Sunday, 14 June 2015

Once Upon A Time I Knew What To Do


Looking through some old files, I came across the feature I mentioned writing here, back in the days when life was interesting.

It wasn't as bad as I remembered so, while it's nice and quiet round these parts, I thought I'd give it a run out here. I've ironed out a few of the kinks and reinserted a couple of things cut for the sake of the word count.

It did get published in the paper, by the way, but they never paid me for it, so fuck em.


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“Are you from the council?”

A man in khaki work shorts, a matching shirt and muddy boots is striding towards me. He is carrying a leaf blower and slipped over his gardener’s uniform is a fluorescent orange high-visibility vest. The vest is the same colour as the graffiti, sprayed across a holly hedge, I am photographing.

No, I reply – I am just taking pictures. He squints suspiciously. The Otepuni Gardens are beautiful, I say, and I often come here with my camera. I saw this graffiti today and, well. When did it appear?

“Overnight,” he says. “Someone’s gone right along this block and Block One spraying all over everything. I can’t believe it. I thought you were from the council. I told them about it this morning. I thought, they’ve come quick”. He grimaces.






We chat. He introduces himself as Anthony. He’s worked in the gardens for four years. Loves them to bits. Gets very frustrated by the mindless destruction he has to deal with. His dark eyes glint as we talk.

Some idiots ride their bikes through the flower beds, he tells me. People start fires. Chuck things in the water. Road cones, traffic signs. And he’s had to replace two lots of annual beds after people came along and ripped all the flowers up just for fun.

 “Morons,” he says, shaking his head wearily. “I just don’t understand some people. These gardens are piece of history.”

This is true. The Otepuni Gardens, the 8.3 hectare public reserve nestled behind Tay St’s main drag, is Invercargill’s oldest park.

One hundred and fifty years ago the Otepuni creek snaked a wandering course through open country dotted with tussock, flax and shrubs, described by surveyor Frederick Tuckett in 1844 as "a mere bog and unfit for habitation". Undeterred, the area's first European settler, John Kelly, built his whare by the creek where Clyde St now stands. Soon, others joined him.

Rowboats came up from the Waihopai estuary to put passengers and goods ashore. Local Māori stopped for a cook-up on their way to and from the fertile mahinga kai around Sandy Point. The waterway was the heart of a growing township.

Crown surveyor John Turnbull Thomson thought so too. The undistinguished stream became the backbone of his grand plan to impose municipal order on marshland. In 1857, with a few strokes of his pen, he created Invercargill, and declared the land on either side of the creek, from Clyde St to Elles Rd, to be the official town gardens.

Horticulturally, nothing happened for a while. Then in 1872 the council offered a £20 prize to the person who could come up with the best design for a formal garden for the municipal reserve. This extravagant use of public funds prompted a series of heated letters to The Southland Times.

A correspondent calling himself Senex wrote on May 3, 1872, “I venture to say, nothing that will prove permanently attractive or in any way worth the bonus [will be] offered for its design.”

Yet with admirable foresight, he went on to say “The garden must be protected from sudden and also gradual rising of the creek, and therefore a very considerable slope will have to be effected on each side.”

A gentleman named Zanoni replied “Senex is wrong from beginning to finish.”

A further correspondent, writing under the name of Recreation, stated “The creek must be straightened... and when once straightened the land will seldom be flooded as it is often now... A well-directed expenditure in fencing these blocks, forming walks, and laying down portions in grass, cannot fail to be anything but a general good, and need not absorb all the revenue.”

Senex retorted, “I would ask how a generally sluggish and all but stagnant stream… can be particularly ornamental? I have set the ball rolling, and now believe the Council will not now throw away the public money on the Puni creek project.”

Misplaced confidence: the gripes were ignored. James Moreton, a North Road florist, won the £20 and a borough gardener was sought to implement the design.

Scotsman Thomas Waugh got the job, and immediately began to whip the gardens into shape. Seeds and cuttings were ordered from Wellington and Christchurch; the creek was straightened and the old stream bed filled in. Tussocks were cleared. In their place Waugh planted eucalypts, conifers, pines, macrocarpa. He laid out paths and borders to Moreton’s plans. Installed a nursery garden, a conservatory, a pond. Worked so hard for his salary of seven shillings and sixpence a day that when he dropped down dead in 1896, his obituary blamed overwork.

Yes. But the gardens looked magnificent.

Successive town gardeners augmented his efforts. Waugh’s replacement, Henry Edginton, put down 4000 trees and shrubs. His successor, James McPherson, planted 6000 bulbs along the banks of the stream. In 1933, Paddy Mansfield installed the poplar avenue in Block Three, filled in the pond, built an aviary, and created an alpine garden.



“Mr Mansfield was noted for his lavish displays of annual and herbaceous plants,” says the council’s Otepuni Gardens Town Belt (B) Management Plan 1995-2005. The management plan also notes that “even during those early years, there were problems with groups loitering in the Gardens and annoying citizens passing through.”

When the band rotunda was built in 1920, the gardens became a popular place to gather. Electric street lighting was installed in an effort to curb vandalism. Policemen patrolled the gardens at night, alert for undue carousing. It’s a different story these days.

“Otepuni Gardens are not what you’d call a problem area for us,” says Inspector Olaf Jensen, of Invercargill. “Isolated incidents, and vehicles broken into sometimes.”

What about vandalism?

“We don’t patrol this area, so unless a member of the public calls our attention to something going on, we don’t know about it.”

It costs the current council about $50,000 a year to fix the mess caused by louts, Invercargill city council parks manager Robin Pagan says.

“On parks alone we’re spending at least $25,000 if not more on vandalism-type things,” Pagan tells me from behind the desk of his Queens Park office, where a small plastic tuatara is perched on the edge of his computer keyboard.

“Litter, graffiti, things being chucked in the creek. Broken trees. Some people seem to take joy in lifting the paving blocks. They pick them up and chuck them in the creek. It’s hard to know why.”

The Otepuni Gardens became neglected after McPherson decided they were too small and cramped to carry on being the chief public garden of Invercargill and shifted his attention to the bigger, flashier Queens Park, Pagan explains.

“It all got transferred – the aviary, parks office, works yard. It’s more central here; more room, and less problems. It floods down there. Three, maybe four, times a year someone would have to rush in in the middle of the night and lift mowers up out of the water and do all sorts of things. So it wasn’t the best.”

Flooding. It seems everyone but the council had anticipated the havoc the generally sluggish stream might cause.

It was no secret the 'Puni had a habit of bursting its banks after heavy rainfall. High tides in the estuary regularly flooded the gardens too. A combination of these factors could cause disaster. And it did. On Valentines Day 1940, the Otepuni Gardens and its surrounding streets disappeared under several feet of murky water.

The Southland Daily News lamented the ruin of the gardens’ summer display. “Shrubs, hedges and trees showed their dripping heads disconsolately above the floodwaters”, it reported. The potato crop put in under the direction of the city council was destroyed. Islington St, it said, “looked like Venice without the gondolas”.

It also identified the cause of the floods. “The stream has within recent years been straightened, and this has permitted the faster flow of water from the higher reaches.” But nothing was done. It happened again. The 1984 floods were a repeat of 1940, and some.

Stopbanks, dams, and updated stormwater systems were hastily installed, and finally the stream started to behave itself. The new stopbanks encircled and enclosed the gardens, altering their look and feel. After decades languishing in Queens Park's shadow, something of a renaissance followed.

“The gardens started being used a lot more,” Pagan says. “They had a bit of privacy about them, I suppose.”


Suddenly, Otepuni Gardens was a popular venue. Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum came to town to film parts of the 1989 made-for-TV movie The Brotherhood of the Rose there. 1995 saw the advent of Cherrystock, the free summer music festival touted as Invercargill’s answer to The Big Day Out. It ran in the gardens for five years.

In winter, the gardens hosted Southland Regional Council science and technology fairs. Families enjoyed electric fishing, water sampling demonstrations, and whitebaiting. At the 1997 event, the deputy mayor and 251 other brave souls walked barefoot over hot coals. (This, The Southland Times noted, was 20 fewer than the previous year.)

In 2001, Block Two was the venue for the inaugural Shakespeare in the Park. Venture Southland’s Angela Newell fulfilled a lifelong dream to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the weeping elm next to the sundial.

“I used to bike through there on my way to school,” she explains. “I always thought it would be perfect for it.”

It was. About a thousand people came, she recalls, and an Invercargill tradition was born.

But Shakespeare in the Park never went back to the Otepuni Gardens, and the science fairs, music festivals and film crews are a distant memory.

Vandals aside, the gardens are mostly deserted these days: a shortcut, and not much else.

Parks division office administrator Heather Guise blames the liquor ban. “You can’t do anything there now.” Bookings for 2009 extended to the Southern Institute of Technology’s orientation week activities, an Easter egg hunt, a Matariki hikoi (using the gardens only because the council wouldn’t give permission for it to go through town), and three weddings, she says. There is a “tentative” booking for a wedding next year.

“It’s not very popular,” she surmises.

Invercargill’s oldest park will just have to wait and hope for people to remember why it exists.

“We see the Otepuni Gardens as an important corridor, a pleasant way to go if you’re going to work,” Pagan says. “They’re basically just historical now. They’re almost the forgotten gardens, aren’t they?”




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[all photos: © me]


Sunday, 18 January 2015

Already Loss



















"Was I cowardly not to want to explore the farther reaches of consciousness, afraid of getting lost, of being unable to return? I had been on my own since I turned seventeen, and that early independence made me old: I was never sure anyone would pick up the pieces if I fell apart, and I thought of consequences. The young live absolutely in the present, but a present of drama and recklessness, of acting on urges and running with the pack. They bring the fearlessness of children to acts with adult consequences, and when something goes wrong they experience the shame or the pain as an eternal present too. Adulthood is made up of a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily. But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already loss."

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide To Getting Lost



Saturday, 10 January 2015

#librarianproblems














Actual thing that actually happened* in a Russell Group university library NEAR YOU:


PUNTER: [approaches information desk] Help me I have no idea how to do this thing.

ME: What thing?

PUNTER: This thing which is a straightforward web based research task complete with step by step instructions printed out on this piece of paper I am holding.

ME: Have you read the step by step instructions?

PUNTER: No.

ME: Perhaps you could read the step by step instructions?

PUNTER: I am not able to read the step by step instructions at this time because the piece of paper containing the straightforward web based research task has been in my bag since before Christmas and now the straightforward web based research task is due in on Monday and also I have been in the library for many hours already and I am very tired.

ME: I see. [reads step by step instructions]. It says to log into the website the step by step instructions advise you to log into in the first step by step instruction.

PUNTER: This is all terribly difficult. I have not read the step by step instructions. I do not know what this website is.

ME: [opens website, passes mouse and keyboard to punter] Here is the website. Now all you have to do is search for the thing it tells you to search for in the second step by step instruction.

PUNTER: I literally have no idea how to search for a word or phrase using a search box.

ME: You type the word or phrase into the search box which is there. [points to search box]

PUNTER: I see. [clicks various random links] Where is the information I need? How am I meant to complete this straightforward web based research task?

ME: You type the word or phrase into the search box which is there. [points to search box]

PUNTER: [types vague keyword into search box, clicks on first result] This result here is exactly the result I am looking for.

ME: I am afraid the step by step instructions say the result needs to be about X, but that result is about Y.

PUNTER: You are correct. [clicks on second result] What about this result?

ME: I am afraid that result again is about Y. Perhaps you could alter the search term, for example as per the step by step instructions printed on the piece of paper that is in front of you, to include X. Maybe then you will be able to find the information you need to complete this straightforward web based research task.

PUNTER: [repeats earlier steps five or ten or fifteen or eleventy thousand times]

ME: [contemplates murder]

PUNTER: [resumes clicking on random links]

ME: The step by step instructions there by your hand, right next to it actually, the hand that is at the end of your arm that is, tell you exactly what you need to do to find the information you need to complete this straightforward web based research task.

[Punter reads instructions. Time stretches into infinity, possibly stops]

PUNTER: It is impossible. [shakes head sadly] I cannot find what I need to complete this straightforward web based research task.

ME: Would you like me to have a go?

PUNTER: Yes.

ME: [finds required information instantly]

PUNTER: YOU ARE AN AMAZING LIBRARIAN!

ME: Yes.








* paraphrased slightly


Friday, 2 January 2015

A Good Year For The Proses



















At the start of 2014, I decided I would try to read 100 books over the course of the year.

Unfortunately, real life got in the way (how rude) so I only managed to read 60.

Here they are:

1. The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing
2. Worthless Men - Andrew Cowan
3. The Examined Life - Stephen Grosz
4. Diana: The Making of a Media Saint - Jeffrey Richards/Scott Wilson/Linda Woodhead (eds)
5. The BFG - Roald Dahl
6. Matilda - Roald Dahl
7. I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith
8. Anne Frank and the Children of the Holocaust - Carol Ann Lee
9. The Guardian Columns 1998-2000 - Julie Burchill
10. A Street Cat Named Bob - James Bowen
11. Child Abuse and Neglect: Attachment, Development and Intervention - David Howe
12. A Place Of My Own - Michael Pollan
13. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - David Sedaris
14. The Reason I Jump - Naoki Higashida
15. The Laws of Simplicity - John Maeda
16. A Brief History of Britain 1485-1660 - Ronald Hutton
17. The Missing - Andrew O'Hagan
18. Journalism: Right and Wrong - Ian Mayes
19. The Disappearance of Childhood - Neil Postman
20. There Is Nothing Wrong With You - Cheri Huber
21. Zealot - Reza Aslan
22. Georgian London: Into The Streets - Lucy Inglis
23. 3096 Days - Natascha Kampusch
24. The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan
25. Do No Harm - Henry Marsh
26. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - Alain de Botton
27. The Witches - Roald Dahl
28. Here Is New York - E. B. White
29. Charlotte's Web - E. B. White
30. Frank - Jon Ronson
31. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
32. Touching From A Distance - Deborah Curtis
33. Motherless Daughters - Hope Edelman
34. Romany and Tom - Ben Watt
35. Brighton Rock - Graham Greene
36. Gut Feelings - Gerd Gigerenzer
37. The Kenneth Williams Diaries - Russell Davies (ed)
38. Hyperbole and a Half - Allie Brosh
39. Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck
40. Shit My Dad Says - Justin Halpern
41. Man's Search For Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl
42. To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
43. In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile - Dan Davies
44. Rock Stars Stole My Life - Mark Ellen
45. Travels In The Scriptorium - Paul Auster
46. Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey
47. Towards Another Summer - Janet Frame
48. Animal Farm - George Orwell
49. Open Secrets - Alice Munro
50. A Childhood - Jona Oberski
51. Chavs - Owen Jones
52. Switch - Chip and Dan Heath
53. The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds - John Higgs
54. Rupert Brooke: His Life and Legend - John Lehmann
55. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
56. The Society of Timid Souls - Polly Marland
57. Skating to Antarctica - Jenny Diski
58. Harry's Last Stand - Harry Leslie Smith
59. We Learn Nothing - Tim Kreider
60. The Brain Is Wider Than The Sky - Bryan Appleyard

Some were attempts to catch up on actual proper literature and childhood classics I never read; one or two of the slimmer volumes were pure filler. Almost all were quality books, well worth reading, and lovely, lovely Twitter drew my attention to a significant number of these.

(Lovely, lovely Twitter also ate up a thousand billion what-could-have-been-reading hours, but that's another story.)

There were others, too, that I either gave up on or didn't have time for. Iain Sinclair fell by the wayside, as did The Secret Garden. I never got round to Lost At Sea or My Ear At His Heart or The Thirty Nine Steps or A Million Miles in a Thousand Years or even Philip Larkin's Collected Poems. Maybe this year. I will just add them to my 2015 'To Read' list, which in two short days has already accrued six items. Can we have more hours in the day, more days in the week please?

If it's recommendations you're after, glancing at the notebook I jotted the titles down in I see that A Place of My Own (Michael Pollan), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (David Sedaris), Romany and Tom (Ben Watt), and The Kenneth Williams Diaries all had little hearts drawn after their entries.

Skating to Antarctica (Jenny Diski) had a little heart WITH LINES EMANATING FROM IT. With hindsight, Romany and Tom should have had this too. It melted me.

We Learn Nothing (Tim Kreider) had a little heart with a smiley face inside. (Here is some Kreider for the uninitiated: A Man and His Cat. Delicious stuff.)

The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan) just had a smiley face, but on the basis of that and the heart A Place of My Own earned I feel I must now read everything this man has ever written.

Janet Frame's Towards Another Summer was so devastatingly good a heart or a smiley face couldn't begin to cover it: it got a small circle of radiating lines, a speechless gasp of starstruck admiration.

I read The Examined Life (Stephen Grosz) twice before I handed it back to the library, which is also a recommendation I suppose. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim was a re-read too, because David Sedaris is the eighth wonder of the world. 2015 is the year I devour his back catalogue: bring it on.

Unbelievably, John Higg's wonderful, mischievious book on The KLF didn't get a heart, a smiley face or a gasp: I regret this oversight.

My copy of Frank was, of course, signed by the author♡     ☼   ✿ 







PS All but a handful of the 60 titles came from the public library. If you haven't already, please consider signing your local 'Save Our Library' petition - there's bound to be one. Libraries are precious things.



Monday, 10 November 2014

Monkeys etc


I look at my sidebar and I see that everyone's stopped blogging. That is a damned shame. Are we all on Twitter now, doing levity with brevity?

Screw that.

I might just start blogging again.

Here's a picture of a proboscis monkey to get us started.





Monday, 18 August 2014

Friday, 18 July 2014

Do Not Go Gentle












Once upon a time there was a girl who was 17 years old and who lived at home with her mum and dad and a dog and two cats.

The girl went to grammar school and one day in a sixth form English lesson the teacher gave the class some homework to do.

“Go home and read the Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and write an essay on what you think about it,” the teacher said.

The girl went home and read the poem, which went like this:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


She sat upstairs on the landing, which was her customary place for doing homework. There was a step on the landing, just the right height for working at. There wasn't a desk in her bedroom. The only table was downstairs. Downstairs was her parents' domain.

Their snarling voices floated up the stairs. The girl couldn't hear the words but that didn't matter. The tone was always the same. Her dad, shouting. Always furious. Her mum, browbeaten, bitter, resentful. 

If they weren't enduring an uneasy truce in front of the telly they were hurting each other.

She was living in a house where love didn't exist. She was living in a house where honesty and empathy and gentleness didn't exist. Fear, defeat, and confusion existed. 

Her parents couldn't communicate, you see. With each other, with her, with anyone. This was what she'd grown up with and it was all she knew. A bookish child, chronically shy, she had no real understanding of how isolated she was. Her older brother and sister had long since left home. Friends weren't encouraged – in some way that was never explained to her, they were always the wrong sort. She enjoyed school well enough, but never felt like she really belonged. The cats and dog were her lifeline.

More or less alone, then, and with no points of reference, while she couldn't put her finger on what was wrong in her house she still knew something was deeply askew. It felt like a sham. It felt sick and broken. The emptiness ricocheted. But what was normal supposed to feel like? She concentrated on the poem, and tried hard to block out the ugly voices she could hear. Like she always did.

My God. The poem. It was astonishing. It was speaking to her. A warning. Like a beacon: don't get married! She read it again. The message shone through, unmistakable.

Adulthood spells doom, it said. Don't go there, with all its entrapments, it said. Do not surrender to marriage. Marriage will destroy you. It is the end of everything.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. The proof was right there downstairs. 

She wrote her essay.

At the next English lesson, the teacher took the unusual step of not handing back the essays at the start of the class. Instead, she launched straight into a discussion of the poem.

A cold wave of horror overtook the girl as she listened. The poem wasn't a warning not to get married after all. It was about death. Everyone else, it seemed, had spotted his fact. How could she have been so stupid?

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Her dad's favourite accusation. Her least favourite word in the world.

She shrivelled in her chair, head bowed, staring at the desk. She didn't dare lift her head in case this roomful of normal, well adjusted people spotted her shame. What an outcast. What a total, total failure. How could she have possibly thought this poem was about marriage? The shame burnt her face and made her feel sick. The lesson ground on. After an eternity, the teacher started to finish. At the last possible moment, the essays were handed back. She gave the girl hers last, shooting her a quizzical look as she did so.

The girl sat at the desk as still as a stone while everyone else filed out of the classroom. When it was safe, she picked up the essay and braced herself for the teacher's lacerating assessment.

There was just one solitary red question mark.

And that was the end of it.

Except that it wasn't. One day, when she was 35, the girl happened to be thinking about the poem, and the teacher, and this ugly shame at being useless and stupid she still carried round with her everywhere she went.

And she felt sad. Sad for the 17 year old girl whose home life was so poisoned she'd believed a poem about dying was a poem about marriage. And she felt relieved, relieved and profoundly grateful to the teacher who had spared her further humiliation by waiting till the end of class to hand the essays back.

It took her another ten years to feel angry. Angry at her parents, both dead now, for failing to provide love, that most basic of needs. For planting her in a barren garden where nothing grew. Angry at the teacher who could have taken the girl to one side and quietly asked, “is everything all right at home?” but who said nothing, did nothing, and let the 17 year old girl carry on, adrift.




Sunday, 20 April 2014

All Animals


 Just found the first book I wrote.

And not just wrote. I could also say 'designed, illustrated, page-numbered, bound, edited and distributed'.

I was once, truly, a one-woman self-publishing dynamo.

The book is boldly entitled All Animals, although it could have more accurately been called All Animals I Can Think Of Right Now.



  

 
















There were more titles after this, including 'Bouncey and Hopper and Little Miss Hopper', 'ABC Spell With Me', 'Hi, We're Brownies' and 'Hail Mary - My Holy Rosary Book' (unfinished) but none managed to recapture the lyrical freshness of the first.






Friday, 28 March 2014

The Woman Who Stares At Ponies














I had a ticket to see the lovely Jon Ronson speaking at Oswestry Lit Fest, so I thought I might take advantage of the post-talk book signing to see if I couldn't manage to exchange a few words with a famous person without making a complete idiot of myself (see previous post).

On arrival at the Travelodge, the sun was shining. I was delighted to find my room overlooked actual genuine countryside. Right outside, there was a field with a pony in it. A rabbit emerged from a burrow by the fence and started nibbling on the grass.

This was proper bucolic, like. I sat there for ages soaking up the tranquility, then drove into town for the talk.

Jon Ronson was, as expected, interesting, funny and absorbing. He spoke for an hour which wasn't nearly enough but he did manage to drop some fascinating gossip about Richard Branson, David Icke and George Clooney while he was at it.

Time was tight because he needed to dash off and get a train back to London that night, and in case the Oswestry folks hadn't noticed they'd shut the train station some years before, which meant he had to drive to Crewe. Did we want him to speak for another 20 minutes, he asked, or did we want him to sign the book that came free with our ticket?

BOOK, the crowd decided, and we formed an orderly queue.

I was towards the back of the line, and after last weekend's The Beat debacle was kind of hoping he would have to dash off before I reached the front. But Jon Ronson is astonishingly fast at signing books (so much so he wondered out loud if he could claim the Guinness World Record for Fastest Book Signing), and the queue snaked forward with alarming speed.

When I was five people away from him, with Jon glancing wildly at the clock and his entourage making noises about closing the line, I relaxed.

When I was two people away, and he looked as if he was good for another three minutes at least, I realised line closure wasn't going to happen AND I NEEDED TO THINK OF SOMETHING REASONABLY INTELLIGENT TO SAY TO JON RONSON RIGHT NOW.

Various things came to mind, none of which made much sense. I felt the panic rising. When it was my turn, I thrust the book at him and mumbled something like "Really enjoyed that, thank you."

He was busy scribbling "Jon" plus three big kisses.

Then, from some unknown part of me, I heard myself say, "I drove up from Cardiff today to see you. I think about you every time I jog around the lake." Calmly and clearly, with a wry friendly grin, like an actual human being might.

"Really?" Jon said. His head whipped up from the book and he gave me a big smile. "You jog round Roath lake?"

"Yeah, I live by the park."

Conscious of the queue behind me, and excruciatingly embarrassed by my one second of boldness, I'd already started to move away.

"Well, don't fall in," he said to my departing back. "It's not very nice in there!"

Bless.

The next morning, the sun was still shining. I drew back the hotel curtains and gazed at the field and saw there were two ponies now. Little skewbald things, with hairy feet.

I went to find some breakfast.  Travelodge have forged a pact with the devil and praise be there was a Little Chef right outside. When I came back, there were four ponies.

I drove home slowly the long way, along snaking B-roads. There were signs seemingly on every turn: 'Welcome to Powys', 'Welcome to Shropshire'. 'Welcome to England', 'Welcome to Wales'. Ancient byways. Ancient scenery. Ancient towns, ripe for a wander. No need to rush. The sun was still shining.

When I got home, I took a walk around the lake.

And I did think about Jon Ronson. I thought about Jimi Hendrix too. But I also thought about the turbulent history of the British Isles. And how pretty the countryside is here. And you bet I thought about the ponies. What on earth was going on with the ponies?

I could only conclude that Oswestry ponies (or was it Shropshire ponies? Or just ponies in general?) must increase exponentially.







Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Doh


2006 was the best year. I was flying - loving Wellington, working three brilliant jobs, meeting great people, feeling strong, brave and pretty for the first time ever.

So when I saw a flyer saying The Beat were due to play at Bar Bodega, I was rapt. My favourite 80s band! It felt like they had come all the way to New Zealand just for me. I decided to go to the gig on my own, give Dave Wakeling the glad eye (I'd had a crush on him since I was 14), and see what happened. I'd once read that the lead singer of Tears For Fears had met his wife when she'd gone to a gig and pulled faces at him from the front row so I thought I might as well give it a shot.

What I hadn't realised - this being the days before ubiquitous internet - was this was the wrong The Beat. Dave had buggered off to America to do his own thing some years previously.

But never mind. I went to the gig, had a blast and went home afterwards sniggering at the presumptuousness of my thwarted groupie ambitions. My 'how I failed to pull the lead singer of The Beat' story grew legendary, in my head.

I have seen the wrong The Beat many times since. They are always wonderful, and satisfy most of my The Beat urges. And yet, the Dave thing remained. Not so much the glad eye bit - thanks to the internet I knew by now he was a family man and also, those 2006 levels of confidence didn't last long - but just to see him play. I wanted to hear that smoky voice in the flesh, singing the songs I loved, had grown up to. I wondered if this might be a good excuse for a jaunt to America, where he seemed always to be touring.

But then to save me the bother The English Beat (as Dave's lot are known) announced some 2014 British tour dates.

I got a ticket for Bristol.

I was excited.

The security man searched my bag on the way in. "Nothing much to see - just a book and a peanut butter sandwich and a banana," I said helpfully (I am so rock and roll).

"No food allowed inside the venue, my darling, so just make sure you keep it all in there, ok?" he said.

Did I look like the kind of person who would eat a peanut butter sandwich and a banana at a concert at the Bristol O2? Clearly, I did.

"Yes of course," I said. "They're for the trip home." The bus back to Cardiff left Bristol at 11.25pm and the hour-long journey demanded a peanut butter sandwich and banana at the very least to ward off my fear of accidentally dying of starvation should I stray too far from my flat.

Inside, the auditorium wasn't too packed. No need to worm my way to my customary place at the front - there was plenty of room. I assumed gig position (barrier slouch, elbow defence against last minute surge) by the speaker to the right of the stage. At twenty past eight, the band came out. The grin on my face didn't falter until the last song finished at 10pm. They were magic.

Dave seemed to know most of the people in the audience. He greeted several of his Facebook followers by name. One of them got up on stage to join him for a song. He recognised the couple next to me and gave them a cheery wave and a thumbs up.

He was lovely, spending most of the evening beaming at everyone, seeming utterly delighted to be there. Indeed, most of the band also gave that impression. The other guitarist, stood right in front of me, kept catching my eye and smiling. I smiled back - I was having a great time.

At the end, Dave jumped down off the stage and made his way along the barrier chatting to everyone and shaking hands. While he was talking to the couple standing next to me (old mates from the Birmingham days) I stared at him longer and harder than would normally be polite, amazed at the fact that here, just an arm's length away, was the person who wrote songs that are woven into the very fabric of my being yet here was a normal bloke, just an ordinary normal bloke. Why was he not hovering, or sporting some kind of golden glow, or shooting little lightning bolts of raw musical talent from the end of his fingertips? It seemed impossible. Also, how come he was only a little bit older than me? How did that happen? He was so grown up when I used to watch him on Top of the Pops.

Tongue-tied, I grabbed a handshake as he came past. A girl to my right leaned over to peck his cheek and I wished I'd been bold enough to do that.

The drummer also came out for chats and handshakes then the house lights went up and everybody started filing out. I stood there, idly watching the roadies start packing things away. My bus wasn't for another one and a quarter hours and it was only a ten minute walk to the bus station. The couple next to me were dawdling too, as were a few other stragglers.

Then I noticed the other, smiley guitarist back out on the stage. I watched him jump down where Dave had jumped down, and start walking towards my end of the barrier.

There was a purpose to his walk that wasn't there with Dave and the drummer. Like he was on his way somewhere, rather than he was there to let the masses come unto him. I felt a sudden cold shiver of fear. Was he coming to talk to me?

I stood rooted to the spot, wondering what on earth was about to happen. As he drew close, the couple next to me pounced. He stood there making awkward conversation with them in a soft American accent. The couple mentioned the after-show party. He said something about it being in the pub over the road, then turned to me and asked, "Are you coming to the after-show party?"

And I said, "I can't, I've got to get the bus back to Cardiff."

Like I didn't have more than an hour to kill before my bus. Like if I missed it I couldn't have got a train home at any subsequent point. Like I couldn't have gone just for a swift half, and got chatting to people like normal human beings do. Like I wasn't 47 years old and single and able to stay out all night cavorting with musicians if I wanted to.

Like I was Miss Prim the vicar's daughter.

Like I am a total fucking idiot.

He stood there looking bewildered for a moment, said goodbye to the couple, and went back the same way he'd come.

I walked with infinite slowness back to the bus station where I sat shivering on a bench for an hour, listening to The Beat on my MP3 player and eating the peanut butter sandwich and the banana and trying not to think about the party I'd been invited to by a member of the band I've loved for a lifetime happening in a pub not 10 minutes away from where I was.

2006 me was hopping up and down shouting "oooh, the irony".

2014 me was wondering why I am such a dick.







Friday, 28 February 2014

The Thing Is, Is To Do The Thing















The sun is out.

It is the first time the sun has been out for what feels like forever and the park is packed with pasty faces squinting into the chill light.

I pick a spot on a bench overlooking the lake, and watch the humanity troop past.

Honestly, I think the whole of Cardiff is here today. All shapes, sizes, colours. Old, young, and everything in between. Parents introducing their newborns - tiny wrinkled peanuts swathed in blankets - to the outside world for the first time, now that the rain has stopped. Clumps of teenagers drooping about by the gate. In spite of the cold, a long queue at the ice cream van. Entire families partaking of an afternoon constitutional, as if it was Christmas Day.

A woman exclaims in amazement to her female companion, about the two men strolling ahead of them, "He walks exactly like his brother!" A man urges his toddler, "Look at the baby birds." (Although there are no baby birds - just a bunch of geese.) A young guy with a pair of mirrored Ray Bans hanging off a belt loop announces to his mate, "I'm gonna whack on a jumper, cos I'm feeling a little bit chilly now," and he makes this ordinary statement sound like a line from a Michael Caine film.

Dogs of all descriptions. Kids on bikes, scooters. Young couples. Couples who have been holding hands on these strolls for the last four or five decades.

After a while, I realise I feel overwhelmingly lonely.

I move to a quieter section of the park.

By the bowling green, a pair of magpies are rootling about. One for sorrow, two for joy. I watch them for a while, thinking about nothing in particular. I kind of like magpies. I like how they hang out together. I like their brash confidence. I like their secret colours.

These two are taking on the afternoon as a unit.

Sorrow is under the bush; Joy is in its branches.

Sorrow flies up into a tree; Joy pecks around by its roots.

Sorrow hops up on the low fence, keeping watch while Joy investigates the middle of the green, turning over stray leaves and twigs.

Joy, under the bench two away from mine; Sorrow, perched on the seat.

Those two friends, sorrow and joy. Is one ever far away from the other?

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I tell my counsellor I am missing blogging.

She says, just do it. Just write something. It doesn't matter what.

I say it feels too difficult these days. I say that I feel like I have something inside me that is too big, too terrifiying, too painful, to say, and that is stopping me from saying anything. It is a story about my father. Or, it is a story about a little girl who had a father but who didn't have a father; who had a mother but who didn't have a mother. It feels impossible to put into words. But I feel like I will disintegrate if I don't - somehow - ease it out. As Maya Angelou said, there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

You just have to do these things, my counsellor says. Just try. A little bit at a time.




Thursday, 17 October 2013

Why Is There An Elephant In This Room?


















Tuesday was the second anniversary of the death of my father.

I came home from a long weekend in Liverpool to find an email to me and my brother, from my sister.


Hi there

I tried to be positive yesterday and think kindly of Dad. I came up with a short list but think I've forgotten loads. Can you add to it? 


  • Great with grandchildren
  • Always gave Mum a big bouquet on their anniversary
  • Told good stories about Ted and the Pirates
  • Good at reading bedtime stories (Treasure Island, Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings)
  • Led good harmony singing in the car
  • Enthusiasm for Lake District
  • Happy to babysit at any time
  • Set up garden badminton, cricket, etc
  • Made some things successfully, like small cricket bat, go kart with no brakes
  • Enjoyed playing badminton with everyone at the club followed by a glass of cider
  • Always made us all a cheese sandwich at 9.00 pm
  • Allowed darts in the lounge so that whole wall was covered in dart holes
  • Allowed round the table games of table tennis in the dining room
  • Always jumped to it when Nana asked for something, despite swearing under his breath 

My brother had added:

  • Was a willing taxi service for teenagers, anytime, anyplace, anywhere
  • Told me to keep driving and got in the passenger seat when he flagged me down driving the car aged 14.  Gave me tips
  • Bonded with Bethan instantly making her part of the family [Bethan is my step-niece]
  • Later, Mia coined the name “Best friend Grandad” (her own words)
  • Font of knowledge around the dinner table.  Most of my knowledge of Trivial Pursuit questions comes from this
  • Told me to be a lion, not a lamb
  • Trained me how to do ‘close control’ football in the garden (balance, weight shift, dribbling, footwork)
  • With mum as a partner in tennis, still managed to singlehandedly beat me and my mates (not bad players)
  • Always seemed a jolly type – whistling and singing
  • Always had boiled a ham ready for us when we arrived, no matter what time of day or night
  • Believed in welcoming people and good hospitality
  • Author of an encyclopaedia of recipes which we still use regularly (despite the convenience of the internet)
  • Imparted good table manners and high moral standards


I added:
  

I spent most of my life trying desperately to find reasons to like him and feeling totally torn about that, so for the first time ever I am enjoying thinking "he was a utter pig" without any guilt at all.

I spent yesterday walking on Crosby beach in the sunshine feeling glad he was gone. Last week I remembered the anniversary but got the date wrong (I'd thought it was the 11th) and prior to that I hadn't even cared. He did too much damage for me to feel comfortable lauding him or any of his 'achievements', which seem to amount to 'sometimes acting like an actual human being'.



Even Charles Manson made his 'family' feel loved - Dad never once managed that.


Sunday, 29 September 2013

List

It is always a delight, the morning after a night out with my esteemed colleague Zippy, to check my phone to find out how I entertained myself on the long, boring walk home from the pub.

Sometimes it's photos:















Sometimes it's (mercifully unsent) tweets:

"hope yr toile got fixed or it there am unexpected item in yr baggage area?"

Today, it was additions to today's calendar/'to do' list. See if you can spot them:

  • isa bonus expiry date 30/9/13
  • nhs march, manchester
  • make livvy's birthday card
  • asda - post office
  • PICK UP FUCKING CAR
  • collect brantano boots b4 4pm
  • GO TO NERO TO PERV AT [redacted]
  • get rent £ out
  • grocery shopping
  • FUCKING MOUSE BASTARD SINK

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Gone To The Dogs - Rapanui 2013

Ok, so I just went on holiday to Easter Island.

Here are some photos:








 





  


                     



I also took photos of cats, birds, horses, graffiti.

Oh, and moai and that.