Tag Archives: childhood

A Mashed Potato Race

The minute we sat at the dining table, six-year-old Charlie and I started having fun.  The truth is, I love sitting with kids at dinner tables.  They are so much more enjoyable than the adults.

Within a few minutes, we had discussed the lobsters that live on the ceiling, and sometimes lose their grips and fall on the heads of the diners, and we talked about how the dwarf fireman comes in with a high power hose to wash the lobsters away, and the little-known fact that the hotel we were eating in every night put out trampolines for the lobsters to exercise on, and cleared them away in the morning before the diners came to eat. And we talked about the bizarre nature of monsters.

I carry a notebook around with me most of the time, and Charlie and I started drawing monsters.  He started first with a velociraptor, which was an okay kind of a monster, with big teeth and big eyes, and a pointy tale.  But I wanted to show him one of the ways his imagination might work, and how he could get to make up the rules – so we drew monsters with all sorts of extra bits: one with wheels on the ends of his 6 legs so that if he got too scary, when he fell asleep we could push him off a cliff.  Another with a fierce looking hook for one hand, and a rather civilised salad server for the other, a snake for a leg, and a hedgehog for the other leg that made him go “owww!” when he walked. Another that rushed at you shouting “I will eat me!” and then did exactly that when it attacked you, so that there was nothing left, except yourself, blinking at how a monster could turn into nothing in such short time.  Soon Charlie was howling with laughter and started adding bizarrenesses of his own to his monsters.  A roller-skate monster with the weirdest face and a leg growing out of its back was the starting point.  He was alight, and I was loving it.

When it came to ordering our food, I decided that we were going to get along famously, so when he ordered sausage and mashed potato, I did the same.  This made us little conspirators at the end of the table, while the grown-ups talked about all the things that grown-ups talk about at their end of the table.  Our mood  was so much better then theirs, I thought, and we laughed even more, and had to quieten down a little because we were getting a bit raucous.

Then the food came, and the thing happened that I remembered had happened to me when I was a boy.  When Charlie started eating the sausage, a change came over him.  His eyes puffed up, he pulled a face and looked longingly down the table at the burger and chips someone else had ordered. “I should have ordered the burger,” he said, sadly, and his throat tightened as a lump formed in it, that was made of all the grizzles and struggles he’d had with food he didn’t like at other dinner tables on other days.

Oh, I remembered all that from when I was a kid.  Not liking the taste of a partcicular food, and being told to eat it, I had turned the food into an instrument of torture with which I had made dinner times a living hell – not only for me but for my parents, too.  I saw Charlie pick up the sausage and start trying to pull out the bits of herb that he took exception to, and realised that if I didn’t act quickly, we might have a bit of local difficulty.  I smiled at him and gave him a wink.

“What do you think of it?” he asked me.

I prodded a piece of sausage on to the end of a fork and put it in my mouth, chewing theatrically.  “Scrummy, yummy, scrummy,” I said.  It was the first moment at which our rapport had been dented, and I saw him internalising a struggle.  I imagined it as follows: Everything I had said up to that point had been reliable and fun, now he was a little sad that he was on his own.  I jumped in quickly as he put his head on his hand and looked at the bowl of sausage and mash as if he were gazing down a mineshaft at an afterlife of eternal damnation and proddings with tridents.  And I said, really quickly:

“Remember when you had really good times and laughed?”

He looked up at me.  “When?  I can’t think of any…”

“What about when monsters have salad servers for hands and lobsters live on the ceiling?”

He brightened up and smiled at me.

“That’s amazing, isn’t it?  The fun of it.  And then there were all the times you’ve played and had a really good time.  And when you put that piece of sausage in your mouth, you’ll remember them.  I don’t know if you know it, but if you taste a food you thought you didn’t like 11 times, your body starts liking the taste.  It’s like magic.  And when that sausage goes in your mouth, you’ll remember sunshine, and play and laughter, and all the fun you’ve ever had will explode across your mouth, and it will be amazing!”

He had gone quite quiet as he thought about what I had just told him.  He tried the sausage again, with a little bit of uncertainty.  He didn’t like it so much, but he was fascinated by the future pace of 11 tastes and the possibility that things might change.  It just needed one more element to shift it all the way.  And it was further down the table: a little pot of ketchup.  I grabbed it.  “Dip it in there, first!”

He dipped with some pleasure, and when he put the sausage in his mouth I pulled a funny face and said crazy things, and he laughed as loud as he could.  Then he ate some more, and every time he did, I told him what a great guy he was, and gave him a big “well done” in a light and friendly way.

Later on, his mum asked him to eat the mashed potato, and I could see that it wasn’t that he didn’t like it, but just that he was full of sausage.  I had paced him, and had left my mashed potato, too.  And so, we just needed to do one more thing to make sure that he had eaten enough food to get him through to the evening meal:

“On your marks, get set… go!”

Yes, we had a mashed potato race, as the invisible trampolining lobsters and the roller-skate monsters and the self-devouring beasts looked on, shouting for one of us, or the other, to win.

And Charlie was obviously very good at mashed potato snaffling, because, when I looked at his empty bowl, it was clear he had beaten me.  Hands down.  And all around us, staring from the little nooks and crannies of the ceiling, and beneath tables, and from behind chairs, the monsters and lobsters were cheering!

Borrowing Some Light From Author Graham Hurley

Graham Hurley is a fascinating man.  Lean, with a grey-white widow’s peak, and a slight spike to his hair, he stands before the assembled group in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Dockyard, among ancient cannons and other relics of Tudor life – square backgammon sets and soft leather shoes, solid wooden cups and terrifying metal syringes: a modern figure, poised, thoughtful and calm, taking a few seconds to gather his thoughts.

Graham Hurley, International Thriller Writer, and Local Boy
Graham Hurley, International Thriller Writer, and Local Boy

The Mary Rose Museum is not the most obvious place to meet an internationally published author with a string of 27 novels to his name.  And yet there is a logic to it.  Graham has made Portsmouth the subject of many of his books, including the series that has proven a real success over the last ten years.  Those are the novels with, at their centre, the “slightly woolly and not quite solid” Joe Faraday, a Portsmouth Detective Inspector involved in investigating murders and other heinous crimes in the dark criminal underworld of the naval port.  The stories are internationally acclaimed, yet rooted in the island city.  Hurley’s writing straddles two horses.  To me, a dweller in Pompey, his work is that of a local author who describes the railway stations and roads, housing estates and seascapes of my home town.  So, it is strange to think that under the magic filter of his writing, the streets of Britain’s only island city might seem to others a dark, crime-ridden place, exotic, grimy and extreme – or somehow like Detective Inspector Rebus’s Edinburgh, except with frigates and a Pompey accent.

Look at him as an exhibit now, standing among the glass cases of the Mary Rose Museum, beside him a beautifully carved metre-long model of the old Tudor warship, motionlessly plying its way across a circle of yellow formica above a sea of blue carpet.  Take in his angular figure with the prow-like nose and the eyes that seem often focussed in a middle distance, deep-set in his head.  The long delicate line of the jaw and the face that is lined with the experience of his craft, and of the people he has met who have fed his storytelling life.  Note his tight khaki jumper and his jeans slightly loose around the lean waist because, maybe, he has burned up the carbs with his obvious mental energy. And note also the calm and pulled-back manner in his movements.  Unassuming.  If I were to identify an aesthetic to his look it would be this: “Light”.

The talk he is about to deliver, in his measured voice will wash over the audience for an hour and a half.  It will be on the subject I am learning about every day.  It is “the virus in his blood” that he has made a living from, and which pushes him onwards and onwards to new creativity: writing.

…as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library…

With little preamble, he begins, speaking in his soft manner, intimate, pulling us in to listen to the quiet way he describes his early world.  His talk is heartening, warm, inspiring, informative and joyful.  So he tells us how he revelled in a post-War childhood devoid of television, and how those early years echoed with his father’s great love: the Third Programme.  Bach, Brahms and Beethoven were the choices he had for evening entertainment with the family, and in response to those choices he tells us how he drew into the world inside his own mind to form his own entertainment.  How he would disappear with a feigned bad head and head up to his room to read and read and read.

He tells us how, as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library and how that ticket transported him to whole new worlds.  He tells us how one day he took “one step up” in the library and started reading books from that “great tidal wave of writing” that came out of World War II.  Page-turning stories, page-turning documentaries that absolutely pulled him along and taught him what a book should do: hold your reader with every word.  And he tells us how his mother, avid for movies, took him every Tuesday through the snow and the sunshine to the cinema to watch “Reach for the Sky” and “The Cruel Sea” and so many others – many being films of the books he had already absorbed – and which gave him yet more insight into the way a story is made.

These were the formative years of the writer, which were followed by the apprenticeship.  When he was only 13 years old he started his first novel.  In the freezing parlour that was reserved by the family for special days he set up his Olivetti 32 typewriter with carbon copy paper on the bridge table and was faced with his first task of “getting his characters into the room”.  He tells us how that piece of simple choreography was for him an immensely difficult task.  Why?  Because it meant negotiating a door… which entailed considering what that door might be made of, and the colour of it, and how it was painted, and the tribe that sat under it in the rainforest that the wood came from…  At this time Graham’s filtering process was not yet fully developed, but this single revelation told me something else: that he had the writer’s “sideways mind” when young.  That a door wasn’t just a door, but was a portal into possibilities that others miss.  And that too, was a gift that would be immensely useful in his later writing.

Five novels later, he had served his apprenticeship, and headed for university, where he studied English Literature in the vain hope of learning something from the great novelists of the past.  But being an expert in Anglo-Saxon was not the most useful of skills for the novelist – and after returning home to Clacton-On-Sea he had no idea what he was going to do.  The first plan was to go to Paris, find an atelier high up in a garret somewhere and to write.  However, the dream foundered on the fact that he had no money, and his parents were not about to be forthcoming.  And so, after two days of being woken by his mother bearing a cup of tea that she placed at his bedside, on the third day he was instead given a copy of the Daily Telegraph – opened at the “Situations Vacant” column.

And here, the main body of the story begins.  Believing he had little hope of getting the job, he applied to Southern TV to become a scriptwriter, and to his amazement, was taken on.  The world of TV was something that came as a shock to him.  I can see him now: walking from his quiet life in Clacton, and then from the rarefied halls of Cambridge University with its wide lawns and its picturesque punts by the river, into a media world of pretty girls and a whirl of people and “a bar as you went into the studios” and hence a great social life to go with it.  And I can see the realisation dawning on him that he had just entered a world that was almost exactly the opposite of the world he had imagined being as a novelist.  And one that would be indispensible to him later on.

So he became involved in writing and making documentaries, and realised that the skill that he was to learn there – one of genuine nosiness – would stand him amazingly well in learning the stories of the people who would one day populate his novels.  As he puts it himself: “The novelist builds bridges into other people’s lives.”

Around this time, Graham met Neil Slatter, a man who, as a teenager broke his neck in a motorbike crash near Petersfield, Hampshire.  Graham followed Neil around Britain with a film crew, making a documentary about this indomitable man’s drive to build awareness of quadriplegia.  And at the end of making the documentary, when he showed it to Neil, Neil’s response was a simple one: “If you want to know the real truth about my life, then you will need to interview everyone, and do it properly.”  And so Graham used that innate nosiness that he had honed do exactly that, and write a book telling Neil’s real story.

There were things that he uncovered that were certainly not what he had expected or would have wished for, and certainly not what Neil had wanted to know.  Like, for example, the way that Neil’s girlfriend had been having an affair with his best friend for 18 months prior to the accident… all sorts of details that, in a way, put Graham in the God-like position of knowing more about a man’s life than the man himself.

When he handed the manuscript to Neil, he told him he may not like it and he could burn it, if he wished.  In fact, Neil was seriously angry when Graham returned a week later to see him again, but Neil’s number one question was this: “Is it true?”  When Graham said it was, then Neil went on to say: “Then let’s publish it.”

“Lucky Break” was Graham’s first book – and as he relates its birth to the audience in the Mary Rose Museum, I realise that actually, it was my first contact with the man – or at least his work.

Lucky Break - Graham's first book

I joined, Milestone Publications, the local publisher who published his book, as a teaboy and general dog’s body about 3 years after publication, and one of my jobs had been to deliver to Neil, in his Petersfield council house, the remainder copies.  Neil gave me a copy to read, and I dipped into it from time to time with interest.  It was the first “real” book that I had been close to in production terms.  The other volumes Milestone published tended to be local photo books with titles like “Portsmouth Past and Present”, “Portsmouth Then and Now” and the ever-so-catchily titled series: “The Pubs of Portsmouth”, “The Cinemas of Portsmouth”… and so on.

Graham continues his tale, telling us how his television work took him all over the world, producing and making tv shows in all sorts of places.  He was in the team that found the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed, and in the 6 weeks on board that boat trawling around the Arctic Circle with an underwater camera, came up with the idea for a thriller about a nuclear stand-off. It would become a tv show in the height of the cold War called “Rules of Engagement.

But wait a minute..!  Back up there.  Did Graham really say he was in the team that discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed?

Yes, he really did!   And yet he spoke about it as if it was nothing.  Absolutely astonishing.  I reflect on it for a moment, and I suppose this tells me more about the man.  Yes, discovering the Titanic was amazing.  But his focus now is on his writing, and on being a novelist.  Finding the Titanic is something he has done.  But tonight, we are here to find out who he is.

He talks about contacting his agent Carol Blake to land him a contract with Pan to deliver that novel, and waiting by the phone to get a call back.  And then being commissioned to produce a first draft of the novel in just two and a half months.  That’s 150,000 words and 550 pages of blockbuster novel.  And he talks about the crisis it caused in him, always speaking in that quiet manner of his:  “But I can’t do it,” he told his wife, who very matter-of-factly replied: “You have been boring me for 11 years telling me you want to be a novelist.  Well now’s your chance.  So do it.”

And he did.

Graham also talks about the wrangles he had with his publishers in producing his books. He talks about the horror that is artwork, and how it is chosen.  For example, there are reds and blacks and a silhouetted warship and plenty of barbed wire in a cinema-style “letterbox” design on the cover of his novel for “Rules of Engagement”.  The design knocks out female readers before the book is even off the shelf.  For a man who became a writer because it is “the self-confessed refuge of the control freak” it must have been a heck of a blow, putting up with that cover.

As time went by, writing generated its own rhythm in Graham’s life.  He organized his life to fit it: writing in the winter, between October and May, and getting out in the sunshine throughout the whole of the summer.  It is a wonderful life, the way he tells it, and he genuinely comes across as a truly happy and fortunate man.  I think what I like about Graham most is his modesty.  It is clear he is shrewd, that he observes and that he makes some very smart choices – and yet when he has success, then he is “lucky”.  It reminds me of the old saying: “People say I’m lucky. And what’s funny is, the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  His determination and persistence are a pattern and a model.  He deserves his luck.  He has worked for it.

…the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own…

As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that Graham has for many years had a fascination with Portsmouth.  When he talks about the idea of the city declaring UDI in one of his early novels, through different stories set in the city, to finally writing his Faraday novels, Portsmouth always looms.  It’s as if the city is in his blood.

He also talks about the snobbishness and petty-mindedness of the London metropolitan set.  He talks of receiving embarrassed smiles and looks of sympathy when you say that you don’t live in London, and the almost complete incomprehension when you say you live in a city like Portsmouth.  What is hilarious about it is the assumption of superiority of the London set.  Yet the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own.

The night deepens, the cold water beneath the building in the Naval dockyard gets colder still, the black night blackens further outside, and we begin to feel a chill setting in in the Museum.  Now, finally, Graham talks of the turn of fate that led Orion to extend an invitation to him to write detective fiction.  And how from that invitation, the character of Faraday was born.  He talks about researching and rubbing shoulders with the police officers of Portsmouth and of Hampshire, with all their paranoia and their suspicion – and how he decided to write a low-key crime novel, rather than the grand gestures of the “serial killer” novels. He talks about being as faithful as he can to the police officer’s life while still making a good story, about the paperwork, and about the way that in any hierarchy, the lower ranks slag off and bitch about the higher ranks.  He talks about and wrote about the reality of policing.  And then he talks about more of that supposed “good luck” that he has, which is most certainly a product of the way that he approaches his writing.

Hence, he tells us how he was contacted by the high ranking police officer Colin Smith and was told that he would be invited to attend the next “decent murder” that they had to investigate, rather than a standard “three dayer”.  All the doors in the force were opened to him from then on – and he began to observe and understand the amazing power and reach of the serious crimes unit.

Ten years and 12 novels later, Graham has finally decided to pull the plug on the stories of Faraday and Portsmouth.  He has moved away from the city, and now lives in East Devon.  But he talks at times of still being able to feel the pulse of the city, of understanding how it works, of knowing the areas of deprivation and toughness in the place.  He talks about this little island as being a microcosm for the larger island of the UK – away from which it stands across a small creek.

He talks about his “luck”, and being “fortunate”.  And I know full well that that is only partly true.  Graham has made his luck with an attitude and a definite sense that there could be no other way to live his life than the way he has done.  He has prioritised and he has succeeded.

It’s a fascinating evening, and as I step into the night and look up at the icy lights in the shape of a Christmas tree hanging from the masts of HMS Warrior, above the black, iron water of the harbour, beneath a frozen December night, I know that there is nowhere quite like this city, and there is plenty more to come from it.  Stories.  Stories.  Stories.

Thank you Graham.  You shed some light on the way you write.  That was helpful.  I will borrow some of your light, if that’s okay.

Graham Hurley’s talk took place at The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Naval Dockyard on 9th December 2010.  His latest book, “Borrowed Light” was published on 10th December 2010.

His website is at http://www.grahamhurley.co.uk/

Explosions In The Air. What Fun!

An Explosion in the Air!

Fireworks.  Yummy!  Remember, remember at this time of year…

Piles of Summer’s gold-leaf calling cards scattered in the gutter, dropped as he hurried on his way to warmer climes.

Enter stage left, with the  sudden curtain-drop of night as the clocks mysteriously go backward: October in a black cloak glinting with stars, and a pointed hat on her head.  Cobwebs hang in circular expansions of dewy light, pumpkins grimace; and then the curtain rises to reveal the luminous magic of lighted fires licking ice from the cold air.

If October was a witch, then November is a stage magician.

See him now: flickering his light on open-mouthed, upturned faces hot with expectation at the magic he will pull from the empty air.  As you watch, feel how the soil you are standing on is soft beneath your feet.  Notice the crazy-quilt effect of scattered leaves on the fields: the earth is pulling up its winter duvet, preparing a place for small warm creatures to sleep.  And then…

“First the wind’s light touch

blew paper-dry withered leaves down,

Then it was time to light blue touch paper

– and fire leaps up all around!”

At last, the ecstatic explosion of bombs on sticks, the fizz, the whizz the bang.

November’s here.

Explosions in the air.  What fun!

Fireworks.  Yummy!  Remember remember, childhood times of kicking leaf-lined gutters and seeing the gold-leaf calling cards of the summer dropped on the floor as it rushed to go?  The sudden blackness of night as the clocks mysteriously went back, and the magic of lighted fires. Golden flames little suns to ward of the winter a little while longer. The ecstatic explosion of bombs on sticks, the fizz, the whizz the bang.  Light blue touch paper.  Retire.  Always

A Little Boy, Lost In The Moment

A tiny moment of pleasure.  Scene: The Street Outside An Acupuncturist’s Clinic on Palmerston Road, Southsea.  Time: 3 p.m.  The shop is divided into the clinic, and a private living space, and the door to the living area has been left open.

As I walk down the street I hear the sound of a piano being played, and passing an open door, see a little Chinese boy of around 5 years old intensely concentrating on the keys of a piano as he falteringly produces the tune to “Camptown Races”.  I stand by the door and listen as he works his way gradually up the keyboard, changing the key as he proceeds.

A still moment.  The traffic and people pass by outside, and he is totally focussed on his music. He’s not brilliant at what he’s doing, and he makes mistakes.  But he corrects his mistakes, and carries on, teaching his fingers to pick out the notes in a certain order.  I absorb his total concentration, as if it, too, is emanating from the room on to the street.  Sensing him totally absorbed, feeling his way – learning, co-ordinating, learning, persevering.  The sound is not pretty, but enchanting – and it tells a story.

We live in a muddled world, and that makes it fun, too.  That little Chinese boy lives in a Victorian house in Southsea, where the English general public are treated with Chinese medicine, and plays a Black American tune on an old German piano.

I stand and enjoy.

These are the little pleasures of life.

A Provincial Snob

Tonight I have just got back from one of those great moments that happen from time to time in the Banana Republic.

It was a fireworks show over the water, fired from ships lying straight off from the Wharf, and boy it was great stuff. We got to The Point in the rain, and stood for half an hour on the shingle, with the smell of the water and seaweed in our noses, and the shingle scrunching beneath our feet. And despite the rain and the chill, it was neither damp nor cold enough to dull my enthusiasm. You know, I have come to love the Island. I love the Banana Republic and all its foibles. Yes, I get frustrated and annoyed by it, but overall, it’s an honest sort of a city.

The Spinnaker Tower, at night
The signature of the city, in concrete

Waiting for the fireworks, I played on the shingle with Toby, a close friend’s son – cracking open glow sticks and pretending in the October night to be Darth Vader – swinging our light sabres and laughing as we duelled.

Then, as the time grew closer I fell into conversation with a pair of women – one of whom lived in Old Portsmouth. And it was then that I encountered the Provincial Snob.

I guess I should have known her from her aloof air as she stood beneath her brolly, frowning at us playing, rigid in her light blue jacket in the rain.  The Provincial Snob of this type is a very particular beast. Look at her now, with her mousey bobbed hair and the slight curl of the lip, so nearly a sneer. Notice the way that she looks around her with an expression of discontent on her face. But most importantly, listen to what she says.

This Provincial Snob says things like: “Yes, I live here, unfortunately,” and doesn’t have the self knowledge to know that she is creating her own unhappiness. A little moaner, always looking to find something bad to say about the surroundings that are simply not good enough for her, the Provincial Snob will not hear that the place where she lives has anything to recommend it. She is in her twenties and yet sounds like a long decommissioned battleship would talk. Living by the side of the sea, she is a sad old hulk, caught in the backwater and stuck in the mud. What a shame on her.

And of course, the thing that is so stupid about the Snob is that she lives in a lovely, picturesque part of Pompey.  A place where the old buildings were saved after the War.  A place where King Harry watched his ships from the ramparts, where “heroes innumerable” as the brass plaque tells it, sallied forth from the Sally Port, and where the body of General Wolfe was landed in a barrel of brandy after he was killed scaling the Heights of Abraham.

“I didn’t use to like Portsmouth when I was younger,” I told her. “I used to live in the country. But now I’ve moved here, it’s great. The characters are amazing. Some of them are nutters.”

“Yes, well that’s part of the problem, the people,” she says, the light in her eye the optical equivalent of chokedamp.

Aha! So, it would be a better city if it didn’t have people in it… Another part of the Provincial Snob’s mindset is that she doesn’t really know how to be comfortable around people.

And then there is the Tower. As the firework show starts up, the Spinnaker Tower begins to flash with all sorts of different lights. Looking at its pointy shape and the way it stand on two legs, I say: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Tower took off!? That would be one heck of a rocket!”

“That would be the best thing that could happen to it,” the Snob sneers back, that cynical look in her eyes, that flush of colour darkening her face more. This is something that she has wound herself up about, that’s for sure. “That shocking waste of money. And I paid for it with my taxes. It’s disgusting. I see it everywhere I go in this city, and it is the ugliest thing I have seen.”

Wow. She is so dark now. “Oh, I really love it,” I tell her. “It’s a great signature building. Like the Blackpool Tower it is instantly recognisable. It put Pompey on the map.”

That put Pompey on the map?! You don’t think that anyone knew that it was here before?”

Oh, such stupidity. “Of course they did. But it now has an icon – a brand. It’s great fun. And people come here to see it, and enjoy it…”

But now the real fireworks start in earnest. A little dinghy is puttering around the harbour, and is firing a barrage of rockets into the sky. Screaming in pinks and whites and gold and blue from a big mortar on the boat. And this is just the prelude.

There it is. An amazing spectacle. Bright colours, explosions, the crackling of fireflowers burning for an instant in the sky, the gold explosion of the fire that bursts and rains. Then the embers hanging like stars in the rainy sky.

The fireworks burst over the Island.

Oh, wonderful city. Oh little Banana Republic that sparkles in the night, and fizzes and whooshes. This is the joy of the winter night, and little 4 year-old Toby sits on his father’s shoulders with his mouth agape. He’s never seen anything like it.

Behind it all, that remarkable Tower, lit up, drawing people to it, like a beacon.

And one Provincial Snob, not knowing that those little everyday decisions that she’s made about what to love and what to hate, she’s got the wrong way round.

Because if you choose to hate a firework, then it lasts for two seconds. But you choose to hate a building, or a town, and overlook what it has to offer… well, then you’re going to have to carry on hating it for a long time. It ain’t going anywhere.  And that little loop of reinforced emotion is going to carry on growing, under the skilled guidance of someone who really knows how to do misery.  Filling up your life with petty and useless distinctions which might well reinforce your sense of who you are but which, in the end make you this: a person less able to enjoy yourself.

Remember that, each time you are tempted to turn your nose up at whatever you choose to belittle; and when you are tempted to judge without first wanting to know and understand.  Remember this too: that knowing how to use your judgement skills to improve and delight in a thing can make you a person who can improve every day – and into a person in whom others can take true, pleasure – for the world expands as your love of it expands.

Why would you choose to do otherwise?

The Beach

An unexpected rush of memories.

When I was six, shivering on the shoreline after picking my way out of the water, I remember my mother threw a towel around me. My body accepted the offering like love. The towel, I remember, was red; a faded red that had been in the family since the sixties. Later, I used it to shield myself from the eyes of other people on the beach in a self-conscious squirm to change my trunks: an activity repeated on the beaches all along the edge of the UK in a modest ritual laughable to foreigners. I can remember my sister appearing haloed by sunshine, and the sound of the sea playing in my ear. Or lying in the sun as a dog panted by and kicked sand into my face. And I remember real sandwiches. Ones with real sand in.

My parents had of a ritual of preparation for a day at the beach. It centred around what seemed, when I was young, an immense Tupperware box – perhaps 2 inches deep and 18 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I recall neat squares of Mother’s Pride – white rounds edged with brown, insanely soft, like thick tissues interspersed with layers of snot. To make the sandwiches my mother would lay in the first buttered round, then the slices of cucumber. Then she would shake salt over each round, and finally lid the sandwiches with another round. The cucumber snuggling between mattresses of bread. When I thought of that box I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the perfect fit the sandwiches made.

I liked fish paste sandwiches best. The fish paste jars were small and made me somehow think of a hexagon. They bowed out around their waistline, and when the jar was new, the lid popped when the vacuum was broken. Fish paste had to be eaten quickly. It could not be kept. Sometimes there was a soft bone in it. In any case, I really liked it.

I have to congratulate my parents now for their organisation of our trips to the beach. As a military man, Dad knew how to plan. Upon arriving early at the beach and parking at the road side, we unloaded all sorts of things from the back of the car: a sun lounger, folding chairs, towels, flasks, sandwiches, sun cream, trunks, flip-flops. The sun lounger clicked on a ratchet when you opened it, and had springs attaching the cloth to the frame. It was made in flower print: reds and yellows and black outlines and made me think of hippies, even though I didn’t really know what a hippy was. But big sunglasses and big hair – that seemed to go with those bright flowers. Sometimes, if it wasn’t set up right, one of the folding legs collapsed, and it slid and bumped forward. Very undignified. It could also be set up as a chair.

The paraphernalia of the day were carried to the beach by the whole family. I got to carry a bucket and a spade. The spade was a tiny plastic affair, in red, and the bucket was red too.

The great thing about the spade was the way the handle was strengthened with strutwork at the back. There was a matrix of plastic interconnectedness in the handle. Sand could get caught in it, which I liked, and it left patterns if you pushed it into the sand. My dad showed me how, if you filled the bucket, you could make a sandcastle. It required turning the bucket upside down and a truncated cone would come out. Sometimes the towers collapsed. My brother explained that it was all to do with the amount of water in them. I felt excited by this and I can remember giving a little gasp as I felt a quiver in my tummy at the revelation. It was a little bit of power: to build amazing things from nothing.

I got into building things with my brother. True to mediaeval design tradition, the place that was left where we dug out the sand was where we built the moat.

One mythic day at Hayling Island, all of the elements of a perfect summer’s day combined to make the most wonderful day ever. The summer, it seemed, had gone on and on and on, and the grass that had once grown in the neat little verges at the roadside, where people emptied their dogs, had gone from deep green to pale green to yellow – and then to a deeply cracked dust.

The faeces left on the verges had turned white, while others had dried out so quickly that they had become solid, like shrunken lumps of toffee, or leather.

This is how hot it was: a friend of mine, Neil Chapman, could pick these leather lumps up between his thumb and forefinger and sling them high in the air. They were whirling sausages as they sailed in the sky. It was that hot. Even the crap had given up being wet. I marvelled at those sausages, and was disgusted by them all at once, in the way that only a boy can manage.

That summer, somehow it seemed the heat would never stop. Time yawned on from one day to the next, and every day the summer brought more gorgeous heat to luxuriate in. Soon we weren’t allowed to use hose-pipes. Which meant the only place to go to cool down was the sea.

Those days seemed to spin out, a thread of golden yawns weaving themselves into an endless roll of sleepy days and snoozy weeks and soporific months – on and on. On the road where I played as a boy, I was amazed by how long my shadow grew in the halflight of endless summer evenings, and was troubled by the identical movements this flattened giant performed. Identical and yet not quite idenical. My shadow’s movements at times threw out unexpected shapes which I fancied did not quite match my own, frightening me with its mysterious otherness.

That mythic summer’s day by the sea, it seemed to me that the beach was the place where happiness resided. It was late in the summer, and the baking heat had become so inevitable that the novelty of brown skin had worn out. Older children, too, were heading to school. And so the beach was nearly empty.

It was then that I really lost myself in the act of digging channels in the sand. Building a sandcastle – an amazingly complex piece of architecture, surrounded by a hinterland of marvels, adventures and magic, which my child’s mind filled with little characters. I marvelled at the solid thickness of the walls, and watched intently as a turret was undermined by the water I had splashed in the moat. I discovered the solidifying effect of drizzling wet sand over the walls and towers – making the castle feel more solid and look more exotic. Dripped shapes slid down over the walls, making the whole construction look like it had grown there: a castle of coral, reaching upwards to the sky, a mystical organic thing, grasping up, a living building sprung from the breathing planet.

I became more and more involved in my play while the sun continued its steady movement through the sky, writing more of the long, breathless paragraph of the day.

It was a magic time. The happiest configuration of tide, wind and sun.

And the day wore on.

The sun sank through a reddening sky, and I stood, a small sunbrowned savage on the beach, marvelling at its decline – the red circle casting a crimson light over everything, as the tide withdrew down the beach. Little ripples shaped the sand, and the sun cast long shadows from them. It was then that for the first time in my life I had a sense of something deeper than I had ever felt before. Something powerful and profound moving inside my body, as if I sensed a memory of a memory, or as if I had suddenly experienced a moment of truth that spoke to me through eons. Whatever it was, it was something amazing. And I felt wonder move in my body as I looked across the sand, rising up inside of me like electricity, but subtler.

The surface of the water moved on the shallows in ways that my inexperienced eye didn’t understand, casting shadows that tricked my eye. The hot day had heated the sands and the waters laying on them, so that as I stepped in the pools or rolled in them, I felt an amazed sense of warmth, as if the water were actually bathwater. I rolled in it, spinning and splashing in sheer ecstasy. The sands were soft, my castle glowed in the red light, the waters shimmered and moved and ran around me, and for a moment I felt a sensation of completeness, an all-encompassing contentment. I wanted that single moment to stretch on forever. I had no sense of time – as if the universe, the earth, the sun, the moon, the tides could just stop and create an eternity of now. I wanted to bathe forever in that single deep sensation of joy.

There were other components to that moment of happiness. Like that fact that as far as I was concerned, my parents were entirely mine. If my sister had been on the beach earlier, she was not there now – nor was my brother. My parents were here, spreading their infinite love and joy out into the world – and lavishing it on me and me alone. This was joy: a here-and-now that was complete, comfortable, loving and warm.


And then the evening darkened a little more.

My father came to me and spoke. And when he told me that the day was over and we must go home, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of utter despair. I wept on the beach and I wept on the way home in the car. It seemed to me then that a spell had been broken, a mirror shattered. How could I ever be reunited with this sense of completeness, with being held in the lap of nature? I didn’t know what else to do or be. And so I cried. And so I mourned…

And yet, the truth remains that the golden day is brighter in my memory than the desperate night. The light is bright in my mind, the heat still caresses my skin, and I can still feel my childhood excitement, even now.

It was one of the golden moments of my childhood.

And a lesson, too.