Thursday, 25 November 2010


It was late. Somewhere, an owl hooted....

Funny how groups of words stick in your head, isn't it? Those couple of sentences are (I think) taken from an episode of 'I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again', of which I had some BBC Audio tapes when I was little-ish. They appeared somewhere within a sketch as the deliberately cringesome opening lines of a not-very-scary (but supposed to be scary) story. Even now they make me smile. You had to be there, I guess.

'I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again' (ISIRTA) was a BBC radio comedy which ran from the mid-60's through to the early 70's, featuring Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, David Hatch, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Jo Kendall. This all took place a fair chunk of time before I came along, but I had a Monty Python phase around the age of 10-12, and the presence of Cleese in the cast probably caught my attention when looking to offload my pocket money one weekend in a local independent music and record store. (Would you believe it's still there?! Established 1848 and still going strong. Visit if you ever come to Bath:

As such, the show was one of several fore-runners to Flying Circus. As well as Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle were regular script contributors. But of course the most obvious product of 'ISIRTA' was The Goodies, the TV sketch show starring Brooke-Taylor, Oddie and Garden. The Goodies never caught my imagination in the same way as Monty Python, but anyone who only knows Bill Oddie as an annoying and slightly unhinged twitcher should listen to his early radio efforts. Some of the topical and/or absurd songs he wrote and performed more than 40 years ago actually stand the test of time rather well.

The spin-off of 'ISIRTA', 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue', began in 1972 and remains a popular favourite on Radio 4. I haven't paid it much attention for years. But I still remember every word of 'The Angus Prune Tune' - the theme tune of it's parent, which ended three years before I was born.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


One of my favourite pictures of me. Upside down.

Monday, 15 November 2010


I was six years old. The walk to school from the house which remains my parents' home is half a mile at most, but in those days it seemed far longer. First came the short walk along the front of the terrace where we lived. Then around the corner to the busy main road, which had to be negotiated with the assistance of a pedestrian crossing. My parents always warned me then, just as I warn them now, that some drivers are too sleepy, or too distracted, or too stupid, to take heed of the red light. All too often one lane of traffic would obey, only for a vehicle to hurtle past on the outside. It was, and is, a dangerous road.

That day, as we rounded the corner, the road was uniquely, eerily quiet. The memory tends to exaggerate, but I don't recall a single car, van, lorry or motorcycle passing us as we walked to the crossing. It was one of the few occasions we were able to cross the road without the aid of the little green man. We continued away from the road and made our way up to the school via the village square.

The next day we discovered that one of my classmates, a girl who had recently moved to the area with her mother, had been hit and killed by a lorry, not two hundred yards up the road. She and her mother had been walking along the pavement, at the bottom of a hill. The lorry's brakes had failed. The girl, her mother and the lorry left the road, smashing through a wall, down a short but steep drop into a shallow stream below. It must have happened moments before my mother and I emerged into silence a little further along the road.

Amazingly, the girl's mother survived. After a long rehabilitation, she left the area, without the daughter who had arrived with her some months before. The wall by the side of the road was soon rebuilt, and for a few years the patch of clean bricks set against their dirty, eroded neighbours made for a silent memorial to a little girl who died suddenly, violently, in a strange place. More than a quarter of a century later those bricks can barely be discerned as any newer than the rest. There is no plaque, no bench, no tree.

I've been to many funerals. I've visited people in hospitals and nursing homes when they and I have both known we would never see one another again; when it's been obvious that they would not last another night; when they have taken on that grey hollowness that indicates that no matter how much they might want to carry on living, their body has given up. Yet I don't think I have ever felt closer to death than I did that morning in 1983.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


'Live for the moment'. Interesting concept, isn't it?

I know it's basically meant to mean you should take every opportunity you have to experience and enjoy whatever life throws at you. Squeeze every last drop from every last moment, because it might be your only chance. Taken to extremes, this maxim advocates the abandonment of consideration for both the past, and the future. There's obviously room for interpretation though, and the extent to which we remember and learn from past experiences is up to us. Likewise, most people would think it wise to remain cognisant of any implications our actions today, may have on tomorrow.

Nonetheless, living in the moment is something I've always practised, it seems to me, more literally than most. As a child I would always put off chores or schoolwork until the last possible day, even the last possible moment, favouring instead a walk, the TV, or that game I invented which involved trying to fling those little sachets of soy sauce or ketchup you get in Pot Noodles, into the small oval-shaped opening in an empty tissue box positioned against a door on the other side of the room. The thought that I was better than anyone in the world at propelling a 5x4cm condiment-filled plastic envelope with devastating accuracy some ten feet across my bedroom, seemed vastly more important than anything Mr Whatsisname might have set me for homework.

I'd still do the homework, most of the time at least. Getting into trouble was drawing unnecessary attention to oneself. There was the occasional calcuated gamble that a deadline would be extended that didn't pay off, but I could always talk my way around any punishment. I had one detention during my entire school career, and that was for the ridiculous misdemeanour of forgetting to bring in my Bible one day. No, the homework would get done. But it would be rushed, and vastly inferior to that of which I was capable. None of which mattered to me. I limited the amount I did to the bare minimum which was permissable, boxes were ticked, the years passed.

This wasn't laziness, you understand. It wasn't the mere rebellion of a young boy who thinks he knows better. I could see the viewpoint of my teachers, of my parents. Good education = good job = successful life = happiness. It was just that I never agreed with any of it. Can't remember a time when I did. I don't remember any kind of epiphany or realisation that it was all bullshit. I just always knew that it was. People lived for a while, then they died. What happened in between was really neither here nor there. Just get from one end of the piece of the string to the other without encountering too much resistence. That was my philosophy as a five-year-old just as much as it is now.

On occasion, I recall chuckling to myself at the huge amount of work I was going to have fit in next week in just a single evening as a result of my indifference, as if that person who would be struggling to do the work next week was someone other than myself. When the time finally came to do the work, neither would I curse my selfish, work-shy, good-for-nothing self of a week ago for making hay while the sun shone, at my expense. He was my kind of guy, you see. If anything I admired his devil-may-care attitude.

Using the sauce sachet and tissue box game as an example, the fact is that I have always taken a perverse pleasure in spending disproportionate amounts of time on obscure tasks I know full well to be completely pointless. It's my own little way of thumbing my nose at a life which, if I am honest, I believe to be pointless in its entirety. I can't identify with people who work hard, who pursue ambitions, who set goals and spend months, years and even lifetimes in their quest for some perceived state of perfection. So long as there is nothing wrong NOW, at this very point in time, I'm satisfied. Even if there is something ominous on the horizon, even if it is around the corner, so long as it is not HERE, NOW, I remain serenely unaffected.

Often, the ominous will recede, or turn out not to be so bad after all. On the rare occasions that something that looks bad turns out to be every bit as bad, or even worse, I either pedal like hell to remove myself from the situation, to find as direct and trouble-free a route as possible to my default position as a bemused and uninterested spectator-cum-semi-participant in the world; or I carry on regardless, oblivious to any threat.

Here's an example for you. A few years back, they found a growth on one of my mother's kidneys. They had become intertwined in such a way that the only thing to do was remove them both. That's a reasonably major surgical procedure, all with the spectre of cancer hanging over her at the same time. She is not a healthy woman - overweight, a heavy smoker who gets next to no exercise - not high on the list of suitable candidates for organ removal. It was not a pleasant time for my mother, or any of my family. Except for me. It slightly embarrasses me even now, but my behaviour did not deviate in the slightest, not for a single moment, from what could be described as normal for me. Not from the point of diagnosis, right through her admission to hospital, the procedure itself, and the recovery period thereafter. I wasn't sad or worried for a single moment. I love my mother a great deal. We have always been close, and even now speak every day. I will be upset when that time does come, and will miss her very much. But the me who's going to have to deal with that isn't the me of today. As it happens, I think my consistency and apparent stoicism was actually a source of comfort to her back then. But I wasn't putting on a front. I wasn't concealing inner turmoil, and fighting back the urge to shower her with sympathy and affection lest it be the last chance I got. I had no such urge.

This isn't a coping mechanism. It may have been a subconscious decision at first, but for a long time I've been very well aware that now is all that matters to me. It seems illogical to me to react to something before it takes place. Not only because it might not happen, but also, and more importantly, because allowing the possibility of something bad in the future to pollute a perfectly harmless and agreeable now, would be a crime, pure and simple. Now is all that we have, and the purity of now is fundamental to any happiness we might be able to achieve. If I feel strongly about anything (and I don't), then it's that.

More evenings than not, upon going to bed, one of my final thoughts before sleep is something along the lines of "Right here, right now, there is only me. It is dark. I am warm and safe. Nothing matters." That comforts me like nothing else.