2020 June “Those days are gone forever”
I was driving home today. The sun was bright and hot. I could feel it hard on my arm and face. My phone was set to random and started playing Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer”. He sang of seeing his lover’s ‘brown skin shining in the sun’, and how his love would last long after the boys of summer had gone.
Stories of the Past, Stories of the Future
Stories about the past tend to be nostalgic, even when it’s clear that people’s lives were exceptionally difficult. Meanwhile, futuristic stories, even dystopian ones, are often technologically and materialistically rich, whilst emotionally and spiritually empty. Perhaps it’s just that story tellers require tension to make things interesting, or could it be we’re ‘hard-wired’ to believe that physical comfort will lead to emotional disharmony. After all, is this not a major tenet of most religions? Nevertheless, such notions haven’t stopped humans seeking more and more convenience, luxury and material wealth. Is this because there’s also a belief that this will somehow further our higher spiritual development. After all, spending all your day staying alive doesn’t leave much time for divine perfection, or is it simply that materialism is a very comfortable way to avoid such journeys?
One day in 1981, the local library was selling off some of their old books. I bought one called ‘Chastity, Poverty and Obedience: The True Virtues’. I was not drawn to it with a view to suddenly becoming religious, but I was, nonetheless, intrigued by the philosophies it advocated. At the same time, I bought a few other books on psychology. It was as if I recognised that my unhappiness required a two-pronged approach. One involved exploring universal issues which everyone must face, whilst the other sought to address matters that were particular to me.
As I began to move towards adulthood I realised that I was embarking on a journey in which significant choices would have to be made. These would not just be about qualifications and career, but also what values should take precedence in my life. Amongst these were: money; relationships; spiritual matters, emotional wellbeing and political concerns. What I didn’t consider though, was just how many of those decisions would be taken by the more irrational parts of my mind, no matter what I decided on a more conscious level.
* * *
Simon: Sometimes I try my best to behave in a certain way, but in the next moment I realise I’m not sticking to my principles.
Therapist: Going through life is like riding a horse bareback. You can point it in a certain direction, but outside of that you’ll barely have any control.
Simon: Now you tell me. Can I have a refund please?
Therapist [laughing]: No.
* * *
The Future (Part1)
The words we use to communicate with each other are gifts from our ancestors, they come to us full of stories from the past. Stories of the past, ‘History’. must be one of the most interesting and important subjects in the school curriculum, but you’d never know it from the version most of us get taught. Instead of being told stories that will touch a student’s heart, they are presented with copious lists which they are expected to learn. But if you want people to learn something by heart, then you’re going to have to engage it first.
I didn’t sit a history exam. Instead I studied British Constitution, which was allowed to shine as a subject. It mainly covered the basics of law, and how our political and legal systems worked. Even though our teacher was massively overweight, who would occasionally have a trickle of urine showing on his trousers, he made the subject interesting. Fortunately, it would also come to my aid throughout my life, especially regarding challenging parking tickets, thinking about legal issues and arguing about politics.
It wasn’t until my latter years though, that I was re-acquainted with history, and especially the etymology of words. Words are not only the building blocks of stories but are individual time capsules full of stories in themselves. Of course, it’s not just words that have been handed to us by our ancestors. Amongst their many gifts are their dreams. For instance, someone imagined a house, they had plans drawn up, then had it built, and now, 130 years later I live in the house of their dreams. Likewise, every law, every piece of art, in fact almost everything created by humans started off as a thought, feeling or dream. Each step in human development brought about even more awareness of further possibilities which previously could never have been considered.
For thousands of years, people were barely able to subsist let alone come up with revolutionary ideas. For them, their aspirations were probably very much limited to staving off hunger, creating shelter, and protecting themselves from violence or conversely acquiring food, shelter and wealth through violent means. There were, of course important developments that occurred throughout history, but if we go back in time to around 600 years ago things started to proceed at a different pace. There wasn’t just a single catalyst that brought this about. Instead, there were a whole set of factors that made a lot more people look far further than their own horizons.
Improved optics would instigate the invention of microscopes and telescopes. This created the means to view the world in new ways. Printing presses would lead to newspapers and the greater distribution of books and knowledge. This dissemination of different ideas and information meant the scope of people’s dreams and imagination could be broadened too. And it’s the same today. Nowadays we know about the existence of atoms and consequently we dream of controlling them. Likewise, as we currently understand that there are billions of galaxies, we plan to explore them.
* * *
I left my client in the front room to seek out the commotion at the back of the house. I realised the loud noise I’d heard was coming from the room where the chimney I’d heard noises coming from over the last few days was. As I got closer I saw a black bird standing in the middle of the room. It was motionless except for a slight movement in its eye. Before it could panic I quickly shut the door. I didn’t want it flying any further in to the house.
The room it was trapped in also had another door on the far side that opened to the outside. If I could get to that door and open it, the bird could escape. This only involved getting out the building via the front entrance and doubling back to the rear of the house, but time was of the essence, as there’s no end to the carnage a scared bird can inflict on a room.
I got there as quickly as possible then quietly opened the door. There, standing on a bucket was the bird I’d just seen and next to it another. Without getting in to confusing details, the route these birds had found to escape the chimney in my place was technically impossible, but somehow, they’d managed it. Whilst officially, they were not black birds or crows as mentioned in my dream, they were pigeons that were either very dark or had been covered in soot from being inside the chimney. I stepped back out of view and within a few seconds they flew out the room, settling on another chimney across the road.
Had birds ever learned to tell folk stories, there would be a tale about 2 stupid birds who showed off just how high their chimney top nests were. The horror of the pigeon pie that they became would have stuck in the mind of any baby birds that ever heard this woeful tale. Consequently, for the rest of their lives they’d have avoided building nests on chimneys. Given birds talk so much you’d have thought that story telling would be an evolutionary certainty, but as their behaviour suggests, it wasn’t.
* * *
Rēzekne 1889 – Ruth
A few days after Yakov had returned home, Judith sent Chaya and one of the younger girls, Ruth, to forage for wild vegetables and herbs. The day was unusually hot for this time of year, so they wandered down towards the lake. Chaya showed Ruth what to look for, she picked two similar looking mushrooms and asked Ruth if she could smell the difference between them.
“This one is sweet, and this one is like wet wood” said Ruth pushing the mushroom to her nose.
Chaya pulled the mushrooms away from Ruth’s face “But one of them is dangerous, can you tell which?”
Ruth, again went to pull the mushrooms closer, but Chaya’s grip became even firmer. Ruth took a guess and pointed to the one on the right.
“Yes” you’re right,” Chaya said smiling, “Did you just guess that or has mamma showed you this one already?”
“I just guessed” Ruth laughed
“Well, here’s the basket, try to find some more, and I will look over there, so don’t wander off, keep where I can see you.” Chaya’s words were as firm as her grip. “Don’t go near the water, there are fish in there that will eat you in one bite!”
Ruth looked genuinely worried and nodded in agreement. Chaya tried not to laugh. She then ambled across to where the woods met the lake side and knelt while carefully loading her basket.
“Chaya!” a voice from the nearby in the woods loudly whispered.
Chaya looked in the direction of the sound. “I can’t, I’m watching over Ruth”
“Then I shall come to you. I need to hold you, to feel your sweet breath upon my face”
For a moment Chaya became lost in the thoughts his words evoked.
“No! Don’t!” Chaya almost shouted. “Not now”
Ruth looked up to see what was going on.
“What Chaya? What am I doing wrong?” Ruth shouted across the 50 metres between them.
“It’s nothing, carry on” Chaya said while flipping her hand in a go away and hurry up motion.
“I didn’t do anything” Ruth shouted back. She sighed and continued her quest.
Chaya looked to the ground then whispered loudly “Just go away Kristian. I will try to see you another time”
Kristian, no longer whispering, said “I miss you Chaya”
Chaya smiled and looked over to him whilst saying “I miss you as well, but it’s too dangerous!”
Chaya was very tempted to rush in to the woods and steal a moment with Kristian, but she knew this was the script of many a folk story she’d heard throughout her life. And so, she remained where she was, focusing on her job and keeping an eye on Ruth.
* * *
1981 August Exam Results
When the results to my ‘O’ level exams came through in August I was surprised by how well I’d done. Although I had failed English Language (Don’t ask!) and Engineering Drawing, I’d still passed 7 which was more than adequate for going into 6th form to do ‘A’ levels and possibly go on to university.
I was beginning to think about becoming a social worker. I hadn’t thought it through at all, but the idea of helping others appealed to me. Maybe I desired to become what I felt I needed for myself. But really, with hindsight, I don’t think I was cut out for that career at all.
* * *
Ann – January 2020
There will be times in future chapters when I will mention my Mum’s cousin’s wife Ann. She would almost become a second mother to me. She was kindness personified. But I’m going to start at the end with her because it was during the months that this chapter covers of my present-day life that she died.
I had gone to visit Ann and Paul. Ann had been seriously ill with breast cancer over the last 6 months. Each time she told me of her trials with the National Health Service I got filled with anger. Initially she’d gone to see her doctor with an abscess on her chest. On seeing it, the doctor immediately told her it was serious and referred her to her local hospital who then did nothing for 2 months, by which time it had spread to her lungs. This miracle of social evolution, The National Health Service, in this instance, failed. Ann seemed to take it in her stride. Normally she would be the one fighting for people’s rights, but when it came to her own she didn’t want to be too much trouble. When I visited her for the last time, she insisted on cooking dinner even though she couldn’t breathe well. She wanted to live as normally as possible, for as long as she could.
As I left I said “I better not hug you as there’s all this talk of a virus and I don’t want to give you anything”. But she put her arms around me and gave me a little squeeze. I did my best not to breathe on her and as I walked out to my car she came outside to wave goodbye too. I said “Don’t stand out in the cold, I’m going to be a few minutes getting the satnav set up”
“Oh, ok” she said and then mumbled something to Paul who had also come out. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to what she was saying to him, but later I realised it was something like she wouldn’t see me again. I said I’d be coming up in the next week or so, so I would see her then. But I was wrong, I didn’t know it then but that was the last time we saw each other.
A few days later she had her final escapade with the National Health, this time she was made to wait to be seen for 7 hours in casualty, and when she was, they put her straight on to a ward. Over the next week, as much as they tried to drain off the fluid building up in her lungs and around her heart, all they could do was try to make her last days less uncomfortable.
And then one morning Paul called me and said “It’s bad news I’m afraid”
* * *
Rēzekne – The Lake
Ruth was cautiously smelling each mushroom she came across. It was a game to her. Every now and again she would check on Chaya to see if she was still in sight.
“Have you seen this?” came a voice from about 5 meters away, just close to the edge of the lake.
Ruth turned and saw a man in a big dark coat and wide brimmed hat pointing over the reeds towards the lake. The man, seemed old to her, but he was most likely in his 40s. He was bearded, a cross between someone with money and a traveller.
“What is it?” Ruth said, slightly scared but curious still.
“It’s a family of otters, look, the babies are having their first swim”
Ruth stood on her tip toes. “I can’t see them”
“Hold on, I’ll show you” the man put his arms out offering to pick her up.
Ruth nodded in agreement so he did so.
“Oh yes I can see them, I have never seen a family of otters before” She savoured the sight the thrill of being held up high.
“I know” the man laughed, “They are wonderful”
She looked over her shoulder at him “How do you know it’s their first swim?”
“You are a clever one,” he smiled “you’re right, I don’t know for sure”
“Ruth get down” came Chaya’s voice “Get down now!”
“But I’m just looking at the baby otters Chaya!” Ruth protested indignantly.
“Get down now! I am sorry sir but she should not have allowed you to pick her up.” Chaya apologetically bowed to the man.
The man gently lowered Ruth to the ground whilst she held on as long as she could.
“I suppose you are right” He said, “but she didn’t come to any harm, I wasn’t going to hurt her.”
Chaya shook her head “I can see that sir, but she didn’t know that and she has been told never to talk to strangers. I’m very disappointed Ruth. Get your basket, it’s time to go home”
“But we haven’t finished yet!” Ruth implored.
“I’m sorry sir, thank you for your kindness.” Then she swivelled around and stared at Ruth who was stamping steps of anger “Come on, we’re going. Come on now!”
The man lowered his head and apologised as they passed him.
Chaya turned, and looking back at the man asked “You’re not from here, are you?”
He pointed Westwards adding “No, I’m just passing through”.
Chaya, who wasn’t one to be shy, and was very happy to speak out of turn whenever possible, looked at the man sternly “Around here men do not speak with women they do not know. It’s forbidden, so I’m sorry but we must leave, and really sir I would ask you to not speak to us any further.”
The man stood aside, took off his hat and bowed his head as they passed. He gave a little wave at Ruth who waved back at him. As they walked off he watched them until they were out of sight, then he turned in the other direction and stopped for a moment as he realised there was someone in the woods watching. He placed his hat back on his head then walked towards the woods.
* * *
The Wild, Wild Wood
Most of the languages that influence English were very likely to have stemmed from Proto Indo-European languages about 6500 years ago. Anglo Saxon, from Northern Europe, and Latin and French from Middle and Southern Europe make up about 84% of present day English. The majority of our single syllable words are derived from Anglo Saxon, whereas most of the multi-syllabic ones are Latin, French or Greek based. So, the word ‘wood’, being mono syllabic, derives from the Germanic family of languages.
A long time before humans ever populated Europe, our pre-Homo-Sapien ancestors lived in forests and jungles. The trees were our home and even now, somewhere in our DNA we are deeply connected to the wold of trees. There is also much of our physical structure that is tree like (dendritic) too. Our brain, nervous, lung and venous systems are all dendritic. Even on the outside we look like trees. We have a trunk, a crown with foliage on top and branches. If we don’t have a full-length branch, then what remains is often referred to as a stump. Such thoughts are nothing new, the Celts, for instance, believed we were descended from the great Oak.
As we have become more cultivated and less involved with nature, or should I say ‘tame’, the thought of the woods for most modern humans is a scary one. For us, the woods are the wilds and the wilds are an unknown quantity. For our ancestors 6500 years ago, and for much of the ensuing time, the wilds were very well known. The Germanic word ‘waldes’, was equivalent to the present day separate words ‘wild’ and ‘wood’. When we think of the word ‘wood’, we no longer associate it with its wild past.
* * *
The name Roundshaw means a circular group of trees, but I doubt many people who lived there ever realised it. I certainly didn’t. Soon after we’d recently moved in to the flat on the estate, I opened one of the new cupboards in the front room, put my head inside it and inhaled deeply. I loved the smell of the wood, it was heaven to me.
Almost 50 years later we are still heavily dependent on trees, but people nowadays would rarely consider spending any time treating the wood in their house. Instead we’d prefer timber that’s been reduced to a form of chippings or dust which then requires toxic chemicals to bond it. Consequently, it barely lasts a fraction of the time of well-seasoned timber. But then, to keep furniture for decades would also mean not keeping up with the times and that for many people would be sacrilegious. As a child, I felt the presence of wood all around me. At night, I would look in to the grain on the wardrobe doors in my bedroom, see scary faces and quickly close my eyes. Maybe wood reminds us of reality and that’s why we banish it from our modern world.
* * *
The Wood and Cross
Tree worship, known as dendrolatry, has features in many religions throughout the world, and their cut down version, the cross has figured as a spiritual symbol for many thousands of years right up to today. The symbol of the crucifix was not introduced in to Christianity until centuries after Jesus’ death. Whilst the bible states that Jesus died on the cross, its design was not described so could have been a number of different forms. Whatever type of crucifix was used to kill Jesus on, it would have been a shape used by previous religions, so there was no way of avoiding the link between the old religions and this new one. The cross was connected to wood, and trees within early Christianity, even the Old Testament mentions it in Hebrew as ‘êç,”(wood). According to some Christian legends, the upright part of The Crucifix was derived of wood grown from a branch of the tree of Knowledge. However, many other legends contradict that. The thing is, trees, woods and wood continued to play a part both spiritually and metaphorically within Christianity. Noah, for instance, used a wooden stronghold to protect wild animals. And even the word Paradise, originally meaning a ‘walled garden’ is a metaphor of bringing the wild to order, after all is that not what gardens are? Even from the outset ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ figured as a central theme, as did the first mention of paradise, The Garden of Eden.
For many pagan religions, there were further astronomical connections to the cross, including marking out the sun’s pathway in relation to the horizon, as well as time related patterns too. Within old stone circles, there were cross shaped patterns that predate Christianity by millennia. Some people argue that when Constantine chose the shape of the cross we currently use, he did it partly as a means of bringing together the symbols of pagan beliefs and Christianity. The cross itself can be additionally symbolic, in terms of him bringing together two faiths of opposing directions. Whether that is true or not there is something poetic in the image of pagans seeing the crucifix as a tree, whilst simultaneously Christians seeing it a highly significant symbol.
In many societies, apart from religion, the symbolism of trees, forests and the wild were prevalent. When Viking or Anglo Saxons cast out wrongdoers they would often end up living in the forest. As opposed to visiting it as a resource. The trees came to demarcate the boundaries of the human world, so, to end up living there meant a loss of honour. In Old English, the word wōd also came to mean ‘mad’, ‘senseless’, or ‘blasphemous’. Even now we might say that someone ‘went wild’. Fortunately, we haven’t completely forgotten the importance of trees. After all, trees still form a central pillar within our modern-day belief systems, especially with them being recognised as the lungs of the world and our very survival being tied up with them.
* * *
1981 Back to School
There was an excitement about returning to Wilson’s after the summer break. It was almost as if I was starting at a new school. Our uniform was slightly different, we had powers over the younger boys which we hadn’t had before, and there was a whole area set aside for us to relax and study in which even had its own kitchen. We would also have fewer lessons because much of our studying was to be done in our own time. I was set to take 3 academic ‘A’ levels and two Art ones. This meant that some of my time would be spent at Sutton College of Liberal Arts, (SCOLA), which is where I’d been doing my life drawing studies for the last few years.
* * *
Sutton College of Liberal Arts, SCOLA, was part of the same building complex as Sutton Library. Its main entrance was about 10 metres from the entrance to the library. At the time it was built it was seen as cutting-edge architecture (ok that’s pushing it, but it was seen as a bit modern). Inside the main foyer was a reception counter, and from there a staircase took students up to the café floor first and then up to the classrooms. If I think how to describe it to you the first thing that comes to mind are the dark orange nylon carpeted areas, especially in the café, which was large, probably 25 meters by 10 meters, with big windows that looked out on to a main road and the backs of shops that lined Sutton High Street. It’s possible the carpet wasn’t that colour at all, but either way that’s the impression it left on me.
The class rooms were spacious, but had a harder, more utilitarian feel. There was a trace of the 1930’s in their design, especially the black metal framed windows, white walls, and tiled floors. While the architects were going for a hint of Bauhaus minimalism, that was put a stop to by the clutter of real-life: The art materials; equipment; and rubbish art left leaning against the walls by students till next week’s lesson.
I often got the sense that their work had been left in the hope that someone of influence in the art world would be passing by, and in that moment, would be blown away by such a great picture of their cat. But, unless the Art World’s scout was looking for a toilet, it was very unlikely they’d be passing through. I am not saying this to disrespect SCOLA, but as I would become more acquainted with the Art World I’d come to recognise the divisions that existed. Those same people who headed the Art World and would make art all about class war couldn’t help but look down their noses at the lower classes of art.
* * *
Together, school, especially the 6th form centre, Sutton Library, SCOLA and Tweeddale Karate Club were going to be the main backdrops to my life for the next two years. Whilst these had been very much the same backdrops for the last two years there was now a different texture to them, I was, without realising it, becoming part of ‘the establishment’ too. This came about at first when I got asked to provide some art work not only for the school magazine but also for the national karate magazine. A few weeks later Grant, my karate teacher, also asked me to enter one of the upcoming competitions. Grant was ahead of his time when it came to being inclusive. I was acutely aware of people not ‘letting me do things’, so tended to expect it, so, Grant’s attitude was a welcome breath of fresh air.
* * *
The Future (Part 2)
When we look at the fundamental problems humankind faces today, most of us would agree that a far smaller world population of humans would help matters. For a start, we’d have less pollution, there’d be less need of resources, and greater social cohesion because everyone could have what they needed. But paradoxically we might also say that it would be far better if we could live longer, stay youthful, and not have to suffer, in fact if possible it’d be perfect if we could live forever or at least till we decided to die. These may have been the aspirations of all humans throughout history, but the difference is, we are on the precipice of being able to do these things. These are the dreams of today, and many of us believe they will be the realities of tomorrow’s world?
* * *
Rēzekne – Supper
When Chaya and Ruth returned home, they explained to their mother what had happened with the man, and that was why their baskets were only half full. Yudith was happy they were safe and said she would tell her neighbours about it too.
“What’s father doing?” Chaya asked
“He’s making a surprise for tonight, why don’t you see if he wants any help?”
So, Chaya and Ruth wandered slowly towards where he sat in the sunlight.
He looked up at them
“Ah what good timing” he laughed “You can help me cut and peel these vegetables”.
* * *
1981 The Competition
On the day of the competition a few of us met up outside the karate club at 7am, we all then bundled in to Grant’s VW camper van, and after an hour or so’s drive to the other side of London we entered the sports centre and nervously waited for our turn. This wasn’t a fighting competition but one where we would perform sets of movements, (a bit like a dance), and we’d be judged on how well we performed it. It was a bit like Strictly Come Dancing for Karate practitioners.
Grant had brought a black and white video camera with a separate video recorder unit, which at the time was very high tec. This was going to be useful for us to look back on how we did.
When it came to my go I was put up against another kid and won that round, but when it came to the next one I lost. I was already aware that in a way it was unfair because lots of my techniques were changed because of my disability, so whilst, such things as power, timing, focus, balance, and speed could be compared between me and someone with a full set of limbs, there was a lot that could not.
As I watched myself back on the video I was faced with something I’ve always found very hard and that is being confronted with what I really look like. For most people this is normally quite difficult anyway, but for me it was and still is especially difficult because in my mind I look quite different.
“You know Grant” I said “I don’t think it’s fair on those who go up against me”
He looked at me quizzically “Really? Why do you say that?”
So, I explained what I thought and he said “Well, as long as you know, it’s your decision”
And so, from then on I didn’t enter a competition again. Even for fighting ones it would have been too complicated. My artificial leg was a dangerous weapon, striking with elbows wasn’t normally allowed and when it came to arm strikes I only had elbows to do so with. I had to wear shoes, which would be an advantage too, and then there would be the psychological disadvantage that an opponent would have such as “What would people think if I hurt him, or even worse if he hurts me?
I was beginning to come to terms with the complexities of disability-related issues. Sometimes people would be too quick to prohibit me from being included unfairly, but there was also a responsibility on me to understand when it might not be appropriate to do certain things even though people would be happy for me to do so.
When it came to getting in to scraps on the street however I was far less concerned with what the other person thought. I didn’t go out looking for fights but I wouldn’t back down if an opportunity arose either.
* * *
Although things were going well in my outer world, inside I still felt something was amiss. For many decades, I would continue struggling with this issue, as I am sure many other people do too. I truly did feel as if there was this outer me who did ok, but then there was a whole other sense of who I was that felt empty and lonely a lot of the time. The other strange side effect of this was that I didn’t enjoy my successes much, and even though I came across as very egocentric, I didn’t and still don’t feel much in those terms. Where I mostly felt my emotions, was in the lost world inside me.
Even writing this now I am aware that some people might feel I have some kind of psychological hero complex, that I have to write my version of history in which I come out looking good, even if that’s done by making myself look bad. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the feeling of connection with others I get from writing this is the real main driving force.
* * *
1981 November 11th Courage
A few weeks after starting back at school our careers advisor asked me if I would be happy to be entered in to a Triumph Over Adversity Awards scheme organised by Barnardo’s. Even at 16 I was very aware that firstly, my existence didn’t rely on me being courageous, secondly even if it did, courage was more of a predisposition rather than a choice, and thirdly, by accepting such a reward it would make me feel as if I was not trying to live a normal life after all. It reeked of double standards to me, and whilst being a hypocrite doesn’t normally stop me getting myself in to all sorts of difficult positions, even nowadays, in this instance it did make me feel uncomfortable enough not to go for it.
At 16, when it came to disability issues, I did not have a cohesive approach or understanding. On one hand, I would follow scripts, for instance doing things because people expected me not to. On the other though, I would expect discrimination, yet subconsciously encourage it in the way I approached situations. For instance, I could sow the seeds of doubts in others so that they might feel confused as to whether to allow me to do something or not. Had I known better I could have approached such matters in a more positive way which would have inspired confidence in others. I’ll give you an example. When I was about 19 I was looking for a room to rent so I called a number I’d seen in a paper advertising one. A friendly guy answered and when I mentioned my disability, he said “No problem”. Instead of just going to meet him I then listed all the reasons why it might be difficult, so, by the end of the conversation he became a bit doubtful it would be suitable for me. Maybe just hearing me being negative, was enough to put him off. But, looking back now, it’s possible to see that there were times when I played a significant part in the rejection process.
There were other occasions though when I was ahead of the times. One evening John’s Mum and Dad came around. John had obviously primed them beforehand because within a couple of minutes they were making it very clear that they thought that people who modelled naked for artists were the lowest of the low and I should not be mixing with them. When I said that one of the models was a fireman and another was a yoga teacher they wouldn’t have it. Seeing that they were not persuading me, they went for another tack. The issue of Mum letting me have my benefit money directly instead of pocket money was ‘check mate’ as far as they were concerned.
His Mum laughed “Well you say you want to be treated the same as everyone else, but you’re quite happy to take money from the state”
His Dad nodded and added “When we were your age we were already going to work. You can’t have any pride in yourself taking benefit money.”
In a way, I respected them for not making an allowance for me, but I felt that there were far less opportunities for me to work than there were for others. So, I saw the benefit money as compensation for society’s lack of accommodation for people with disabilities. With one hand society would be praising me for being brave but in the other hand there was a sign that clearly stated “No Entry”. I explained this to them but there was just an uncomfortable silence afterwards.
Mum walked in to the room and recognised the same atmosphere created by the cats after they’d been fighting.
“Anyone want another cup of tea?” She smiled a big smile but looked me in the eye, a look that said “What the fuck have you been up to?”
I was already recognising that disability tended to be experienced in both a physical and social way. Later I would come to learn that this was titled the medical and social models. This means that whilst somethings are made difficult because of someone’s ‘impairment’ (the medical model), it’s also possible to see that society could make things less disabling (The social model). For instance, a wheelchair user may well find stairs a barrier but a ramp useful. So, are they disabled by their impairment or the choice their wider community makes as to whether a ramp is provided?
* * *
I was sitting on the beach, my partner’s white skin was shining in the sun. I’d tried to read but couldn’t get comfortable. I was bored. I watched people paragliding, so, I walked over to the guy who was in charge of the rides.
“Hi” I said smiling
He nodded. It was the kind of nod someone who was owed money might make.
“I’d like to have a go at paragliding?” I said as if I was ordering a drink from a bar.
He looked me up and down. “I’m not sure if my insurance would cover you”.
I was tempted to look myself up and down too and say “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks” but what actually came out was “Don’t worry, if I die I die”.
He paused for a second, then shouted at one of his workers to fetch the harness.
Had we been in the UK, there would have had to be letters from my doctor, disclaimer forms filled in, and probably someone else to accompany me. But within 5 minutes I was running along the jetty as the boat sped off and the cables quickly pulled in to position. I got the biggest jolt of my life, as they took hold and flung me forwards and upwards.
“Fuck!” I semi yelped, the air got knocked out of me for a second, and then I was rising higher and higher. The boat looked very small and the people were little dots on the beach. It was slightly windy, but still silent. It crossed my mind that at any point I might fall to my death, but I felt calm, in a way too calm. A bit of fear may have given it more of an edge, but I hung there in the sky, happily alone, waiting to be reeled in and back to the noise.
After they’d dropped me in to the sea, I thanked the guy for letting me on with so little fuss. If anything, having my opinion of my capabilities taken seriously meant as much to me as the ride itself.
When I got back to my partner she asked where I’d got to.
* * *
I got a message from a production company who make documentaries for Netflix. They were interested in making a program about me. At first I was a bit taken with the idea, not so much because of the flattery of it but for pragmatic reasons. By raising my profile, it would allow me to build up my career more. But, after a bit of consideration I realised that if I got involved with it, there would be a cost that might be too detrimental.
After a few days of email discussions, I stated that if I had already had some success for at least one of my creative pursuits, then it might make sense to also do a program that touched on my disability too. But as I haven’t had any significant success then outside of my disability, why would they want to do a program about me? I realised that if I went ahead with this project then I would be going against one of my fundamental principles, which is that my art work and music should be judged on its own merit and not be measured with a different yardstick because of my disability. In my mind that would be no success at all.
Even writing this book had me questioning whether my disability would become its main focus. However, I felt that while, of course, it’s a part of it, there were many other matters that I’d be covering too.
* * *
Although I had resolved that it was difficult to include me when it came to kata and fighting competitions, I was still very interested in passing my belts. Having a high grade in karate acts as a warning to others to keep away whilst at the same time providing an amount of respect. These might not be good reasons to go for a karate belt but they are probably many people’s true initial motivations. But, the paradox was, the higher a grade I became the more I realised that belts have very little to do with proficiency at street fighting. That isn’t to say that many high grades are not good fighters, because a lot are, but it’s not as simple as A plus B equals C. I started to become aware of importance of other martial arts, especially ones such as Ju-Jitsu, Wrestling, Aikido and Judo. The leaders of the karate style I studied were all high grades in Judo too as well as other schools of karate.
The more I learned about fighting the more I realised that I was never going to be as good a fighter as I’d like to be. So, I had to ask myself what the point of doing it was, and what I decided might have a worthwhile element to it was this. In the unlikely event that I may need to protect myself or others I ought to be as well prepared as possible. That wouldn’t mean I could ever be a great fighter, but instead be confident that I could deliver a powerful enough blow to knock someone out or at least stun them if I was to make contact whilst also being able to fend off an attack if it came my way as best I could, rather than just being a helpless target.
Karate means “Empty Hand”, so for me to choose to do it probably involved some subconscious ironic humour. Also, a great deal of karate does indeed focus on hand techniques, so it was not lost on many people that I was at a big disadvantage. The way people reacted was either they didn’t want me there, or they backed off because they didn’t want to hurt me, or they gave me a good whack to put me back in my box.
Diary Entry: 11 Sept 81 Neil Kicked me in the head at karate
The reason Neil kicked me was because I deserved it. Just beforehand I was fighting a guy called Tony who was in his 50’s. I decided Tony would be a good person to practice my spinning kicks on. Neil, who was instructing that day told me off afterwards and said I was to fight him. Instead of being apologetic I immediately did a fast spinning back kick and got it through Neil’s defence. I think I laughed. The next thing I knew I was seeing stars and getting up off the floor a little bit dazed. Not only was it a lesson learned but I was grateful for not being treated differently. In fact, judging by the amount of kickings I got, I was generally being treated similarly to most of the others. That’s not to say they abused me, but they certainly liked to give me regular, not so gentle, reality checks.
* * *
1981 Martial Arts Teaching
Over the last 40 years the way martial arts are taught has changed significantly. Whilst some aspects have changed for the worse there have been drastic improvements. In 1981 there were still a lot of people who were teaching who were abusive both physically and psychologically. Whilst it is possible to argue that martial arts require hard discipline and some physical pain, what I started to witness as I looked in to other martial arts was something akin to the baddie in the film ‘The Karate Kid’.
Diary Entry: 19/8/81
“This evening we watched a Kung-Fu classes. It was a beginners one. The teacher was a young bully of a black belt. It was like watching a dark comedy film.”
People recognised in the ensuing years, not just in the martial arts but in teaching in general, that the personality of the teacher was extremely influential in terms of success or failure for some pupils. What this led to was an attempt within the education systems to take the teacher’s personality out of the equation.
Teachers were taught to look at how students learned best and adapt their teaching styles to match accordingly. In other words, just as computers began to dominate our world, the idea of turning teachers in to ‘computers’ became the overriding ideology. This may well be in the service of ultimately replacing teachers with computers. But, will these computer teachers recognise those pupils who want the teacher to be a bit renegade too, will they bring personality back in to the equation, or instead, will it be a sterile learning environment?
* * *
When I was teaching computer classes for beginners for the local authority in Fulham, London, I would split the lessons up in to several sections. The final one would normally be about a fun aspect of using computers. Amongst other things it might be playing online games with real people, talking to AI chat bots, or accessing music or videos. One lesson I’d give would be about playing online Karaoke songs. To start off that section I would play a song then break out in to a singing and dancing routine much to my student’s hysterical laughter or horror, I wasn’t always sure which. If a computer were to do the same I get the feeling it wouldn’t be quite the same, plus I doubt those programming the teacher-bots would ever consider anything out of the ordinary in the first place.
* * *
Mark continued his demands for his earrings so I sent him a copy of the video of them being packed and the CCTV video of him picking up that bag. Things went quiet for a while, until one night, drunk, he messaged me to say he was coming to pick up all his belongings and had booked a van. I informed him that only a few items were left so a van wouldn’t be necessary. He insisted the van couldn’t be cancelled and he would come as soon as possible. His belongings were placed in an accessible place but of course he didn’t turn up. He then continued his threats so I told him not to call again unless it was to arrange to pick up the remaining items. So far he hasn’t called, but he will.
It doesn’t matter that he may well be a victim himself, that he has a tragic story behind his addiction. For me, protecting myself from his madness is my main priority because he may well be the cause of the unlikely event that I have trained my life to deal with. You can try to understand and feel sorry for someone who has threatened you all you want, but it won’t take the threat away.
* * *
Rēzekne – Supper
When the children came to take their places for dinner they were confronted by a big saucepan on the table. This wasn’t normal at all. Once the blessings were said Yakov lifted the lid and tilted the open pan to each child, one at a time.
“Go on, take one each”
“What are they father?” one of the boys asked
“You will see in just a minute”
“I know what they are” Chaya said
“Well of course you do, you helped make them”
Each child held in their hand a vegetable that had been carved.
“Now,” he said “they will not last very long so enjoy them while you can. Put the smaller end in your mouth and blow”
Within a second there was a cacophony of shrill whistles. Both Yudith and Yakov joined in too, laughing and whistling, whilst also trying to cover their ears. Ruth got off her chair, walked over to her father and made a big gesture of wiping a tear from her eye while simultaneously showing him her half-eaten carrot whistle. He pulled her close to him, gave her a comforting hug and handed her his one.
* * *
1981 Baby Driver
One day Gwynne, the civil servant I mentioned a few chapters ago, called me to ask if I’d like a driving lesson on a private track. I was still too young to get a provisional licence so was not allowed to learn to drive on public roads yet. To get around this, he drove all the way down from central London to pick me up, then drove me to anther county, and after giving me a lesson would drive me back. Gwynne had a bit of an obsession with amputees (I didn’t particularly understand this back then, but such people are known as “Devotees”). However, I could sense he might have some ulterior motives but didn’t really care, I was going to get a free driving lesson and it was going to be a boring Sunday otherwise.
When we got there it was a pre-driving track which aimed to emulate normal roads, so there were traffic lights, give way signs, and speed limits. Gwynne started me off by getting me used to keeping the revs to a certain level, and then we set off. After a while I began to feel very comfortable so decided to take a sharp bend at 30 mph and that was when the lesson came to an abrupt end. Had I known about his passion for stumps I probably could have bartered another 30 minutes out of him for a stroke of my arm, but I didn’t, so it ended there.
I wouldn’t drive a car again for another 5 years but when I did I started taking corners at much higher speeds. But that’s another story. However, Gwynne’s words “Good driving goes unnoticed” stuck with me from then on.
* * *
1981 3 Parts to a Conversation
Gwynne once told me that he believed there were 3 parts to a conversation. One bit was when one person spoke, the other was when the other person replied, and the third bit was when you thought about what had been said before speaking further.
He then looked at me with a slight frown. I thought for a minute, but stayed silent. He just shook his head and raised his eyes to the heavens.
* * *
1981 The Quiet
From September to December my life seemed to plod along nicely. I enjoyed studying, practicing karate and socialising, it was also during this time that we did the karate demonstration for The Duke of Edinburgh. But maybe it’s because I wanted to subconsciously sabotage myself that I’ve come to recognise these periods as the quiet before a storm. Even though my diary was peppered with melancholia during this time, it was manageable. I guess the part that feels something needs to be dealt with can only be kept silenced for a while.
* * *
Although the last few years have been politically turbulent, what with Brexit and Trump, 2020 has exceeded all other recent times with COVID-19 and its combination of Brexit, Trump, and issues relating to racism. I will try to keep away from the political issues just listed because no matter what I say it will alienate some readers, and just like them I get very pissed off when an artist I like starts pontificating their political beliefs, especially if I don’t agree with them. There are some artists who have branded themselves as politically orientated from the outset, so I don’t feel let down by them. But outside of a few areas such as disability issues, I would prefer to not get involved here with some of the more contentious ones. I hope you’ll forgive me.
2005 London – A40/A406 Racism
It’s rush hour traffic, autumn early dark sky, I’m trying to get around a large roundabout on the North Circular. A flashy large white car cuts me up so I have to slam my brakes on. It then continues to cut a few other people up. After a minute, I catch up with the car, I put my window down and say “You’re being way too aggressive”.
The guy, puts his window down, he’s black with short dreadlocks, and shouts “What did you say?”
I said “You’re driving very aggressively”
He sneers at me and shouts “Fuck off you white cunt”
I disapprovingly nod my head from side to side slightly and shout back “That’s a bit racist”
He pauses for a second then shouts back, this time with a little more forethought, “Fuck off you cunt”
“That’s better”, I say, this time moving my head in a more approving manner.
For a moment, all was right with the world.
* * *
1981 Protest Songs
In my mid 20’s I attended quite a few disability issue based demonstrations and protests but the first protest I ever joined was at school. A few months in to being a sixth former we were told that playing music in our department was no longer permissible. A petition was drawn up which everyone except one student signed, there’s always one and it’s normally me, but it wasn’t this time. Then to make our voices heard we congregated in the main foyer near the headmaster’s office and sang two hymns, Jerusalem and To Be a Pilgrim.
I don’t remember if we got a formal change of the rule but music was heard at times, if at a somewhat low volume. Fortunately, technology came to the rescue as personal stereo cassette players became affordable.
* * *
1981 The Hungry Heart
One evening we had Speech Day at school which was a ceremony we had to attend that involved lots of boring speeches. A few years previously my mum came to one of them, fell asleep and snored quite loudly. So, for everyone’s sake she didn’t attend this one.
Afterwards, we all sighed a sigh of relief that it was over and congregated in the main foyer where one of the younger boys introduced me to his sister older sister, Joanna. There was an immediate spark between us which both of us felt (for a change). As we bantered and laughed we arranged to meet up again soon, and just as we were about to part she kissed me, I described it as a salty kiss in my diary, but that was probably because I was hungry.
When we met up next it was at her house where her parents invited me to stay for dinner. Maybe she’d told them she sensed I was hungry when we kissed. We all got on well and there seemed to be a promise of a relationship in the air. But, instead of feeling happy, when I woke up the next day I felt depressed. Without her saying anything directly I’d picked up via some subconscious back channel that the promise of more was probably a little ambitious. Even so, later that day we met up at Sutton library, did a bit of homework together then went to MacDonald’s for something to eat. I should have realised that Pizza Hut was the way to a girl’s heart in 1981, but I liked the Hot Apple Pies that MacDonald’s served so I thought she’d feel the same too. I should have listened closer to Joe Jackson’s hit single “It’s Different for Girls”, but I was probably too busy listening to Elvis.
As we walked back to her place she told me I’d upset her when I mentioned something about her teeth. When I got home I wrote in my diary that I was devastated by my lack of tact, and I vowed to make an extra effort to be more diplomatic with everyone from then on. Needless to say, that invaluable rule was to be broken countless times more throughout my life. But at least now I can blame that wayward bareback horse.
Jo and I met up a few more times over the next few weeks. She told me she didn’t want to get involved and preferred to remain free. I read between the lines that she was waiting for a ‘past love’, whereas all I needed to do was read the neon writing on the wall, which funnily enough was the same as what she’d clearly said to me. “I don’t want to get involved with you”.
* * *
1981 Sutton Library
The top floor of Sutton Library was one of the biggest libraries in Europe at the time. It had 5 floors, but level 5 was a bit like a balcony that sat above and overlooked the 4th floor just below it. All along this top floor were desks that faced the open area below. This is where we would go to study, it was also a good place to meet other students. Outside of being a bit of a distraction when it came to studying, there were times when it cut the other way too. One day I was sitting there reading a romantic part of Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”. The girl sitting next to me looked at me and our eyes met. She smiled and started talking with me. Up until she mentioned her boyfriend I was full steam falling in love. I’m fairly sure Shakespeare helped me feel that way, but then again she was very pretty.
As time passed I got to get to know the regulars and would often do a circuit of the 5th floor first to see who to sit next to and not do any work with. Usually, after half an hour of pretending to study we’d decide to go down to the café, where I’d sometimes get a microwaved sausage roll, Eccles Cake and a cup of tea. Once in the café there’d be other people to join up with, so we’d push the tables together and before long it’d be a mini party. There aren’t many libraries in the world where girls and boys would get dressed up to go there.
* * *
The Future (Part 3)
To solve the issue of over population of the planet, instead of killing loads of people in one go, the governments of the world decided to take a softer approach. They decided to encourage people to only have two children, ok, it was quite a severe encouragement based on financial gain, but overall it worked. On top of that people were offered cyborg partners which also kept the birth rate down further. Within 200 years the world population was lowered to just over 3 billion people and still decreasing.
Instead of offering eternal life, people were offered the option, just as religions had done, to be resurrected. This was on the proviso that they would be part of a mission to search for other habitable planets. Whilst a lot of people preferred to stick with traditional life and death cycles, many millions of people chose not to have any children to be part of this great quest. Once they’d signed up their atomic structure was saved at a certain point, then that record of them would be sent in to space on craft that could travel for millions of years. Meanwhile their original selves would live out their days on earth where they would die.
During the two centuries that passed whilst these plans came together, several off shoots of the human genus were developed. The main one was a much stronger regenerative, everlasting, version. This was only ever a luxury for several hundred people. The second type was one that had been edited to be as divine as possible, it didn’t feel anger, lust, hatred, violent, in fact it didn’t feel desire. Unlike a computer though, it did feel love and compassion, but furthermore it unconsciously felt obedience to the first new genus “Masters”.
On every craft, atomic records of all the new human types were kept as well as the normal humans. So, whilst the humans of all three branches knew they were seeking out new places to live they were also aware that they were pursuing the ultimate meaning of life. Meanwhile though, they were enacting biology’s ‘purpose of living’, which is ‘to survive’.
As long as the ships had access to energy they could not only use their atomic rebuilders to resurrect their recorded “occupants”, but they could create new ships, new rebuilders, and copies of the recorded archives. In time, trillions of humans came to explore the universe.
For some, the option of choosing everlasting death became appealing, but they could never be sure if another version of themselves had chosen to live on. Sometimes they’d wonder if there was such a thing as a soul and, if there was, how did it cope with having multiple mortal coils? Whilst they, themselves, didn’t feel any different, they would sometimes question that if there was a soul, had they lost theirs?
* * *
1981 SCOLA – The Unknown Beginnings of Journeys
Just as with the library, the lessons in SCOLA became a social event, especially during the breaks. I was going in at least twice a week, mainly for life drawing, and was beginning to become part of the furniture as I’d been going there for over 3 years. Whilst I tended to behave in Melody’s classes, I would muck around quite a bit in the others. Not only did I hold Melody in high esteem. She had studied at the prestigious Slade School of Art, and she was also a working illustrator. Her work was exquisitely delicate, beautiful and precise, just like her. I couldn’t say I was in love with her because she seemed to be from a different world to me, but I looked on at her in awe. There was also something about her vulnerability that made mucking about too much of a betrayal for me to bear, so, I just got on with drawing in her classes. OK, I still chatted up the pretty female models or any girls sitting near me, but for me, that was well behaved.
One Saturday, early in December, after Melody’s morning session, I spent the afternoon in Sutton Library with 4 other people I’d met in the college. On our way out of the college I started running to the office so I could ask the model for her address. (Yes, like you, I am sitting here nodding my head in disbelief). Unfortunately, my artificial foot came off so I went flying. I was more embarrassed than anything. My new-found friends were obviously worried for me, maybe a little impressed too, in fact so much so they may well have thought it worthwhile waiting to see what my next trick would be. Either way, this was a meeting that would be the root of many other connections and journeys far beyond that time in my life. But at the time I was not aware of its significance.
My four new acquaintances consisted of Scarlet, who was Canadian, Dee, who was half Italian but sounded American, Juan who was English and I thought might have a learning disability, but only because he was even more inappropriate than I, and Jules who was quite reserved but laughed at my jokes, so I liked her. We went record shopping in Sutton High Street, then then back to Scarlett’s place to chat, have tea and biscuits and to listen to one of their new albums (The Police 999).
After all this excitement, I went back to Jules’s family home where we chatted more. Jules was a little taller than me, she had brown hair, big brown eyes, there was an air of stoic sadness about her, but she was quick and funny too. That evening she played me the album she’d bought. It was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”. I didn’t register it then but that was the day I discovered an artist who’d be a part of my life even till now. That was the day I lost my ‘Bruce Cherry’.
Whilst there, I got to meet Jules’s parents and her brother, they lived in a well-to-do area and I immediately got the feeling that I was being assessed rather than warmly welcomed. At 16, when visiting a girl’s house that tended to be the stock reaction so it almost went unnoticed by me. Jules and I had a good chat, said our goodbyes, there wasn’t any romance in the air, but I genuinely liked being with her.
When I got back home it was late, but not so late that John and I couldn’t have an argument. Even then, the day was not over. I grabbed my karate kit and said I’d be back the following day. My Karate club was holding a 24-hour sponsored marathon training session, split into shifts. So, I got the bus there, then we trained and slept in turns until Sunday night. When I got back home, I was aching and tired, but John was still gunning for me.
I couldn’t wait to leave home. Home to me was somewhere else out in the world that I’d have to discover later. I could sometimes see it in the eyes of perfect strangers, in the laughter of friends, in the echoes of my karate kias (pronounced like: key-eyes) and in the freedom of my possible futures.
* * *
1981 The Blizzard
We were experiencing the worst snow blizzards for 30 years, house lights stayed on all day, barely any vehicle drivers dared risk the roads in this monochrome world. We got sent home early from school. As we slipped and fell on the icy pavements we laughed at each other, our arses wet from the not so soft landings, our faces burning from being hit by snowballs. Once home, the windows were like big screens showing a faded grey and white movie. It was a cold world out there but I wanted to be out in it. As soon as the buses were running again I was.
1981 National Theatre
I’d bought tickets for Joanna and I to go to a play in London that our English Literature teacher had arranged for our class to go to. But Joanna called me a few days beforehand to say she couldn’t come. Had I not just met Jules, I’d probably have been a bit pissed off but, being rather fickle, the thought of inviting Jules seemed a far better option. So, I called her and she said yes.
Going to the theatre, even if it was technically a school trip, seemed a very grown up thing to do. The venue was The National Theatre which was a modern building, but it had a dark feeling about it, it was almost as if we’d entered a slightly dreamy world.
I was the only one of our group to bring an outsider along. Even so, my class mates didn’t show off particularly or move in on her. Instead, they may have wanted to help me get a girlfriend. Either way, they were definitely a little curious to see what the nature of our relationship was.
When I look back on this time I see how unaware I was of what Jules might have been thinking or feeling. I don’t want to be too hard on my 16 year old self because I think most 16 year olds are pretty stupid, and at any age it’s hard to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. It’s easy to think that someone else may react similarly to how we might. That’s known as projective identification, but the more aware I’ve become of how others think the more I realise I probably don’t have a clue. Still, being concerned about how those around us feel is a worthy pursuit even if it has its limitations.
I liked Jules a lot, and although we got on very well I didn’t push for a relationship. When I missed her calls, I didn’t feel bad. I think I saw her as a new friend at that point. And anyway, it was a busy time with the lead up to Christmas, with the extra parties and socialising. All the same, there was a lighter feeling running through my veins. Maybe it was because I could sense Jules was interested in me, even if it was just as a friend, and that was a new feeling. She would call me, when normally it was me doing all the calling. She invited me over to her place, sent me a Christmas card and gave me a peg that had “Hello” written on it. Meanwhile, Joanna asked if we could still be friends even if she didn’t want it to go any further. I was more than happy with that. Getting over rejection is so much easier when someone else of interest is interested too. This became more apparent when Jules came to visit and she told me her parents asked her not to get involved with me. But the way she said it sounded like ‘getting involved’ was on the cards and their concerns were even more reason to do so.
I didn’t realise this at the time but I’d come to recognise a pattern in many of my relationships. This pattern involved me genuinely feeling aloof during the initial period, so whoever I was involved with would be very proactive in terms of wanting to develop a relationship with me. Then there’d be a time when I’d become equally interested in them too. Just like a ball thrown in the air, there’s a moment when it seems to hover, that was about the length of time that there was equality between us in terms of the lover and beloved. Then the balance shifted. It’s hard to tell why it happens when it does, what causes the shift, but once it happens it’s a downwards trajectory from then on.
By the time Christmas came I started thinking about Jules all the time. So much so that I couldn’t enjoy Christmas, so when I now read the lines in my diary:
“I didn’t really enjoy today. There was a lot of tension in the air. Mum was in a hectic go happy mood”
It is Mum and John I now feel for. She wanted things to be joyous but we weren’t going to let that happen. John couldn’t forgive her for not being the good wife he’d dreamt of and I would not forgive her for not being the mother I’d wanted. We didn’t know that consciously at the time, but now it’s clear to see. We hadn’t learned to love her for who she was.
On boxing day, the day after Christmas day, Jules asked me to come over. It was snowing still and only a few buses were running, I must have been desperate to see her as I even paid a taxi to take me on the last leg of the journey. Black taxis were extortionate back then just as they are now.
Her parents said I could only stay for a short while so we sat on the floor in the front room and listened to Bruce singing about Mary. I had written Jules a letter in which I told her I had strong feelings for her. I lay next to her while she read it. I should have stuck my paws in the air like a submissive dog, but instead I lay on my side waiting for her reaction. Maybe I should have whimpered a bit, but fortunately such displays weren’t necessary after all, as after reading it she leant down and kissed me. Unfortunately, I’d got myself in to such a strange position that I was very uncomfortable but not wanting to spoil the moment I put up with it. She most likely thought I was shaking because of nerves, but it was mainly muscle strain. Her parents became aware of the 15 minutes of silence, so they got her brother to knock on the door, and offer me a lift home. I probably could have floated home anyway, but after paying £4 for a taxi I thought it prudent to take him up on his offer anyway.
The next day Jules came around to my place. We lay in the front room kissing, at one point the cat climbed the Christmas tree so that it fell on us. I was intoxicated by the whole situation, and even though her parents reiterated to her not to get involved she told me she loved me.
We met up nearly every day for the next week. We’d kiss and she would hold my arm wherever we went. When we were together I felt happy, when we were apart I’d feel a little low. I told myself off for feeling so infatuated, but in the next breath I’d be convincing myself that I would love her more than myself.
* * *
The Looming Break
Just like in the scenario with Monica there was a time looming when she’d be going away for a week, and just as in that situation I dreaded it because I knew it would bring out a darker part of me.
* * *
How Many Psychoanalysts Does It Take
During my psychoanalytic journey, I didn’t have just one therapist. As things turned out I had to end the first therapy a prematurely because there was a time limit imposed on both the patients and the therapists as it was funded by the National Health Service.
A few years after I finished the first therapy I went through a year of tears. If I ever write the next tome, you’ll get to hear more about that. Anyway, I called my original therapist to ask if I could see her. We did have a session but she said she couldn’t offer me anything at that time, however, she could refer me to another therapist who I’ll call Diana. Soon after, I went to meet Diana and even though she was quite old we clicked. For the next 11 years, I would visit her three times a week, so it was somewhat intense at times.
If you know anything about psychoanalytic psychotherapy, you’ll probably have heard of a process called transference. Principally, what happens is the presumptions and baggage you bring to many of your relationships can be observed by what you think and feel about the therapist. This tends to rely on the therapist being an empty canvas upon which you can project these thoughts and feelings on to. So, with that in mind the less you know about the therapist the better. Of course, though, there’s a lot you can pick up about someone, even if you can’t see them because you’re laying down and they’re sitting out of sight.
* * *
The Beginning of The End
When I hit 50 years old I was certain that this was the beginning of the end. 50 is very likely to be way past the midway point of most people’s lives, so the real moment of passing the halfway marker is likely to be somewhere between 35 and 42. But, there’s something about 50 that makes it a significant milestone. If 16 was the end of being a child, then 50 is the beginning of being an old man.
There is something very compelling about endings. Many of us will spend a lot of our life considering and preparing for our finale. Likewise, when it comes to relationships, the very thought of their endings may dominate one or both partners during and paradoxically bring about or at least hasten its end.
When it comes to storytelling I’ve often felt very disappointed by bad endings, even ones that were otherwise very well told. Just as a title can be a key to the meaning of a book or a film, a story’s ending is the fulcrum upon which its meaning is balanced. It’s the same with most jokes too, the punch line must always be remembered before embarking on its recounting, no matter how well it’s told. So too, when it comes to telling a tale, the story teller will most likely fare far better if they start with their ending clearly envisioned before the first word is ever enunciated.
* * *
The Future (Part 4)
For millions of years the explorer crafts moved out in to the universe at great speed. No humans existed on board, everything was controlled by artificial intelligence, but to those who were resurrected it was as if they had closed their eyes for a second.
As each planet was arrived at, the AI would work out if it was feasible for humans to live on it, and if not the mission would move on to the next way station. Even when planets were seen to be viable, the main craft would eventually move on to the next “venue” where it would repeat the same process.
One of the things the AI would occasionally report to the resurrected humans was that far faster craft had passed them millions of years beforehand, leaving messages that they would be venturing far deeper in to the universe than these craft could ever go. The immediate query that most of the humans asked was why hadn’t the more developed humans passed on their technology to them?
* * *
2020 The COVID-19 Virus
There’d been news items from before Christmas that mentioned a virus in China. We’d had MERS, SARS and Bird Flu during the past decades, all of which came and went without affecting our lives, but by February the virus was rapidly spreading around the world. People, including me, were playing down it’s death rate, or at least comparing it to a bad flu epidemic. In the UK, some health experts were warning it might kill up to 500 thousand people in the Britain alone, whilst others said if we started to practice social distancing procedures it might be as low as 20 thousand. By the time we got to March the death rate was escalating in other countries and with that a sense of panic started to move through the population. I’d often hear people say they felt they were in some disaster movie and a surreal quiet before the storm settled all around us. As the days passed the government spoke of new restrictions, people started panic buying, and society started to brace itself for what looked like a possible Armageddon.
* * *
I began to recognise that friendships often helped alleviate my feelings of being disconnected with myself. But I also found that if I saw people just for the sake of it, especially when there wasn’t a good connection, then that would make me feel even more lonely. It’s hard to put one’s finger on what it is that makes us feel more connected to some people and not others. When people say they only have a handful of true friends in life that doesn’t mean that all their other friendships are meaningless and mere distractions to help them pass the time with. There are many levels of friendship and it’s quite possible to feel a wavelength connection with people we deal with on just a superficial level. We may never become any more than acquainted with them, but all the same, there is something of great value in these contacts. With some of the people I spoke to on the bus there was something significant, an understanding, or recognition of a similar light that shone in them too. And at school as well, certain other students, teachers or other members of staff, made the world a far less lonely place to be in. All around us are people who want to connect with us just as we wish to connect with them too. The problem is, how do you know who is who?
* * *
During the first week of lockdown a call to applaud the health staff and key workers was made on social media, so that at 8pm every Thursday people would come to their front doors, balconies, gardens and windows to clap, bang pots and pans or just cheer. For many people this was the only contact they’d have with others during this time so there was a strong feeling of camaraderie for those two minutes. But after a few weeks of this there were also murmurings about those who didn’t appear to join in, and after a few more weeks it had lost its sense of meaning, it became part of a routine ritual. There was something of the coercive spirit of the Soviet era that started to accompany it. After all, to not clap was tantamount to not appreciating the great sacrifice of the workers, and that, as we all know, is a no-no.
* * *
2020 COVID19 March to May
For a lot of people it was literally the end of the world. Up till now, July 1st there’d been possibly around 60,000 people who may have died as a result of catching COVID19 in the UK. For many of those who died and their loved ones it was also made worse because they were not allowed to be together in the last moments. The possibility of infection was so great that it was deemed too dangerous.
By March 23rd most of the economy was closed and people were ordered to stay indoors except for an hour’s exercise and essential journeys, such as shopping for food. Meanwhile the government made provisions for some sections of society to help them ride the economic downturn. Each day there’d be a governmental briefing on TV. At first that was the highlight of the day, but in time it became so repetitive and uninformative that I, and I think many other people stopped watching it. Meanwhile the media came over as so partisan that it was barely worth watching the news. In time the daily routine of getting up late, being creative, watching streaming services, eating, going for a cycle ride and sleeping became quite pleasurable. Outside of meeting friends I didn’t seem to miss much of the life I’d known before lockdown. By the time the government started to lift the restrictions my immediate response was to continue isolating, firstly because there was still a risk of catching the virus and secondly I was quite happy living like this.
* * *
2020 May 28 Nobody on The Road, Nobody on The Beach
I look out from my balcony to the sea. It’s a very hot sunny day. There are lots of people walking around, sitting on the beach, meeting up with friends, buying ice cream from the ice cream van. It’s like a typical summer’s day but it doesn’t feel right. Nothing has felt right for a while.
The government has relaxed the restrictions here slightly, but many people have seen this as a green light to go back to normal. Meanwhile, the virus is still out there, so, many people are predicting a second wave. Of course, if the elderly and vulnerable continue to isolate then it might not be so bad, after all most young people will only get mild symptoms and very, very few have died from it so far. Maybe this is the way we should have approached it in the first place. But when it first started spreading so little was known about it that the authorities were rightly fearful of it. It’s easy to look back now and say, “what was all the fuss about” But whilst hindsight is a wonderful thing it’s also useless too.
* * *
Had Yakov taken the other route to the station, he would have heard the newspaper seller heralding the arrival of a new deadly pandemic. Whilst that would have only given him several days’ extra time, that might have made the world of difference. But even when news of it did travel ahead, a million people would still die of it.
I could focus on the passing of Ruth and Chaya, as many story tellers would do. Even though we know it’s a bit of a cheap trick, we still find something touches us deeply when we witness the passing of the innocent. But there’s something disrespectful to me about using their deaths to entertain people. Ruth and Chaya (Although their names were slightly different) were two of the thirteen children in my family to die from Russian Flu. You may remember me mentioning this incident in the first chapter.
Chaya was the first to show symptoms, she felt like cold water was running down her back and legs, then she would flit between feeling very hot, and a bit later cold again. Her sense of taste and smell diminished and soon after that lost all her energy. When Chaya stopped breathing all her siblings had entered the final stages too. Yudith, Yakov and the doctors who visited could do nothing to help. Over the next few days each one took their last gasp of breath, except one of the older boys, Ruben, another young sister (whose fate and name I do not know) and Esther. Ruben would live long enough to witness the Nazis and local collaborators systematically kill most of the Rezekne Jews in the same woods that Kristian was murdered. Even though he survived till just after WW2 he was glad he’d chosen not to have any children himself, witnessing his parents’ loss had marked him.
It’s always possible to see some silver linings, even in the worst of tragedies, not that negates the loss though. But for Chaya, news of Kristian’s murder (he’d been killed in the woods) was something she wouldn’t have to contend with. Had she lived, his death would have driven a fault line through her entire being, so, she’d never truly love another man properly. And had this virus not appeared then Ruth would have been Kristian’s killer’s next target. Together though, the virus and Ruth brought the psychopath’s reign of destruction to an end. When he picked her up she passed the virus on to him. As he became ill he found a hollowed tree, climbed in and died there.
It’s no consolation to Esther’s 13 siblings that they avoided whatever other tragedies they would have had to face. For them, just like us, they would rather have lived and suffered. We cannot expect not to suffer if we choose to live. This is the unsaid deal all of us have to accept if we wish to live. We can, however, try to do what we believe is the right thing when those dark times come to us.
Yudith and Yakov had prayed to be taken instead of any of their children, but neither of them showed any symptoms, they could only ask the same questions any parent would, why would God do this to their sweet innocent children? What had they or their children done to deserve this? If there was a silver lining for them, they couldn’t see it. For Esther, though, there was one. When the Spanish Flu appeared in 1918 most older people were immune, possibly because many had acquired some immunity after surviving Russian Flu. While she would never remember having the virus, she carried the weight of being one of the survivors. She was painfully aware from an early age that she was extra precious to her parents, and while at the same time she felt some guilt for surviving she also felt a pressure to be worthy of that survival.
The ghosts of her siblings, these people she’d never got to know, accompanied her through her whole life. In her last days, she pictured Ruth and Chaya and the others standing by her bed, and took comfort from their love and presence.
When I look at the photographs of Esther, there is a heaviness weighing down upon her, so it was no surprise that when Boris came along exhibiting the lightness of his being, she could only try to beat it out of him. But in those last days, as her inner and outer cores became more differentiated, as they often do for many when we must endure extreme pain. She felt the weight alleviate a little as she came to recognise the importance of both the weight and lightness within us. Just as my grandmother reached out to me to ask for forgiveness, Esther reached out to Boris. It wasn’t the forgiveness borne of duty, but that which comes from the truest love and understanding.
* * *
The Future (Part 5)
Initial opinions had given the universe another 6 billion years to go, and this may have sounded like a fair amount of time, but 6 billion years can go by in a flash when you can be kept on file for hundreds of millions of years. Even though some humans had lived thousands of lifetimes, many of which they’d enjoyed living on one planet and then another until the local star or stars became unstable, they knew that eventually there wouldn’t be anywhere to run to.
This was why the newer humans had not tried to help them, they realised that even though, to a point, they were immortal, it was what they were, that would not allow them to go to the “next stage” and that was because the next stage could only be accessed by a completely different being. How can a human that has evolved within a universe of certain laws of physics enter another universe where those laws do not apply?
Those streaks of light that had passed the original explorers millions of years ago had not found the meaning of life but instead had eventually developed themselves to search for it in another universe. Did they find God, did they become God? They still didn’t know, but their journey moved on to a universe that did not have horizons, or dreams.
As they entered this other universe, there was a moment, almost like waking from a dream, where they felt all their memories of the old universe slip away. The experience of existing or being conscious in this sphere was not comparable to our universe, in fact because it was so different it is pointless trying to describe it. How could we understand a thought that does not exist in time?
If there is a God then maybe God would be laughing because in the universe they entered everything that had lived in our universe existed there and connected with them. Humans had pretty much defeated death to get there, but it turned out that dying was the quickest way to enter it anyway.
* * *
Ann’s funeral was held in a large glass room in the middle of a field. Her son spoke eloquently about her and reminded us of her many qualities. She had started her own life surrounded by fields in a valley near the Welsh border. Her own parents were dysfunctional so she was brought up by her grandparents who would let her roam the countryside. As an adult, she was very independent, practical, ferocious when it came to dealing with injustice, extremely creative, and did everything possible to nurture others. Especially via food. There were not many high-end chefs who could have out done her when it came to style and taste. One day I said to her that I thought she’d become what she’d always needed. She looked at me and said in a slightly sad tone “You’re probably right darling”. Then she jumped up and said with a giggle, “Right there’s some cake that needs eating, do you want some?”
* * *
2010 Rēzekne – Stories
After Boris died in 2010 I went to Latvia for a short holiday. One day I decided to visit Rēzekne which involved a long train journey so I could only stay there for a few hours as I had to get back to Riga that day. I had the name of the road where my father had lived as a child and sure enough when I got a local mini cab driver to take me there, there were a few of those traditional houses still standing. The story I’ve told about my ancestors in Rēzekne is partly true, 13 of the 16 children did die of Russian Flu, but the rest of it was mostly something pieced together, just as history predominantly is too. That’s why the word “his-story” is so appropriate. If my own memory is so full of gaps, as is probably true for most people, how can we hope to recall things that are not affected by our own internal narratives and desires. In that way, we become a story, created in part by the influence of so many other stories, including less obvious ones such as our genetic/evolutionary, family and dream ones.
As I stood on that dusty dried out mud track I thought about those children and Boris’ grandparents. I wondered if they could see me come to say hello, and goodbye. Since then I have often wondered that if there is an afterlife, would my ancestors come to greet me upon my arrival, maybe even my descendants would come too if it’s a timeless place?
As I research these chapters I often read through my diary, and even though I know what happened I’m still interested to read the next page. Stories under pin our culture, our history, our ethical and moral principles, and help pass away the hours, especially nowadays with multiple streaming services and TV stations.
In the Twentieth Century, many artists tried to veer away from creating narrative art, instead they wanted to focus on the medium itself. So, for instance, abstract art became about the paint, poetry became about language, filmmaking about the image. But for all that, every one of those artists loved a good story.
* * *
Rezekne 1889 before the Russian Flu
When a reading from the Torah was to be highlight of a service at synagogue, only the elders and a few dedicated worshippers would turn up. But when parables were to be conveyed the attendance would be very high and at the end of each tale people would nod their heads, whilst murmuring in appreciation of being entertained whilst being shown a glimpse of truth.
I tend to watch a movie on my iPad most evenings, and what’s funny is how unmemorable most of them are. Sometimes I’m halfway through a film before I realise I’ve seen it before, but a good story gets lodged in your memory for a lifetime.
I remember hearing this next story when I was young and it’s stuck with me ever since. I’ll warn you now it’s disturbing so if you’re feeling delicate maybe jump to the next page. As with so many dark folk tales, they are echoes from our ancestors and often reach back thousands of years. This one is known as The Faithful Hound. Versions of it range from Lady and The Tramp, to Old Shep, and The Tale of Gelert.
There once was a king who had a dog he truly loved, they had grown up together and were inseparable, but as the dog reached its final days the king would leave it behind to help guard the queen and his firstborn child. But this day he came home to find his wife was nowhere to be found and when he went to check his baby’s cot he found a pool of blood around it. In his panic, he called his dog’s name. The dog came to him but to his dismay the dog’s mouth and teeth were covered in blood. In that moment, he could see what had happened so he pulled out his sword, and raised it above his head. The dog, realising what was about to happen whimpered but it was no good, the king brought down the sword, the dog yelped and was killed. There was a cold silence but then from behind the bed the king heard his child cry out. He ran to where the noise was coming from and there was his child, completely safe, while next to the child lay a dead wolf. When the king realised what he’d just done he became full of remorse. Even though the ceremony he put on for the dog was a lavish one, he could not stop thinking of his betrayal.
By the way, as we are now living in a very caring world, allegedly, I would just like to point out that no animals were hurt in the telling of that tale, and even though a wolf was used to illustrate a point, most wolves are actually very nice and fluffy, in fact, they are very scared of humans, so are not as much of a threat as people think. However, if you’re a sheep please do take care. If you’re not a sheep though, you should be ok.
* * *
You’re at a theatre.
The curtains open, the lights fade down.
[In the centre of the stage is a young good looking man posed and barely decorated to resemble a tree. There’s a rope tied around his waist that goes off in two directions and disappears on either side of the stage.]
A king and his dog walk on stage. The king raises his sword. The dog seems to wince and cower.]
King: Stop milking it, I’ve already said sorry a million times
[The King throws him a treat. The dog catches it and looks happy with himself. He then trots merrily towards the tree.]
King: Let the competition commence!
[The dog pees on the tree.]
King to the tree: I‘m terribly sorry about that. He’s in therapy.
The Tree: Don’t worry, I’m used to it.
[The king throws a treat at the tree man who catches it in his mouth and mouths “Thank you” at him.]
[There is the sound of men groaning and heaving. A few druids appear on the left side of the stage holding the rope whilst some bishops emerge on the right side also pulling their end of it. The tree slowly starts to move towards the bishops.]
[The lights gently fade down whilst another spotlight shines on Ruth in the sky. She is holding a vegetable flute. She nods her head as she counts herself in.]
[There is the sound of a beautiful whistle which plays the music for “To be a Pilgrim”]
[Another spotlight shines on the bishops who start to sing the words of the hymn. As they sing, Chaia and Kristian appear next to Ruth and join in playing the music.]
[The sound of a church organ plays, as it does another spotlight illuminates Ann sitting at an organ in the sky.]
[A few seconds later the black background disappears and is replaced by a multiple mirror system which makes all those in the sky have infinite reflections behind them.]
[4 astronauts slowly float down towards Chaia, Ruth, Kristian and Ann and proceed to move them upwards above the stage and out of view.]
[The music fades, the lights dim]
[A spotlight shines on the centre of the stage. The man from the lake, stands motionless for a second.]
[The man from the lake: No one is completely good or evil]
[The man from the lake throws off his coat. His torso is bare. He has a beautiful athletic body]
[As Bruce Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise plays he dances gracefully in a Ballet/Flamenco style to it. As he does so, the audience are illuminated and can see their own disjointed reflections in the mirrored background too.]
[The words of significance from the song are:
“Now look at me baby
Struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart
When out go the lights
I’m just a lonely pilgrim
I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust
‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself
So, when you look at me
You better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby
Or just a brilliant disguise”]
[At the end of the song there is silence]
[The man from the lake takes a bow, looks at the audience and applauds them, some of the audience join in. He bows once more, then walks off stage.]
[The lights remain on so the audience can continue to see themselves in the infinite and disjointed reflections.]
[Slowly the curtains close.]
* * *
You hear the teenage couple in the seats next to you talking. You look to your right and see Teenage Simon sitting next to you, and beside him is Jules.
Jules asks Simon “So, what did you think of it then?”,
Simon lets out a slightly exasperated sound, then adds “Well, I liked the Springsteen song.”
As they prepare to leave Teenage Simon looks at you and smiles a hello smile.
* * *