On being alone

Looking in the mirror, I sometimes see a small boy looking back at me. The boy looks curious, wondering what his older self has become.  How many things did he not foresee?

I remember a story told by a man who was among the few truly great people I have met. It was a story about himself as a boy, a boy who believed he had anticipated the years that lay ahead.

It was a carols by candlelight evening in a pretty little church in the country. Every single seat was taken and there was a wonderful sense of it being a moment that was special.

He had asked not to do a reading, but to tell a story, a personal story.

After a musical piece, he walked up the nave and stood holding both sides of the wooden lectern. He smiled at the congregation and in his soft German accent said, “I would like to tell you a story.”

The story he told came from the Germany of the late-1920s. It told of a small boy’s delight at it being Christmas. It described the scene and the tastes and the mood. It talked about the boy’s joy at receiving a new sleigh as his Christmas present. Allowed to go out of the house in the afternoon, the boy went to a nearby hill where he spent the afternoon pulling the sleigh up the hill and descending with great excitement.

“The boy realized that the sun had set and that it was time to return to his home.

At that moment, the boy realized that he was alone. He realized that he would live alone and that, when he died, he would die alone.

I know that this story is true because that boy is me.”

The storyteller was a hero, a man who was regarded as a friend by all who knew him, a man who was known for his kindness and generosity.

There was a silence in the church. We did not know what to make of the story. Why had it been important? Why had the man whom we so much loved and admired felt that he wanted to tell such a sad story?

I remember standing to announce the next carol and having no words adequate to the moment, nothing that would not sound trite and vacuous.

Had he really anticipated the life he would lead? Had he really realized at such an early age that he would spend years living a solitary existence?

Looking in the mirror, I wish I had had such a gift of prescience.

 

 

 

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A dog’s death

Holly, the much-loved terrier of friends, had her last day today.

There was a sense of heartbreak watching her lying in her basket when I visited last night. The gentle and friendly animal who had spent eleven of her fifteen years with my friends, lay unmoving in her basket. Her eyes were closed, her legs trembled, and it seemed that the medication prescribed by the vet had not worked.

Holly’s sad figure recalled the deaths of the dogs I had loved much over the years – Maeve, Paddy, Bella, a Holly of our own, and Millie. Each of them were better friends than most people I have known.

A friend who had teenage children once commented that he was glad that he had a pet dog because it meant that there was at least someone who was pleased to see him when he came home.

My friends’ dog Holly was the sort of dog who always gave you a friendly greeting. She was a dog who was always glad to welcome visitors. She was a dog who enjoyed the society of humans and who enriched the lives of those with whom she lived.

Anyone who believes in the Kingdom of Heaven and who would assert that there is no place for dogs in such a realm has not understood the moral superiority of dogs over much of humanity, (nor have they understood Saint Paul’s belief that the whole creation will receive liberation).

Anyone who does not believe in the Kingdom of Heaven and asserts that dogs are an ethically inferior species has not enjoyed the companionship of creatures like my friends’ dog.

It has been suggested that people use pets as an “emotional crutch.” Perhaps they do, perhaps the dogs I remembered with sadness as I stood and contemplated poor Holly last night were a reflection of personal inadequacy, personal insecurity.

Yet, if dogs are an emotional crutch, what are most human relationships? If one exists in a post-modern, relativist world, why are humans regarded as a superior species? One does not need to subscribe to the philosophy of Pete Singer and his ideas about speciesism to accept that dogs are significant friends for many people.

Dogs like Holly are loyal and faithful. They are not capricious, not inclined to discard those who have been friends to them.

Talking with my friends, I recounted the day I buried my dog Bella in 2015.  With my eyes filled with tears, I buried her against the wall of the garden in which she had spent so many happy hours. I took a piece of stone and scratched Romans 8:21 onto the wall.

Paul wrote, “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” In that spirit, may poor old Holly rest in peace and rise in glory.

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Snapping life

A school trip to the Baltic in 1974 brought the disapproval of my paternal grandmother: I had used seven rolls of film to take photographs. The visit had included Copenhagen, Malmo, Gotland and Leningrad (as Saint Petersburg was known at the time). Seven rolls of film had meant eighty-four photographs, the sort of number of pictures someone now might take in a day with a smartphone. Cost was, of course, the issue: my grandmother disapproved of how much my parents had to pay for the developing and printing of the photographs. Photography for my grandmother was about serious matters, posed family pictures, holidays, visits, important events. A thirteen year old boy’s snapshots did not fall into her idea of what could be considered as serious.

Not everyone shared my grandmother’s attitude, a maternal grand aunt seems to have been positively profligate in her use of her camera, making an extensive pictorial record of her visits to her large extended family.

My mother has one of her aunt’s photographs hanging on the wall. Taken around 1965 or 1966, the photograph features the small boy who lived on the farm. The interesting part of the picture is in the background detail. Human beings do not change much over the years; individuals change, but people generically don’t alter much.  Hairstyles may differ and in years to come the small boy’s shirt and shorts will look quaint, but real changes are man made.

The farm well with its concrete cover lies in the foreground, it was to prove invaluable in the drought of 1976.  Close by is a tall round corrugated iron water tank that was used for the collection of rainwater.  The well water was “hard” and my grandmother would use the “soft” rainwater for the weekly wash.  To the rear lies the barton and the haybarn, the small rectangular bales will forever date the picture to the mid 20th Century.

It would not have occurred to us to have taken photographs of the farmyard simply for having them; why would anyone have wanted such pictures when farms for miles around offered similar scenes every day?  Yet were our daily lives not as important as the people we met every day?

Perhaps there were others in Somerset as profligate with their picture taking as my grand aunt, but who went around taking the odd pictures that are now interesting: pictures of well covers, water tanks, bales and barns.  Perhaps someone walked through bartons and cowstalls snapping away without thought for expense or criticIsm.  Perhaps, out there on the web somewhere, there are  recorded those things that provided a landscape for the lives featured in everyone else’s snaps.

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The advent of No 3 days

The pandemic has not been without its benefits. I no longer have to pay for a haircut. The clippers I bought during the first lockdown enable my hair to stay at a uniform No 3 length. From time to time, my sister will correct the mistakes I have made and tidy the bits I missed.

Of course, it does not look stylish, it looks like someone has used clippers with a No 3 comb, but there is no need to look stylish. The lack of stylishness does bring with it the consolation that my hair looks tidy.

It was very different fifty years ago when my mother would give me the saliva and handkerchief treatment.

You know, you are just about to go somewhere and your mother says, “You can’t go looking like that,” and she licks a corner of a hankie and starts dabbing at your face.

You looked fine when you looked in the mirror, but judging by the amount of rubbing your face now requires you must have looked like a commando about to go into combat, or a bowler on a sunny day at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Of course, that was only the start of it.

Despite having used Head and Shoulders since infancy, there was always some micro speck of dandruff to be brushed from the shoulders.

Then there was the straightening of the collar and then, “Would you tuck that shirt in, anyone would think you had been sleeping in it, the way you look.”

The shoes were always a problem.

The guards outside of Buckingham Palace might have had boots that looked dull in comparison.  Were it a sunny day, there would be a danger of dazzling people with the reflection from the toes; but there would be the inquiry, “Did you clean your shoes?” The most common memory from childhood is taking the polish and brushes out of a little cupboard and cleaning the shoes, every day.

Sometimes it would have been simpler to have gone in gardening clothes and wellies; the response would hardly have been different.

When the handkerchief came out, it meant that the visit was important; one had to look what was judged to be “your best.”

Should the tidying exercise take place in the front of people from outside the family, it was a source of major embarrassment.  It was hard to imagine that anyone else’s mother would treat them  in such a manner.

The makeover would be completed, the handkerchief put away, and there would be a second survey, and a nod.  Not perfect, but I would have to do.

Having hair that is neither straight nor curly, but prone to stick out in big cow licks, it was probably a mercy that it has been cut short for most of those years.

However, to be all going out together meant it was some special occasion. It was some gathering where it was important to be looking one’s best. There was an innocent delight, even when suffering the indignity.

Something got lost in growing up;  maybe something that didn’t even need to be put aside.

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Who do you really support?

A teacher was absent and no cover had been sent. One of the boys asked if he could leave the classroom as he had caught sight of me passing in the corridor. I had a free lesson, so stood and talked with him for half an hour.

Going into the staff room, the teacher who had allowed the boy to leave the room looked bemused. “What were you talking about?” he asked.

“Football,” I shrugged. “Nothing serious.”

“Who do you support?” asked another teacher.

“Saint Patrick’s Athletic and Yeovil Town.”

“No, I mean real teams. Premier League. Who do you support in the Premier League?”

“Those are real teams. They are supported by real fans in real places.”

“Did you ever support a Premier League team?”

“I did. I even went to see them sometimes. I could go from Somerset to London and watch a match for under a tenner.”

There was a look of incredulity.

I explained that I remember travelling to Chelsea matches when I was a sixth-former in the late 1970s. I would have been seventeen or eighteen years old at the time.

The claim of a day out at a top football match for under a tenner sounds like a line from Tony Capstick. The lyrics of Capstick Comes Home include:

Do you know when I were a lad you could get a tram down into’t town
Buy three new suits n an overcoat, four new pair of good boots
Goo n see George Formby at Palace Theatre ,
Get blind drunk,
Have some steak n chips, bunch of bananas n three stone of monkey nuts
And still have change out on a farthing.

Except in 1978, it really was possible for a teeanger to go to Stamford Bridge

To buy a return ticket from Castle Cary in Somerset to London cost £3.15. The journey by tube from Paddington to Fulham Broadway was a matter of pence. A pie and a pint in a pub was £1. Getting onto the terraces at the Shed End of the ground was £3. There was enough money left over from a £10 to buy egg and chips for tea at Paddington station on the journey home.

It sounds a laughable sum of money, except it cost me most of what I earned in a month. I had a job pumping petrol from 8 till 1 on Sunday mornings earning 60p an hour, £12 a month – £10 in a day was a big commitment.

Many of the sixth year students have weekend jobs paying €10 an hour or more. Perhaps if I had said my day out had cost the equivalent of €160, it wouldn’t have sounded like a Capstick song.

 

 

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