Put those Fosters down, Russell Crowe…



So I’m on the nightshift in Tesco, and they’ve put me on the beer aisle. I’m fine with that. There’s heavy lifting but it’s satisfying work, and towards morning I get to look at and sort the little funny foreign beers sold in individual bottles. It’s an educational experience. Foreign languages, foreign countries, squiggly words.
Now it’s about two a.m., and quiet. Hasn’t been anybody down the aisle for ten or fifteen minutes, and I’m getting on with putting out the Tennents, when I look up and see a vaguely familiar figure coming slowly along from the checkout end. After a moment I realize it’s Russell Crowe the famous actor.
It’s that thing that’s often said about famous people: they’re not as tall in real life as you might expect. I bet they say that about Stephen Fry, who’s six five. And Osama bin Laden, who was six three. It’s reassuring to think that if Osama bin Laden was still alive and a fight between him and Stephen Fry broke out the former quiz master of QI could probably take the former head of al-Qaeda. I bet they said that too about Abraham Lincoln, who was also six three. As he was standing there, making that Gettysburg address speech: he’s not as tall in real life, is he? And that speech, it’s only two hundred and seventy-two words. It’s not a real speech.
So Russell Crowe, not as tall as you might expect, but broad, chunky, verging on fat, flush faced, beads of sweat on the big forehead, is looking up and down the rows of beer. He’s swaying. He spots the Fosters. Twenty 440 ml. cans of Fosters, £12. That’s the one for him. He bends to pick it up, stumbles, falls forward, bangs his face on the cans. Scrabbles around, gets up. He’s swearing but luckily he’s Australian and I can’t understand a word he’s saying. He bends again, grasps the twenty cans of Fosters, slings it on his shoulder, sways back, grabs a shelf to steady himself.
I’ve made a decision. I go towards him, while he’s standing there, holding the Fosters.
‘Russell Crowe,’ I say, ‘famous actor, producer, musician and heavy drinking hard man, put those Fosters down.’ He looks at me. His eyes are red and small. ‘You’ve had enough, Russell Crowe. You may have been in LA Confidential, Gladiator and Beautiful Mind but this is the Harford Bridge Tesco you’re in now. And you’ve had enough. You may have been in Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, but this is the far side of the beer aisle, and it’s over. Put down the beers.’ He’s saying something but thankfully the Antipodean accent takes care of that. He starts towards me.
‘You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape, Russell Crowe,’ I say. ‘With me it’s a full time job. Putting beer on the shelves. Now behave yourself.’ He is an actor so I knew he would understand that Michael Caine Get Carter reference, remember how that scrap turned out, and act accordingly. ‘Put the beers back, Russell. You’ll thank me for this in the morning.’
And he put the beers down and left. I hope there was a driver waiting outside for him. I expect there was. Bye, Russell. A nice man. No trouble at all. As long as you’re firm with them. You’ve got to be firm with them.


What twenty cans of Fosters looks like, in case you don’t know.

Does Donald trump?


So I’m back home in Northern Ireland, up on the Antrim Coast near White Rocks. That’s a big beach, little rocky islands called the Skerries out in the cold sea on one side, tall sandhills on the other. Beyond the tall sandhills is the golf course where Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open Champion, plays.
I’m strolling along there under the hard blue sky in the cutting breeze on this bright clear morning, not a soul in sight, when I’m a bit surprised to see three men in heavy dark overcoats come struggling over the sandhills and slipping and sliding down onto the beach in front of me. There’s something vaguely familiar about the bulky yellow-haired one in the middle. As they come closer, him doing all the talking, I realize it’s Donald Trump.
I pause and wait for them. They can see I’ve got something to say and, maybe from a desire to curry favour with the natives, they stop. ‘Good morning,’ says Donald.


‘Donald Trump,’ I say. ‘Stylish hair-wearer, television personality whose handling of erratic nut job Gary Busey in Season Eleven of US Celebrity Apprentice was widely commended, entrepreneur and multimillionaire asswipe, no doubt you are considering buying the golf course on the other side of those sandhills now you have been made unwelcome in Scotland despite your trillions. Now you know from personal experience how it feels to go to someone else’s country and be made unwelcome. Not a good feeling, is it? And yet you subject countless refugees and immigrants from Syria to Mexico to insult and refusal, people travelling out of necessity more than from the desire for a round of golf, and most of whom don’t have two pennies, or in your parlance, millions, to rub together?’
He gazes out to sea, where he’s looking directly at Scotland except it’s too far away, thinking. As well he might.
‘How does it feel to be an undesirable, Donald,’ I go on, ‘standing there, hair askew in the Irish breezes, a heavy either side, knowing everyone you meet wishes you would go home and roll around in some dollars and forget about them? But please keep up the run at the Republican Party candidacy for that will let Hillary Clinton into the presidency, or at a pinch even the preferable Bernie Sanders.’
He shakes his head. The hair doesn’t move. Just the head. ‘Come on,’ he says to his aides/bodyguards/assistants/adopted children. ‘Nothing for us here.’
And you know something – Donald Trump never did buy the Royal Portrush Golf Club, the sandhills and White Rocks beach. Nor the Skerries. Nor the sea.
‘And remember,’ I call after them, ‘the old question remains: does Donald trump? And the answer is yes, every time he opens his mouth.’ And none of them turn around.

Walking down this road the other day…


So I go down to Dulwich to see my son, and we go out for coffee. We are walking along in some nice street, not in Dulwich but nearby, like Penge, and as we are about to go into a coffee shop I see somebody vaguely familiar coming the other way. I hesitate in the coffee shop doorway, and recognise him after a moment as Stewart Lee the comedian. I have to speak to him. He’s a comedy god. So I step out in front of him and say,
‘It’s comedy god Stewart Lee,’ just in case he’s not sure, and he stops and looks pleased and smiles a little, warily maybe, and says nothing. So I go on, ‘I love your work, Stewart Lee. Comedy gold comes pouring out of your mouth. Your catchphrases especially. I love your catchphrases.’ I turn to my son and say, ‘He’s the master of the catchphrase. The highest form of comedy in my opinion.’ My son’s looking like he wishes he was somewhere else. ‘The catchphrase. He has tons of them. All wonderful. Encapsulations of wit and relevance. Expressions that stand countless repetitions because of the skill in choosing the situations. The same phrase, different situation; a new joke without having to actually use new words.’
Stewart Lee isn’t smiling now. Just looking puzzled, but not too much puzzled. It’s not as if he has to understand what I’m saying. He’s comedy god Stewart Lee. So I say, ‘I love that one about the tree. You know the one.’ Stewart Lee is being very patient. Or maybe he thinks there may be comedy gold here after all. Comedy gold for him. Maybe he’s starting to wonder if I’m having him on. If I’m doing a turn. Doing a turn in front of comedy god Stewart Lee. Maybe people do that all the time. I don’t know. I’ve never met a comedy god before. ‘It’s a tree,’ I say, but with emphasis. That’s to show it’s the catchphrase about a tree. ‘I love the ambiguity of it. Do you mean the living woody edifice that grows in verdant places but also on city streets, like here in Penge? Or are you referring to the number as in three sausage rolls? Three dogs? Three people standing in the street, one of them comedy god Stewart Lee?’
Stewart Lee has had enough. He nods his head, turns away from the door of the coffee shop. To sit in there and possibly hear more of this would be a nightmare. To have his coffee opportunity spoiled by a gabby Irish stranger go on about catchphrases, which he does not use. Who knows where this one-sided encounter might go? It couldn’t stay one-sided. He would have to engage. Give. Chat, from comedy god Stewart Lee. Who gets paid for chat. He gives a kind of wave. Afterwards I wonder about that wave. I picture it. Was it just goodbye? Was it dismissive? Was it thank you for sharing your impromptu comedy gold with me? Was it respect from one great wit to another? He passes me, keeps on going.
I call after him, ‘Comedy gold, comedy god Stewart Lee.’ And it was too. And he doesn’t turn around.

The beards that mattered…

The cultivation of chin fur is a long and sometimes fraught process. We all may need encouragement along the way. These have been some of my influences. Maybe.



Opie. Opie Winston. Deceased, of Sons of Anarchy. Don’t tell me it’s not real. This Charming man, all 6ft 4ins of him, beaten to death in jail. No, I haven’t spoiled it for you. It’s all been on Netflix for ages. You get black leather too with Opie. What’s not to like? An influential beardsman from beyond the grave.


zztopTexan guitar doodlers. Frank Beard, the one who doesn’t have a beard, on the right. Never mind Legs. It’s a beard for the Sharp Dressed Man. Zoooom…. hand wavey shake….



Hemingway said that all writers tell the same story over and over. We don’t all grow the same beard over and over. Nor did that old repulsive, animal hunting, tiny-todgered nutter, but he did once grow this fine specimen of whiskerhood. In this condition he should have been shot and the head mounted.





John Bell Hood

General John Bell Hood. OK, he was a Confederate. None of us is perfect, even great beard-growers. He’s here as representative of all the great beards of the American Civil War. That’s when one set of great US beards fought other great US beards. We have to face facts here: the south, whatever you think of them, had better beards. That’s a fact. We have to confront it.


Speaking of which….

Selby Foote

Shelby Foote, the finest historian of the American Civil War, a Mississippian-accented raconteur who described incidents and battles as if they happened half an hour ago, delivering anecdotes dead-pan, then breaking into a sudden chortle. Once I saw this as quite a full beard. But it’s still a damn fine, graceful, southern-gentlemanly Gone With the Wind ‘let’s have the ball at Tara and the Tarleton twins will be there’ set of facial hair.


jeff-bridgesJeff Bridges, the Dude, Rooster Cogburn, and a few dozen other great parts. Now giving the beard gravitas. No. It’s the other way around. Gravitas can be yours, ladies and gentlemen. Beards for all. Conchita Wurst cracked it.








And if it’s greying a little…

Roy Oraschin

Roy Oraschin, model, sometime actor, going thorough the world giving the greying beard a good name. You can watch him on YouTube getting this trimmed, a little… just a little… don’t worry… it ends happily. Relax.



sam elliot Sam Elliott.

OK, I know it’s not a beard. It’s the damn-finest mustache you will ever see. This man could grow a great beard probably in a couple of days. Half an hour maybe. I grew one of these once. Big. Almost this good. Then I shaved it off. The next day I was in the library and saw the DVD of Tombstone. He’s in that. On the cover, with this thing on his face. I could have wept.



Iain Watters

Perhaps a warning for all of us:

Iain Watters, sometime contestant on The Great British Bake-off, famous mostly for having his baked alaska left out of the freezer by a rival.

Nothing wrong with it being ginger.  It’s that it’s the beard as a hipster accessory, instead of the fine thing it is in its own right. And it’s all that stuff on the top of his head.






But, if I had to pick one of these as my inspiration, well, no contest really: Finn, role model for all of us well-haired ones. Whiskers as they were meant to be.






And mine.















Say hello to my little friend…

You want to play rough? OK – say hello to my little friend.newpro80lbsheavybag

The gym got re-fitted in January of last year. Lots of new toys. So many new toys I destroyed the cartilage in my left knee. Took ages and an operation to mend. But a couple of months after everything else had been installed there came one last toy.
A heavy bag. I saw guys, not many, whack it. Some looked good, like they knew what they were doing. Others poked at it. Mostly the bag hung there, unused. One afternoon I was on a spinning bike just across from it, watching a skinny young dude beat the shit out of that bag, but skilfully. Punches I couldn’t name, speed, power, great footwork. Yip. Why not? I’d ask him for advice. Then he took off his woolly hat and I saw he was a woman.
And she gave me about two minutes of good stuff. Use the body, don’t swing the hand. Power comes from the hips. Have sessions of rapid and hard punches. Twenty seconds at full rip. And move. Don’t stand like a tree stump. And keep the knuckles on top, level with the ground. And that was it.
I hit it with a left jab, or what I thought might be a left jab. Stuck in a right. Jesus, it felt good. So good. It felt like the thing I’d been waiting for all my life. I still had little idea what I was doing, but I loved it. I was also exhausted after about four or five punches. I’d get better. I was keen. I was a natural. I could ah bin a contender.
Every day I go to the gym I use that heavy bag. My new friend. I use it without gloves for four or five minutes. Then ten, fifteen with light gloves. Then move on. And when I move on I want to go back. There are ads that say: get this blender, it will change your life. Friends who tell you: do yoga, it will change your life. Well, beating the shit out of a heavy bag for fifteen minutes every day has changed mine.
I’ve haven’t hit anyone in years. I was never any good in a fight. Not at school, not later. I’d walk away, feeling bad, thinking I’ve never thrown even one real punch. I wouldn’t know where to begin. But I’ve thrown punches now all right. Thousands of them. Hard ones, soft ones, fast fast fast ones, slower big power punches, jabs, hooks, straight lefts and rights, combinations. Started to duck and dive, do the head work. Spent time on the footwork, got lighter, more nimble. Slipping and dipping. More turning, more core work. Power from the hips, like she said.
I’ve still no idea what I’m doing really. A tough guy could knock my block off easily. The bag’s a bit complacent: it doesn’t hit back. I’ve got confidence, but it just might be a little misplaced.
But – what’s that? You got something to say? Yeah, I’m talking to you. Got some point you want to make, and you’re going to make me listen? You don’t like something I did and you want to do something about it? Really? Really sure? You want to play rough? OK. Well, say hello to my little friend.


The rain, the neon, the shining street, the cop at the end of it…

Granville Street 1959

It’s 1959, Vancouver. Dan Kearney, a panel van driver, has just got a call to take an old girlfriend’s son home from 1026 Eyremount Drive.

The phone at the other end went dead. I left the lights on and locked up the place and went out to the Apache. Rain had come on again since I had walked into the apartment, and there was a smell of damp and old clothes in the van. There usually was. I sat looking out into the darkness for a moment. The rain on the windshield hung between me and the night and whatever lay ahead. I knew about British Properties. On the other side of Burrard Inlet, on the flanks of Cypress Mountain. Views down over Burrard Inlet and across to the city, safely far away. Big modern, flashy, boxy houses set back behind tall hedges, tall trees, privacy. A world up there with cleaning ladies and cooks and gardeners. The stationery job didn’t take me up there much. Or ever. I put on the wipers and the headlights and set off to find Mia’s son and whatever else this was about.
I went down Heather onto West Broadway, and into the Vancouver rainy night streets of hard neon and shining tarmac. Past the giant new red, white and blue BowMac sign at Alder. Hung a right at the high-up blue and red Dueck Chevrolet sign, ignored the advice of the white Dueck arrow. Humming over Granville Bridge in the rain, wipers beating, a whisker away from the Continental Hotel and big BUY BURNS SHAMROCK LARD in red and green, into the downtown heartland. Above every glowing, blazing front a cup, a saucer, a dancing cat, a waitress with tray. ORPHEUM. PLAZA. PARADISE. Plenty of people around even at this hour, in this weather. A queue along the street for North by Northwest at the VOGUE. A crowd milling out into the street after Last Train From Gun Hill at the CAPITOL. Under the far-up yellow Shell sign on the Granville Block, the big clock below telling me it was 10.40 and I was making good time. Hung a left, leaving behind the outlined Sun Tower, its little red rays, its glowing white nipple. Further behind again, gleaming, looking like it was throbbing, the revolving red W of the Woodwards mast. Beyond that the never-sleeping world of Chinatown.
Maybe I maligned the city. On a drive like this I could love Vancouver again. On a drive like this.
I was making good time but I would not be there in twenty-five minutes. Into the West End, with the woodframes tumbling down hand over fist and ten and fifteen floor apartment towers shooting up. Past the dark Georgia Auditorium, a show announcement and a For Sale sign hanging on the same wall, and over the Causeway and out of the lit and wide open spaces and into the Park, into the solid darkness and silence of those big trees.
Stanley Park. I’d loved it when I came to Vancouver and had no money and spent Sundays walking the paths, lying on the grass, watching dogs, watching people, watching the ocean, watching the mountains across the ocean. Longing, for something. I was less sure I loved it now, but as I tore on through it, for that moment, with the dark trees around me, it was like the rain on the windscreen, something solid and good between me and the rest of the hard world.
The great rising, falling, arc of Lions Gate Bridge. Another thing I had felt differently about once and since grown sick of. The traffic jams and hold ups and still paying tolls. We’d bought that bridge twice over.
The city had changed. Since I had come here, twice the size. People from all over. Since the war, kids everywhere. Ten, eleven, twelve-year olds. So it seemed. I was a whinging old fart. I had changed. I’d get away from it. Not soon enough. A little farm on the flat good land out along the Fraser Valley would be a fine thing. Little farms cost money. I wouldn’t make a little farm on Keyes Stationery and Retail Supplies wages. I had to be careful. I mustn’t blow it. I laughed out loud, stopped laughing quickly. Too much time alone.
I came out on Taylor, and onto Highland and that world of dark roads, high banks, high hedges, high trees, houses lurking out of sight. I slowed, checked a street name, drove on, winding round and round, climbing all the time into the night. I found I was on a different Drive, came off it again. I’d lost my touch. I slowed, checking numbers on posts, on mail boxes, on fine property walls of invisible houses.
It was on my right, facing out over the bay, looking down and across to the far-off shore of a hundred thousand winking white lights, on those gaudy warm colors of Granville, Broadway, Hastings from Gore to Abbott, all of it dulled by cloud and rain. A short sharp drive sloped down to the house. Peaked roofs over plenty of wings, plenty of chimneys, a turning space, three cars parked out front. Maybe as old as a couple of years, average-sized for British Properties, four or five times the size of Mia’s woodframe on Dunbar, twenty times – I didn’t know – I was guessing – the size of my two-room throw-down. A lot of lights were on. I turned the Apache in the drive and left it facing the road. I had seen no one, and then as I got out there was a man standing beside the van, a big guy in a fedora, a raincoat swept back, hands in his trouser pockets, a white gleaming shirt front and a tie that wasn’t under his ear.
‘Are you Calloway?’ I asked.


Après toi


Après toi
A short story

My finger hovers over the V. I have never typed this name before. Nor said it. I press the V. But this name has flitted through my mind for years. A small i. It was around somewhere as I grew into adolescence. Small c. Had my first jobs, packed eggs and loaded lorries. Small k. When my father died, when my mother died. I press the y. The name went with me when I moved from Northern Ireland to England.
L. Partners coming and going. A child born. Another child. The e. I don’t know where it came from. Or where the partners, the children went to. I don’t know why I haven’t looked it up long ago, and I don’t know why I’m doing this now. A lot of fuss over a foreign-sounding name. The a. Not sure of the spelling, and thinking. The n, then d, r, o, s, quickly.
It’s typed. I look at the screen.
Vicky Leandros.
I click ‘search’.
There are many videos of her. One is of the Eurovision Song Contest, March 25th, 1972, Edinburgh, and a song called Après Toi. I have never watched the Eurovision Song Contest, but I’m less surprised at seeing this than I think I should be. 1972. So many years. God. I click, and click again. ‘Après Toi’. I wouldn’t have known what that meant in 1972.
The camera pulls away and I can see the stage for the first time, and it is only just in time, for a slim young woman in a long dark dress is already walking out in front of the cameras and the audience. She walks quickly, confidently. Her right arm swings once, up and ahead of her. She stops. The spotlight has thrown an oval on the floor behind her, and her shadow, like her, slim and dark, stretches out across the oval.
Vicky Leandros. I accept it is her, but it could be any pretty young Mediterranean woman. It doesn’t explain anything, but knowing her name and nothing else about her for forty years has alone given her mystique and gravitas. Immediately the orchestra pumps out music. Poomp poomp poom.
I must have seen this before. This exact performance. Sitting, on what was surely a Saturday night, in front of a television with my parents in their house in Milltown Street, Dunmaddy, Northern Ireland.
I’m shivering a little. All the why questions are running in my head. It’s like I have found an old diary, I’m reading about something that was once important to me, and I can’t understand why it was ever important, and why it was then forgotten.
She seems a little hunched, but it is the raised shoulders of the dress. I am hearing her voice before I realise she is singing. She sings softly. Tu t’en vas. You are leaving. Now I know what the words mean. The camera is coming in closer. It could not come in close enough. She is beautiful. A serious, beautiful, face.
The camera comes closer still. The voice is not strong, but the image and the sound fill me. I see her hand holding the microphone, the small pale fingers, a ring, like an engagement ring, on her middle finger. The long waving dark hair cascades, yes, about her face. Her eyes close, her mouth makes a bow shape, opens, and now her singing erupts: Qu’après toi…
And I look at her, and my heart moves in me, as it surely must have done on that night in Dunmaddy, in my childish self. Very little moves me, and this is moving me. It’s not comfortable. I watch the dark hair, the face, the little curve of the nose, the bow mouth that spills out wonder and tenderness and sadness: … je ne pourrai plus vivre, non plus vivre qu’en souvenir de toi. After you I cannot live, not live only in memory of you. Her right hand, the back to the audience, rises level with her face, and descends and the fingers ripple as the hand comes down. The fingers have twinkled, and there is nothing cheap about it. She continues to sing and I am not translating any more. The sound is, as it must have been then, sense enough. As her voice falls at the end of this verse her face breaks into a smile. She is making a beautiful thing and should smile.
Was it at this moment on the sofa in Dunmaddy that her name, the only words I could understand, became so firmly hung on that peg in my head? My thoughts shoot away from the video and to Northern Ireland in 1972. What was happening then? But I have spent many years making sure those things haven’t stayed on any pegs.
She is facing me now. Her right hand begins to ascend once more, slowly, to level with her face, the back of the hand to me. It hovers, then descends swiftly. I am fascinated.
I would have known then, as I read on-line on the morning after this evening, that, up until this Saturday night ninety people had been murdered in Northern Ireland in 1972, thirty one of them in those first twenty five days of March alone.
I would have known then that five days before this night a 200 pound car bomb had been detonated in Donegall Street in Belfast city centre, murdering seven people and injuring one hundred and fifty more. Two of the dead were policemen trying to evacuate the area. Three were binmen, blown off their bin lorry. Two were old age pensioners.
I hear the words ‘après toi’ again and again. There is a large brooch of leaves and berries on the high-necked dark dress. The dark hair falls and curls against her cheeks, the smooth skin pale against the dark of the hair and the dress.
I would have known then, as I watched this before, that a little later on that same day as the car bomb a sniper fired a single shot and murdered a soldier.
Now her head and the hand holding the microphone fill the screen. I can see her sad, serious, heavy-lidded eyes. The camera is pulling back. I try to think about this singer and song, what it has meant and what it means to me now, but the desire to watch and listen overwhelms the desire to understand.
I would have known then that two days before that night the army shot and murdered a thirteen-year-old schoolboy in Belfast. A petrol bomb was found nearby but no evidence he had ever touched it.
And the voice rises once more, and once more the right hand rises with it, the fingers ripple, the hand descends. Yes. And again, as surely I was on that Saturday night forty years before in Dunmaddy, I am full of both sadness and joy. It is hard and shocking. I inhale and forget to breath out, and then jolt back into sense.
The murders on the day she sang were even more ridiculous and avoidable and banal. I imagine Vicky Leandros waking about seven a.m. to rehearse, to prepare herself, a long day ahead, in Edinburgh on the far side of the short strip of water that is the Irish Sea. About seven a.m. in Springhill Avenue in Belfast a man was accidentally shot by his friends, and trailed into a house. The woman who lived there came downstairs and found his body in her living room. He had been somehow accidentally shot by twenty-four bullets of three different calibres.
Après toi je ne serai que l’ombre… the camera is pulling back… de ton ombre… The song is nearing its end. Even I, unmusical, know that. Her right hand is rising in a wide sweep, moving out, around… Après toi. The hand descends suddenly and her song is over. There is applause, much applause, and she is looking up. It is over for her, and beginning. Her head moves just a little to her left, then forward, and she bows. The applauding goes on and on.
The other murder on that March 25th was in another part of Belfast, around the time Vicky Leandros sang. A man had gone to the Shankill Road UDA club and complained about the beating of a friend. Were the drinkers watching this on television too? The man who had done the beating shot him in the head.
Not a thing of these incidents when Vicky Leandros sang in Edinburgh, or anything about the other four hundred and ninety-six people murdered in Northern Ireland that year, has stayed with me. That might have been the year the IRA shot me in the arm. It was some year around then. I can’t remember. I have succeeded in not remembering, in making the petty, deadly, things nothing to me. But I have remembered this singer’s name.
Sitting there after the song finishes I do remember some of the stratagems for survival in Northern Ireland in 1972. Draw the curtains before putting the house lights on. Keep the car interior light permanently off. Never stop walking if someone pulls up in a car to ask directions. Don’t open anything you might find. Never answer any knock at the door without first checking. I would have known many more then, yet never enough. That was life, as we walked and talked and went to school and work, and watched the petty, deadly things come up to our own door and then turn away, maybe this time, maybe not the next. And while we waited for that knock we watched light nonsense on television, and I saw Vicky Leandros make a little, important, bit of wonder in a hall in Edinburgh.
I’ve timed the video. From the music starts until she stops singing is 2 minutes 55 seconds.
Over the next hours of this evening I play Après Toi in English, where it is supposed to mean Come What May. The English words are happy and so wrong. I hear it sung in German, in Greek, in Spanish. I watch and hear a Vicky Leandros, recognisable, stranger, harder somehow, a performer, sing it in 1992 and 1995. I watch and hear her, over the years, always attractive, never magical, sing many other songs in a range of languages. I watch her with bobbed hair five years before that night in Edinburgh singing another entry in another Eurovision Song Contest, a song called Love is Blue. She looks full-cheeked and what she is, a very young woman with heavy makeup.
I go back and watch the video again. As I watch I see things I missed first time around. I watch again as her face breaks into the smile after the first crescendo. I freeze the frame, and look at that face as the lips begin to close. Yes. She knows she has done this well. Does she know how well? I watch the gesture of the hands, the fingers rippling, the brow furrowing, the lips changing shape. Seeing the effects work over and over does nothing to lessen them. I expect them, I think I understand them and, on this created, crafted, constructed thing, they work again and again.
Later, way into the night, I think: what happened to the long dark dress? Does she still keep it, in a wardrobe, the dress she wore when she broke through and became… whatever she became? Was there a man, a boyfriend, who asked for and got the dress and then maybe in a year, full of anger as she moved on, threw it away? And the brooch of leaves and berries?
I think: in the morning shall I look up what was happening in Northern Ireland around March 25th 1972? Of course I do. It is the cold experience I anticipated. It is what I have just told you.
I think: if I was naive to find this song and this singer so beautiful all those years ago then, held up against the stupidity and bigotry and hatred and violence all around me, it was a small naivety, a small stupidity.
I tell myself that on that Saturday night in 1972 I forgot to be fearful for all of 2 minutes 55 seconds, that for that time I was free, and that it was long enough, important enough, for me to carry the name, the one thing I understood, in my head all these years.
That is what I have told myself anyway. It may even be true.
So I play the video again. I play it again, I play it again, and this I do know: each time as it ends the sadness of something lovely having been lost sweeps over me.

Après toi’ by Vicky Leandros

Green catastrophe?

Help me out here.

Will this be the ugliest and most ridiculous building in Britain? Or an exciting, world-leading innovation? P1050019


The new UEA Enterprise Centre, part of Norwich Research Park, but situated in the UEA grounds, will be roofed and clad with pallets of straw.


Dr John French, project director and chief executive of the Adapt Low Carbon Group, who is overseeing the scheme said: “This is going to be the greenest building in Britain. When you come down the University Drive you will see this new ‘gateway’ building which is going to be quite stunning. It’s an important part of the UEA architecture – post modern, but it’s softer. This is the first time we have moved away from concrete. Not only will it be low carbon, but it shows that you can use bio-based materials.”

Straw, before anyone had anything better, has certainly a long history of being used for roofing. Straw also has some accredited use in modern building, packed into crates and used as a (very) thick wall insulation. But is this thin layer of straw all over the outside of the building anything more than dubious decoration, an expensive gimmick, claimed as innovative design?

Of course there are more innovations in this building than the misjudged outside, but that outside seems to be a betrayal of serious intentions, or even knowledge, about green issues. It looks more like laughable, expensive, window dressing. Is this building not the equivalent of a straw-covered iPad?


A contemporary building with cute little thatched roofs on top. And cute little thatched walls all round. Yip. Thatched walls.

What will it be like when it is finished? The glossy artist’s impression (where you can’t actually see that the walls have a veneer of straw), below,


or one of the ugliest, most ridiculous buildings anywhere in the UK?



UEA seems to have some misplaced affection for straw. They have supported this generally considered non-viable and polluting straw-burning power station in Norwich.

A power station about which UEA have made wildly exaggerated claims over the availability of straw, how many it would employ, the CO2 saved, the trains needed to bring the straw every week, the extremely low level of electricity actually generated, and, most striking of all, the high levels of pollution emitted from, and generated by other aspects, of this supposedly green project.

I’ll let this very good letter from the EDP finish for me.

straw letter


Nothing says Christmas like WWI



Each Christmas big stores in the UK feel they have to put out eye-wateringly expensive television ads to get the money out of our pockets. John Lewis have their cute penguin this year. Sainsbury’s have a different approach.

Sainsbury’s have taken the idea of the Christmas Truce of 1914, where opposing sides stopped slaughtering each other for a few hours and exchanged gifts. Then they went back to slaughtering. It’s generally considered that this did indeed happen, if sporadically, along the Front, while in other places the shooting only died down for a few hours, or arrangements were made for bodies to be recovered.

Well, nothing says Christmas like the First World War. Nothing gives that Christmas feeling like trenches and guts and mud and rats and trench foot and mass slaughter and going over the top in straight lines into machine gun fire. Nothing is as Christmassy as the destruction of a generation and succeeding generations all across Europe and half the world.

It has the endorsement of the British Legion, so who am I to say it’s a nauseous thing?


It is a nauseous thing because pain and destruction and misery have been used with the sole and trivial objective of persuading us to buy groceries from a particular store. And tinsel and crackers and lights and trees and DVDs and clothing and that glut of over-the-top food-buying that stores love an excuse to encourage. I’ve read a lot about the Great War, and specifically about the origins of the Great War. I’m still no expert. Experts can’t agree on the origins of the Great War. But I don’t think it was about supermarket shopping.

The real guys in those trenches, German and British, French, Belgian, colonial, certainly had no idea why they were there. Into that great void of reason came briefly for one afternoon a little sense, whatever the origins of that breakthrough. Superstition triggered by religion, a sudden realization of the banality and corruption of what they were doing, of the un-reason of it all, that it indeed did not have the inevitability they had understood it to have, a suspension of the vainglory of supposed patriotism… for whatever reason the fighting, in some places at least, briefly stopped. That is what Sainsbury’s have decided is a reasonable perspective from which to promote a mass flogging of mince pies and turkeys.

I feel disgust with Sainsbury’s for having made this. I feel disgust with the British Legion for accepting money from this. They have accepted money also from a Joss Stone and Jeff Beck rendering of Eric Bogle’s anti-war song No Man’s Land with the anti-war verses left out. Have they no shame? Would they accept money now from the armament divisions of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE Systems, the three biggest military armament companies in the world? I guess… well, why not?

It’s supposed to very authentic. The makers say so. The British Legion says so. I’m not so sure. Again, I’m no expert but I’m not seeing the body parts hanging on the wire. I’m not seeing amputated limps, shattered faces, shattered bodies, shattered lives. I’m not seeing rats eating entrails. I’m not seeing men out of their heads with fear. I’m not seeing those at home for whom husbands and sons and brothers will not come back, or come back shattered and changed for ever. Perhaps it’s not so accurate.

Maybe next year Sainsbury’s and the British Legion can get together and come with a nice Hiroshima scene, a Holocaust scene. Perhaps the world flu pandemic of 1918 that infected between 100 to 500 million people, killing between 50 and 100 million, or three to five percent of the world’s population, could be roped in to help sales of Beecham’s Lemsips and Night Nurse?

Of course that’s going too far. No one would really do that, would they?

Well, I didn’t think anyone would exploit the First World War for commercial gain until I saw it. And I don’t hear the objections. I don’t hear the exclamations of disgust. I wish I did.




On an afternoon in July 2009 I was sitting with my back to a concrete wall, looking down into the Williams Lake Stampede grounds. There were about twenty or thirty others sitting and standing with me, watching the rodeo for free, if from a little distance. Everybody else was First Nation. I remember earlier, standing up on Oliver Street, again looking down into the stampede grounds, and a lean dark woman talking to me, asking me what my shirt was made of. It was a fast drying, water repelling outdoors shirt, a fancy thing. I said polyester. She tugged out her own collar. ‘Polyester’ she said and laughed. She smelt of drink. It was a holiday. Why shouldn’t she? How many of the stampede ticket-buyers hadn’t taken on some too, or would later?

Frances Greenslade’s Shelter is set in the Williams Lake area, and along Highway 20, the road from there to Bella Coola. I read Shelter first in November 2012. I’d read a Guardian review of it, favourable, but it was that it was set in the Chilcotin in BC that made me want to read it. I’d read Eric Collier’s Three Against The Wilderness, in a nice Touchwood edition, a present from my brother, in 2008. It’s Eric’s recollections of making a home in the Chilcotin, outside Williams Lake, in the 1930s, first published in book form in 1959. I’ve got three copies now, the second a book club edition picked up in a thrift shop in Swaffham, Norfolk, and the third a 1962 paperback bought from MacLeod’s Books in Vancouver a month ago. It was reading the Touchwood in 2008 that had brought me to Williams Lake.

I’d come to visit Meldrum Creek and Riske Creek, the land, for they are not towns, where Eric Collier had set up home with Lillian his wife and later his son Veasy, cutting down trees, chasing off wolves, raising cattle, trying to farm, eventually restoring beaver to the creeks. Riske Creek is the Duchess Creek of Frances Greenslade’s fine book.

I finished Shelter for the first time in a café in that early November of 2012 while my wife and daughter walked in a water garden nearby. I was impressed with it. But while some scenes stayed with me a lot of the details of the book got lost behind other reading, and most of all probably in my absorption in my own writing in the two years since. By the time I finished it for the second time an hour ago some of these impressions had come back to me, and I knew what I thought now was not what I’d thought then.

I’d found it a little slow then, but by the end thought that worthwhile for giving me a more full picture of the two sisters and the mother and other main protagonists like Rita and Vern. I’d thought it had too much subsidiary story-telling, that this felt at times more for the entertainment of the reader than from being any integral part of the narrative. It was very descriptive, I thought. I’d mostly but not always liked that, though the high quality of the writing had made it work.

So I’ve just finished it again. I liked it then but now I like it more, that I think it’s an even finer piece of writing, better judged, that I should have trusted the writer more readily. I can’t see where I found it occasionally a little slow. It’s too absorbing for that. I can’t see any jarring when one of the protagonists takes over from Maggie and relates an incident that either illuminates part of the sisters/mother narrative, illustrates their own narrative or, in Vern’s case, relates a story of two brothers and the wife of one of them who are not otherwise in the book at all. The text seems more of a smooth whole than I’d thought on my first time through. I noticed the importance of dreams and fantasises more this time. I noticed the basic goodness of just about everyone. No. Of everyone. People make mistakes, get a little weak sometimes, get longings that may or may not serve them but, one after another, they do good and kind and generous things for each other. And still disaster happens.

You don’t need a synopsis of Shelter from me. You can find that in many places. I can tell you I cared for these people. I wanted good things for them, and knew they mostly would not get them. They mattered. I was constantly surprised, and yet it all seemed inevitable. It felt true, and good like a true thing is.


The shirt

After the rodeo I went to Riske Creek and then to Meldrum Creek, and spoke to a man digging in the big garden of the only house there. He was Mr Meldrum, from the family who had given the name to the place. He talked of the book that had brought me there. He had never read it, but people before had turned up and talked to him about it. He told me of Veasy Collier coming home from the Korean War, riding from this house to his own on one of their horses, an incident I’d read about in the book. He told me too of Veasy, still alive and living in Williams Lake, in a good house to the south shore of the lake itself. That Veasy had had a lifetime of answering questions about that childhood and young life. That Veasy said that not all of the book was true, that he had not been chased by wolves, that the incident where a moose they were feeding almost killed his mother had not happened, not like that.

Later I drove up and stopped outside Veasy’s house. I did not call. If I’m back in Williams Lake I won’t call now. On Remembrance Day, 11th November 2012, Veasy Collier died. He died around the time I was finishing Shelter in that café.

Without the Colliers I would not have been in Riske and Meldrum Creeks and Williams Lake. Without being in Riske and Meldrum Creeks and Williams Lake I probably wouldn’t have read Shelter. I wouldn’t have sat for two hours about a month ago in a café in Penticton with Frances Greenslade.

So it goes, as Kurt says. So it goes.