Associated Press Image
you’re quite at home on the telly.
For one of such a tender age,
you seem to relish centre stage.
assessment objectives, Blue Badge Guide, Camelot, Clueless, Colin Firth, Dr Johnson, Elinor Dashwood, feretory, Harriet Smith, Jane Austen, Keats, Lady Bertram, Mary Tudor, Occam's razor, Ockham's Razor, Ode to Autumn, ossuaries, Philip of Spain, St Cross, Winchester Cathedral, Wykeham Arms
Today an insolent hussy stood on my stone and shrieked to her companion:
Wow! Get a load of this! We are standing on that woman whose book we had to read for GCSE. Except that our teacher just let us watch the DVD. We had to compare it with “Clueless”, to show evidence of certain assessment objectives, but I got mixed up and was marked down. It was the teacher’s fault. She shouldn’t have confused me. My mum appealed, though, and I re-wrote that bit where Mr Thingy exits the lake in a wet t-shirt. Mum said it was really cool. Later she came here to give thanks for my success and slipped in a couple of prayer requests to The God of Camelot and a personal one that she might meet Colin Firth, with or without his wet clothing.
All of this was expressed in spite of a metal contraption which was attached to her teeth, so that I was as showered with saliva drops and my stone wetted, as if the Bishop had sprayed me with the rosemary twigs he uses at baptisms. It isn’t always the best spot here, near the font.
But, at least we haven’t sunk to those adult total immersions yet.
Then the young woman proceeded to light a candle for me, muttering about there being no vanilla or blueberry-scented ones available.
Before I could utter the immortal phrase: It is a truth universally.. she was off, determined to see the feretory, as she loved those furry little creatures- or were they meerkats? Simples is not the word.
Sometimes I raise my eyes to the metal hooks on the vasty pillars whose original function was to display the nuptial banners of Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain. Since I cannot suspend myself thereby, I resort to turning over in my grave. Someone should remind these youngsters of the motto of their local college: Manners Makyth Man. (And that is a generic, inclusive term.)
I try not to mind when tourists seem more interested in where Keats precisely commenced his walk to St Cross, before composing Ode to Autumn.
I could easily interrupt the Blue Badge Guide and inform them that he first procured nuncheon and a pint of porter at The Wykeham Arms. However, like my creation, Elinor Dashwood, I feel like commenting on his Romantic versification:
It is not everyone who shares your passion for dead leaves!
But, maybe this is somewhat scathing, even for me.
I still feel that a sermon well delivered is as rare as hens’ teeth. The Evangelical varieties seem livelier, though hardly calculated to earn their exponents a succession to a stall in Westminster.
Some of the homilies could do with a firm shave by the venerable Occam’s razor, since they can be as mangled as the regal bones in the choir ossuaries and as dusty as the said receptacles themselves. They might do well to remember the less intellectually endowed Harriet Smiths of this world, who do not always decipher obscure riddles and charades. As Fielding said, however:
Clergy are men as well as other folks.
Personally, I have been able to touch and affect a heterogeneous audience and consequently often have more than half a mind to rise and preach myself, though I heed Dr Johnson’s astute aphorisms regarding the fairer sex and sermonising:
A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well: but you are surprised to find it done at all.
I know that I can be eloquent on points in which my own conduct would have borne ill examination. However, greater opportunity for inward reflection has led me to direct more of my sense of irony towards my own failings. As the good doctor also said:
As I know more of mankind, I expect less and less of them and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly.
However, I who have gently mocked the aspirations of others have been glad to be sheltered in the bosom of this place, as comfortably as Lady Bertram’s pug upon her chaise, but- prenez soin! I am sometimes yet inclined to bare my needle sharp teeth and to sink them into some unsuspecting ankles- metaphorically, of course!
(Compound Eye of Antarctic Krill: Wikipedia. Photo by Gerd Alberti and
Snodbury was actually his mother’s surname, he believed.
She had waltzed off to Venezuela, following her political dreams
and had settled down with a salsa musician, producing his half-
Aunt Augusta ( Editor:In Retrospect May She Rest In Peace and Rise In
Glory!) had deposited him, as a confused four year old, in St Birinus’
Pre-Prep Department, where he might have turned into a pre-pubescent
Scrooge, given that he was often forgotten at half terms.
It was not the first time that Gus (Snod) had had the distinct sensation
that someone was standing behind him whilst he was shaving. Through
the condensation he wondered if, like another sweet young prince, he was
about to encounter his ghostly father. There were more surprising things
in Heaven and Earth, he was sure.
He felt that it was not entirely down to thespian self-delusions that he
could summon up a vague remembrance of an encounter with a man
called Arthur in some school holidays. The visits were etched on his
consciousness as they were marked by the gifts of a piece of Hornby
kit and a Rev Awdry book.
Aunt Augusta would collect him and take him on the train all the way
to Kent and then they would take a taxi to Wivern Mote.
His aunt and Arthur would sit round the fire in the converted stable block,
drinking mulled wine, if it was a Christmas Holiday, and gin and tonic, if
it wasn’t. He remembered the odd silver cups from which the wine had
been imbibed. They had embossed foxes’ heads on them. He had been
drinking Ribena from a tooth mug and had asked about them. He
remembered now: they were stirrup cups, he had been informed.
When it was time to go, he had to shake Arthur’s hand with his own
mittened fingers and he grew to anticipate the half crown that would
be passed into his woolly palm. It was never a two shilling piece. He
could tell, without looking- which would have been rude-just by feeling
the milled edge. Yes, Arthur had been generous, if enigmatic.
It wouldn’t seem long before he was back to the security of school- that
same establishment to which he had dedicated not only the best years
of his life,but the majority of them. The only noteworthy hiatus was
when he had studied Classics at university and had then returned like
the Biblical dog…
The toilet paper he had licked and stuck to his shaving nick fell off. He
hoped the wound would heal more quickly than the childhood scars he
was well aware of bearing into advanced adulthood.
‘Catharsis‘- that was le mot juste. If he could only lance the boil of his
carbuncular life, he felt the bloodletting would be beneficial. There had
been so many toxic infections visited upon him in the course of his
He laughed to himself: Pus in Boots! This was the way his tangential mind
roved around, seeking bad puns.
Yes, Dear Reader, the exploration of the life and times of this apparent
nonentity will be the very means whereby he may be purged and brought
to a hopeful re-birth (but not in any Dianetical way, I assure you.)
By tracing his twig’s development on The Tree of Life, by exploring
different starting points, he hoped to arrive at the identical solution: himself.
The Biology teacher had explained convergent evolution to him, but I won’t
bore you with an elucidation now.
He had also wished that he could see the world through a compound eye-
to see himself as others saw him and to see himself more clearly.
Perhaps with ocular enhancement he would avoid any more shaving nicks…
I haven’t written a sestina yet, I lamented to Brassica.
They are supposed to be good for laments, she said, somehow
reading my thoughts and mood. Try a villanelle. It might be
easier to start there.
So, I tried to think of a topic and turned to The Bible for those
little dramas that illustrate human nature. Suddenly Jacob, Isaac
and Esau popped into my mind and, before I knew it, inspiration had
prompted the following poem. Maybe it is an exercise in form, but
I hope it transmits the essence of their relationship struggle.
Half-blind, he mistook goat for venison.
(Mother and son were partners in the crime.)
And so he gave Jacob his benison.
Take this stew and treat him with kid gloves, son.
Rebekah staged her little pantomime:
half-blind, he mistook goat for venison.
Jacob stayed at home- a tent denizen;
but Esau was a hunter in his prime.
Isaac still gave Jacob his benison.
Isaac couldn’t recognise anyone.
His cataracts obscured this social climb:
half-blind, he mistook goat for venison.
Jacob knew when to put the lentils on.
Esau’s priority was dinner time.
Thus Isaac gave Jacob his benison.
An old man’s craving made him jettison
Divine will. So, trapped like a bird on lime,
half-blind, he mistook goat for venison
and gave Esau a lesser benison.
(original Broadway windowcard: Wikipaedia)
Oh look! Here comes Peabrain Minor’s mater, alias Head of The Grievance
Committee, expostulated Virginia Fisher-Gyles, PA to The Headmaster of
St Birinus Middle School.
Late again, commented Mr Augustus Snodbury, Senior Master, on his way
to Registration via his partner’s office.
The aforementioned parent hopped out of her 4×4, still in a onesie, or
Gives a new aspect to the adjective ‘deshabille’, he added. Mind you, I
wouldn’t mind if you turned up for work in that rather fetching negligee
which the saleswoman persuaded me was entirely appropriate as a Christmas
gift for a friend. I think you would make a better understudy for Shirley
Maclaine than Mrs P does.
Let’s be professional. Virginia stood on her principles- as well as her
four inch stilettos.
Oh, the subjunctive- and so early in the morning, quipped Snod.
You say ‘pyjamas’ and I say ‘pajamas’, countered Virginia, closing the
conversation and starting to hum ‘I’m not at all in Love.’
The Carry On Teaching vision with choreography by Fosse faded from
his magisterial brain, but not before he had noted the similarity
between Virginia’s embonpoint and that of a certain fictional Gladys
Hotchkiss. Yes, they no longer produced the great musicals of
yesteryear. That Lloyd Webber character… Sigh.
(Does anyone out there recognise the etymology of ‘magisterial’ ??
Are we all going to adjust our spelling to ‘ognon‘?) The Editor.
There was a peremptory rap at the door.
Enter! boomed Virginia.
Peabrain Minor’s mother appeared in her usual matitutinal
I’ve just brought a bag with a change of clothes for Noah, if I could
leave it in The Office for him, she announced.
Oh, we are a Left Luggage Establishment now, Snod thought, but
didn’t remark aloud. That was a forbearance that he had learned
from Virginia, in the course of their relationship.
I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, said Virginia.
Well, it’s just for the lesson after break. Noah doesn’t respond well
to formal learning strategies and, if Mr Snodbury doesn’t mind, my
son would be more comfortable in his jim-jams. Oh, Mr Snodbury!
She had just noticed the schoolmaster lurking behind the door.
Ah, his namesake was quite comfortable with appearing in a
Post-Diluvian Apocalyptic public space au naturel, Mrs P, Snod
pontificated. But, unfortunately, even the members of the patriarch’s
family took exception to his informal, nay casual, plein-air approach.
I take it that that’s a ‘no’ then, Sir?
She left, with the Waitrose bag of clothing, looking rather
Not exactly Doris Day, said Snod in his habitual report-speak.
But more intelligent than you’d think.
Ai Weiwei, Changi, David Battie, deferred gratification, Dim sum, earthen vessels, Garden of Eden, Heathrow, Horatius Bonar, Humpty Dumpty, Jia Xiang, KrisFlyer, NGV Melbourne, Qing vase, Singapore Airlines, The Antiques Roadshow, The Fitzwilliam, Trust, UOB Bank, Warhol
(Walters Collection, Baltimore)
I wouldn’t trust him with a barge pole, said Brassie, firmly.
How does she create these mixed metaphors? What would
she expect someone to do with a barge pole? Run off with it and
sell it on E-bay?
I kept thinking about the short advert for UOB Private Bank which
I saw on KrisFlyer, on the screen on the back of the seat in front of
me, during my flight on Singapore Airlines, from Changi to Heathrow.
The advert was a lot more interesting than the films on offer.
Trust. “Our Principles Define Us.”
A sweet little boy- Jia Xiang- is shown a large blue and white vase
by his father, who tells him that it is priceless and irreplaceable. The
parent places it on his display shelves and asks his son not to touch it.
The boy nods and promises.
Later Jia Xiang is bored as it is raining and he goes to the shelf and takes
the vase down, in order to look at it.
A servant calls him for Dim Sum and the boy hurriedly replaces it on the
shelf, but not in the exact same position.
His father later questions him as to whether he touched the vase. Truthfully,
the boy confesses and his father raises the vase and smashes it to the floor.
He then tells his son that trust is of the utmost importance. They hug.
Hmmm, as a non-committal Anglican vicar friend of mine might comment.
(Image by Hafenbar)
The underlying metaphor reminded me of the video at the NGV, Melbourne.
The Ai Weiwei/ Warhol exhibition is brilliant and featured footage of the
Chinese artist raising an ancient vase above his head and smashing it to
the ground. I think we are meant to question its cultural, aesthetic and
historical value. All I could think was: What a shame! I hope it was a fake.
It’s like David Battie on The Antiques Roadshow, assessing some priceless
piece of porcelain. I keep wanting to shout out at the screen: Be careful!
You are making me nervous!
I remember some visitor stumbled down the stairs at The Fitzwilliam Museum
in Cambridge and knocked over three Qing vases on a sill in the stairwell.
They had a combined value of £500,000.
He should have tied his shoelaces.
Restorers did manage to put all the shards together again- unlike Humpty
But should the museum have trusted the visitors? Well, 9 million people
had passed them before and nothing untoward had occurred.
When The Husband broke both of my prize lustre vases in one week, I had to
ask myself where I placed my value. The Bible says we have our treasure in
earthen vessels, so I suppose the vessels are only the receptacles. Where
your treasure is, there will your heart be.
I was still annoyed!
Sometimes I remember the patient child in the psychology experiment on
deferred gratification. When told not to touch the sweets and there would be
a greater reward after a little time, some kids just could not wait. Others
could and reaped the benefits of even more confectionery.
Sometimes I wish that I was able to trust God and leave things alone and not
But then, it is the same old problems as our forefathers had in The Garden of
Eden: curiosity, impatience and lack of trust.
Our principles define us, as the UOB advert says.
Christianity often recommends having a firm grasp. Horatius Bonar’s hymn
sprang into my mind:
Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face.
Here would I touch and handle things unseen.
Here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace…
Oh, for a more tactful and careful approach to dealing with sensitive matters!
barista, Botticelli, Brassica, Brunetti's, Chinese New Year, Commissario Brunetti, Commissario Montelbano, David Cameron, Donna Leon, Donna Tartt, Hunter wellies, kiddychino, Nicola Sturgeon, Rebekah Brooks, salted caramel eclair, SamCam, Singapore Sling
(image by abc 10)
So basically you have been unfaithful to ‘Costamuchamoulah’ cafe here in
Suttonford? Brassica accused me.
It wasn’t like that, I tried to defend myself. No bog-brush bearded baristas
were involved, I assure you. It’s just that ‘Brunetti’s’ salted caramel eclairs in
Melbourne were so tempting.
That Italian name’s familiar, Brassie interrupted.
You’re thinking of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, I surmised, knowing
she’d read a couple of the volumes in the series at her ‘Bookworm’ group.
But, you know, I’d prefer to make a tangential mental leap to summon up a
vision of Commissario Montelbano- the young one, I mused. Actually, one
of the waiters who brought me extra marshmallows was kind of like him. He
had the same bandy legs, but Botticelli curls.
Mmm, quite a lot of Italian guys do. Yet, you’ve been swanning round the
globe while the rest of us were generating mould in our ‘Hunter’ wellies from
the condensation build-up of Apocalyptic precipitation levels?
Join Nicola Sturgeon’s clan. But not David Cameron’s.
She shares your taste in trending wellies. Apparently Cameron wore a cheap
pair when he visited the flooded areas.
Oh, that was for the press, she exclaimed. Do you think SamCam would
let him out in anything cheap if he was (say) visiting Rebekah Brooks for a bit
of a pot supper, after helping her to muck out at her stables?
Okay, I’m sorry. By the by, I would be surprised if SamCam, as you call her,
allowed him out at all, when he is off-duty. She would probably prefer him to
come home smelling of roses.
Why do I always get Donna Leon and Donna Tartt mixed up?
Dunno. Easily done. I took my tablet out of its case.
Look! This was us on our final evening at ‘Raffles’, on the way home.
Put it away, barked Brassie. I’m not interested. Anyway, you said you
went there twice, so I can’t forgive you.
She couldn’t resist a peek.
What were you trying to do? Live up to your gravatar?
No, I was just having a ‘Singapore Sling.’
She drew me an even greater disapproving look.
Not a ‘fling’. You can get virgin ones, you know, I pleaded.
No, actually. Look, I’m not trying to be elitist. Nowadays
it is a virtual extension of a creche. Kids everywhere. All these
special venues are commandeered by fathers in baseball caps
and shorts and mothers pushing giant buggies with babes who
only require feeder cups. You dress for dinner and they throw theirs
on the floor- or ground-, if we are referring to the outside courtyard.
Sometimes the infant accessories even manage to project their
regurgitations into your lap.
I do so agree on the distinction you make between ‘floor’ and
‘ground’, Brassie reflected. But, have you always been irritated
by kids, Candia? I mean, didn’t you once teach the little darlings?
Surely teachers like children?
Don’t bank on that, I replied. D’habitude, we only like the well-behaved
ones, of which there are fewer and fewer. I don’t mind them at informal
eateries at lunchtime, but if I am spending a mint on a rare grown-up
treat, I prefer a kiddychino-free zone.
Coming to ‘Costamuchamoulah’ by Chinese New Year, I predict.
We both sighed.
(Photo by Brocken Inaglory)
Gary was nearly a man now and there was nothing he wanted more than
to be able to drive -legally, but he couldn’t afford proper lessons. Terry
refused to teach him as he kept asserting that he had passed first time
without any instruction. Gary doubted that he had ever sat a test.
Sometimes Gary would dream that he was cruising an Aston Martin
on the Corniche, or driving a Chevrolet on the coast road to Monterey.
He’d seen that on the videos. He wasn’t that bothered about having
a blonde in the passenger seat. His mother had put him off women for
the time being.
He had experienced a dizzying moment of power on The Ridge. It
had seemed a shame to tip the car over, but he couldn’t lose face.
He’d had a hazy recollection of an RE lesson where Jesus had been
standing, looking down from a high position. He was being tempted
to cast Himself down, but He had resisted. Gary knew that he wasn’t
The Son of God. He wasn’t under any illusion about that. Nevertheless,
he would have been happy if a cohort of angels had appeared and
borne the Astra up on their wings. The whole experience reminded him
of that time he had stood with his father on the cliffs at Flamborough Head
and he had felt as if he could have launched himself off, to spiral down
on a thermal like a seabird. Dad had been clutching the belt of his
jacket, so that he felt stable and safe. It was just shortly after that
summer holiday that his father had disappeared from his life.
( Image:areadeandavid Flickr Flamborough Head)
There it is, Alan. I told you, he said the following day, pointing to the
blackened wreck that clung tenaciously to the bushes. It was still
I’m going to have a closer look, said Alan, scrambling down.
Gary stood for a moment, surveying the scene in daylight. He could
see one or two other joyridden wrecks littering the slope. He suddenly
wondered why he had done it.
A loud boom reverberated and rattled the windows of nearby houses,
shattering Gary’s meditation. He looked down with horror as a sheet of
flame engulfed the stricken vehicle.
He could see that it was no use. His baby brother had been swallowed
up in a funeral pyre as the petrol tank exploded.
(Photo by NathanWest at English Wikipedia,
transferred to Commons by Ebe 123, using Commons
Per Ardua Ad Astra that had been his Dad’s motto once and Gary reflected
on that as he gazed out of the Remand Centre window from his top bunk.
He felt for the badge which was still pinned to his hoodie. One star glittered
more brightly than all the others. He remembered Alan singing Twinkle,
Twinkle when he was a kid. Their mother kept shouting at him that it was
‘what’, and not ‘where you are.‘
Now Gary didn’t know where his Dad or his brother were, but he felt that
the bright light that was like a diamond in the sky definitely belonged to Alan.
(Photo by Romazur, Wikipedia)
Arndale Centre, Astra, Bacofoil, Chevette, Colonel Sanders, Existentialism, Headingley, Hot Wings, James Bond films, KFC, Lightwater Valley, Meanwood Valley, Per Ardua Ad Astra, Royal Air Force, Tetley's beer, The Skyrack, urban farm, urban foxes, WD40, Yorkshire Ripper
The ‘G’ registered white Astra sped through a red light on Headingley
Lane and took a crazy right turn up a quiet residential street, on
Gary was high on speed, but only the vehicular variety. In his mirror,
he could see the shadowy faces of his three mates, their mouths agog
with inane laughter and the sensation of being on a seemingly out-of-
control roller coaster. This was cheaper than Lightwater Valley and the whole
escapade would give them the ‘street cred’ they craved back at St Augustine’s
Watch this! he shouted, as he took an unmade stretch of road, rutted with
pot-holes, which steeply descended towards The Ridge.
They felt Tetley’s beer slosh around their stomachs as the car’s suspension
rocked violently and its exhaust scraped sickeningly on some large stones.
It was so dark on The Ridge. You were on top of the world and all the lights
of Meanwood Valley twinkled from the dark shapes of densely-packed back-
to-backs. Leeds slept and Gary and his pals emerged from the car, almost
reverentially. The trees gave a rural impression.
The urban farm’s down there, remarked Gary, lighting up a fag. He
remembered being taken there by his Dad and kid brother, Alan. They’ve
got horses and stuff.
So what? commented Brian. Who needs horses when you can have
Gary leant over the driver’s seat and released the handbrake. The others
pushed on the rear bumper.
As if in slow motion, they watched the Astra tilt forwards and then lurch.
It somersaulted once, like a stunt car in a James Bond film, and then rolled
on its side against a scrub-like bush. It had only travelled a hundred yards
or so down the slope.
(Photo 2006 Lewis Collard)
Gary chucked his cigarette stub inside and the lighter fuel which had drenched
the upholstery performed its ignition.
The darkness was illuminated by a spectral bonfire.
To Woodhouse then I came,
Burning, burning, burning, burning…
Gary recalled his English teacher reading out something like that the
previous week. The rhythms had remained with him along with an
incendiary craving. No one else had been paying attention.
Scarper! he shouted and they headed for Kentucky Fried at the Arndale
Centre, just round the corner from the site of The Yorkshire Ripper’s final
The boxes of congealed chicken debris- Hot Wings– were thrown into a
hedge for the urban foxes to sniff out.
We had ‘Hot Wings’ tonight, a’ right! Brian joked.
They started a competitive routine, sniggering as they built on Hot Wings; Hot
Lips, Hot Chick and Hot Rod.
Gary fingered the Royal Air Force badge on his hoodie. Dad had given it to
him after they had all been to an airshow. It had been in his sock drawer.
Speed and Flight. Freedom.
But Mum had laughed. You were never airborne. Derek. Admit it. You were
nowt but a filing clerk.
Like Father; like sons. She always put her menfolk down… Took pleasure
in’t clippin’ wings, so she did. No wonder the old man had scarpered. That’s
what Terry always said.
Where have you been, you piece of dirt? snarled Gary’s mum. You’ve got
school in’t mornin’. Don’t waken Alan up. Terry’s still at The Skyrack, lucky
for you. Get out of my sight, or I’ll crack you one!
A’right – don’t have a nervous breakdown. He ducked instinctively, avoiding a
blow to his head.
The bedroom door needed some WD40. It creaked and Alan roused his head
from under the duvet.
A’right? Any joy?
This wasn’t an Existential interrogative,
Shurrup. Mum’ll hear us. No problem, Gary swaggered.
What’s twoccin’? Alan persisted.
Takin’ without t’owners’ consent, our kid. Now shut it.
Stepping out of his jeans, he threw his soiled hoodie into a corner before
climbing in beside Alan.
You stink of bonfires, Alan said. And Colonel Sanders. Did you get an Astra?
Yeah, it’s down The Ridge. I’ll show you tomorrow if you don’t believe me.
Alan had to be content with that, for Terry had come back from t’pub and,
from the sounds in the hall, it were better to pretend to be asleep…
Gary had felt responsible for Alan ever since their Dad had left. Dad had
never owned an Astra; he had possessed a beaten-up old Chevette, with
Bacofoil filling the wings.
Every wing has a silver lining, he had once quipped.
He still had a silver halo for Gary and Alan. but it had slipped somewhat in
their mother’s eyes. She wouldn’t let him back into the house, the idle slob.
Terry was relatively new. Her toy boy. He wasn’t too bad when he was
sober, which wasn’t often. But, at least he had a job. Sometimes he gave
you a couple of notes and told you to get lost, or to get kitted out down
t’ market. Other times, he told you to go to Hell.