Poppies are Go

Tomorrow is Armistice Day. The Queen of England and the United Kingdom – Elizabeth II – will lay a wreath on the monument in central London dedicated to all the British and Commonwealth men and women who lost their lives in two world wars and subsequent conflicts. Politicians will genuflect. Bands will play big music, regiments of soldiers will parade. It will all be on radio and TV. Millions of us will pin a poppy to our lapel or blouse. And we will all remember.

What? What will we be remembering? I’m going to say something which is likely to be unpopular. But I think that in the time of Brexit and Donald Trump it needs saying more than ever. What exactly will we all be remembering? And having remembered, then what?

Will we be remembering the men and women of the enemy armed forces – the Germans, the Italians etc. – who were also persuaded and coerced by dictators and politicians into giving up their lives and limbs – ‘in the service of their country’? Their families too were ripped asunder, their children too were rendered fatherless. Will we be remembering those awful lines of Wilfred Owen, the man from Shropshire, who served in the First World War, who won the Military Cross and who was killed in Northern France one week before the Armistice was signed?

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

And if there are those who don’t know the English for the ‘old lie’ – it’s a quote from the Greek poet Horace – “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” I don’t think that needs further comment.

Were it possible to ask any of those who were put through the hell of that and subsequent wars, how best should later generations remember them, I suspect the answer would be, “Make sure, for God’s sake, you don’t ever do this again.”

Then look at us now. The anger, the cruelty, the xenophobia and the hate crimes are on the rise in Europe and the US. A resurgence of fascism, once regarded as a ludicrous proposition, is no longer ludicrous. As a race we seem to have forgotten. Except at this time in November when we remember. Anyone can. Pin a poppy on your jacket. Say a prayer on Armistice Day. It takes no time and no effort. And can be forgotten till next November.

Doing something about our own individual selves however, so that we don’t forget, so that we really do remember and learn the lesson those men and women who sacrificed their lives would have us learn is not easy. But if we want to survive as a species – and we’ve no reason to think we’re indispensable to the universe – that is what we have to do.

FINALLY – one of my Meditations which I include in this blog from time to time –

“The problems of our world stem not so much from our failure to act as though we – its peoples – are one, as from our failure to recognize that we – its peoples – are one.


We have, for millennia, accorded life-or-death importance to superficial differences which are of no more significance in the wider sweep of things than the mosquito on the back of the elephant. Thus we resist one of the most profound and uplifting truths of ourselves as human beings.

The time has come to put an end to this. Look into your brother’s eye, your sister’s eye and see there yourself.”


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‘Albatross’ – Extract 10

Here is the tenth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, published on Amazon –


Just two comments from readers –

  1. This is a novel that deserves to be read in an unhurried way in order for the reader to assimilate the full complexities and challenges of Barney’s obsessive and life-dominating quest. Wallow in the sparing language and carefully crafted ‘word pictures’ that bring the novel alive. This novel would transfer easily to the medium of film. Perhaps there is a potential film blockbuster here.
  2. I was completely absorbed in it – and loved the richness of the lives that his female characters had – all discarded by Barney in his search but all complex characters with some depth and range of emotion. Couldn’t put it down until I finished and am still thinking about it and feeling unsettled – it is thought provoking too. I’m sure you are right about a film, but that shouldn’t be a surprise!

The following extract marks a chronological jump forward in the story. Barney has given up everything, including his present marriage and burgeoning political career, in order to try and find – assuming he’s still alive – the son, Matthew, whom he abandoned when the boy was three years old. He is having little success. One of the people from his past whom he thinks may be able to help is an ex-girl friend from his university days, Licia.

I had often wondered what Licia had done with her life after Oxford. She’d set her heart on my old profession, the ambivalent world of advertising. She was going to be a graphic artist, she said, and design ads for glossy fashion accounts in one or other of the big London agencies. What a waste, I had retorted, what an abuse of an Oxford education. She called me in return, a ‘dinner-party idealist’ and told me my views were ‘pompous, turgid and out of tune with the times’. She’d said it with a smile on her face, but a suspicion there might be a grain of truth in it bothered me for a while afterwards.
So if Licia had actually made it, and if I could locate her, and if Matt too – as Martin had indicated – had gone into that same business, a meeting with her could be an altogether more appropriate way of going about things than risking the conflict I could ignite by going through his mother. It was, of course, most unlikely Licia would know of him personally. But she might just know someone who knew someone else who knew someone who had once …..etc., etc.
I tracked her down through her college’s Alumni magazine. It was not difficult. But it was some considerable time after my return from Halifax and Endell Street before her name even occurred to me in this context. Prior to that, I’d wasted hours in public libraries. Safe behind my dark glasses and ever-lengthening hair, I’d set myself the task of trawling through the details of all the major and not-so-major advertising agencies in London. I planned to scour their current CEO’s, their Creative Directors, all their Account Directors and board members In the hope of finding among them just a few with whom I’d worked in my time in advertising. Those days were long over, and most of those people would have retired. But there surely had to be a few who had stayed the course.
I’d unearthed two – both of them now in senior management positions – before it occurred to me that this was another waste of time. As I looked at their names on a sheet of paper on my table beneath the viaduct, I was forced to confront the question of what I was actually going to do with the information now I had it. Yet again, enthusiasm had trumped pragmatism. What would I do – write to these people – under an assumed name – asking if they knew of the existence in the business of a Matt or Matthew Marshal? Or McDonald? Or anyone with the Christian name ‘Matthew’? And if so, who would I – the writer of the letters – claim to be? Some non-existent lawyer? And should I come up with some complex fiction to do with an inheritance due to the elusive ‘Matthew’? Would anything convince them I was not just another crank? No – to stand a chance of being taken seriously I’d have to arrange face-to-face meetings on the basis of our having known and worked with each other. And then I’m done for. Because even though I may extract from them cast-iron assurances of secrecy, I would not feel easy putting my trust in either of them. Those who practise advertising – and I include my past self in this – have committed themselves, if only by default, to having no objection to publicly propagating white lies and half-truths. That lack of regard for ‘la réalité’ which is part of their everyday working lives, can so easily cross a line. And once out on London advertising’s gossip circuit, my little game would be over.
I tore the list up. And gave up public libraries.
I was back to square one.
I needed a computer. For Christ’s sake! But my reservations still applied. A private investigator? But how could I risk trusting anyone, however luminous their reputation, that I didn’t actually know? In desperation, I considered simply ringing round all the agencies and asking quite casually to speak with ‘Matt’ or ‘Matthew’. But Matt or Matthew Who? Marshal? McDonald? I’d spent years calling myself ‘Al’ – might he too be calling himself these days any old name that came into his head? Or had he never managed to get into advertising? Had he stayed in Lincolnshire to till the land and grow turnips? Or joined the Navy, the Army, the Foreign Legion? The Scouts?
This was another way not to do it.
Then one day, in one of those small franchised shops that sells all sorts of foodstuffs, small household items and newspapers, my eye was caught by a magazine about the Oxbridge Universities. Out of no more than casual interest, I picked it up and thumbed through it. There were photographs of a number of Oxford colleges, mine included. And St. Hilda’s – a mixed gender college today, but in my day, women only. That had been Licia’s college. Only then did it occur to me that she might be just what I was looking for.

I booked a table for lunch in one of those expensive riverside restaurants to the west of London which I think of as places you go to when you’re with someone you shouldn’t be with. It was wonderful to see her again. She too was delighted to see me, even though at first – I was gratified to note – she wasn’t entirely convinced that I was me. “Bee, you look so different! But my goodness – it suits you. Love the shades, the beard.” We were off to a good start. Both of us were larger and wider than in those other days. But the same sparkle danced in her eyes. We’d been OK together, Licia and I. It looked like we still were.
We had a drink in the bar and exchanged airy résumés of our lives in the years between. Then wandered into the large dining room and took our places at a table laid with that self-conscious striving to impress one often comes across in such places. It was a glorious day and the windows were all open to the river, letting in the sounds and smells of summer.
“So,” she said, taking her napkin from its ring and spreading it over her lap, “I suspect I’m about to hear something rather interesting.”
I told her everything. She was open-mouthed.
“My darling Bee!” She leaned across the table towards me. “What on earth are you thinking of?”
It wasn’t what I’d expected or hoped for. I remember shrugging rather meekly. “I have to find him,” I said.
“But why?”
“He’s my son, Leece.”
“And has that only recently occurred to you?”
“It didn’t occur to me when it should have done – put it that way.”
She picked up her wine glass. “And what about him,” she said, “will he want to be found?”
“I’m aware he might not.”
“So you’re just going to – go looking for him, as it were?” By design or accident, she made it all sound faintly silly. “It isn’t the way the Salvation Army would go about it.”
“Oh?” I wondered what Licia knew of the Salvation Army.
“I’ll tell you what they’d do.” She sipped, put down her glass. “They’d first contact your son and ask him if he wanted anything to do with you.”
“Fine. But as nobody could tell them where my son is, that approach wouldn’t get them very far, would it?”
She shrugged. “OK – touché. But listen Bee – I’m really, really in awe of what you’re trying to do. But do you have to give up your whole life to do it? Every single thing you’ve ever worked for?”
“So should I just do it in my spare time? In the evenings? Weekends?”
“Hire a private investigator. Get them to – ”
“And he – or she – leaks my name, accidentally on purpose, to the papers. OK – I’m cold potatoes in one sense, but what a story for the Sundays! Barnaby Trustworthy, MP throws away wife and career to search for the son he abandoned when he was only three years old and never even – ”
“OK, OK.” She put a hand up to stop me. “It’s a pity you didn’t think of this twenty years ago, you know. The implications for your life and your career then would have been – ”
“I did think of it twenty years ago. And ten years ago. And five. But every time I thought about it, I put it off – in the interests of my life and career. In the end it became too much. I couldn’t sleep. I saw him in my dreams. On more than one occasion I really couldn’t separate the dream from reality. I tried to keep it from everybody, but secretly I was falling apart.” I took a drink of my wine. “It felt like I’d transgressed against some fundamental law.”
“Then,” she said, thoughtfully, “you have to think of this – if you haven’t already. Wherever he is, the boy may be missing you, deep down. Angry with you as well, but longing to know if you still think of him. But on – ”
“That’s exactly what – ”
“But equally he may not. He may be living a happy, secure life. He may have a wife and a family and they may – ”
“My grandchildren.”
She looked at me over the top of her glass.
I said again, “My grandchildren.”
She went back to her food. “What about your wife?”
It caught me off-guard. I replied, rather snappily, “Ellen is not a children person.” Though true, it sounded lame. I expected Licia to challenge it. For some reason she didn’t. It hung in the air between us.
Then she surprised me. She leaned towards me across the table, a broad smile on her face. “The point of all I’m trying to say my darling, is that you – Barnaby Marechal – ”
“Sssh!” I looked covertly around with a finger to my lips. In retrospect I probably attracted more attention doing that than if I’d done and said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” she said, lowering her voice, “ but look – “ – she laid aside her knife and fork – “ – let’s talk real. In only a few years, you built up for yourself a wonderful career. Not one of the party celebs – and thank God, say I – but you’d cornered a sort of niche where you were listened to and respected. You would never have made the front benches because you’re too independent-minded and I doubt you’d have wanted to anyway. But people – ordinary people – took notice of you where they turned away, raising their eyes to the ceiling, from the PM and his band of place-men and women. Where might you have risen to, Bee? The phrase ‘elder statesman’ comes to my mind. And all that you’re simply throwing overboard?”
She waited for a response while I turned over in my mind the image of an elder statesman who had turned his back on his only child. “I’m not ‘simply throwing it overboard’, Leece,” I said. “I’ve thrown it. The deed is done.”
“I know!” she snorted. “And after that bye-election, who’s in your place now? That poisonous little Eton-educated toad whose daddy is the CEO of – “
“I’m sorry.” She sat back. “I just hope you’ve got this right.”
“Anyway – ” – I plonked my wine glass hard back down on the table – “ – politics is shit these days.”
“Wasn’t it always?”
“Not this shit. All that matters now is getting back in again next time; to look good on the telly and have some con-man PR guru cobble you together a soundbite or two which you can spew out on the box like you thought of it yourself. Principle? – gone are the days.” I pushed my wine glass rather agitatedly around on the table. “I couldn’t live like it any longer.”
“’Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’. Except with you, it seems to have worked the other way around.” She raised her glass to me. “After you, my darling, they threw away the mould.”
I looked out beyond the windows to where the sunlight sparkled and danced off the river. A swan preened itself on the far bank.
“Have you got a photograph of him?” she said. “I’d love to see what he looks like.”
I turned to her. “So would I.”
She frowned. “You serious?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Barnaby! Oh, Barney – I am so, so sorry.”
We looked at each other across the table. Something passed between us. I reached out a hand towards her. She gave me hers.
“Barnaby Marechal,” she said, “ – and I said that quietly enough, didn’t I? – dear Barnaby Marechal, after all these years I can still tell you that if you were free, this lunch would not be the last you’d see of me.” And she gave me a look that might have come up from the centre of the earth. It stripped me bare and sent a terrible longing through me.
I caught it in time. I took my hand back. “You,” I said, breathlessly, “are no more free than I am.”
A curious little smile played over her features. “Is that a statement? Or a question?”
I raised both hands in front of me as if to say, ‘Don’t go there.’
She sat back, wiped her lips with her napkin. “Gerald and I have no relationship whatever. He pretends we do, and I know we don’t. I am where I am.” She paused. “But only until I’m not.” She gave me that same look once again. I felt myself returning it. This was dangerous ground.

We parted in a strangely abrupt fashion. She realized with a shock that she was going to be late for an appointment, and apologized profusely. We hadn’t even got round to talking about how she might actually help me find Matt. In a hurried and slightly garbled exchange as she was leaving the table, she said she would ring me the following day and that her daughter Marie who “sort-of, almost works in advertising”, was probably the clue to it. That morning I’d bought a second new mobile – for my everyday use as opposed to the one I kept purely for my conversations with Martin. I scribbled that number down on my napkin and handed it to her. We embraced and kissed each other briefly on the cheek. Through the window I watched her drive off in a sleek, silver Mercedes.
I ordered a coffee and took it out into the garden. I watched the river, the boats, the dragonflies skimming over the surface of the water. What appointment was it, I wondered, that had her leave in such a hurry?


‘Albatross’ is available here, on both book and Kindle form –


And from this seriously excellent bookshop in just book form –


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Eating out in Europe

A few weeks ago, my daughter Jackie, who has lived in central France now for ten years, was in London for a few days with her partner, Raul. W and I took them to an excellent Italian restaurant here in Crystal Palace, called Lorenzo’s.

Most of the staff at Lorenzo’s are – not surprisingly – Italian. We had a drink first, then ordered the meal. Now Raul, although having lived in France for most of his adult life, is Portuguese. So between the five of us – the four of us plus the waiter who came to take our order – we had four languages. When Jackie, W and I are with Raul, we can lapse quite easily into reasonable French if the French word comes more readily to mind than the English one. So there was an occasional smattering of two languages going on before the waiter joined us.

Raul, unused to and unfamiliar with Italian food, asked the waiter – in English – what a couple of items were on the menu. The waiter was clearly keen to try out his minuscule bit of French on Raul; Raul, responded with his only couple of words of Italian and then explained what that item was in Portuguese. Within a few seconds a bitty, garbled conversation between all four of us was going on in all four languages. We ended up laughing. And I think it was W who exclaimed at that moment of communal laughter, “We’re all European!”

It brought us to a stop. Yes, we are all European. It had been a wonderful moment, when nationality had been irrelevant, sidelined quite naturally, by our common humanity. At moments like that, you realize, if you hadn’t already done so, that the things that unite all of us, wherever we come from in the world, spring naturally out of that common humanity; and that the things that divide us are almost always the product of inward-looking and fear. 

These are unsettling times in England. I feel it is no longer my country; I am ashamed of it and of our government. Were I a lot younger, I would be seriously considering what options I might have for moving permanently to another European country – France, almost certainly. Xenophobia and racism, latent for many years in England, despite the image we’ve managed to off-load onto the world till now, have been widely let loose and authenticated by Brexit. Such attitudes are the outcome of fear; the actions they engender – like all actions performed out of fear – are ill-directed, counter-productive and often cruel and intolerant.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog that during my time as a film director, I worked in many other parts of the world. And I recall being asked a number of times – especially when working in parts of India and North Africa, if I were American. Hearing English being spoken, many people there seemed to naturally assume that’s where you’re from. And I would reply with some pride, “No, I’m not American. I’m English.” Were I to be asked that question in those circumstances today, I think I’d simply reply, “No.” And leave it at that.

There is a lot of wringing of hands and wishful thinking going on about how the world can get out of the spiral of violence and suspicion that blights it now – of which Brexit is partly symbolic. But all the looking for yet another ‘system’ will get us nowhere. The answer, long term though it may be, is under our nose. The five of us around that table in Lorenzo’s that day can’t be the only few people ever to have felt the sense of freedom, union and release that comes from seeing our own selves and others as crucial and our nationality as a sideshow.



















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‘Albatross’ – Extract 9

Here is the ninth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is –https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/


I’ve heard from Youssef. He left a telephone message with the man on reception – he’ll meet me in the bar, he said, at five o’clock today. ‘Five’ might not quite mean ‘five’ as we know it. It’s more a statement of broad intent. That’s the way it is here. Time seems not to move at the same speed. Or sometimes even in the same direction. I assume he has nothing to add to the meagre bits of information we’ve put together. In which case, tomorrow we’ll be away. I have to return to the UK, regroup, rethink. Then begin again.
I shall not be sorry to leave. I’ve been to many places in my time, but never anywhere like it. It falls into no known class or category; nobody I’ve ever known has been to, spoken about, had relatives in, written about or taken photographs of anywhere resembling it. Through no flight of fancy could I have envisaged its reality.
I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been here. But however long it is, the town still feels little more than a capricious conjunction of people, animals, mud dwellings, garbage, dust, sand and random objects blown in on the desert wind and which might be gone tomorrow. Except it won’t – it’s been here thousands of years already. I can’t figure out how it hangs together and functions – yet it does. But finding in it and among the people who inhabit it some niche in which a Westerner like myself can feel reasonably at ease has been beyond me. My previous life has been no preparation. I am here, yet not here. If I shout, they will hear. But I am in another dimension.
Sand is everywhere. Some days, the wind off the desert raises into the sweltering air a brown mist of dust particles that drifts around the buildings, irritates your eyes, gets between your teeth, works its way under your arms and into your crotch. The heat presses in on you from above and on all sides. There are no roads – not roads as I’ve ever known them. Just areas of hard-packed sand, some wide, some no more than alleys lined with low mud houses in whose dark recesses people half-seen sit, cook, move around. Children with no shoes run after you, their hands outstretched for money. For food. For anything. They seem happy enough. Dogs, camels, donkeys, carts. Men with strange conical hats, women with vast bundles of what looks like washing balanced on their heads, leather-skinned men with hard eyes and blue chins. In the air the babble of a language in which I can find no syllable, sound nor intonation on which to hook a hope of comprehension.
The other morning, in a corner of my room, I found a scorpion. It shook the living shit out of me. It was small and almost prawn-coloured, like it lived under stones. That pincered tail curving up and over its back. I think I read somewhere that’s how you’re supposed to pick them up. I wasn’t going there. I found a stick outside and after prodding at it and pushing it along the base of the wall, managed to flick it out through the open door.
I check now. I check every corner, every cranny, every crevice, every shadow. A man who claimed to have been in the French Foreign Legion, told me one evening in the bar that scorpions like to get in between your bedsheets during the day. ‘So make sure you check,’ he said, ‘before you get into bed at night.’ How do you check for scorpions in your bed – push a stick in and waggle it around? Pull the bed apart? I pull the one sheet off the mattress. Then I shake it and hope nothing drops out of it. Or that it does – I’m never sure which.
In spite of all that, I wish I’d had the space in my troubled mind to get to know something of the centuries-old culture of this place, to appreciate its life, its colour and vibrancy, its freedom from artifice and affectation. This is the capital of a nomadic people who have been around since way before Christ. If, in Westminster, someone had put a factsheet about it down on my desk, I would have devoured it. Told colleagues about it. Gone home and enthused to Ellen about it.
‘Ellen’. ‘Westminster’. Words once heard on an outer planet.

I leave my room. The sun hits my balding head like a hammer. I cross the compound moving slowly and carefully. The sores in my groin are raw. I make my way towards the main building of the hotel. ‘Hotel’ is a word which, in the developed world – whatever that is – conjures up a certain image. It is beyond me at the moment to attempt to define that image. But whatever it would be, it would have nothing to do with the reality of this ‘hotel’.
It is a low building constructed entirely of locally made mud bricks, the whole construction then coated all over with a mud rendering. My first view of it had been at a distance through the afternoon dust as we’d first driven into the town. It looked like it had been patted and hand-moulded into shape like a child’s sandcastle. “That,” said Youssef, pointing to it, “is our hotel.”
I had hoped he was joking.
Some of the windows are glazed. Others are just rectangular holes in the walls, often inset with a decorative iron grill. There is a ground floor and one upper floor. One corner of the building supports a diminutive, square tower. The roof is flat. On it is situated an open-air restaurant. I apply to the word ‘restaurant’ the same reservations I applied to the word ‘hotel’. There are perhaps half a dozen tables. Only once have I seen more than two of them occupied. The one waiter, when he is not actually waiting, sits and watches the large TV set in the corner by the tower. The TV service closes down at some point in the late evening, whereupon he switches the set off and turns it to the wall.
I spoke there one evening with an Australian man in his mid-twenties. There was little flesh on his young bones. His black, empty eyes peered out from sockets sunk deep in a face that looked a hundred years old. He had driven alone from Morocco, north to south across the desert, two thousand kilometres. I was aghast – fascinated to know why and how. But he wouldn’t talk. There were things he did not want to recall. He put the fear of God up me.

The bar was a small, square room with a few metal tables and chairs. Its walls were painted a deep, dark, gloss green. Endell Street green. There were no other drinkers in that evening. The barman, a stick-thin man of indeterminate age, whose name I didn’t know and who spoke a variety of French in which I could understand almost nothing, had open before him on the bar counter a French newspaper. The corners of its pages rustled in the downdraft from a rickety ceiling fan.
I ordered a beer. Ran the ice-cold bottle through the perspiration running down my forehead. I made my way to a table by a small, unglazed window with an iron grille. It looked out over a wide area of compacted sand dotted with mud buildings – a town square of sorts. I peered out. A man’s face went by, his dark skin glinting in the low sun; another man, perched high on a camel, lurching past in a curious, swinging motion. A donkey, ears flopping, its poor spindly legs surely about to crack beneath the weight of the panniers strapped either side of its emaciated body. On its back, a huge television set steadied by the hand of a man who walked by its side. People wearing clothes of extraordinary colours. Men somewhere, arguing in loud voices, language indecipherable – Tamajeq? Hausa? The cries of children. The afternoon fast waning.
I shuffled around in my chair to try and ease the discomfort in my groin. I sipped my beer and yawned. Six o’clock came. No Youssef. I ordered another beer. Tomorrow, surely, we’ll be out of here.

For those interested in buying the book, it’s available here –


And here – www.booksellercrow.co.uk


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It’s all in the mind. And it hurts!

During most of my adult life, I have suffered, to one extent or another, from depression – worse at some times than at others. As far as work is concerned, for one period of just over a year, it prevented my doing any at all. At many other times it got severely in the way. Compared with most other such sufferers however, I was in a privileged position. As a film director who wrote the vast majority of my own stuff, I exercised a large amount of control over what I did and when I did it. Had I worked in an office, it would have been a very different story. 

Quite early on in the progress of my depression, in order to try and ease the pain and distress it was causing, I set about trying to figure out where it had come from, what was its source. Surely I wasn’t born with it. And if I weren’t, then I must somehow have acquired it in the years since. I went back in my own mind – time and again – into the events of my past, particularly my childhood, as far back as I could remember, looking for clues. As for my very early childhood – that part that predates my ability to remember any of it – I spoke with relatives who were around at that time and who could recall my circumstances. In this way, I started to build up a picture. I got quite a shock. A lot of it was pretty unpleasant. Nevertheless, it seemed clear that the unpleasant stuff was what lay at the root of it and had therefore to be acknowledged and confronted.

The other thing I did, over a period of about ten years, was to jot down in a notebook I carried with me all the time, thoughts and observations about my life and about life in general. It helped. Externalizing my disturbed feelings and then noting down observations that emerged from them had the beneficial effect of starting to disconnect me from them. The realization that I was neither those feelings nor the pain they brought on gave a wonderful glimpse of freedom and well-being. Those glimpses, though extremely short, were intensely significant – and with time they grew longer. And longer. Today, although I still get the occasional attack, it will hardly ever last more than a day. And even then will seldom be enough to put me off carrying on with my normal everyday life. I can talk openly to W about my feelings and how they seem now like the distant feelings of an entity that exists no longer  – i.e. those of myself as a very young child. 

Life, as we all discover at some point, is not easy. Looking back over my notes a while back, I thought maybe they could help others. Depression, after all, is now one of the commonest and most misunderstood causes of distress and serious unhappiness in western society. Accordingly, I’ve distilled what seems to be their essence and I’m going to present them here in this blog on an occasional basis and in a form which I hope expresses them in a succinct, straightforward way. I sincerely hope they help and give reassurance to any who read them and who may themselves be struggling with the anxieties, lack of self-esteem and debilitating negativity which scarred my life for so long and may be scarring theirs.

Here is the first –


‘Why can’t things stay as they are?’ you say. Why does everything have to change?

Look out of the window. Everything everywhere is in movement. Leaves twist in the wind, birds fly, ants scurry, the grass grows, sap rises within the trees, the clouds cross the skies above our heads, the earth moves round the sun. Even the particles within the atoms which constitute the buttons of your coat and which make up the flesh on your bones, spin endlessly around each other. And you and I grow older.  Nothing is as it was even a fraction of a second ago. On a different time-scale we would see before our eyes the rivers gouge out canyons in the land, the mountains turn to dust, stars come to birth and go out. Nothing is as it was, nor as it will be. All is change: life itself is change.

Shutting the door on change, you shut the door on life.

Is that how you want it?

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The Last Burst of Summer

In this south eastern corner of the UK we’re enjoying a burst of late summer sunshine. The little park below my flat is looking really beautiful, especially in the late afternoon and early evening. The sun then is low in the sky, so it shines through the trees, sending great elongated shadows of people, dogs, and of the trees themselves out across the grass which is everywhere brown with lack of rain. People walking through these shadows pass through them like actors through spotlights on a stage, the sun lighting first one side of their face and body, then into virtual darkness they go, to emerge again into full sun on the other side of the shadow. 


All the trees and bushes are at the peak of their maturity with so many subtly different shades of green. And here and there, you can detect the tell-tale signs of the autumn on whose doorstep we stand – especially with the horse-chestnut trees. Their bright green, spherical, spiky fruits are almost ready to fall to the ground. As are their leaves, a few of which are already beginning to die back and turn brown. Not long now before they’re falling, eventually creating that thick carpet of dead leaves through which your feet swish, like through puddles, as you walk.

I have a lasting affection for autumn. It’s a time of year that makes for introspection. It’s like the world, the skies, the trees, the plants all have done what they came here to do. And now they recognize it’s time to fall back, rest, and rejuvenate. In other words – to die. For death is not the end. Sure, it’s the end of a cycle. But all things, without exception, are cyclical. And that which has gone, has gone only to come back again when the wheel has turned full circle.

We do death a sad disservice in the West. We fear it and hesitate to talk openly about it. Loved ones so often don’t die, they merely ‘pass on’. Yet death is integral to our life. Without it, there would be no life; without life there would be no death; without black no white, without white no black. And indeed, as we are born, so we begin the process of dying. That we will one day end is our one and only certainty. Or at least, that some part of us will end. For I don’t think that’s the whole story.

For most of my childhood, I lived in Bedford, a small, market town eighty kilometres or so north of London. I remember one morning when I was probably about eleven, walking on my own along by the river there – the River Ouse – and looking into its waters and thinking an odd thought. “When I die,” I thought to myself, “I really don’t care if they throw my body in the river. Because my body isn’t me.” And I walked on, feeling pleased with myself, though for reasons I wasn’t clear about!

But it seems clear to me now – I am not my body. Apart from anything else, if I were my body, would I refer to it like it’s a possession and call it ‘mine’. Hardly. There is the universal, unspoken presumption of an ‘owner’. So my body will die – that’s clear. But I can make no such assertion about the owner, the ‘I’  – who has to exist in all of us. And who is, maybe, the very same in all of us. I think if we can discover who or what that ‘I’ is we will come across a great secret – perhaps the greatest of all secrets.

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‘Albatross’ – Extract 8

Here is the eighth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is –https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/


Al peered through the rain on the windscreen. There was a phone box some way up ahead. He put his foot on the brake.
Viki snapped at him. “What are you doing?”
“There’s a phone box.”
“So I’m stopping.”
“What for?”
“I’m going to ring them.”
“The motel.”
“They’ll trace that in five minutes! What’s the matter with you?”
He pulled towards the side of the road. “For all we know he might have been bleeding to death!”
She yanked at the wheel to redirect the front wheels away from the verge.
He removed her hand. “Get off!”
“Keep driving!” With which she shoved her right foot between his legs, kicked his foot off the brake and floored the accelerator. The Jaguar leapt forward like a cat, spun and slewed sideways across the wet road right into the path of an oncoming truck. Viki was transfixed. Al, from somewhere, found the presence of mind not to brake or to take evasive action but to continue on that track, shooting straight across the path of the truck which was aquaplaning towards them, its brakes locked, fountains of water spewing from its wheels. The Jaguar mounted the opposite verge, bounced and rocked along the sodden ground as the truck, horn blaring, hurtled past in the opposite direction drowning them in its spray.
The Jaguar came to a standstill in the entrance to a field. Al sat staring out through the windscreen, his heart pounding. The blood had gone from Viki’s face. She rocked slowly back and forth, her eyes wide. Then threw open her door and vomited into the wet grass. Slowly, she sat up again and shut the door. Wiped her mouth with a tissue, grimacing.
They sat in silence. Passing vehicles, their lights dazzling through the rain, sprayed the side of the car. Eventually Al sat forward again and started the engine. He waited for a clear road and moved out into the carriageway.
For a long time neither spoke. Then Viki said, “Sorry.”
He didn’t answer.
She said again, “I’m sorry.”
“You said.”
“You could be a little more gracious.”
“I’m not feeling gracious, Vik. You nearly killed us. And the driver of that truck.”
“OK” She shrugged. “Whether you accept my apology or not – I apologize.”
They drove on through the rain.
She said quietly, “It’s a motel, Al. There’s chambermaids. They clean up. He’ll be fine.”
“That’s shit, Viki. I don’t like shit.”
“Shouldn’t be screwing the lady client then, should you?”
“As it turns out – no.”
She flicked the vanity mirror down, took a makeup pouch from her bag.
He pointed to her torso. “What have you got in there – a swinging brick?”
“And the rest.” And then, with an obscene coquettish lilt. “Remember?” She looked in the mirror, dabbed some rouge on her still white cheeks. Then applied lipstick. She put the pouch back in her bag. “What time back in Bristol?”
“Couple of hours maybe.”
She put her face right up to her window and peered out. “Where are we?”
“The last sign said ‘Tavistock’.”
“It’s pissing so much out there I can hardly see. God, I hate the countryside.” She turned up the heating, set her seat in the recline position, and lay back. She closed her eyes. “I shall remember this day.”
The road curved through tall, dark, water-laden trees. Al turned the radio on. “Money, Money, Money”, exclaimed Abba, “In a rich man’s world.” The car warmed up. Viki’s head fell forward onto her chest.

She came to with a start. Looked anxiously around. She was on her own in the car which was stationary. The engine was running and the driver’s door open. The rain was blowing in, wetting her maps in the door pocket and her cache of chocolate bars. And there, thirty metres up ahead on the corner of a narrow lane, was Al tugging open the door of a public phone box. “Al!! Oh, Christ – no!!”
But too late. He was inside, and pulling from his pocket a notebook. He flicked through it. She bit her lip. This was going to sink them. Any second now his mouth would be moving – his stupid, silly, fucking mouth giving everything away. She slipped across into the driver’s seat. Reached into the rear, grabbed Al’s briefcase and flung it out onto the grass. She dragged the door shut, took the wheel and put her foot on the gas. The car rocked and bounced off the wet verge and onto the road then took off, weaved for a few moments from side to side before straightening out and disappearing into the rain.
Al watched through a window of the phone box, his face expressionless.

“Shit!” The heavy box slipped from Ellen’s hands and crashed down on the ledge just inside the loft. A cloud of black dust erupted, making her cough. She manoeuvred the box alongside the other three. Then, with a huge effort, heaved herself up from the ladder and sat down with them. She was badly out of breath. Her knees and the joints in her fingers hurt. Her back ached. She was not up to this. Blood was seeping through the finger of one of her gloves. She looked back down through the hatch to the landing. It was an awfully long way down. She wanted to cry.
She turned and peered into the gloom of the loft. It was a land of deep shadow, lit only by a bare bulb dangling from an umbilical cord of flex put up by Barney once, during a very short-lived spell of DIY enthusiasm. It was piled high with stuff shoved away out of sight. It extended the whole length of the house. They’d had plans for it. Double bedroom, bathroom, small study, big windows, big view to the Welsh hills. Plans going nowhere. Still in a drawer downstairs.
She got to her feet. Heaved up the nearest box, and stooping to avoid cracking her head on the low beams, staggered with it through the dusty twilight. Up here, you had to watch where you put your feet. Half the place had no proper floor. One lapse of concentration, and you could have a foot through the main bedroom ceiling. Ending up astride a medieval joist was not something she wanted to think about. With a heavy thump, she let the box down by the water tank. Three more trips like that and her knees were about to give out.
She eased her aching body down onto the floor beside the boxes. Her hair was in her eyes, the blood on her glove had spread. She went to lift the lid of the topmost box, in order to take a look inside. But changed her mind. It would have been like looking into his coffin. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the cladding of the water tank.
She didn’t hear the car that pulled up in the lane outside.

“There.” Frank Lippincote handed her a gin and tonic. “Try that.”
Ellen took a sip, nodded. “Nice. Thank you.”
He sat himself in an armchair opposite her. “You look a little discombobulated.”
“Not a nice job.” She took a substantial swig.
“What were you doing?”
“Something that had to be done.”
He pointed to the sticking plaster on her finger. “And you’ve cut yourself.”
“It’s nothing.”
He sipped his whisky. “I haven’t seen you in a while, Ellen. How are you these days – in yourself?”
“How do you think I am? These days or any days?”
He shrugged.
“I’m sorry. That was impolite.” She drank again. “I get by – on a day-to-day basis.”
“I rather thought from your letter that you were beginning to – so to speak – emerge.”
“Some days, that’s how it feels. Others – ” – she shrugged – “ – the road seems long.”
He sat forward, elbows on his knees, as though about to say more. But didn’t.
“It’s nice to see you,” she said.
He flushed slightly.
“What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“I was on my way back from London. I thought I’d call in.”
She was touched. “That’s kind.”
“I think of you.”
“It’s good,” she said quietly, “to know someone somewhere is thinking of one.”
He sat further forward. “I often wonder about you, you know.”
She smiled.
He smiled back.
She looked down into her glass as she swirled the ice around. “How is Martha?”
For a few moments he was silent. Then sat back. “This thing takes its course.”
She picked an imaginary fleck of something out of her drink. Then finished the drink off in one and handed the empty glass to him. “Would you mind pouring me another? Please.”
He was pleased to be asked. He was intensely aware, strangely, of the sound made by the chunks of ice as they tumbled into the glass, and then of the tonic water as it splashed, fizzing and cascading over them like sea foam over rocks.
He handed the drink to her. She took it and their fingers brushed. He badly wanted to say something though he didn’t know quite what. So he didn’t, and whether or not she was aware of his touch as he had been of hers, he didn’t know that either. He sat down again, confused and anxious. He looked apprehensively at her. Then frowned. Her eyes seemed moist, as though perhaps on the brink of tears. Please don’t cry. He sat quickly forward. “Ellen look – I – er – well – ”
“I don’t know.” But then suddenly he reached out and placed a hand over one of hers. Then sat staring at her, stunned by his own action. Gently, she turned her hand up and lightly clasped his. He looked uncomprehendingly down at their two joined hands. Then suddenly took his away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” she said, without looking at him.
He bit his lip.
“So,” she said, withdrawing her hand and arranging herself primly upright in her chair, “what were you up to in London?”
“Meeting with my accountant.”
“How intensely boring.”
He seemed not to have heard. “I could have helped you, you know.”
“Helped me?”
“You had only to ask.”
“Help me with what?”
He pointed to the ceiling. “Whatever it was you were doing up there. If you’d rung. What were you doing?”
“Burying Barney.”
He started back.
“A one-person, one-woman job. His stuff was still all over the house. Clothes, photographs. Things he would just put down and leave.” She sipped her drink. “Barney had this compulsion to expose his inner workings to public view.”
Frank shook his head very slowly, as if understanding and commiserating.
“He’d pick things up – all sorts of odd bits and pieces. And bring them home and put them out on display. On that shelf over there, there was a large red stone he picked up off a beach somewhere. Put it in his pocket and brought it home. Like a magpie.”
Frank looked down into his glass.
“And a silver dollar. Given to him by a barman in California. I even had to put up with an ancient Oxo tin in the bedroom.” She pressed a hand gently to her mouth.
“Mmmm,” said Frank, nodding sagely. “Difficult stuff, that. Very.”
A cloud crossed the sun. The shadows in the room moved and faded. They sat in silence. Frank looked out of the window.
“It was a good life, Frank. Friends with power and influence. Exotic parts of the world. Did you know – in the early days we lived in Hong Kong? Every morning I took a dip in the South China Sea. Can you imagine that?”
“Sounds idyllic, I have to say.”
“A weekend return flight to New York on Concorde – Barney saved the baggage tags. Even they were out on display on a shelf in the upstairs toilet! Why would a man throw all that away? Because either he threw it all away or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then something awful has happened to him. And if he did – then there has to be a reason. Don’t you think?”
He looked away.
“Can you think of one?”
He got up from his chair and went to the window, stood looking out.
Ellen frowned. “Frank?”
“Your garden’s going to be splendid again this summer.”
“Don’t be a boor. I asked you a question.”
Still he didn’t respond.
He turned from the window. “I’m going to have to be honest Ellen.”
“Honest?” She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
He peered down into his drink. “It’s like this – ”
Her face darkened. “Just – ” – she held up a hand to stop him where he was – “ – hold it there.”
He stopped.
“Is it another woman, Frank?”
He looked wide-eyed at her.
“Jesus fucking Christ! And it never, ever even crossed my – ”
“No. No. It’s not. I mean – I don’t know. How would – ”
“Tell me!”
“I’m trying to! How would I know? I haven’t seen him for as long as you haven’t seen him.”
She subsided a little. “Then what on earth are you talking about? What do you mean – you’re going to ‘be honest’? Have you been lying to me about something?”
“My dropping in here wasn’t completely spontaneous.”
“Ah. I see.”
“I’ve heard from Jardine.”
She froze. “And?” She watched him as he made his way slowly back to his chair and sat down. He clasped his hands round his drink. “There appears,” he said, “or – there seems to have been – another side to Barney.”
“Another side? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s just come back from Cornwall and – ”
“Who’s just come back from Cornwall?”
“Jardine. And – “
“What’s Cornwall got to do with anything?”
“I’m sorry Ellen – I’m trying to put this with some care.”
“Well damn the care! Just get on and tell me.”
“It seems there is – or perhaps has been – another and – a rather – perhaps troubling aspect of Barney’s personality. It may – Jardine feels – and I see what he’s saying – it may go some way towards providing us with some sort of clue as to the matter of his disappearance.”
She turned on a look of stunned disbelief.
“But he has something to say, Ellen. He has something to tell us. We need to set up a meeting with him.”
A breeze stirred the curtains, flicked gently at the pages of a magazine on the table.
Ellen got up and stood looking out the french windows.
“Facts,” said Frank. “One has, in the end, to look at the facts.”

Till the money comes through everything is on hold. All I can do is sit here and wait. I am not good at waiting. I think too much. There’s ‘thinking’ and there’s ‘thinking’. The sort I do at times like this is usually of the counterproductive variety. All London’s policemen and policewomen – and maybe Interpol as well – carry around with them at all times a photograph of me which they look at many times a day. The country’s population have an identikit picture of my face embedded in their brains. Around every corner lurks a know-all looking to grab a moment’s fame by outing the fugitive. I take a risk even looking out of this third floor window into the street.
First thing in the morning I go for a walk, usually to the nearby Queen’s Park. A half-awake face stuck to a steamed-up window of a passing bus holds its glance just a fraction longer than I deem necessary and my heart’s in my mouth. I avoid all newspapers. I have from time to time to go into shops which sell them in order to buy other things. I sidle past them, my eyes averted. And the man or woman in the shop has only to look a little quizzically at me and I’m fumbling my change in my anxiety to get to the door. As I hurry off down the road are they even now dialling 999?
I realize of course that the chances of anyone recognizing me now – or even caring for that matter – are remote. But still I live in a more or less permanent state of anxiety, especially out of doors. Despite the pleasure and the reassurance of my recent meeting with Martin, it is still me over here and the rest of the world over there. I, in my new persona, have yet to be assimilated into the great mass. I am the Alexander Selkirk of Kilburn High Road. The fact that it’s all entirely of my own doing doesn’t make it any easier. If this whole thing goes tits-up – as I heard the strange man downstairs say to someone on his mobile the other day – the whole weight of failure is on my shoulders, and I’d rather not consider the consequences.
But there is another side to it. When I look in a mirror, when I catch sight of my reflection in a shop window, I like what I see. I’m discovering a new way of being. I’m feeling free of things I didn’t know were holding me back before I was free of them. In the train on the way back from Egham, I found myself gazing at the few suited and briefcased men on that afternoon train with what I can only describe as the self-congratulatory pity of the recently converted. That, for most of my working life, had been me. I felt for them. I wanted to take them by the shoulders and shake them.
So until the money is through, I have to kick my heels here in my mean little cell beneath a railway viaduct. It’s not an easy place to be. Cooking a dinner which I eat on my own as the trains crash past overhead, borne down with their cargo of humanity on its way home to spouse and family is a telling test of my resolve. Many evenings I go out and eat in some inconspicuous little Indian or Chinese restaurant. I’ve discovered a number of them around here, all within ten minutes walk. The food is generally good and reasonably priced, the atmosphere pleasantly convivial.
I admire these people from Asia who come to make a living here. What a curious little, half-cast-adrift offshoot of Western Europe this country is. It must seem to them rather like it must have done to the Roman Legionnaires – the end of the inhabited earth, beyond which is only the cold sea and swirling mists. Some of them from little towns and tiny villages whose remoteness I can only guess at – full of wide skies and dirt roads – and here they land with a plate of food in their hands and a smile on their faces too, as often as not. My hat comes off to them – ‘Chapeau!’ as the French so nicely put it. I can’t see many English people – and I include myself in that – having the balls to go to the wilds of China or India to open an English takeaway. ‘Roast Beef to Go’? I don’t think so.
After my meal I walk home. I call it ‘home’ for want of any other word. While the rest of the world struts along on someone’s arm, I walk alone. Sometimes, from a woman passing close, I catch in the air a trace of her perfume – ‘female smells in shuttered rooms’. I am weary of my never-ending maleness.
But I must not let this take hold. Succumbing to the honey trap has been the graveyard of many a high principle. I tell myself it will be alright once I have my hands on the money. Then I can begin.

When Martin did eventually contact me with the details of Dad’s money, my first reaction was embarrassment. Then guilt. It was an obscene amount. But then, Dad had always promised as much. He’d amassed it – hoarded it – over sixty years. In the family there was only myself to whom he could leave it. Mother was dead. Dad had two nephews and a niece – my cousins – children of his two brothers. But both brothers had made at least as much money as Dad and he saw no reason to add – financially at least – to what their offspring were already set to inherit. He had no outside interests. Work had been his life. Having given, way back in the past, his lovely Jaguar to Toc H, primarily in a fit of pique, he felt that charities had had sufficient of his largesse. That left me.
After Mother’s death however, I had vowed I would never touch a penny of his money. Despite what I knew of their relationship and the roots in both their psyches of its destructiveness, still I blamed him for her alcoholism and her premature demise which, I was convinced, resulted from it. Into my middle age I was hostage to a need to perpetuate, even in her death, my default position by Mother’s side. Stockholm Syndrome. It was shamefully unjust, and it had a profound effect on Dad. It led to our alienation from each other which was to continue, on and off, for the rest of his life.
Always I had misread him. Whereas, by some sleight of hand of Mother’s I’d felt compelled to try and understand her, it never occurred to me to try understanding him. Dad, after all, was just Dad. It was like he inhabited a separate, second-class world in which little of fundamental importance ever happened.
When his end came, I was not around, and hearing of it devastated me. Only then did it hit home what he had meant to me. He had been no always-there, always-reliable pater familias. But when the road got rough, it was to Dad I turned. He was ever in the background of my mind. When the hills had crumbled and the stars had gone out, Dad – I knew – would still be standing. Probably with a glass in his hand.
I looked down into a long wooden box. His face was white. He seemed at peace. I wondered if, in his last seconds, he’d thought of me. He hadn’t had much cause to.

My new bank card turned up – eureka! I’m across the starting line. As I slid the immaculate, shiny card from its security envelope, I was almost as excited as I had been as a student when I opened my first bank account. And the sight of that name embossed on it – ‘Bernat Gyorgy Horvat-Marshal’ – gave me a jolt. Last used when I was in my mid-twenties. It was my real name; the one on my birth certificate. It was the name conferred on me by my parents for whom I felt a sudden, profound yearning. Were they still shouting at each other in some ethereal cloud palace or dungeon in hell? Good luck, both. And my love – wherever you are.
I put the precious card carefully away in my wallet. Now I could set things in motion. Buy a few more clothes and some standby shades. Maybe another hat. I’d become quite attached to the idea of me in hats. A trilby perhaps, set at an angle and pulled down low, like in those American gangster films of the ’40’s. And a new car. A new, secondhand one, that is. Small, modest. Nothing that would attract attention. But I was wary. The prospect of bartering with the trendy spivs running London’s secondhand car marts these days was not one I relished.
In fact, I so baulked at the idea that I took a chance on a little garage just a few streets away. I’d walked past it many times. It usually had some sort of vehicle for sale on its tiny forecourt. On that particular day there was a gleaming Harley-Davidson motorbike – for one crazy second it almost tempted me – alongside a little, two-door, blue Ford Sierra. Just the ticket. I descended into an oily cavern, spread with half-dismembered cars. The man who heaved himself out from beneath one of them was as old as I was. I was reassured.
He told me the Sierra was a good runner, low mileage. I trusted him. Its paintwork still shone and it seemed more or less free of dents. I paid him and drove it away feeling proud of myself. It had been accomplished entirely on my own. I found a space to park it in my road. I got out, stood back and looked at it. I liked it. It was a friendly car. One day soon, I would give it a name.
On the way back to my bedsit I discovered, deep in one of the inside pockets of that frightful zip-covered jacket (which I’d worn when I bought the car in order to avoid giving any impression of affluence) my old mobile – the one from which I’d removed the sim card in the taxi that afternoon in Wigan. I would not be needing it. I rubbed it very thoroughly with a tissue to remove any fingerprints – a nice touch, I thought – then dropped it into a skip in the road outside someone’s house.
The following morning I planned to be away. To Halifax. It’s where he began – so where I too would begin. It was Hobson’s choice anyway. Halifax was the last and only place I knew him to have existed. When I thought of it like that, my chances of success seemed ridiculously remote. Maybe I should try reading life’s runes. I’d lived long enough by intellect, rule and statute. And perhaps, on my way up north, I’d find some forgotten village well off the motorway, and post that letter.”


For those interested in buying the book, it’s available here –


And here – www.booksellercrow.co.uk

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