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 was at 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 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, snarling or sneering or shouting. Always furious, always right. Her mum, browbeaten, bitter, resentful.

She was living in a house where love didn't exist. Fear, anger, and confusion had taken its place. 

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 twisted and 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 horror downstairs. Like she always did.

And then - my God. The poem. It was astonishing. It spoke to her, about her own situation. Grief, rage, anger, blindness, resistance - it was all there. It even had a cursing father up there on a sad height. It was unequivocal, a warning: don't get married! She read it again.

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. 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, with normal parents, 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. About the gut-clenching loathing she still had for her dad.

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!"


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


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.