four-finialed church towers points stolidly at the sky, then out again onto the Moors. We climbed to the top of Haytor, a pile of striated granite left by a careless giant and sat in silence a while, taking in the scene. Then, joined by a pair of Slovaks, I broke the ice with the question: “Does this mean anything to you: Strc prst skrz krk?” They laughed and we fell into conversation.  They were I.T. developers out from London for the weekend, and had never been here before. We shared the sense of wonder at a place newfound.

And so the day went on, with us exploring, going through fairy dells where I was sure Mr Tumnus would suddenly appear, looking at Hobbit-shire fields and feeling like that small child again who stepped on to the moors. But this time, focussing on the really powerful stuff, the gentle and inexorable throb of deep life in the land.

That evening, we headed off the moors and stayed in a pub car park at Lydford. The Castle Inn is situated next to an ancient tower once used for court sessions and, next to that, a mediaeval church. The whole of life is there: social, legal and spiritual, in a microcosm. The food at the Castle Inn was excellent as was the beer, and we slept early and woke early, to break our fasts outside the castle tower as the sun beat down.

Next, a walk to Lydford Gorge before 8 am, descending down to stand at the base of the White Lady Waterfall, and feel the pagan magic of the world here. The thundering power of the water filled my ears and I felt more wonder. I paid an offering to the water deity in an atavistic moment and felt completed, somehow.

We lingered on the moors a while longer after eating a Devon Cream Tea at Lydford Gorge National Trust centre, and then made our ways home, filled with a kind of elation.

These moments, these are what life is for.

Stay here a few days and walk through your dreams:
down through green valleys, from high barren hills,
to lichen-scaled trees by numinous streams,
where moss-thickened walls ring deep fairy dells.
Feel, in your dreaming days far from the town,
all weight lift, till only a daisy chain
tied to your ankle keeps you on the ground –
else dandelion-clock-like, you blow away.
When you wake, you will wonder: were they true –
those careless nights and days which time fleeted
as though I walked in a magic-imbued
land, where world weariness is defeated?
If love is a dream of sky-kissing moors
Then I fell in love. Dartmoor: mon amour.

Posted in Inspirations, life, Pleasures | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Writers, Are There Royalties Waiting For You To Claim Them?

I woke up this morning and checked my bank account to see that I’d just received a couple of hundred quid come in from the ALCS, or Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, and thought I’d write about it, in case fellow writers haven’t yet heard of it.

I first encountered the ALCS in the 1990s when I was working for the tv show The Bill. I got a letter through the post telling me that my work might be seen in other countries, and there were all sorts of rights that as an author I might be eligible for. This was in the earlier days of sorting out copyright arrangements across countries in the EU. There was, I remember, some talk about libraries and universities across Europe, and other institutions who relied on work that had in some way been written. To be honest, I didn’t think my work qualified, since my stuff was on telly, but I joined up and thought well, let’s see what happens.

I think I got a few cheques come through – you know – enough to buy the odd pint. It wasn’t to be sniffed at, though, and I was doing “nothing” for it (except of course from producing works of genius for tv! [I jest]).

Then, one day I got a larger cheque – not huge – but you know, around £100. The accompanying letter told me that the ALCS had finalised payments for photocopying rights from academic libraries across the EU, and I was being sent my cut. This surprised me. I couldn’t imagine that anyone had photocopied my scripts for The Bill – but basically, the money had to be divvied up somehow, and I was eligible! Great. It’s then I realised they really are on our side and are looking to protect our interests.

The way it works is this. The ALCS actively identifies books, scripts and articles – both fiction and non-fiction – that may be eligible for one of the many copyright payments that are agreed nationally and internationally between countries. They compile a database, take payment, and then actively seek to find the authors who haven’t already joined. That’s how come I got my letter from them.

Of course, there are times when they can’t locate an author. So it’s quite possible that an article, book or script you have written has already amassed payment, and you need to let them know where you are. There is even a search option on the website to check out whether you’ve got money waiting for you.

As for fees, they are a not-for-profit organisation and they charge a small commission to keep the office running. Back in the early days they had two schedules: the first meant you weren’t a full member of the ALCS and paid a slightly higher percentage of the money they sent you. The second schedule meant you paid a membership fee (really low – something like £7 per annum) and you then received a lower commission fee. Either way, you are receiving money you otherwise would never get, so the fees are really not an issue.

These days, there’s a one-off fee of £36, which gets you signed up for life. The money comes out of your first royalties. The commission rate is 9.5%.

It’s all very straightforward. And who knows? You may be sitting on some cash already.

So, have a look – and spread the love! Share this with as many writers as you can. After all, we all need a helping hand from time to time, right?

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Snow encounters

Sometimes when the cold grips the town it grips my heart, too, and I feel the need to get out in the snow and walk.

Just so in winter’s late flowering yesterday, when I headed out in a flurry of flakes and trod over the iced streets down to the sea, where the water was green against the white downs of the distant Isle of Wight and the grey sky above.

Cold. Ice cold. On South Parade Pier, a guy was shovelling a path through half-melted snow that had refrozen into a sheet of ice, while the sea rolled and scattered beneath him. At the pier’s far end, I took it all in, the sea, the sky, the ice in the clouds, the unforgiving breath of winter – and felt immune to it all in my sheepskin jacket. Warm. Toastie. Against all that out there.

Then I went through that little enclosed space, the Rose Garden. Thorned twigs were coming to life in this early spring, their jagged edges dark against the snow. I felt the need to sit somewhere, quiet, and allow the depression that’s got me at the moment to just sit with me. Depression, she’s an unwanted visitor, but I find that I can’t just rail at her. Every time I do, she settles in more comfortably. When depression begins to warm her cold hands on my heart, then I find it better not to complain too much, but to drop the pace of my life and accept her latest visit. Don’t overdo it, don’t give yourself too much to do, but don’t do nothing. Sit with her. Bear her.

So I made my way to the shelter that sits on the seaward side of the Rose Gardens, elevated and looking down from what used to be a gun emplacement in Lumps Fort, a long time ago. Thus, I mounted the ramp with a mind to sit and enjoy the snowbound geometry of the rosebeds.

At the top of the ramp there is an alcove in a wall, where once perhaps soldiers stored artillery rounds. A pile of cloth was stuffed in there I noted. Then, getting closer, I saw a rucksack, and realised it was a sleeping bag next to it.

The sleeping bag was not moving. Perhaps it had been dumped? But no, I could see a shape of a body. Suddenly afraid, I straightened and stood stock still, alert for any movement. There was none. I stepped closer and listened and could hear no breathing either and the fear grew stronger. Depression does this. It makes one less willing to face life, leaving one’s emotions all raw and ready to be stung and poked without any filters.

After a while, I walked away, not sure what to do. I took a breath. The image of the sleeping bag would not leave me and I went back. Perhaps I could get a hot drink. Chocolate or something. With a growing sense of dread, I continued to watch. No movement at all. Nothing to indicate a life in that snowbound scene. And so I walked over and said:

“Are you okay? Just checking in with you. Let me know.”

I watched and waited. And then, the sleeping bag moved and rolled over, away from me, and I could see it had its back to me, and whoever it was wanted to sleep more. I thought: Alive and was relieved.

“Do you want anything?”

But the bag just rolled itself up more, trying to get away from my voice.

I stood there a while and felt useless, and turned away, making my way round the snowbound edges of Canoe Lake. I felt pathetic for my ineffectuality.

On the far side of the lake was a man in a thin summer coat over a cheap jumper. I saw him talk to another morning walker, who looked embarrassed and walked on. When I got closer, I saw he had a half-drunk bottle of wine on the bench next to him.

As I went by, I was struck by his watchful calm.

He spoke to me:

“There’s a big snowball there, if you want to throw it,” and he pointed at a ball of dirty grey snow about 75 centimetres wide, the remnants of a snowman that some kids had built and others had kicked in with gleeful indifference.

“Shall I throw it at you?” I said.

He laughed, and we fell into conversation.

“I’m freezing,” he said.

I looked at him more closely. He didn’t look like a tramp. His clothes had a washed-out grey to them, and his trousers were dirty, but his skin was freshly washed and his hair clean. There was a look about him that said he was well fed, but his lips were grey and starting to go blue.

“Well, what are you doing, sitting out here?”

“I’m in a residential home,” he said with desperate passion. “But I can’t stand it. It’s an awful place, I don’t want to be there with those goons. They’re all in their 80s and I shouldn’t be there. I’m only 64.” He added the last with a pathetic plea in his voice.

“Can’t you move out?”

“My brother put me in there. My own brother – put me in a home and I can’t get out. And he’s got all my money. He’s got loads of money – a great big place in Hayling Island and just gave his kids £200,000 each to buy a house, and he puts me in a home I don’t want to be in.”

I looked at him for a moment. It was a strange story that didn’t quite make sense and I felt that I shouldn’t get tangled up with him. But then… he looked so desperate.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Donald.”

“Matt,” I said, and offered him my hand. He shook it and his was like a block of ice. I was shocked at how cold he was. He, actually, really was freezing, as he’d said. “You know, wine isn’t going to warm you up.”

“No. But I like the taste of it, you see. And I need to do something. And it’s only £4.30 from the Co-op, which is a cheap wine. It’s rubbish. But it’s a bargain. Do you go to any pubs?”

I told him I did and so we passed the time. At one point he said.

“How long can you go without food?”

“What?”

“Days? Weeks? The landlord who runs the home, he fasts for a month,” he said, seemingly baffled. “His name is Abdullah.”

“Ah, well, you see, they can eat at night, just not in the daytime.”

“What’s the point?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. He says he’s 12 stone, but he’s half the size of me. With a shiny head.” He looked at me. “I say he’s like a little black ant.”

The words he was speaking told me little and much at the same time. Snippets of a life, like a jumbled book of postcards.

“You can’t stay out here,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

“I’m not going back there,” he replied, adamantly.

“Couldn’t you go and sit in the library? At least it’s warm.”

“Where’s that?”

But then he dismissed the idea out of hand.

He was getting colder by the minute. I could see it.

“Look, do you want to get a cup of tea? I’ll get you one,” I said, and pointed over to the Canoe Lake cafe.

“That’s very kind.”

I reached in my pocket and realised I didn’t have any cash on me.

“Wait. I’ll be back.”

When I got back from the cash point, he stood up and walked with me on unsteady feet.

He sat down to drink his tea and was shaking so much from the cold he could hardly hold the cup. I need to warm him up, I thought, and so I carried on chatting with him. Depression, I suppose. It helps me to help other people. Distracts me from myself.

As we talked, we began to loop around the same subjects. He reintroduced himself to me, and asked my name again, then told me he was in a home and couldn’t stand it. He would mention other housemates, and then, after a brief digression, go back to them again. “We argue,” he said. “I can’t stand them.”

At another table were some Down’s Syndrome people, talking loudly – out on a walk to see the snow. One of them was squawking and grunting, and Donald became agitated.

“Who are these people?” he asked me, clenching his jaw. “Who are they?”

He had his back to the group and seemed so angry that he couldn’t look round at them.

“They’ve got Down’s Syndrome,” I said. “They can’t help it.”

He looked at me and forced a smile. “Nor can I,” he said.

As he talked more and I began to see the pattern of his conversation, I realised that he was probably in a home because he had early onset Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t hold thoughts for long, and drew on older memories. Everything recent was blurry. At one point he told me that he’d had his wallet stolen, then that he was due an inheritance, then that his brother was keeping the money from him, looping and looping around.

I went to the counter and asked the women if they’d seen him before. One of them had.

“He’s in a home,” she said. “A really awful place. I’ve heard it from someone else, too. The other guy, his window is smashed and hasn’t even been fixed. He was in here, crying.”

I sat with Donald a while longer, and then, when I saw that he’d warmed up, left him with a pot of tea and headed out.

I realised he needed better care than he was getting. That he needed medical attention and his case dealt with properly – and if that were done, he could go to a place where he would at least be a little more happy. One thing was clear. The way things were now had led him to hypothermia in the snow.

A few days earlier, I had been in Waitrose, and overheard an old woman complaining about the homeless begging outside.

“It’s just so awful having them here. Why can’t they move them on? Or get rid of them?”

“I know,” said the shop assistant. “They come in here, and it’s really offputting.”

“And they’re conmen,” she said. “They’ve got places to go, they just can’t be bothered to work. They sit out there all day, and they could be working. Why aren’t they working? How do I know they’re homeless? They’re not homeless. They’re just begging because they’re lazy.”

She said it with authority. She had obviously read it somewhere.

It was then I realised the lack of imagination of so many of us, who can’t see the other stories of people’s lives that don’t fit our world view, and how easily people can fall through the cracks in society’s imagination. And at that moment of a lack of imagination, we fall back on defensive positions that feed on the worst of us. Her incomprehension that in modern Britain, people could be homeless made me wonder how far removed her world view is from mine.

Yet, how easy it is to be vulnerable. How easily Donald had nearly made himself seriously ill by just slipping outside for a few hours to sit on his own. How easy it is, in our precarious world to slip. How, by making tiny mistakes, we can end up freezing on a park bench in the snow, or sleeping in an alcove, with no-one around to care.

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Observations in Paris 1: A Trump Voter

Met a Trump voter in Paris. She was actually really an intelligent woman, which surprised me, because, I admit, I’ve built a stereotype of racist rednecks full of bigotry and hate being solely responsible for Trump’s rise to power. She was an ex-school teacher, very brainy and smart thinking, extremely curious about the world in general. At one point early on, she asked:
 
“How come the rest of the world knows so much about American politics? They know stuff here that we don’t even know in the US.”
 
I said to her: “Well, if America’s going to take on the role of self-appointed leader of the free world, then we’re going to want to have a say in where we’re being led.”
 
Those two words “self-appointed” shook her. She asked me what I’d said and took a while to process it. As far as she understood it, the US had unwillingly taken the burden of world leadership. That is a central point of the American psyche that I had never noted before. That they think they’re doing us a great big favour by making the world bow to American policy because “democracy”, and that it isn’t that after World War 2 we all needed to band together out of necessity because we needed each other to face down Communism.
 
With the end of the Soviet Empire and with Trump now actively in bed with Putin, that mantle “leader of the free world” suddenly seems out of date.
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The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

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Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.

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The Last Jedi – Reviewed by a Star Wars sceptic

I’m going to make a confession. I really don’t like Star Wars.

It’s been a complicated relationship. When I first heard of Star Wars, I loved the sound of it. At school, I got swept along swapping the Star Wars bubble gum cards, I devoured the novel adaptation and collected the comics. I was seriously into Star Wars. I loved the idea of it.

But going to the cinema wasn’t something our family did very often, and I have to confess that during all the Star Wars mania that I joined in, I never once went to see it at the movies.

So, when it premiered on BBC tv in the early ’80s, I was intrigued. I really wanted to see what I hadn’t seen when I was a kid. Sadly, I had grown up, and the film was… well… boring. It was plagued with long, slow establishing scenes, by unsophisticated dialogue, and by jumping between story arcs in a mechanical way that felt like it was simply story-telling by numbers. Basically, the Star Wars in my imagination was better than the one on the small screen that Christmas. What a let-down!

I did watch The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema, and I liked it – though I’d already read the novelisation by the time I saw it, and the book was better… and then came the third one, whose name I’ve forgotten. The one with Jabba. And by then, I’d lost interest.

The thing that I felt let the series down was muppets. Yoda was a muppet, the stupid jazz band at the Mos Eisley canteen were (sort of) muppets, bits I saw of that third (yes, I know, sixth) movie had muppets. And boy, did I hate Yoda. Everything about him from his stupid Fozzy Bear voice and Kermit face, to his bad grammar and his faux spiritual insights made my blood boil.

Yet, like a massochist, when Phantom Menace came out, I thought, I’ll give it a shot. It’s a new take on the old series – a fresh start. Maybe things will be better.

That’s when I encountered Jar Jar Binks. Oh, boy. We’d gone beyond muppets to racial stereotypes in CGI. I squirmed in embarrassment at the cinema. I skipped a couple, catching them later online. Pretty much the same dull storytelling. I caught up with that third (sixth) one whose name I’ve forgotten – the Jabba one – and noticed how there wasn’t really a story. And as for the terribly portrayed dilemma Darth Vader has in finally saving Luke – that just took FOREVER to unwind. Man. The series was a no-hoper. Lame.

Yet, I still hoped. I hoped that Lucasfilms would turn out something smarter than it was doing at the moment – which was creating kids’ space operas.

So I continued to watch the films, like a spectator watching a car crash through the gaps in his fingers.

Rogue One was better, I thought, though still with its problems. The Force Awakens not great, and basically a re-run of the first one (the fourth one – that numbering issue also pisses me off).

And so, like a penitent going to church to confess his sins, I went to watch The Last Jedi – once again expecting to be disappointed, but somehow, hoping against hope that this movie would hit the right bases to make me love it.

And, despite all my scepticism, it did it! This movie actually worked. The storyline is tight, the arcs within it layered, with plenty of different emotional truths. It even manages to look at the life behind the continual warfare between Rebels and Empire / First Order to those who profit from it. It was more mature than I expected, and the characters felt real – conflicted, smart.

I’m not going to go into detail and give spoilers – but I’m going to say, if this jaded, anti-Star Wars viewer would be happy to watch it again, then the show is doing something right. Great work. This movie is a recommend.

Even despite the muppet.

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I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai – Matt Wingett Book Review.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban

I’ve just finished reading I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, and I’m far more moved than I expected.

This is partially because of the excellent skill of the co-writer who has interviewed and put together this powerful account of a young girl’s life in the Swat Valley in Pakistan – but it’s more than that. It’s also a story of great personal suffering as the result of simply wanting to do something we take for granted in our lives – the chance to learn to read and write, and from there to learn more things.

There is something deeply authentic about the way Malala’s story unfolds. From her early life she faces the deep conservatism of the Pashtun tribal system which does not celebrate the birth of a girl and fetes the birth of a boy. As their first child, her parents are deeply proud of her and her father is aggrieved when his father won’t bring gifts to celebrate her birth. Since Malala’s grandfather didn’t acknowledge her birth, he prevents the grandfather from then celebrating the births of the boys who came after. Radical thinking for Swat Valley.

Thus Malala grows up supported by a father who is an educationalist, living at first in utter poverty as he borrows money to try to start a school – and several times being flooded out by unexpected deluges. But slowly his reputation grows, and the school he sets up becomes well attended. Scenes of village life and the beauty of the Swat Valley are lingered over in the book, with idyllic scenes of the girls playing among the ruins of the Stupas of the former Buddhist religion that fell into disrepair over a thousand years before.
This section is rich and powerful, and the structuring of her slow rise to becoming a renowned local speaker as a schoolgirl, all the while encouraged by her father who has a strong belief in girls’ education is brilliantly evoked.

Then come the Taliban, as part of the overspill of the war in Afghanistan. The political background to their rise in the Swat Valley is clearly explained. Malala describes how, in order to bolster previous governments, former dictator-presidents had made Pakistan a Muslim state – encouraging a hardline Muslim attitude to life in contrast to the everyday Islam that Malala and her classmates enjoyed at their enlightened school. Thus, the arrival of the Taliban is sanctioned at least tacitly by central government and the Pakistani secret service.

The Taliban’s rise to power has a chilling lesson for anyone concerned with freedom. A self-appointed Talib, or teacher, a man called Fazlullah starts a radio station, apparently deeply pious and benign in intent. In natural disasters, it is always the Taliban who arrive on scene first to help, while Fazlullah’s pronouncements on the radio are approved of by the populace, who see his observations about the length of a man’s beard or whether women should go out covered up or not as wholly in keeping with the Qur’an’s holy message.

But over time, as Fazlullah’s influence spreads, the message hardens until he has turned the population in such a way that it accepts the whipping of people in the streets, and shrugs at the murder of those they disapprove of. All videos and CDs are handed in and burned. No ideas other than Fazlullah’s ideas are allowed. And slowly some of the population begin to wake up to what has happened, despite many also approving of his hardline message.

In many ways my blood ran cold with this. Because although the techniques are different in the West, I see the same creeping doctrine of Far Right organisations in the West mirroring this rise. Brexiteers spread division through lies about Europe, while suggesting that Britain in some way has a special place in the world – a playing to the myths and the hankerings of the general populace, whilst hiding their Far Right agenda. The same happened with Trump in America – normalising extremism and demonising the enemy. It is extraordinary how the techniques of misinformation are echoed in this story.

That Malala reports all this in anonymous reports for the BBC makes her secret alter ego a natural target for the Taliban.

The upheaval and displacement that comes for Malala and her family is well reported – but eventually the secret of her identity comes out.

The final section of the book deals with the revenge of the Taliban. The personal suffering her shooting causes is brilliantly handled, and the reality and colour of the lives of the family are truly vibrant. I confess, I cried.

This is a great book.

It’s available here.

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Justice League, short review. (contains spoilers)

I watched Justice League yesterday afternoon. Probably a mistake to go on a Sunday, day. Very badly behaved group behind me, which meant I relocated in the cinema three times. First to get away from noise, but then, after sitting at the front, being interrupted repeatedly by people leaving to go to the loo / get a drink. I never realised just how much traffic there was – it was incessant. So I moved again.
 
The film is a vast improvement on previous DC offers, Wonder Woman aside. It has learned that the dark mood that worked for Batman didn’t work for its other hero movies, and so it has lightened up, with a degree of piss-taking going on between the central characters.
 
They do have a problem with the Amazons. It was great to see them again, but they are seriously underpowered. In Wonder Woman, they are mowed down by invading Germans with guns – in JL they are fighting a creature that’s far more powerful, and they simply haven’t got the strength to put up a fight. The problem is that in the comics, the Amazons have an advanced technology that is cloaked in Bronze Age robes. In the new films, the Amazons have Bronze Age technology. Firing arrows at an invading superpowered villain looks stupid.
 
Wonder Woman was, once again, a star turn. I teared up as soon as she came on screen. She is for me a kind of singularity of heroism and grace. The implied love interest with Bruce Wayne was a surprise.
 
The League’s teamwork was also good, and well worked out in the fights, which, although there were extended fight scenes, weren’t too long, and this helped the story move on.
 
There is one other problem, and it’s been one I’ve thought for a long time. The problem with Superman is that he is too powerful. Basically, without Superman, the DC universe is interesting. With him, there doesn’t seem to be much point in having any other superheroes. This has been the case since Superman developed the ability to fly in the late 40s, early 50s. No more was he just a tough, strong man with tough skin, but a god. That’s a problem, and I don’t know how DC gets round it.
 
But all in all a fun film. Not as sublime as Wonder Woman, which is the best superhero movie for a long time, but good, nevertheless, and sees the DC Universe starting to find its feet.
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