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After all the editing, all the distribution issues, all the deadlines that slipped away...
StarMark is published.
Only on Kindle at the moment, available on Amazon (I know it's on the UK site and US site, but I believe it's also in Germany and should be listed down under? If anyone finds links to other places, please let me know!) although I've just clocked that in the US, the paperback seems to be available as there's only one copy lef tin stock there...no paperbacks in the UK yet.
Cloudies have been a huge part of StarMark's journey, and there are far too many of you, past or present, to name. But thank you to all of you, whatever part you played in helping the novel to be improved or keeping me going on the dark days, when I doubted myself, my work and whether anyone would ever want to read it.
And if you read the book (it's aimed at 9-12 year olds) I hope you enjoy it.
Now that Richard has told us about his unrequited passion, and Prop before him detailed a close encounter in a coffee shop (no prisoners taken on that occasion) I guess it is time for us all to fess-up on our own fantasy loves.
I first saw him in Warwick Castle. He was drop-dead gorgeous, with long dark hair and enigmatic grey eyes. It didn’t seem to matter that hacked-up bits and pieces of him had been rotting in the earth for over three hundred years, it was love at first sight. Of course, I knew of him already. What student of the British civil wars of the mid 17th century could not know of James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose? But I was at the beginning of my odyssey and this was the first time I’d come face to face with an image of him. A brilliant tactician, a poet, a man who had been hung, drawn and quartered (oh, my God! How could they?) as a result of ending up on the losing side, I didn’t expect him to be so handsome! Ah me, this revelation was a joy, a thunderous bombshell of what might have been—how I wanted that man! I had been born at the wrong time. I should have been there with him at Tippermuir, Inverlochy, Alford and Kilsyth! Disguised as a man by day but my own true self by night. Hmmm … what heavenly bliss we would have known, there amongst the fragrant heather and the wild thyme! And so I bought the post card and dreamed my dreams.
All that was in the dim and distant past, of course. Real life intervened. But then, just a couple of years ago, I rekindled my interest in said period. I was bored with my wip (when aren’t I bored with most things?) and decided madly, bizarrely, I would write a book about Montrose instead. I even mentioned it to PK (Pimlico Kid) who said I should. But I am no historian and I soon realised it was pie in the sky. I did mess about with a comedy memoir about a made-up 17th century man, but that was the extent of my literary endeavour.
Yet the gallant Montrose remained with me. I began to re-read biographies, re-inspect the images that have come down to us. I remembered my post card from Warwick Castle. It was a detail from the portrait, showing head and shoulders to about half way down the chest. He had very long hair and was dressed a buff coat, ie a long-skirted jerkin of heavy ox-hide used by cavalrymen in the 17th century as some protection against sword slashes. He also wore back and breast plates, a lace-edged collar and a shoulder to waist sash. He was looking to his left.
I tried to find the painting on the web. Nothing. I got in touch with Warwick Castle, and the curator wrote back with a black and white photo copy of the picture, saying they’d got no post cards at present and it didn’t feature in their guide book.
But what was this? It wasn’t the image I remembered. This one showed a man in armour. No buff coat, no sash! But craziest of all, the fact it was completely the opposite way around … and he didn’t look as handsome as I recalled in my minds eye! It was a Dobson, I remembered that, and although this painting had ‘once’ been attributed to Dobson, it was now re-assigned ‘school of Van Dyck’. But it still didn’t explain how I could remember something so … well … totally at odds with the actual thing. Unless this wasn’t the one? I wrote again to the curator. Did they once have two images of Montrose, one in a buff coat? No, no. Only one. And they thought it might not be Montrose after all …
So, was I in love with a phantom fabricated in my own imagination? Or had there once been another painting in the collection, stolen, its disappearance covered up by … who can say. I don’t know. I’m still in love with Montrose (how could I not be?) and only an early painting by Jamieson (1629), one actually by Dobson (1643) and the portrait by Honthorst (1650) can really, really be verified as actually being him. Another 1635 Dobson said now to be Van Dyck (now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery), is probably of someone else (I guessed that anyway—the nose is all wrong and Van Dyck would never have done that) and, intriguingly, there is (according to the Montrose Society) a missing painting of him in civvies from about 1639.
Well that’s about the size of it. My fantasy lover is Montrose.
How about the rest of you Cloudsters? Any fresh soul-earchery/admissions/declarions to come, good people?
In a comment on my last blog, the honourable member for Mudflat-on-Ditch spake thus: ‘Still wishing you would write of your TFL days. As a people watcher, I can think of no better job for it than driving a bus. The stories that must be there just waiting to be observed and written down.’
Oka-a-y. Here’s one from the archives. Possibly not quite what you were expecting, but people watching? Oh, yes. In spades.
Warning: this is quite long, about 2,800 words.
When you’re a bus driver hundreds of people pass before you every day, of all ages, shapes and sizes. By the law of averages half of them will be female, and by the law of averages some of those are bound to be gorgeous.
Now don’t get me wrong. At the time I’m writing of I was in my early forties, married with young children, and definitely not on the hunt. But eying women seems to be biologically programmed into the male psyche. If I ever hear a woman say ‘He’s never looked at another woman since he met me,’ I suspect that she’s stretching a point, fooling herself, or fibbing, and if I hear a man say something similar, I’m sure of it. It doesn’t have to mean anything, and usually doesn’t. We men look, and nine times out of ten that’s all there is to it.
Not that there’s a lot you can do about it from a bus driver’s cab, anyway, not unless you’re a remarkably slick operator. Most people just flash a pass and hurry on down the bus without even looking at you. I’ve been blanked more than once by people who knew me quite well.
And you soon get used to the daily talent parade. It becomes just part of the job, part of the scenery. In the twenty-four years I spent driving buses there was one, only one, regular passenger I ever had who really got to me.
The story started about two, maybe three years after I’d started in the job. I can’t be sure, because she used the bus to get to work, in the rush hour when you get so busy that the faces become little more than a passing blur, and I don’t even remember how long I’d been seeing her before she brought herself to my notice one morning. Normally she’d have her pass out at the ready, but that morning she’d run for the bus and I had to wait perhaps twenty seconds, much longer than I normally got to look at any passenger, as she rummaged in her handbag. And with her head and eyes down, I had the chance of a good scrutiny without any embarrassment. Having nothing better to do while I waited, I did just that; and gradually irritation at the delay to the bus gave way to an awakening interest, as it dawned that on me that this was rather an attractive lady.
Not one to stand out in a rush-hour crowd, though. For one thing there was her colouring, not exactly drab but quietly brown: honey-brown skin and mousy hair. Then her face was quiet, intelligent, just this side of demure, and apparently completely devoid of make-up. And her long hair was pulled back into a high ponytail.
Now I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, loved long hair on women. If this lady had worn her hair loose she would have caught my attention earlier, no matter how busy I might have been, but I’ve never really liked that severe pulling back from the face. It’s so unflattering that you need exactly the right kind of face to get away with it.
And she, I suddenly realised, had that: the classic oval shape, the fine bone-structure, the regular features. The hair, too, I noticed now, was worth looking at. Even its tight confinement couldn’t hide its beautiful condition: a thick softness, a silky sheen that lit up its nondescript brown with golden highlights. A high ponytail always subtracts a few inches from the apparent length of the hair, and hers was of a length that promised spectacular results if it were left to flow loose.
Well, quite apart from being on her way to work, she possibly felt that she was getting on a bit for that. I’m not brilliant at estimating women’s ages, but this one had to be well into her thirties, not that far from my own age, in fact.
Having finally found her pass, she glanced up with a small apologetic smile and murmured her regrets for holding up the bus, and I saw that her eyes were brown too. Her voice was a soft clear treble, her speech precise and modulated, with only the slightest trace of a London accent. I do actually find a deep voice rather sexy in a woman; but you can’t have everything, can you? I drove on feeling as if I’d had a surprise gift to brighten my day.
From that day onwards I kept a lookout for her. I wasn’t in luck very often, even on the days when I was working the rush hours, for she didn’t seem to be very regular in her travelling times, and with a bus – in theory, anyway – every ten minutes there were plenty of buses apart from mine she might board; but as the months passed I saw enough of her to begin to build up a bit of a picture of her. And I found myself developing a distinct little soft spot for her.
I know there are some blokes around who reckon they are God’s gift and will go after anything they take a fancy to; but I’m sure most of us set limits to our aspirations. I always wrote off real stunners straightaway as being above my level, something to enjoy looking at but no more. My ideal would have been someone who had a strong personal appeal to me but not necessarily to the next man, so every man in sight wouldn’t be chasing after her. This lady fell fair and square into that category. She wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but attractive in a quieter, more subtle sort of way. After all, even I hadn’t taken much notice of her at first. Quiet and reserved in bearing, softly spoken, she’d often spend her time on the bus with her nose in a book.
It didn’t look as if she were in a relationship, either. Once in a while I’d see her in the evening or at a weekend, and occasionally then she’d be with a boy of about fourteen who looked enough like her to make it plain that he was her son. But I never once saw her with a man. When a woman with a teenage son works full-time, goes everywhere by bus, even to the supermarket, and never has anyone to help her with the shopping, it’s tempting to deduce that she’s a single mother; and since the street she lived in consisted of fairly substantial semis, I decided that she must be separated or divorced, for single mothers aren’t often in a position to buy a house like that. Life was probably a bit of a struggle for her.
One thing no amount of observation and guessing could help me with me was her name. I didn’t even have a private nickname for her, thinking of her only as ‘my favourite passenger.’ And I never saw her with her hair loose. I could understand that she might feel it more appropriate to wear it tied back for work, but even on those rare occasions I saw her outside the rush hours her hair was always pulled tightly back into that ponytail. Personally, I felt that this was a criminal waste of what was obviously a beautiful head of hair. Only once, one Sunday afternoon, did I see it in a different style, parted it in the centre and tied loosely behind her neck to sweep over her ears and frame her face. It was as thick and silky as I’d imagined it, and she looked much better with the softer style. But it was a cold day, and the rest of her hair was hidden under her coat.
For a couple of years I nursed that little soft spot, staying content to have the tedium of my working day lightened whenever she got on my bus. That was as far as it went, as far as I wanted it to go. Quite apart from my being a married man, she hardly seemed the type to react favourably to being chatted up by a bus driver. And I was hardly the type to do it. No, she was just my secret favourite. If the talk in the garage had turned to gorgeous pieces of stuff seen on buses, I wouldn’t have dreamed of mentioning her. It wasn’t that sort of thing.
Then, one spring weekday morning, as I drove through the local shops near where she lived, my attention was caught by a girl walking towards me on the opposite side of the road, a girl in jeans and a red sweater with long brown hair falling straight and loose. As I approached the wind caught her hair, blowing it out from behind her, wrapping and filming it about her arm. It was long enough to reach the belt of her jeans. I couldn’t help staring, and as the bus flashed past her I saw the girl’s head come round. For an instant she looked straight at me, before turning away with a smile.
Although I find it embarrassing to be caught ogling, there’s no real harm done, especially in such a fleeting encounter as this. Not normally, that is, but I had recognised the face. It had been no young girl I’d seen after all. It had been her, my favourite passenger. She’d finally done it, left her hair loose and flowing.
No, there was no possibility of a mistake, even in a passing glimpse, even if I’d never before seen her so casually dressed, even if it was right out of her routine to be at her local shops at a time when she’d normally be at work. After two years of watching her every time she got on my bus I knew her face as well as I knew my own. Had she recognised me, too? And had she smiled because she just liked being stared at, or because it had been me staring?
Don’t be a fool, came the scornful answer. What could she possibly see in you? Something probably just struck her as funny. A stupid bus driver gawping at her like a moonstruck teenager, for instance. And you’d better calm down and get your mind back on your job if you want to reach the end of the route without having an accident.
Yes, but what if she gets on this bus on the way back?
Do me a favour. What are you expecting to happen? The electric spark of passion leaping from eye to eye? The meeting of souls through the assault screen? It’s hardly worth worrying about, anyway. A bus every ten minutes, remember. The chances aren’t high.
The route I was driving at the time was a short one, taking only an hour and ten minutes or so for a round trip, so no more than half an hour later I was coming back the other way and approaching the stop nearest to where I’d seen her. Repeating to myself ‘A bus every ten minutes’ as the bus drew to a halt, I still couldn’t resist glancing down the long queue. And there she was, near the back.
Uh-oh. Was she going to smile at me as she got on? Or even speak? How was I going to react if she did?
It never came to that. I solved the problem in the worst way, bottling out completely, not even looking up as her turn came.
Well, that was probably for the best. We could both get on with our peaceful lives, and I could just carry on enjoying the sight of her. Like I did four stops later when she got off at her usual place, and I delayed pulling away for a moment so that I could watch that glorious heavy silken fall rippling down her back as she walked home. She even helped me by pausing to talk to someone, so that I got a good look at her as I drove past, and she looked so much younger and prettier with the loose hair framing her face and flowing over her shoulders that I almost could have fallen in love on the spot. She really should have done this more often. She really ought to do it again. It would be nice to think I could look forward to seeing that spectacle again some time.
Apart from a niggling speculation about that enigmatic smile that refused to lie down and die, I was back to normal an hour and ten minutes later, as I came back on my next trip in that direction and approached those local shops again. All that abruptly changed as I approached the stop before the one she’d got on last time around, to see her waiting there again, alone. How had she got back here so quickly? She’d have had to come out again almost straightaway. Why on earth would she do such a thing? Maybe she’d forgotten something she needed at the shops?
Determined not to be such a coward this time, I managed at least to glance up as she boarded – to find myself looking into a drawn, haggard mask of a face, the skin paled, the mouth drawn into a tight line, the eyes hollowed and inward-looking. And she was, for the first time ever in my memory, wearing make-up: mascara, eye-shadow and a rather horrible metallic purple lipstick, all looking rather incongruous on a face that looked as if it belonged to someone who’d just been told that a loved one had died. Had it not been for the hair and the clothes I might not have even recognised her. I was so shocked that the intended friendly, non-committal smile died on my lips.
I had hardly time to wonder what was the matter with her before we arrived at the next stop, where she’d boarded the last time, and she got off. In my mirrors I saw her hurry across the road behind the bus and disappear through the railway bridge.
This made no kind of sense to me. Having once seen her out jogging, I knew she wasn’t afraid of exercise, so why should she hang around waiting for a bus to travel one stop, a distance she could walk in a couple of minutes?
There was nothing to do but drive on and get on with my day’s work, but the encounter had knocked me right off balance. Seeing her looking so distressed, everything I’d felt about her had coalesced into a throat-catching lump of concern and compassion. Then there was her inexplicable behaviour to ponder over.
It wasn’t long before my imagination got to work, to present me with an answer that had me laughing to myself in disbelief. I tried to ignore it, I tried to reject it, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. It went like this.
Yes, she had noticed me over the last couple of years (I had wondered) and she had been attracted to me too. Yes, she had indeed recognised me giving her the eye, and had got all fired up about it. She’d decided to try and make something of it, and had waited for my bus to come back, but had bottled out just as I had, only she’d had the excuse that I’d apparently ignored her (if only she knew!). She’d gone home, found she couldn’t let the matter rest, and had gone back for another try, arming herself first by putting on some make-up. She’d chosen a different, much less busy stop to give herself a better chance, but by the time I’d come back the tension had reduced her to a nervous wreck: hence the haggard face. When this second meeting also came to nothing, she hadn’t been able to stand it any more, and had fled from the bus to lick her wounds.
Far-fetched? Well, yes, she would have to have been very emotional and sensitive, but she did have a sensitive sort of face: it was one of the reasons I liked her so much. And, yes, I could understand such reactions: in my time I’d been in that sort of place myself. What I found incredible, for I think I’ve already made it clear that I hardly consider myself a lady-killer, was that I should have induced them in another. No, it couldn’t be true. But what other explanation would cover all the facts? There might be one, but I couldn’t think of it, no matter how hard I tried.
In the days that followed I wondered what the hell was going to happen the next time she got on my bus, swinging between tentative, wondering belief in my theory and scornful, self-mocking dismissal of it. I might just as well have saved my time, for Sod’s Law swung smoothly into operation and I didn’t see her again for nearly a month. When she did finally get on my bus again it was back to business as usual, just as if that encounter had never happened.
Not very long afterwards, I transferred to another route, and later to another garage.
It must be over twenty years now since I last saw her. It’s not as if the incident has exactly haunted my life, but I’m still no nearer to an alternative explanation for her extraordinary behaviour on that spring day.
Sorting out my recently repaired laptop and moving files around.
Her-indoors is looking at the Sunday Times Travel section and making notes....
And so I post this from the Rucksack Chronicles archives... for your Sunday morning dose of mysanthropy, mysogeny, and a good dollop of colonial racism which is my life.
Prop’s Pubs. # 15
C Roque Resort, Sernabatim Beach, Goa.
India, not everyone’s cup of Darjeeling. Goa is a bit like India-Lite and more relaxed. Up North in Anjuna, life-like free range pot heads roam around in the jungles and bars next to the beach and to the South; you have free range pot heads at Palolem doing the same.
The real ones are gone and the designer zombies which now infest the place could tell you the FTSE index to within 10 points all while they are “ getting in touch with their inner souls” and “being free of the bullshit bourgeoisie, maan.”
In the middle bit, at Colva, a small community of middle aged Europeans seem to go to avoid the joys of European winter. Steve Parks had been there and said ‘Go there, you’ll like it.’
Coming from Parks, this was the highest of recommendations. Five words rather than stars.
After a long weekend in Bombay, we took the overnight train down to Margao and then took a local bus to Colva Beach. A very bad book could be written about any of these events. Bombay was one culture shock after another. Westerners are more common these days but still get a huge amount of unwanted attention. Her-indoor’s chest seemed to attract an absurd amount of interest from on-coming Indian males as we walked along the street.
At one point she stopped and whispered, ‘They keep deliberately bumping my boobs. Can we get off the street and get a cab back to the room?’
I felt a click in my head and a little voice not unlike James Earl Jones’ character in the film, Dr Strangelove said ‘First Safety Released’, as he armed the hydrogen bombs in their B52.
I said yes. We had to walk along another block to the taxi rank. As we did, I paid attention to the oncoming people walking towards us and I noticed that some of the men were indeed staring at Her-indoors and changing their direction slightly to put them on a collision course with her.
‘Second Safety Released,’ said the voice in my head.
I made a point of running over will malice aforethought, everyone of them who lined up to bump into her. I could see them look at me and then switch to look at her and then look at me. They assumed, wrongly, that Western politeness would keep me from running them over. Not one of the little rodents changed course and still they set up on Her-indoors. Their grasp of physics of my 18 stone and their 5 stone colliding was overwhelmed by their need to bump into a Western female’s chest.
I got five of the little perverts by the time we got to the taxi rank. Two of them went down hard, and the others just spun away in our wake. I offered my best condescending and colonial ‘Pardon, please’ over my shoulder to the wreckage behind us.
It was the most fun I had all day. Our remaining time in Bombay was excellent and once we were aware of the street etiquette, we adapted. We walked along a vast avenue and saw a group of about 30 people sat on the pavement facing what looked like a traffic speed camera. As we got closer I realized it was a street television and the street people were keeping up with the local version of Coronation Street. I was impressed and amused by that.
We side stepped the freak show assortment of beggars at the train station. I had read Tahir Shah’s book explaining that “industry” and I reasoned that any country with a space program, three aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons should be able to feed its own people.
There is a balance between the
engineered 'poverty' that the begging ‘industry’ presents to
travellers and the actual existence of real street people. We
discovered that buying a bag of nuts or a cup of cha in a clay
cup and handing it to the next person you see who looks in need
is a much more rewarding way than giving coins to people who have
maimed themselves in order to appear more desperate to their
‘clients’ and buy their begging patch from an organized Dohdah
At the fabulous Victoria Terminus train station, we wandered around for ten minutes before we found the place to buy tickets in a small first floor lobby. The guy at the ticket desk was excellent. He explained the full procedure and how we could safely find our platform and train. He also cautioned about unregistered porters and told us how to hire one of the real ones. He wished us a pleasant journey.
The 16 hour ‘express’ train journey was epic and worthy of Marco Polo, Magellan, Columbus and Michael Palin. We went 1st class. Second class was available and apparently there is a roof class as well.
Sharing our compartment was a delightful elderly Indian couple who were going to Goa to visit one of their sons. We swapped tickets around so they had the bottom bunks and didn’t have to climb up to the upper ones. They shared some food with us and we shared our water with them. We helped them with their luggage at the station and deferred their invitation to spend the next ten years with them. They were excellent company and their open and unlimited hospitality was humbling.
We stopped in an old Portuguese cafe in Margao square and I ordered two bottles of beer. They were Castle, a South African lager and only a year or two out of date. I sniffed hers and made a face and then I drank it down in one. She looked at me with a mix of anger and dismay.
I said ‘Just checking ... to make sure it’s safe..... Can’t be too careful around here. ‘
I ordered her another one.
We boarded the bus and grabbed two seats. The crew of the bus consisted of a driver, a fare collector and four guys whose job seemed to be combing their hair in the mirrors the driver wasn’t using while we drove down the road sometimes on all four wheels.
On advice, we had made no reservations and I needed to sort out some digs for our stay. We found a bar on the beach which seemed good. Two English speaking Indian brothers ran it. After a bit of food and another beer, I left her with our rucks at a table and I wandered down the trail in the palm grove next to the beach to a small beach restaurant with a few rented rooms in a palm grove behind it. I booked a room.
I returned to Her-indoors and we settled and rucked up. She was struggling with the load and the heat. She refused with a strained, sweaty smile, my offer to carry her rucksack. Her t shirt was stained through and we stopped twice to drink from a water bottle.
We arrived and walked to the office room behind the bar which handled the room bookings. The bar was right on the Arabian Sea in a palm grove on the beach between the villages of Benalum and Colva. There was no improved road to it and only a trail down through a palm grove provided the access. There was a low wall around the place which kept out the beach hawkers and there were just enough palm trees around to provide some shade and break up the heat. The sea breeze moved the smells from the kitchen around and advertised better than any billboard. The nine rooms are in a single tiered “U” shaped building all with little verandas overlooking a garden in the centre.
After the admin booking-in crap and sorting keys, we threw the rucks into our room, changed out, and sought out rest and relaxation. She found some sun loungers and I found the bar. It was run by an ex corporal of the Ghurkahas, Corporal Tandhin, and it was just about my perfect vision of heaven.
‘Two Kings, how much, Corp?’
‘Forty rupees, Suh. You want?’
‘Oh yes... And Corp, don’t let em go empty.’
‘Yes Suh. Never Empty, suh.’
We lazed the afternoon away on the sun beds listening to Bob Marley songs coming from the bar. The alcohol and bleach in the Kings Lager seemed to loosen our travel pains. Late afternoon, Corporal Tandhin came along and asked if we wanted more beers after noticing that we had not finished our last ones.
I said, ‘No Corp. It’s 4 o’clock and we switch to rum at 4 o’clock.’
‘Very good, Suh. Rum at 4 o’clock, Suh’.
As it was a travel day and it had been a long one, we retired to the room in late afternoon to unpack and clean up. I showered while she fussed her clothes and took over the small dressing table with 17 kilos of hair products, creams, lotions and their accompanying power tools.
As she showered, I went outside to feed the mosquitoes. There was an Indian guy sitting in a chair in front of the room next to us. I was feeling the joys of holiday and so I thought I would try some kindness and humanity. He was just sitting there and I went over and offered him the use of our travel radio for the evening. I explained that it had a hand cranked dynamo for power and using rudimental hand signals and phrases like ‘Cranky handle... Music...Music’ I explained to him how it worked.
He smiled and shook his head no, clearly embarrassed at not understanding the technology. He never said anything but nodded and smiled a lot. I gave up and returned to the room to find Her-indoors ready to go up to the bar/restaurant for some dinner.
She pulled me the opposite direction away from our neighbour and we walked the short distance through the palm grove to the bar.
‘You idiot! “Cranky handle!” and “Music..”Music”? That guy you were talking to is a project engineer for their railways! ... I was talking to him while you were in the shower. He speaks better English than you do! We haven’t been here three hours yet and already you are embarrassing me!’ she hissed.
I nodded as if I was interested in what she was saying and I replied, ‘Do you want more beer or a bottle of wine with dinner?’
She smiled and shook her head. ‘You really just don’t give a shit, do you?’
I said, ‘Yes, about an hour ago... and it wasn’t a pretty sight, I can tell you. Four different colours, several things I don’t remember eating... but what does this have to do with beer or wine?’
The sun set slowly at first and then all at once and after dinner, we called an early night. Just me, her and nine hundred and forty-six mosquitoes.
The next day involved no more consternation other than which sun bed to chose and which sauce to go on the breakfast dosa.
I had a few Kings in the afternoon and then fell into a deep and dreamless sleep after turning two pages of Alan Clark’s Barbarossa. The good thing about reading history is that you usually know how it ends.
I jumped up when something booted the side of my deck chair and woke me from my siesta. My eyes focused on a glass of rum and coke with double lime, about six inches from my nose.
‘Four O Clock, Suh. Time for your rum, Suh.’ said the smiling Corporal Tandin late of the Ghurkha Rifles.
‘So it is, by God. Thank you, Corp.’ I said.
Corporal Tandin, late of the Queens Own Ghurkhas wasn’t going to let a thing like me sleeping get in the way of the performance of his duties.
I sipped it and watched the surf of the rising tide beat into the beach with a roar and a rhythm that I will never tire of hearing.
C Roque, Goa.
1. Drink: 10/10 Kings Lager at 20 rups and Royal Treasure Rum at 50 rups a litre.
2. Food. 8/10 Shelfish and curry. Culinary heaven
3. Atmosphere. 8/10 Remote, deserted beach. It was a spa for the soul.
4. Staff: 10/10 Nothing could be better than a Corporal of Gurkhas for a barman.
When I was a teenager I had, like many before and after me, an ambition to play the guitar. Lacking both natural ability and the drive and determination to make up for it, I never got further than strumming a dozen or so chords.
Our next-door-neighbours had a son a couple of years younger than me, also called Richard, who had no such problems. Music seemed to come naturally to him. By his late teens he was proficient at piano and guitar, and could make a good stab at flute and violin. He is now a music teacher at a school in Sussex.
One day when he was round at our house I played a record whose lilting, ragtime-y guitar part I particularly liked (Stack-o-Lee Blues by Mississippi John Hurt, if you must know). When it was over I said wistfully, ‘I wish I could play guitar like that,’ not knowing even where to start.
‘Like this, you mean?’ Richard said, and picked up my guitar and played it, straight off.
The point is, that’s what you call having a talent. And it’s taken me over forty years from that frustrating day to admit to myself that I too have one, though not for music. The number of times I’ve been told how clever I was with something I wrote when I’ve banged it down that way without thinking, simply because it felt right, has brought me to the realisation that I can instinctively do things with my writing that other people seem to struggle with. It’s like my neighbour Richard playing guitar fluently, with no apparent effort, while I struggled with the basics. It’s a talent, in other words.
So I’ve got it made, haven’t I? Well, no, not necessarily. Talent isn’t enough. Unless luck comes winging in from left field, you need the right mindset as well. Let me go back to the world of guitar playing for an example.
There is an intricate finger-picked style of guitar playing, once widespread but not heard so often these days, sometimes known as folk baroque. Its practitioners have included Bert Jansch, John Renbourn (both of Pentangle), Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones, John Martyn, Nick Drake, and Paul Simon. All of these were directly influenced by the man who single-handedly started it all, but who is almost unknown except to musicians, Davy (or Davey) Graham.
Graham (who died in 2008) was a player of astonishing skill, breathtaking originality and profound intelligence, who soaked up widely diverse influences like a sponge. While Jimmy Page was still at school Graham was mixing jazz, Celtic and Eastern elements into his music along with folk. He was always experimenting, always looking for something new. His records, few in number and sparse of sales, were ground-breaking and massively influential among other guitarists. His instrumental Angie (or Anji) has been recorded many times and is still considered a rite of passage for guitar pickers. He changed the face of British folk music forever. So why is this man so terrifyingly obscure?
Once, on his way to Australia where a series of gigs had been booked for him, he got off the plane on a whim when it stopped in India to refuel and vanished into the country for six months. That’s the sort of man he was. He marched to the beat of his own drum, doing just what he felt like doing. He couldn’t be bothered with fame and fortune. He simply wasn’t interested in it. He’d rather be travelling, seeking out more musical influences, or learning another language (he spoke several). His near-lifelong addiction to heroin didn’t help.
Another example, not so extreme, is Jeff Beck, who succeeded Eric Clapton as lead guitarist in the Yardbirds and was later joined in that band by Jimmy Page. Although it’s been said, most often by other guitarists, that he is a better player than either, he has never achieved their commercial success or megastar status. Again, it’s a matter of temperament, of playing what he wants to, when he wants to.
Now, I’m not trying to say that I have the towering talent of a Davy Graham, nor yet his uncompromisingly couldn’t-give-a-shit attitude. What I am saying is that I take leave to doubt people who say things like ‘With your talent you’re bound to make it sooner or later.’ I do feel there are matters of temperament holding me back, in my case laziness and the Doubt Demon. Maybe I simply don’t want it badly enough, or I’d be trying harder.
I’m not the only one round here, either. I’m particularly looking at you, Prop.
People will say humans are unpredictable and there was one person in my life who was the most dedicated to proving people wrong. My Grandfather. And he always was which was so annoying.
My Grandfather was your typical Norfolk boy, who always wore your cliché farmers cap, a very intelligent man who always smelled of peppermint and pipe Tobacco, and his glasses were always held together with sticky tape because he'd sit on them and break them. I only knew him until I was eleven because he died (as you do).
From the age of Twelve he would drive cattle from Swaffham to Loddon. And there were a couple of things he would always say. One was:
'people in Swaffham do a day troughin' for nuthin' that sumthin'.
Troughing was a Norfolk term that meant digging a hole to put water in for the cattle to drink during a drive.
Another thing he would insist on is how predictable animals and people were if you knew their minds.
He used to have this old wooden box that was always locked up tight with a tiny padlock and naturally, as a child I was curious about it. Of all the things I had to play with at his house the one thing that fascinated me most was this bloody box. He saw me looking at it one day and his face totally changed. His smile disappeared, his eyes went dark and he pointed at me menacingly and said:
“Don't you dare ever look in that box lass!”
It was such a change in his usually persona it scared me a bit. So I never mentioned it again but after that all I wanted to do was look in the box. I didn't care about the box itself any more just what was inside it.
He passed away and I forgot about the box as I grew up.
When my Grand-mother (Mireya) passed away last year I went to her house with my Dad and Aunt, just to take a little something as a memory, because as we all know it's custom to steal out of dead people's houses. And in her room was the box. Still locked up.
My aunt said to me: “That's for you. Mum wanted you to have that she said you liked it as a kid."
I said: “really? What's in it, do you know?”
She laughed: “Nothing I don't think.” And she gave me an innocent look. But I didn't believe her because I knew she was able to fake it (as all women should be able to frankly)
The key was kept with the box on a piece of string through the tiny lock. So I cut the string and put the key in the hole. I felt a little bit anxious doing it because I remembered what he'd said when I'd asked about it.
When I opened it. The box was empty apart from a piece of A4 paper all folded up. I took it out,unfolded it and in big hand writing it said:
'LASS I TOLD YOU NOT TO LOOK!”
And wrapped up in the paper was an old shilling and I swear the paper smelled of peppermint and tobacco. It made me laugh but it also freaked me out a bit. How did he know that one day I would end up looking in that box? Maybe he didn't know. Maybe he placed it in there just encase I ever did. But it taught me that people, if you set them up, will take the bait like a fish. And that if you pay close attention you can predict people's actions and even better control their actions without them knowing about it. I only wanted to look in the box because he told me not to. And from that experience I became interested in the human mind. So he was right and it sucks the big one.
Sending all you predictable people love, diamonds and teddy bear hugs.
Say we have an aunt, aged 85, and a middle-aged niece.
The pair have known each other all their lives, seen each other often, and holidayed en famille in the way that close families do, but haven’t had many of those, er, meaningful conversations, about life, death, the universe.
The aunt has all her marbles, and was taken into hospital three weeks ago with mysterious and sudden symptoms. Now she’s received a diagnosis giving her three months to live. She has been sent home and has plenty of support in the way of family and carers.
Family knocked sideways.
She’s plainly ill. Wasting away. Bedridden. Pretty grumpy that it looks as if it’ll end like this.
So the niece goes to visit her. The niece is willing to broach any of those difficult topics, but only at the instigation of the aunt; it’s the aunt’s journey, not the niece’s.
The niece goes to visit - and hour-and-a-half’s round trip. The aunt conveys (via the carer) that she’d rather not see anyone. Too ill. The niece departs, doesn’t take it (very) personally, and will return.
When she does, what, oh what, is the opening line?
‘Hello, Aunty. How are you?’ - What a bloody question.
‘How are you feeling?’ - For crying out loud.
‘What have you been up to?’ - Duh.
‘Any news on, er, you know, er, anything?’ - Perlease.
‘Cup of tea?’ - Could it be more lame?
‘I’m really sorry to hear your news.’ - How to judge whether she wants to talk about it?
‘I’ll open the curtains, shall I? - Prize for avoidance.
‘Let me tell you all the exciting trivia about ME in this last week.’ - She might want her mind taken off things, but it sounds so selfish - and, er, trivial. And besides, she may not want her mind taken off things.
‘Let’s see if I can make you laugh.’ - Because there’s SO much to laugh about.
‘Can I do anything to help?’ - Unlikely.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll look out for X when you’re gone.’ - Just no. NO.
The best that springs to mind, is ‘What do you need?’ But the answer’s a bit bloody obvious, too.
None of these openers leads into any kind of useful discussion (except the last one, perhaps). They’re likely to elicit a yes/no answer or a shrug at the banality of the question. Then what? A bit of hand-stroking, a straightening of the pillow, a tear? Silence?
Any suggestions how the niece can start - and continue - a kind, caring conversation, please?
The actual dialogue she might use?
Just a reminder: This is a hypothetical question.