Charles Manson, David Cassidy, the Dying Mouse and Me.

As part of a generation that grew up within twenty-years of the end of the Second World War, I was always keen on weapons. Any decent human being would assume that the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan ought to have persuaded me of the error of our human ways, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.

A fascination for Spitfires consumed me and drove me into playing parachute games (obviously I did not have enough true belief in my aeronautical abilities). From there, my friends and I moved into the realms of Japs and Commandos. The Japs had been depicted as a race of people totally devoid of human empathy. They captured our brave soldiers and made them into slaves on the railway of death. The problem with our game was that all of us wanted to be commandos. Subtle picking strategies were required in order to have an even contest; in which the commandos always won.

The game involved an awful lot of running and hiding, finding and shooting, being found and escaping. It was just like the real thing that we had seen on countless films. We used sticks for guns and sticks for long Samurai swords.

Quite often, the battle would devolve into a medieval melee of hitting each other as hard as we could with said sticks. There was the Chinese Strangulation which was a way of subduing captives. This was an extremely effective method of inflicting the best type of pain; the slow-burn oxygen deficiency method. That way, you knew who had won. The second form of torture was the Indian Wrist-Burn. This involved placing your hands on your enemy’s wrist and then quickly rotating them in opposite directions. It had the exquisite inbuilt reminder of its execution with the angry red mark that refused to shift for days.

Those were the days of innocence, before we moved onto imitation plastic rifles, botched affairs that only vaguely looked like the real thing, but with our ‘dak, a dak, dak!’ it was enough to convince us of their potency.  Hand-grenades were invisible and exploded exactly where you wanted them to. All you had to do was to make a big boom sound, cover your ears and then throw yourself to the ground. If only all wars were so simple.

 

Things started to get more complicated from the moment that we started to grow up. One of our mates had an air-rifle bought as a Christmas present. He spent all that holiday practising on sparrows and robins. He even shot the cat. Our friend always seemed to be the one who got things first. He had one of the best bikes, he had golf clubs, he had a number of cricket bats, he had ridiculously bright blue eyes, he had a level of freedom that we longed for, he was a talented sportsman, and he shot Robins. He had everything that made him a top friend.

 

On some of our summer holiday excursions, he would take his air-rifle, slung in a purpose-made rifle bag, casually over his shoulder. At any point in our journey, he would swing it off his shoulder, unzip it and take aim at anything that dared to move. We were once walking along a path that ran beside a golf-course. We had been on this route many times before on ventures of golf ball discoveries. The golf balls often got lost in the rough and they were of sufficient value that we heard some other kids had set up a rather profitable little business finding them and then selling them back to the golfers. Sometimes the treasures would disappear mid-play only for them to be strangely reunited sometime later with their true owners, for a small fee. We also prized tees, but nobody thought that they would provide a realistic sell-back option.

 

It was a lazy afternoon and we were mooching along, dragging through the dog-end hours, kicking pine cones and providing accompanying commentary for the excellence of each strike. I measured a masterful strike and my pine-cone flew straight and long down the path. When it finally rolled to a halt, I provided the commentator’s awe-struck admiration.

“It’s Best! What a goal! What a strike! What a player!”

My arms shot into the air in a triumphant reaching for the skies and I raced off down the shaded path to acclaim my glorious feat. I almost slipped on the badly wounded body of a mouse.

 

The mouse wasn’t dead, but it was dying. In such an event, we should have done the merciful thing and caved its head in with a brick. There were no bricks to hand. We could have stamped on it head with the heels of our shoes, but none of us wanted to be seen as the heartless perpetrator of such a heinous act. Instead, we turned to our rifle toting friend to provide the humane solution. He, however, never saw himself as one who would administer the coup de grace nor was he one to pass up the opportunity of a real-life kill. He was a sportsman and would execute his task in a manner befitting such a regal profession. He walked up to the soon to be corpse, turned and took thirty strides, checked the direction of the wind, took his rifle out, loaded it, knelt and took aim. We were in awe.

After he missed for the third time, he changed his tactics. He strode forward another five paces, loaded, knelt and was about to take aim when he realised that he had forgotten to double-check the strength and direction of the prevailing wind on that most breathless of afternoons. Satisfied, he took aim and fired.

After another five pellets had missed their target, the rest of us thought to check upon the unfortunate creature. It still lived. Its tiny breaths evident in furry inhales and exhales. I was thinking about the heel of my shoe when my friend angrily strode past me and aimed a final pellet, at point-blank distance, into the belly of the beast. It lived no more.

 

As kills went, I suppose this counted for something, but there was no commentary this time and now overt display of triumph. We had killed a dying mouse. It had died. It would have died if my perfect kick of the pine-cone had not found it. We had had sport and now we were somewhat ashamed.

Our friend went on to kill many other tiny creatures, specialising in birds that frequented his garden. This went on until he discovered girls. After that, he hung up his trusty weapon for ever.

 

Sometimes it is good to hang up your guns. For one thing, you look silly when you’re older, toting an air-powered, pellet firing rifle. There is also the problem with killing defenceless little birds, tiny ones with redbreasts. Nobody wants to be seen in any social situation with a bird slaughtering psychopath. At some point, many boys give up their pursuit of prey and bloodlust for everyday distractions like life. But it all came back to me this week when the deaths of Charles Manson and David Cassidy were announced. I am too long in the tooth to cheer about the eventual demise of a cult-leading murderer whilst I am not too old to feel a spot of sadness for David Cassidy, my elder sister’s dream boat and reason for having a bedroom wall. I asked a woman who I work with if she was saddened by the death of David and she told me that she was a Donny Osmond fanatic. I accepted that and was instantly taken back to my last adventure with an airgun.

 

Some years ago, in a land far away, in a kingdom of grey cold, lived me. Another friend of mine lived around the corner. We were both at Sixth Form and the Punk era was well and truly upon us. So, in a situation like that, what would any decent human being do if they discovered a Jimmy Osmond single in their collection? It was obvious. We decided to put it on trial for crimes against humanity.

“Jimmy Osmond, you have been tried and found guilty of unleashing your ‘Long-haired Lover From Liverpool’ without care or regret as to the damage that you have wreaked. And, as you have since shown no remorse, this court finds you guilty. You are to be taken from here immediately and be shot until you are dead.”

And so it came to pass that the said 45 was taken from the kitchen of a council house overlooking the industrial greyness of West Yorkshire and shot to pieces by two rather judgemental youths with an air rifle.

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Since that day, I have vowed never to touch one of those instruments of death ever again.

I want your car stories. Please.

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Between us, we have owned many, many cars. Some of these we have loved, some we have loathed. But the vehicles that have travelled with us, along the years, have been a part of the great Wankel in the sky. They have spluttered and coughed, missed and fired, pulled and been pushed, in accompaniment with out own tribulations. Cars have a life and we have had a life in cars.

If you are reading this, send me your story.

 

Mike

A Masterpiece

IMG_6022A Kumquat for John Keats by Tony Harrison

Today I found the right fruit for my prime,
not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,
nor moon-like globes of grapefruit that now hang
outside our bedroom, nor tart lemon’s tang
(though last year full of bile and self-defeat
I wanted to believe no life was sweet)
nor the tangible sunshine of the tangerine,
and no incongruous citrus ever seen
at greengrocers’ in Newcastle or Leeds
mis-spelt by the spuds and mud-caked swedes,
a fruit an older poet might substitute
for the grape John Keats thought fit to be Joy’s fruit,
when, two years before he died, he tried to write
how Melancholy dwelled inside Delight,
and if he’d known the citrus that I mean
that’s not orange, lemon, lime, or tangerine,
I’m pretty sure that Keats, though he had heard
‘of candied apple, quince and plum and gourd’
instead of ‘grape against the palate fine’
would have, if he’d known it, plumped for mine,
this Eastern citrus scarcely cherry size
he’d bite just once and then apostrophize
and pen one stanza how the fruit had all
the qualities of fruit before the Fall,
but in the next few lines be forced to write
how Eve’s apple tasted at the second bite,
and if John Keats had only lived to be,
because of extra years, in need like me,
at 42 he’d help me celebrate
that Micanopy kumquat that I ate
whole, straight off the tree, sweet pulp and sour skin-
or was it sweet outside, and sour within?
For however many kumquats that I eat
I’m not sure if it’s flesh or rind that’s sweet,
and being a man of doubt at life’s mid-way
I’d offer Keats some kumquats and I’d say:

You’ll find that one part’s sweet and one part’s tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.

I find I can’t, as if one couldn’t say
exactly where the night became the day,
which makes for me the kumquat taken whole
best fruit, and metaphor, to fit the soul
of one in Florida at 42 with Keats
crunching kumquats, thinking, as he eats
the flesh, the juice, the pith, the pips, the peel,
that this is how a full life ought to feel,
its perishable relish prick the tongue,
when the man who savours life ‘s no longer young,
the fruits that were his futures far behind.
Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness round them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

History, a life, the heart, the brain
flow to the taste buds and flow back again.
That decade or more past Keats’s span
makes me an older not a wiser man,
who knows that it’s too late for dying young,
but since youth leaves some sweetnesses unsung,
he’s granted days and kumquats to express
Man’s Being ripened by his Nothingness.
And it isn’t just the gap of sixteen years,
a bigger crop of terrors, hopes and fears,
but a century of history on this earth
between John Keats’s death and my own birth-
years like an open crater, gory, grim,
with bloody bubbles leering at the rim;
a thing no bigger than an urn explodes
and ravishes all silence, and all odes,
Flora asphyxiated by foul air
unknown to either Keats or Lemprière,
dehydrated Naiads, Dryad amputees
dragging themselves through slagscapes with no trees,
a shirt of Nessus fire that gnaws and eats
children half the age of dying Keats . . .

Now were you twenty five or six years old
when that fevered brow at last grew cold?
I’ve got no books to hand to check the dates.
My grudging but glad spirit celebrates
that all I’ve got to hand ‘s the kumquats, John,
the fruit I’d love to have your verdict on,
but dead men don’t eat kumquats, or drink wine,
they shiver in the arms of Prosperine,
not warm in bed beside their Fanny Brawne,
nor watch her pick ripe grapefruit in the dawn
as I did, waking, when I saw her twist,
with one deft movement of a sunburnt wrist,
the moon, that feebly lit our last night’s walk
past alligator swampland, off its stalk.
I thought of moon-juice juleps when I saw,
as if I’d never seen the moon before,
the planet glow among the fruit, and its pale light
make each citrus on the tree its satellite.

Each evening when I reach to draw the blind
stars seem the light zest squeezed through night’s black rind;
the night’s peeled fruit the sun, juiced of its rays,
first stains, then streaks, then floods the world with days,
days, when the very sunlight made me weep,
days, spent like the nights in deep, drugged sleep,
days in Newcastle by my daughter’s bed,
wondering if she, or I, weren’t better dead,
days in Leeds, grey days, my first dark suit,
my mother’s wreaths stacked next to Christmas fruit,
and days, like this in Micanopy. Days!

As strong sun burns away the dawn’s grey haze
I pick a kumquat and the branches spray
cold dew in my face to start the day.
The dawn’s molasses make the citrus gleam
still in the orchards of the groves of dream.

The limes, like Galway after weeks of rain,
glow with a greenness that is close to pain,
the dew-cooled surfaces of fruit that spent
all last night flaming in the firmament.
The new day dawns. O days! My spirit greets
the kumquat with the spirit of John Keats.
O kumquat, comfort for not dying young,
both sweet and bitter, bless the poet’s tongue!
I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew
against my palate. Fine, for 42!

I search for buzzards as the air grows clear
and see them ride fresh thermals overhead.
Their bleak cries were the first sound I could hear
when I stepped at the start of sunrise out of doors,
and a noise like last night’s bedsprings on our bed
from Mr Fowler sharpening farmers’ saws.