Sunday, 13 March 2011

Only Cowgirls

I’ve just started rereading Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls get the Blues, which I remember as a brilliant book but lacklustre film. I’m not on any nostalgia trip rereading these books I’m actually searching all our bookshelves for Catch 22 ( which I didn’t read until my fifties) which I would like to read again but keep getting sidetracked by these other gems that catch my eye.

I am aware that Robbins is a talented author whose work is tight and very readable but he manages to spread his net wide. I say this as when I produced my 255,000 word tome I was told it wandered around too much, and that people wouldn’t read it if it appeared that I was mentally waffling . Well I’m still on chapter one of Robbins’s book where he is introducing Sissy Hankshaw, the heroine with the gargantuan thumbs and her background origins in the 1950s blue collar America of the Eisenhower years, when men knew more about carburettors than the clitoris. Into those first twenty- five pages he has also managed to pack in the life history of the amoeba, the importance and role of thumbs in the evolution of modern man, the rectal temperature of oysters and bumble bees, hitchhiking, the origins of five English words from their native language, the brief history of those natives before and after the arrival of western developers and their resulting extinction, and finally the German composer Schumann.  On, page 47 he suddenly includes an ‘interlude’ when he writes about the Venusian atmosphere. That’s just how I like it, a diverse range of interesting material seeding my own brain.
This ‘interlude’ prompted me to read up on the planet and Vonnegut’s writings had me thinking about it. I then wrote a story about a group of aliens who on perusing our solar system paid a visit to Venus prior to arriving on the blue planet. On the blue one, they discovered a fairly advanced species who they thought would eventually discover space travel. So being friendly helpful aliens, passed on the information about  Venus’s atmosphere saying that it was nightmarish, dark red skies, suffocating thick toxic air, continuous thunder and lightning storms deluging the upturned horizons with  sulphuric acid rain  and wasn’t worth a visit, it was hell, (an alien word meaning shithole) The small group of listening humans, not understanding anything about space travel, absorbed the information about this hellish place and on watching the aliens depart turned to one another and wondered what that was all about. One smart one admitted he didn’t know but did have a good idea about how to market this place called hell.
The book also had the effect of changing my hitching style. My partner and I were students living in a cottage five miles from town and hitched everywhere. Until then we just went along and stuck our thumbs out and waited. Now we realised there was an art to hitching and we started to learn. We set out to bring the oncoming traffic to a halt. You stood there on the side of the road and let the driver know not only that we needed a lift and that they really wanted to give us one. We also discovered we had the ability to mentally tamper with the engines, hitting the carburettor or breaking system to slow the vehicle down. It took a while but soon our hitching times were plummeting, we could go anywhere, any distance. Some days we went out and went hitching like others went for a walk. It didn’t always work, one Sunday we stopped an Alpha Romeo- first car- but had to catch a bus back from our destination as we came across an area where cars were driven by imprisoned husbands in the iron- like grip of the lady next to them who overrode our energies. Some days we hitched so fast we arrived days before we were due and surprised our hosts with our early arrival. I think my best stop ever was a fire engine that was on an emergency, we were both confused by this but they recovered their composure before me and just asked if I knew where the incident was.  

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Long time no omelet.

Long time no cheese omelet.

I walked for something like ten miles today all but some 400m on footpaths that weave their various ways through our wind sculptured countryside around here, and saw four people. It’s amazing when you think there are sixty million of us crammed into this small island that there is so much space. One of the four was a woman cleaning out a stable. The other three were in a farmyard I was passing through. They were standing around a large steer that was lying on its back with its feet straight up in the air. As I approached I noticed its head was positioned some four feet away from the rest of its body, from this I concluded that it was dead. Not wishing to appear as a wimp, and to acknowledge the downside of being a carnivore, I walked right on up and pondering what to say mentioned what a glorious day it was. Well it was for us; it must have started well for the steer but had gone rapidly down hill from there. They just glanced around at the sky and grunted agreement.

I realized they were slightly ill at ease at my presence. Their silence was broken by one of them informing me that the steer had had a good life and that it was lucky as it had died in its bed, adding that not many of them did that. I didn’t have a reply to this, thinking that the steer wouldn’t have known what its life had been like or that dying in its own bed by a shot to the head was particularly lucky. One of the three, obviously the local slaughter man, got back to work and started to remove the beast’s skin.

‘Be some fine meat on it’ I uttered as it was a huge carcass.

‘Looks more like fat’ came a muttered reply, as the skin was peeled back.

‘Well we did have a cold spell this winter’ I replied.

All this got me was three exasperated glances that basically said ‘fuck off will you’. I was wondering about this myself but as at any moment now the steers belly was going to be cut open unleashing an avalanche of viscera, things could be about to get interesting. I had taught the cow’s digestive system on countless occasions to class loads of pupils and I thought it would be quite interesting to see the rumen, reticulum, omasum, abomasum for real. I really shouldn’t pass over the chance; you never know when things might come in handy. I was always like talking to doctors and nurses about their medical experiences to gain background information to make my lessons just a little more capitivating. I also collected dead piglets from a farmer I knew and dissected them with the kids at school post mortem style to see why they had died and to show them all the organs as pigs inside look very much like ours. They used to be fascinated; the vegetarians were allowed to sit it out at the back of the class. If I had done that in more recent times half the class would have fainted or screamed and the letters of complaint would have flooded in. I did have a few complaints in those days but it was usually from parents whose children had stopped eating sausages or burgers as I had pointed out what bits of the carcass went in them. I did have fainters but never on a dissection. They usually came when I was describing heart operations. My record stood at eight. I had them carried out and sat along the corridor wall to recover.

In the end I remembered that I had actually retired and the displaced head looked bad enough, did I want to watch the bloody deluge? I felt that not only had my sudden appearance from nowhere disconcerted the three of them, if I then proceeded to delve into the entrails like some ancient soothsayer they may take umbrage. So I ruefully decided against watching and set off again giving them a cheerful cheerio. They managed a silent nod or two.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Whilst in the Bristol area my perigrinations found me.....

 trespassing through some woods that I had roamed as a teenager, actually the woods where I partially dreamt up my quasi pagan religion. In those days the idea was to entice attractive young ladies to divest themselves of their clothing so they could frolic naturally amongst the trees and hopefully with me. Unfortunately I never seemed to have any takers so had to revert to more conventional methods. Now instead of imagined nubile women I spotted some real roe deer out in the fields that bordered the woods. Their cocked ears and rigid stance indicated they were already aware of an unknown presence amongst the trees.  I stopped; they couldn’t have seen me as I was well screened by trees and undergrowth, dressed in sombre greens, upwind so they couldn’t have caught my scent. They had heard me at something like three hundred meters, even though I was deliberately moving cautiously across the dried leaf litter and twigs that make the woodland floor as I was bird watching. I watched and waited, some of my ancient ancestors must have hunted deer. How good do you have to be? I waited; they eventually went back to grazing. I scanned the wood and tried to pick out a route that I could take to move closer to them. I moved as quietly as I could, but just as I moved one head instantly came up, eyes staring directly my way. Just how good is their hearing? How close would I need to move to get in a shot? Possibly with an arrow a hundred meters? But how close with a spear? I shuffled forward, all the heads came up, they had my position pinpointed but I was now screened by a thick stand of holly. I quickly moved forward, they remained rigid, staring.  I moved sideways through a stand of beech and oak. I squatted with my back to a large oak. They couldn’t see me, so I waited. I listened to the woodland, bird calls mingled with the sibilant whisperings of the wind in the bare trees. Some minutes later they are grazing again. I thought back to my childhood, stories of Red Indians and their hunting skills, how they could move through woodland silently. I always admired the skill, trying on many occasions to mimic them but always failing, as one step on a twig brings a sharp report. So how could I move forward? I crawled to my right to the cover of a large tree and then forward to its base. I peer round its bowl, they are all alert. I wait for their heads to drop, then skittered sideways to the cover of another tree, avoiding any twigs. I peer round again but they have now drifted further down the field, they are suspicious. I pause again, patience. I must be within a hundred and fifty meters, I move once again and they are gone, bouncing away in a wide arc and back into the safety of the woods. How could they have heard that? I know I’m an amateur, though not a complete novice, but don’t think I got remotely near enough to them. I’m filled wonder at their senses, honed for survival and filled with admiration for my unknown ancestors.

Walking around a bit.

For me the first post war Labour government must have been one of the best ever. What they put in place for the country was remarkable and one of those pieces of legislation was the legalization of footpaths as right of ways, giving us unprecedented access to the countryside. Quite right too, as enough city dwellers had died for the rural English idyll that was part and parcel of the wartime propaganda. I’ve walked hundreds - actually it must be thousands- of miles along them. The Conservatives missed a great chance to emulate the Labour party in 1962 when Dr Beeching  closed many of the smaller railway lines. Why didn’t they take the opportunity then to turn them into the pathways that a number are being converted into now?  A missed opportunity if there ever was one.
 I had come up to Bristol to meet up with a friend to do some walking in the Mendips. We started our walking on one of the old railway lines, the romantically named Strawberry Line that once ran between Wells and the main line at Yatton. A ten mile stretch has been opened up for cycling or walking between Cheddar and Yatton.
Besides passengers it did to carry strawberries that were farmed in the Cheddar area as well as limestone and famous dairy produce. Once away from the noisy roads, it was a great walk as the route skirts the Mendips before tunnelling through them and striking out over the flat lands of the Somerset levels. The one tunnel was some two hundred meters in length. Unfortunately it was officially closed but was too tempting so we bypassed the fencing and walked through anyway. Midway through I found I had a slight twinge of anxiety. Many years ago I was in a similar situation, entering a railway tunnel but only after my walking companion had assured me that no trains ran on Sundays. So we had made our entry into the darkness and were about quarter of the way in, when the rails began to sing followed moments later by a very loud roaring as the distant arch of light we were aiming for was darkened by a massive oncoming body. It was then we simultaneously realised it was in fact Saturday. I don’t think I have run so fast before or after this event, but it was a perfect demonstration of the effect a huge surge of adrenaline can have on one’s athletic performance.   
What was even more staggering was that a couple of weeks after this event my elder brother thought he would pass through the same tunnel. He was half way though it when once again daylight was blotted out by an oncoming train. He was too far in to run so showing tip top sang froid used his brolly to locate the far wall where he lay down, wedging himself into the angle between the floor and wall as the train thundered by and the partial vacuum tugged and pulled vainly against him.
My friend and I continued on passing through some quaint old stations that once served the local communities whilst I identified bird songs for my companion. There were information boards dotted the line and I was interested to note, that between the 30’s and 50’s camping wagons were parked up on the sidings. Families could catch a train to the station for a holiday. I know I would have loved a holiday like that watching the chuffing steam trains and exploring the surrounding countryside. I guess many people still would.
The following day we thought we would tackle the high Mendips themselves. We aimed for the village of Priddy but due to low cloud and a blip in navigation skills, (well the trained navigator is famous for them) we ended up in a wood with no houses in sight. Actually nothing was in sight as very low cloud and mist obscured the world so by careful map reading we used footpaths to cross the obscured hilltops and head for lower ground.
Coming off the hills we passed Wooky Hole, a tourist honey pot seemingly famous for nothing. They have a few caves, but so do the entire Mendips as they are limestone which is full of holes, and a resident witch. I suspect the real one, like so many witches, was nothing more than some destitute old crone whose scatty mind talked gibberish, who took up residence in the dry and relatively warm caves as many other people did in those times. The number of unfortunate old country women whose retirement plans must have been buggered by persecution must be high. Now some pantomime witch earns her keep acting out some bizarre claptrap.
Then on to Wells with its imposing cathedral and Cornish pasty that wasn’t quite like the real thing before a big loop that slurped up some steep sided valley to the Mendip tops and then cross country back to the woodland.
The next day, we only had the morning, so it was into Bristol to walk the City, a two and a half hour guided walk around my home City where, although a tad too early to visit some of its historic pubs, I could expound at leisure about its rich but at times mildly dubious history.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


The next book off the shelf was Mooninland in Midwinter by Tove Jansson. How I enjoy these books. Some of the characters in them are wonderful, The Dweller Under the Sink, the Groke, Little My, (I especially like her) as for Snufkin, he got me playing the harmonica. And that was in the summer of 1972 when my brother decided he wanted to discover England and thought the best way to do this was to walk it north to south. When he explained the idea to me I readily agreed to join him. We hitched to Bewick on Tweed and then turning south set off on foot on our biggest pererration yet. We meandered through the English countryside towards the distant south drifting east and west as we did so. I took two books to read. One was a Moomin book the other an Arthurian tale of the search for the Holy Grail. I soon tired of the latter and dumped the introspective writings. I was twenty one, my brother by my side, walking in all weathers through the English landscape; sleeping under hedgerows, heading for distant blue hills, through woodlands, valleys and vales, over unnamed streams, past village greens, parish churches. We saw every westerly sunset, listened to every dawn chorus, I was on my own quest, and Mooninpapa’s adventures entertained me. The writing so spare yet burgeoning with imagination, the book went the entire way with me until I had to drop away to continue my adventures in Norway. My brother heading on until he heard the sweet sibilance of water on that distant coast

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Marine Venus

I was setting off to Bristol to stay with my daughter for a few days, meeting up with a friend  there with whom I’m going to spend a few days walking  and needing something to read hurriedly picked Lawrence Durrell’s Reflections on a Marine Venus off a shelf. I was surprised by my choice, as I’ve never read any of his books, they never appealed.  I was introduced to them more than thirty years ago when I first met my partner.  I dipped into them but at the time in my mid twenties I was  reading the beat driven Karouac , psychedelic  Robbins and the  gangsters stories of Chandler and Runyan, not non stories about quaint but listless island living. I thought about my choice in the car, why had I chosen Durrell? Two words had caught my eye, marine and Venus. Marine Venus I liked how they sat together.
Later in the housing estate in the Bristol commuter land my kids inhabit from time to time, aptly nickname Dumpster Gardens, I start to read with more than a little trepidation. I’m captivated from the off, there is no pacey story, it’s still about living on an island but now I see an artist at work using as his medium the depths of the English language to sculpture a living, vibrant image, beautifully carved and shiningly polished like stone. What was once barren ground for me now fills me with pleasure and rather consume it rapidly I read slowly, only a few pages at a time, to savour its craftsmanship. It also opens up a visual pathway to my partner. She is there; I feel her presence in every page. My love of the road, beaten clothes, apple pie and ice cream, were influenced in part by Karouac. I know her love of light, sunlight and sharp heat, poetry, classical writing, languages, wine, her visual awareness of quality,  now I see one of her major influential sources and marvel at it myself.
Driving up I listened to Amadou and Mariam ‘the blind couple from Mali’ whose Afro blues has just the effect one needs to fly across the miles. Its all in French but it’s the sound of those rich African voices blending with the percussive beat that only Africans can achieve. On track five I hear an instrument I don’t recognise, it’s there pulsing out a regular beat amidst the floating lines of music, what is it? I wonder. Its a few minutes later that I realise it’s me, palming away on the car horn as I weave through the busy traffic. I’m practicing for the race convoy.
I listen to a wide variety of music. I am grateful to my son who has introduced me to a huge number of bands. It was the best money I ever spent when I bought him U2's The Joshua Tree with his birthday money when he was five. I think he had other plans for it but I told him then that it would have a major effect on his life. I was right. Amongst all those bands he directed me to The National are the stand out group, real quality.