Wise Men Say…

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My childhood was dominated by memories of The King. Elvis Presley, Aaron to be more precise. My mother was in love. She was smitten with this hip-shaking, breath-taking, king of Rock and Roll. We were the family from The Commitments who could not conceive that there was anything better than the lip-curling kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, the voice of a generation before us and one that could not be beaten. Our commitment to The King was complete and it was cemented with our mother’s undying love.

At that point, we never realised that she had another love, one that could never be requited; Rock Hudson. 

I had a particularly bad singing voice. People would stop me in the street just to complain to me about it. You see I loved singing, but singing didn’t love me. Unless I did Elvis Presley songs. Elvis and I, I like to think, were joined at the spiritual hip. We were both working class lads whose middle name began with A (mine was for Andrew not Aaron). For some reason, and this may have been only me who heard this, we both sounded like each other. I would practice at night upon going to bed. It would start with something rocky like King Creole and then move into a couple of love songs, Love me Tender and Only Fools Rush In. that helped to set the scene. With each hip-rolling lyric I was being transformed into The King. I even learned to roll my lip the way he did.

In the sixties, Elvis started to become a little uncool. He started making excrutiatinlgy unbearable films (movies to my American cousins) such as Kissin’ Cousins and Clambake. Regardless of being an Elvis Presley devotee, I kept it quiet if I ever watched these on Saturday afternoons. I did like Flaming Star, a decent western in which he showed a little acting ability and obviously Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and…the list is not endless. Still, I believed that I was becoming Elvis.

My mother loved Elvis whilst my father mocked him a little. Dad was a Frank Sinatra fan and, possibly like me, saw much of himself in his idol. He would never admit that he followed Frank, it was not manly and was certainly not the done thing in working-class West Yorkshire. I tried to keep my Elvis to myself. My mother swooned when one of his songs would be aired on the radio. She positively melted when he was on TV.

“He can only sing certain songs,” my dad would goad.

“Shut up, you. you’re only jealous!” She would snap back.

On those bitterly cold winters nights, I would retreat to the relative comfort of my bedroom, pull an extra coat on the bed, leave my socks on, roll my head to accompany the rock that was to come, and then sing my heart out.

“Shut up!” The chorus would come, “Shut up and go to sleep before your father gets back from the club.”

My singing would then take a downturn into the hardly-audible. I was praying the words, offering up myself to a greater power, the living god of Rock n Roll.

Getting older meant that certain songs could not be sung. The seventies brought Glam Rock, Prog Rock and then Punk Rock. The King must have seen it coming and decided to make himself less and less visible. Ironically, during this time, he was becoming more and more visible through his love of all food bad. His weight shot up as his fame dropped   down. I still managed a neat impersonation of him singing, In The Ghetto. That was a rather socially aware number that I believed was socially acceptable, As The Snow Flies. I have never seen snow flies, but I think that they must be rather hardy little pests.

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On August 16, 1977, The King died.

I was in bed, drifting off to sleep. Too old to sing his songs without my parents considering the option of sectioning me in our local lunatic asylum. I could hear the TV from downstairs. Mum was watching it whilst my dad shared a few pints with his mates at the club.

I heard a long drawn-out, “Oh, no.” Quickly followed by, “No. Please, no.”

I knew he was dead. I went downstairs and found my mum in tears.

“He’s dead, Mike. Elvis is dead. It’s not fair.”

My sisters were both downstairs at this point and they joined he in the ritual shedding of tears. Even my father was sad when he returned. The King was dead.

That night, I tried to summon up his spirit and channel it within me. I could think of no better use for my defunct voice box than to become the conduit for King Creole’s magnificence. It didn’t happen.

My mum got over her infatuation and moved on. She was never the same with her affections and never openly declared her love for icons until later when her somewhat secret love was no secret any more. Rock Hudson, dashingly handsome and quirkily funny in his outings in Pillow Talk with Doris Day, died on October 2nd 1985. He died of Aids related illnesses after hiding his sexuality for al of his movie-star career. My mother sobbed. My father shrugged his shoulders.

“If only he had met me. I could have cured him,” she declared.

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In those days, they had no cure for homosexuality.

Nor for unrequited love. 

 

 

 

For Dark Winter Nights 3

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It was the freezing air that tried to enter. 

For a moment he stood, transfixed by what had taken place. The world had changed and it was waiting for him.

One small step and he was through the door. He wore only flimsy slippers, worn away to the bone. He wanted to turn back. He didn’t.

Under the slight shelter of his porch, he paused momentarily and surveyed the blank covering. It was simpler with snow. It was also easier to pick out tracks that could have been responsible for all of this nonsense.

In his eventual urgency, he had forgotten to take a torch, but a full moon rode the night sky and leant illumination. Snow covered contours, levelled slopes and shadow-covered hazards. It also betrayed tracks, or footsteps, of those that had been there. Yet, although he tried, he could not discern anything of importance.

He had always prided himself on his ability to track and to hunt. Little escaped him when he set himself to the task of proving his worth. In the old days, he had hunted the upper slopes and even the peaks. Both he and his brother ventured far into the higher reaches in order to win the respect of their father. They were as tight a team as any other on the mountains. No, they were tighter. But this didn’t stop their battle.

A year separated them, making him the second in line. Everything would go to the eldest. He had never considered this when they were younger boys, journeying into the winter lands and calling each other’s dare. Their challenges were frequent and forever evolving in difficulty. They liked to push themselves and each other to see what was possible. They had no mother to worry for them and their father expressed little concern. The boys could be gone for a number of days at a time, but there would be nothing of concern coming from the old man; nothing to suggest that he considered that there was any real danger. After all, hadn’t the last of the wolves been killed in his father’s time?

“Stop thinking about it!”

He had spoken these words out loud. He now spoke much of his words out loud. There was nobody to hear him, nobody to suggest that he was a crank. He could do as he liked.

“Hellooo,” he hollered into the vast emptiness and waited for his words to bounce back.

The exertion of the utterance had an unwanted effect. He was sharply aware that he needed to piss again. The house was behind him, further away than he had imagined. He didn’t realise that he had travelled so far away from it. Half a mile, he surmised.  Half a mile? However did that happen?

He had choices: he could turn back to the farmhouse now or he could just relieve himself out here. He could stain the brilliant white with his yellow issue. The idea appealed to him. He liked the freedom of pissing out of doors. He liked the potential offence that it could cause others. He enjoyed spoiling the perfection of it all. Just as long as it didn’t freeze his cock off.

He laughed to himself and started to extract his tool.

The piss was greater than ever. It flowed in an impressively torrential jet of liquid and steam. When it hit the snow, it cut through it like the proverbial hot knife; or, hot piss through snow. They had had pissing contests.

His brother prided himself on the unusual length of his member. But beyond showing it off at any chosen point in time, there was little else his extra inches were good for.  It was his, the younger brother’s item that could shoot faster and further, much to the annoyance of the eldest sibling. These days, his power was less, much less. The years meant that he needed to visit more, but those visits were very far from torrential; drips were all that occurred, drips and a bad aim.

“Tonight, I piss for the gods!”

And he did. He pissed so long and hard that the covering of already hardening snow completely relented and gave up its sovereignty. He watched it with wonder.

“Praise be,” he announced as his waters continued to part the ground. “God is great!”

He decided to leave his own name for everyone to see. Not until he had finished did he realise that he had spelt out, G O D . He laughed at his mistake. He felt that he could laugh until he died and that felt good, very good indeed.

It was the first howl that stopped him in his tracks.

He hastily replaced himself and searched the scene for the source. Some way off a stealthy shadow watched him, but did not move. It was the man’s turn to move. He was too old to play such stupid games and so, he set himself for the journey back to the house.

He had travelled only a few steps when his feet were lost from under him. He fell helplessly and face-first into the snow. He was dazed. He reached around himself to get support and something touched his outstretched hand. It was there in the snow all along and he had walked past it. But now as he pulled the thing towards him, he recognised a hand, a very old hand.

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This time, the solitary howl was joined by several more.

For Dark Winter Nights

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If anyone had told him about climate change in the past, he would have scoffed. ‘Tree-huggers,’ he would have muttered. These days, that was different.

He was awake again. A full bladder told him that he not only had to visit the lavatory, but that he was getting older. This happened to men past a certain age. Things wore out. Things didn’t work. Others became obsolete. If anybody had dared to suggest that this would be him in decades to come, he would have laughed right into their faces.

The house was still. He had never married, never felt the need to have another share his bed. People who did that were weak. He had never been weak. He could look after himself. He always had. Now, at two o’clock in the middle of an unseasonably warm autumn night, he was taking care of himself.

He pissed long and hard into the toilet. These days, his aim was less sure of itself. No matter how well he targeted the big white mouth, there was always an offshoot. That was another thing that he did not expect in his advancing years. Piss pools on the floor. He would clean it in the morning.

Another year without snow. He remembered when it would start to fall as shaken by the hand of a clock. By November there would already be a thick covering on the peaks and ice would beset the higher roads that wound around them. By December, the higher passes would no longer be safe. By January, nothing moved above the summer’s highest pastures. Tonight was mild. Last night was mild. It seemed that the whole of last year was mild, but tonight he shivered a little on his way back to the warmth beneath his covers.

Something had moved. He was awake again, shot out of the oblivion of sleep.

He never dreamt. Some sound had occurred, something from further up the slopes. If his dog had not died, he would have looked for confirmation from its superior senses. The dog had been with him longer than anyone or anything else. In the days when it was alive, it would sleep at the foot of the bed and wake him with its soft mutterings.

Some people loved their dogs and treated them as if they were children. A dog is a dog, he thought. It is loyal and that is its value. To pretend that a dog is anything more is the type of modern madness that the people of the towns and cities indulge in. When he discovered that the back legs were becoming a problem for the creature, when it could not rise from sleep and showed signs of infirmity, he shot it.

Its body, he left in one of the high pastures for carrion.

He listened to the silence of the night and scoured its nuances to discover what had woken him. The night was blank. The rain had stopped falling. He could hear the stream flowing some way off. The waters would be cold, the offshoot of the glaciers that still managed to survive in the face of a warmer world.

He thought of the mountains and tried not to. He had not been up there since the time…

There it was again. The noise.

He had fallen into the first drifts of sleep when it woke him. His eyes opened and he sprung up. He had heard a noise, he was convinced. He wasn’t taken to imagination, never had been. This time, he would investigate. The bedside clock pointed out that it was three in the morning. It had only been an hour since his trip to the lavatory, but the temperature had fallen; dropped dramatically. His breath formed clouds in the cold air. His feet were bitten by the night’s new turn.

At last, he thought.

His slippers were deep beneath his bed and he had to bend to find them. His knees cracked and his spine rung out in alarm. The winter had finally arrived. Finally his exploring hands found what he wanted and pulled them towards him. He had to sit on the mattress and recover before attempting to slide his strangely blue looking feet into the relative warmth of his footwear. And then the noise came again. This time, he was sure of it.

He made his way to the widow and looked out.

The scene had changed.

 

To be continued…

 

 

Theft and the Tragic Cycle

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The thing about coincidences is that they do tend to happen, if only by coincidence. Take my daughter’s bike for example; as somebody did the other day.

In the great pantheon of stealing, bike theft comes in at a very low ranking.

If Aristotle was to pronounce upon it, he would state that bikes in themselves cannot be seen as tragic. Bikes are not high status and therefore do not deserve to be invested with tragic qualities. The theft of a bike is the taking of a shell from the seashore.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, may have been a secret cyclist, if they had had them in his day. He could have written a play about Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins and his tragic flaw. A working title could have been, Measure for Measure in Plastic Bags. Other great writers may have also wanted to add to the genre with EM Forster and his Froome With A View, Alan Silitoe and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Ride, and Robert Pirsig’s, Men and The Art of Road Bike Maintenance. How the world would have spun on its axle.

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And this is where coincidence rears its expected head. As well as being a coincidence that these great writers of our shared cultural past did not write one word on the travails of  turning the wheels (or having them stolen), it was a coincidence that on the morning of the bike theft that my wife and I deleted photographs of the bike in question from my iPhone. They had been there in order to sell it. It didn’t sell, but we don’t have to worry about that now – do we?

One last addition to the growing list of Tour de Force literature could well have been Lord of the Big Ring by a bloke called Tolkien.

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I do hope that bike burglar meets his Mordor.

Going nowhere on a tragic cycle…

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The problem with tragedy is that it never has a happy ending.

Tragedy ends in death.

It starts with a bad decision, leads on to disgrace and downfall, scrapes you through a period of suffering that appears never likely to end before there is a realisation, ‘Fuck, that’s what I did wrong’ or, ‘Fuck, I still don’t know what I did wrong.’ Regardless of self-awareness or not, the tragic circle wants to play itself out.

You, if you be the tragic hero, have been brought low for a reason: hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia, or just the fact that the unknown gods are wanting to have a bit of fun with your oh-so-mortal concerns, once it happens, you are doomed.

And then you die.

Not fair, but then apart from democracy what did the Greeks ever do for fairness? As far as I can see, they spent their time in white sheets, bestriding the known world, creating stories that spoke of our eventual doom, admiring each others’ butts and keeping their wives in a state of servitude that made slavery look humanitarian. Deeply flawed themselves, the enlisted a guy called Aristotle to run out a series of rules that would govern the purity of tragedy. It wasn’t the Bee Gees but it did stay at number one for an awful long time.

So, Mr Morbid philosopher, why is it that you are so interested with me at this moment in time?

Reminders of tragedy surround me. I walk into a school or college and Macbeth springs out. Willy Loman makes a dramatic entrance or Tess Durbeyfield ambles along. And at the back of all this is me, the witless teacher who is being employed to stand in front of groups of young people and explain the importance of the tragic. Some deep irony, I am thinking.

Now, if what Aristotle says is to be believed, there is no way out for me; I’m as good as a gonna already. What’s the point?

The point is that I have to earn my right to be released into the dark embrace of an even darker infinity of complete darkness. Why struggle when the fisherman of fate has got you, hook, line and sinker, and he’s pulling you from the waters of Styx by your very own testicles. What a ball-ache? No wonder we are leaving the Common Agricultural Policy – it’s got Greek written all over it! Tragic.

So, back to me and my little problem with being trapped in the role of a tragic character.

I am not a hero, never wanted to be, not even when I had a Jesus complex. I have not committed any great error of judgement, unless one thinks that going into the teaching profession was significantly grave to determine that I should be staked out on the bare rock of Mount Olympus in order to have my eyes eaten out and my liver exhumed (only for it to be played out again at the next day’s matinee showing).

Yet here I am, standing at the foot of some great precipice, staring up at dark clouds that are threatening to dump their even darker load of shit upon me just for the sake of theatrical rules. It is simply not fair.

I am an ordinary man. I have had moments (usually sleep or drug induced) when I may have thought otherwise, but after much self-evaluation and expert analysis, I can sadly say that I am normal. So, why, why, why am I being employed as a plaything of the Gods?

And what makes it ever so galling is that these bloody gods are not my gods or anyone else’s gods as they have been bloody well dead for centuries. It’s like being stalked by a ghost of somebody who was, in life, and agnostic a non believer, a sceptic. You don’t bloody exist, this tragic wheel on which I have been tethered does not exist, these coincidences of literature that my students are studying do not exist in the way that a non-existent Fate would have them exist. But when I look at my arms, I realise that the reason that I can’t move them is that they are tied to some forever turning wheel that will not let me get off unless I completely check-out.

Reminder to self: what strategies can I use to get out of tragic proceedings?                    

 

Read, read and read again…

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‘England is sick, and…English literature must save it. The Churches have failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature now has a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, above all, to save our souls and to heal the State.’ 

George Gordon  Professor of Literature  Oxford University 1922

During the course of my life, I have always believed that to be the case. If God could no longer save souls, then books should. In thinking this, I was not the originator of this idea. Since the nineteenth century, when the influence of the church began to wane, it became obvious that something had to step in to save the day. And it was with a certain biblical irony that books became the vehicle of choice.

Life is a route-planner.

We start our journeys at some particular time and place and finish them at another. Life is similar to a time-out from the general tedium of the omnipresent tedium of not living. But, whatever journey we are on, is never going to be an easy one. Life is best with things that beset life, namely life and death and suffering and the Conservative Party. Without these things, it is difficult to claim that one has ever lived, especially if one is already dead meaning that ones opinion no longer counts as only a very few can hear it. It’s a shame because I think that the dead are possibly in possession of more wisdom than the not dead. If you knew how you were going to die, a wise person would probably do something else on that day. Simple wisdom for simple thinkers.

I honestly don’t know where my route-planner has got to, these days. I think that I can remember having it when I set off. Indeed, I think I can remember setting a destination, somewhere like ‘Contentment’, ‘Peace of Mind’, or ‘Moderately Successful With a Beautiful Wife, Wonderful Children, and a Volvo Estate’. The last one always seemed to accompany the ones that went before.  The problem with these destinations is that they cannot be found on traditional maps. The route-planner just instructed me to point my car in any direction of my whim and then set off to see where I could get to before I died.

At the moment, I am here.

Here is an existential crisis. It is a place betwixt and between. A campsite in a town that one never planned to visit. Sounds good, but I have been here before.

Each and every year (not quite as we sometimes decide to ‘staycate’), my wife and I take the girls on a family holiday. The holiday usually involves packing up lots of things: bikes, tents, sleeping bags, phrase books, and a selection of real books to read when we are not doing the activity ‘thing’.  We do tend to have a destination, but go out of our way to not plan the trip. We regard the journey to our destination as being just as potentially enjoyable as the end product.

We aim to be relatively aimless and land on campsites that we have never visited before in a bid to be random adventurers. What does happen, always happens, is that we pitch-up in a place that slowly reveals itself to be familiar. We are like frogs that have a road map implanted in their DNA. No matter how much time has elapsed since their last journey, no matter how many generations have passed, they still take the same route; inexplicably. And so it is with us.

Ah, Ah! Those knowing human beings would say. Man is not a frog. Man is a work of divine creation. Man needs guidance in the way that mere Anura do not. It would not be proper for many of us to get ‘squished on Life’s highways’. Ah, Ah! I respond. I agree. But then I would point out that I was using the biblical device of hiding a lesson within a story.

And that is my point. Literature is scripture with a number of letter changes. From both, we find out what we need and ought to know about the touring holiday that we like to call Life. As God probably no longer exists, as we can’t be bothered with him/her, we need a new type of route-planner, one that is fit for our cultural needs.

Here are a few suggestions:

             These                       OR                  This

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Death of a Salesman

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It seems strange that I should get so far into (and out of) a teaching career without having read this play.

To be fair, although I started off teaching A Level, a lot of what I have done since is the bread and butter stuff of secondary qualifications. The tall and the short of it was that I landed a role in a college of further education to teach A Level Literature. If had hadn’t been so worn down by recent events, I would have cheered. Life has had its way with me and turned the eternal optimist into a stoic.

To cap it all, the position was very last minute which meant that I had to either cut ties or burn bridges with the agencies of my enslavement. I chose to burn bridges.

I was taken with Willy Loman’s portrayal of the tragic hero; an ordinary man, with dreams that are too extraordinary, brought low by the weight of them.

I read about his downfall. I read about Miller’s thoughts on classical tragedy. I thought about my own role in this. More than that, I considered the fact that a tragic hero is one, regardless of status or rank, who has a dream and pursues it in spite of the impediments that stand in his way and unconcerned about the unsustainable nature of that dream.

The true tragic hero goes to his grave convinced of his right to have that dream.

I thought about me writing. I thought about my complete and utter disregard for authority (the type that  wishes to quell any thoughts of freedom). I thought about my career that had careered off course.

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And I was drawn to the possibility of some unseen hand writing my lines.