‘Albatross’ – Extract 11

Here below is the next extract from my book, ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, published on Amazon. It is available in both book and Kindle form. The link to it is –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

You can also get it, in book form, from this seriously excellent South London Bookshop –

http://www.booksellercrow.co.uk/

One reader’s comment –

“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.”

 

28.

I miss Ellen. I miss the skein of perfume that hangs in the air as she passes. I miss her laughter, her voice on the telephone in another room. I miss her touch and the softness of her lips. I miss making love to her. I miss waking up in the morning, touching her still-sleeping hand and knowing she is there. I miss coming home to her.
The attempt to try not to wonder how she’s coping or what goes through her head when she thinks of me sometimes takes more strength than I have. At those times I’m all but frozen with guilt and regret.
Even after all this time, I still keep away from newspapers. Not so much because I think they’re interested any longer in my whereabouts – I’m not a Lord Lucan. Or even a Reggie Perrin. But what I don’t want is to stumble upon some article, included to fill out a newspaper on a news dog-day and designed to jerk tears, about the effect on Ellen of my perfidy.
All the questions come flooding back. Why – why didn’t I just level with her? – before I asked her to marry me, before Brockwell Park, before she put her finger on my lips that day and gave me the excuse I was looking for – why did I not simply tell her the truth and take the consequences? Why did I string this albatross around my neck?
Ellen has never been a mother. There are no medical or gynaecological issues. She never wanted children. What she would have done in the earlier years of our relationship had a baby come along – despite our rigorous precautions – I can’t imagine. I simply cannot see Ellen coping with that sort of disruption. I remember only too clearly the seismic upheaval the arrival of baby Matt brought to the lives of Stella and myself. A new baby, especially the first, rearranges the domestic dynamics in a brutally disinterested way – and not for just the time it takes you to get them back on track again, because you never do.
I know Ellen well enough to know she would have found the advent into our lives of a child not her own – albeit in the form of a man getting on for middle age – profoundly disturbing and very likely intolerable. She is not, in some respects, the most understanding of women – at least not in matters which fall so far outside her experience.
Something has had to give. Despite Licia’s less than overwhelmed attitude towards what I’m doing, I nevertheless believe it is the least dishonourable of the courses open to me.
29.

Licia’s contacts within the advertising business were, by this time of her life, few and far between. She had been retired for a number of years and was, as she told me the following day when she rang, rather out of touch. So the fact that she could recall no-one by the name of Matt or Matthew Marshal-cum-McDonald-cum-Whatever wasn’t significant. But she was meeting her daughter, Marie, later that week and was hopeful something may emerge from that.
Marie, it seems, had not followed her mother into advertising, regarding it, to her mother’s chagrin, as ‘a job which society would be better off without’. As if to rub it in, she had taken a post with one of those shadowy organisations whose function it is to keep a critical eye on the content of advertising of all sorts – if necessary insisting on its amendment or even its rejection. The unofficial view of the advertising agencies was that such bodies were there primarily to be obstructionist and to thwart their creativity. The reverse view – that of the bodies themselves, and probably more realistic – was that without them the country’s TV sets would be awash with downright lies instead of with just ingeniously worked half-truths.
Although Marie therefore was not working directly in advertising itself, she was involved across the board – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – with many of its practitioners. London advertising, although far and away the largest in the UK, is still a relatively small and introverted affair. There seemed therefore, a reasonable chance that if Matt had found his way into it and was still working in it she might have heard of him, or could at least dig around and find somebody who had.
My only concern was that of having to reveal myself to Marie – a third party about whom I was not in a position to make a judgment. In a phone conversation with Licia I was pondering how I should put this to her when she herself saved my embarrassment. “I don’t think, by the way,” she said, “that you should talk to Marie yourself. Let me do that. I can poke around in Marie’s mean little anti-advertising mind without her thinking there’s more to it than I’m letting on.”
And so it was one morning, wearing my Yves St. Laurent jeans, light blue open-neck shirt, Italian black leather jacket, shades, beard in admirable condition and my hair trailing stylishly to my shoulders that I – posing as ‘Mister Peters’ – met up with Minxie in the Greek Cypriot café in Crouch End.
Minxie, I’d learned from Marie via Licia, was a copywriter of some repute at one of London’s larger agencies. She had apparently worked relatively recently with a man who answered what pathetically few scraps of a description I’d been able to provide. It was flimsy stuff. But Marie had done her best and I had nothing else. Once she’d got a coffee and settled herself down, I asked Minxie simply to tell me, in her own words, all she could about this man.
The very first thing threw me – his Christian name bore no relation to ‘Matthew’ – it was Gaston.
“Gaston? ‘Gaston What’?”
“’Vincent’. And he insisted you pronounced it like in French – Vah-sar. Something like that. I don’t know French.”
“’Gaston Vincent’.” I listened to it as I said it. “Sounds too French to be French. Was this man English?”
“As far as I know. Yes, he must have been – after he’d had a few drinks or got a bit excited he developed a bit of a northern accent. Yorkshire, Lancashire – something like that.”
“What about a middle name – did he have – ?”
“If he did, he never said.”
“OK. Gaston Vincent. Please go on.”
It turned out he worked not in advertising itself, but in one of the many small film companies in Soho that produced TV and cinema commercials for the ad agencies. He was, she said, what they called a Production Manager. It sounded grand enough but even though I’d worked in advertising myself, I’d had too little to do with the production of commercials to have any idea what that involved. When I asked her, she shook her elegantly coiffured head. “There’s Production Managers and Production Managers,” she observed mysteriously. Then smiled to herself as she stirred her coffee.
I waited for some elaboration. But she just gazed into her cup. “I’m not quite sure,” I ventured, “what you mean.”
She swept her hair back. “What I mean,” she said, “is that there are the names. The guys who do the big ones.” She stirred her coffee. “Gaston didn’t. Though if he’d liked himself a little more, he could have done.”
I was still at sea. “’The big ones’?”
“Pictures. Movies. An elite band – mostly men of course – has it sewn up.”
I was sure she wasn’t actually trying to confuse me. But she might have been speaking Mandarin. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but you’re talking of a world about which I know virtually nothing.”
“Gaston was an in-house Production Manager. He’d been with them a long time.”
“With whom?”
“Leopard Films.” She said it as though ‘Leopard Films’ were words on the lips of half the world. “In that little passageway between Berwick Street and Wardour Street. They were once – ” – and here she formed an ‘O’ between thumb and first finger, held it up before me and gave it a snappy flourish – “ – the business!” Then she went back to her coffee. “Times change though. Don’t they?”
I struggled on. “You knew him reasonably well, by the sound of it.”
“I did.” She smiled. “He was wonderfully eccentric. I like that.” She threw out a sudden laugh which had little apparent connection with her speaking voice – light, lilting, musical. “Oh,” she said, the laugh subsiding into a smile of sweet remembering, “he was delightfully different.”
“Was he?” I replied, warily. “What sort of ‘different’?”
“He would come into meetings sometimes – “ – she put down her cup, leaned across the table and spoke in an urgent, confidential tone – “ – dressed entirely in black – black shirt, outrageous black leather trousers, black boots up to here – “ – she stuck out one of her own shapely stockinged legs and tapped it just below the knee – “ – a black hat with a great wide brim which he called his pet Akubra. On his wrists he’d have these chunky silver bracelets. And round his neck – ” – she indicated with both hands – “ – the most beautiful silver pendant with a ruby in it. At least it looked like a ruby. I always wanted him to tell me where he got it but he – ”
“I understand you worked with him?”
“The Addison’s Tea commercials,” she replied, proudly. “Bewley’s Lager – I wrote all those. Criterion Car Insurance.”
“And you knew him over quite a long period?”
“A year – ish”
“D’you know if he’d ever worked in an advertising agency?”
“Probably. Not sure.”
“When did you last see him?”
She looked blankly back at me for a fraction of a second. As though something inside had first to be dealt with. That done, she launched into what I can only describe as a piece of personal theatre. She sat back, raised her eyes to the ceiling and placed, with self-conscious elegance, the index finger of her right hand on the little finger of the left. Paused. Then, in a stage whisper, she started to count – slowly and deliberately, “One-two-three – ” – and as she did so, with the index finger of the right hand she pressed down on each finger in turn of the left. People have made cabaret acts of less. I watched in a mixture of fascination and profound irritation.
“ – four – five – and – er – well – ” – she took her eyes from the ceiling and looked at me – “ – six. About six months ago.”
“And how well did you know him?”
She took a quick sip of her coffee. “Do you mean did we fuck?”
My jaw dropped. “Er – well,” I stammered, “in a way, I suppose. But – ”
“From time to time. As you do.”
I decided to move this up a gear. “Listen Minxie,” I said, baulking just a little at that name on my own tongue, “I need to know about him – the man. His background, details of where he came from, colour of his hair etc.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You a private dick, Mister Peters?”
I’d hoped not to have to do this. “OK,” I said. “I don’t know how much Marie told you, but the background to all this is as follows.” With which I launched into an elaborate fiction I’d put together in anticipation of some sort of hiatus. I was, I told her, acting on behalf of an elderly female client. This lady had not heard from her only son in five years. He had left the family home in the country one Sunday evening to drive back to London and was never seen or heard of thereafter. He didn’t return to his flat in Clapham, his car was never found. He had, at the time, been about to take up a position at an advertising agency. The lady – a recent widow – was now in poor health and desperate to have any news of him, her only child.
I sat back, smiling one of those sad, ‘that’s life’ smiles.
She grimaced. “How awful.”
I’d told my story well. Minxie was seriously upset, and quite stripped, for a while, of her affectations. I wasn’t proud of myself. But that’s the way it had to be. “OK,” I continued. “Where did he come from? Had he been married? Any brothers or sisters? You were with him for a year. In that time there must be a lot of things – however insignificant they might seem – that you learned about him and have perhaps forgotten. Can I ask you now to dig deep? For any scrap or fag end that might give this now rather desperate lady something to hang onto.” I also needed to ask her about his parents, but as my ‘client’ was one of them, it wasn’t clear yet how I was going to go about that.
She took a few seconds to consider it. Then, with the anguish of the ageing widow in mind, told me anything she could remember and in whatever order.
He was in his late thirties – or at least, that’s what she judged. He would never divulge his true age, coming up, whenever she questioned him, with rather silly extremes of one sort or another. From what odd bits about himself he did give away, despite his tendency to play from time to time, the streetwise card, she formed the impression he was a country boy, more au fait with the land and the open air than with the cramped spaces of the city. He came, he had said, from a ‘broken home’. But never revealed in what way it was ‘broken’. As for his name – Gaston Vincent – nobody, including herself, questioned it. In the film and TV advertising world, it was not uncommon for people to call themselves by ‘trendy’ or ‘fashionable’ names in preference to the ones they were born with.
He was about my height, she said, with almost black hair that contained a streak or two of early grey. His eyes were brown. He had never spoken of brothers or sisters. Minxie had assumed he was an only child. He seemed well educated but they had never discussed his schooling.
In private, he seemed often rootless and insecure. Anxious to please and to be accepted. At other times almost to court others’ displeasure, to challenge them, to discomfit them. Good-looking, quick-witted, attractive to women. Yet there was a surprisingly vulnerable side to him. The odd innocent remark could sometimes trigger an explosive anger or even reduce him for a few moments to an almost ineffectual ditherer.
All in all, he was very different from other men she had met. He had about him what she termed, ‘a permanently edgy buzz, an unpredictability; a feeling that he was slightly dangerous to be with’. He could be very funny, having a wicked sense of humour. “And on top of that,” she said, lighting up a cigarette, “with a drink or two inside him, he would talk about things most men shy away from – emotions, feelings, things like that.” She had been, she said, ‘incredibly attracted’ to him. She sat back and drew on her cigarette.
“Did he,” I asked, “ever tell you where he came from?”
“I asked him once.”
“And?”
“Somewhere south of Inverness and north of Brighton,’ he said.” She smiled. “He liked playing games.”
“Does ‘Lincolnshire’ ring a bell?”
“Is that where his mother lives?”
‘His mother ‘? My mind went blank. Stella?? How on earth would Minxie – ? No – the fictitious widow. Christ, I was adrift. I dragged things back together. I had to side step the question. I said, in a rather loud, nervy voice, “So do you have any idea where he is now?”
She shook her head. “The last time I saw Gaston was in a restaurant – just off Wandsworth Common – on the day he resigned from Leopard. We ate, he paid the bill, said goodbye and fucked off into the sunset.” She was upset.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“He wanted out. The film business and the country were off down the toilet, he said.”
“Where did he – er – fuck off to?”
“Abroad.”
“Where abroad?”
“I don’t know.” She bit her lip, looked away.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This isn’t easy for you.”
She shrugged as if to say, ‘I can cope.’ “All he told me was he was going to ‘make serious money’. Bullshit.” She stubbed out her cigarette. “He was doing a runner. Don’t ask me what from because I don’t know. Me – most likely.”
Her defences had fallen away. I wanted to put an arm around her shoulder and tell her things would be alright. Maybe that’s what having a daughter would have been like.
She looked at her watch. She was becoming agitated and a little distressed. “Just one more question,” I said, as a sudden inspiration came to me. “Did Gaston ever say what he felt about his parents? What view he had of them? My client, you see, worries herself sick sometimes that maybe it was something she or her now dead husband had said or done – their relationship with their son had often been troubled.”
She thought. Then drank the last of her coffee. She put the cup down slowly. “He never, ever spoke about his parents. I used to tell him I didn’t think he had any. But then one day he said he’d had a letter.”
“A letter?”
“From his father.”
I almost choked on my coffee. My heart pounded. Was I about to be sunk?
“I’d never seen him like that. It had touched some really raw nerve, and he blew sky-high. He wouldn’t have told me otherwise, I’m sure. Even then he just blurted out the gist.”
“Which was??”
“It was all to do with a woman friend of his father’s and a dispute over some property. Putting two and two together, it sounded like the old man had promised it to Gaston, but somehow she’d got her hands on it. He said the old man had betrayed him, that he was a hypocrite and ‘a free-loading nonentity’. I told him that was not a very nice thing to say about his father. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘well that’s where you’re wrong. He’s not my father.’”
An electric shock went through me.
“’He’s my stepfather’, he said. And he’d never had a lot of time for him anyway.
I had difficulty getting my breath. “So – so – who was his real father then? Did he say?”
She shook her head. “He couldn’t remember him. He died when Gaston was very young.”
I fell back in my chair.
“Gaston had this weird idea that having a step parent carried some sort of social stigma. He made me promise never to tell anybody. Anyway – ” – she started gathering her things together – “ – I can’t see it matters now.”
“Nothing?” I said, my voice faint. “He could remember nothing?” I sat forward again. “A recreation ground, for example? A park? You know the sort of thing? With swings and slide?”
She looked puzzled.
“Or – or anything about a poster – on the wall of a building – an advert that frightened him? No?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, standing up, “I’m not sure what you’re – ”
“And you don’t know what part of the country this was in?”
“What was?” Her look was turning to one of concern.
“His father’s death. I mean, where did that happen and what – ?”
“I’m sorry, I’m getting a bit – ”
“No, no. Right.” Confusion and embarrassment were about to demolish me.
She picked up her bag from the table. “That wouldn’t have any relevance to where Gaston is now anyway, would it? I mean, he – ”
“No. Absolutely not. I just – well, just thought this lady would be interested. In principle.”
Her concern was deepening. “But she presumably would have known where he died – his father, that is. Wouldn’t she – her husband? I mean – er – ”
I too stood up. I was staring at her – struggling to suppress an urge to blurt out the whole truth to this woman. She had known ‘Gaston’ only a few months back, eaten with him, slept with him. But then – who was this ‘Gaston’ anyway? He could be absolutely anybody. Yet already I’d pinned my son’s name on him. I was breaking up.
Minxie forced a smile. “I hope what I’ve said helps this poor lady.”
“Guaranteed!” Did I really say that? What a stupid response. I didn’t know where to look, how to be.
“Look,” she glanced at her watch again, “it’s time I was heading off now.”
We shook hands. “Thank you,” I said. “So much.”
She turned to go. Then said, “Oh!”, stopped and looked back. “One thing. He did tell me once – for what it’s worth – that he had a middle name. Which he said he hated. I didn’t take it seriously, but whether it’s any more believable than ‘Gaston’ or ‘Vincent’ I don’t know.”
“Oh, yes?” I said, flatly. I was out of enthusiasm. I was a fool on a fool’s errand. “And what was that?”
“Alec,” she said.
“Just – ‘Alec’?”
“That’s what he said.” Then she smiled and went, telling me it had been nice meeting me and that she was going shopping. At least I think that’s what she said. I really don’t remember.
I got the bus back to Kilburn. ‘Alec’ – “for what it’s worth,” she’d said. Well, let’s be realistic – plain, unadorned ‘Alec’ wasn’t worth anything. ‘Alex’ on the other hand, might have been a different matter – Matt’s middle name was ‘Alexander’. So maybe Minxie’s memory had misled her. We all have the right to believe what we want to.

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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.

judgement

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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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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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 –

DSC_2368

‘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. 

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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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Sadness in the Little Island

In the early part of this week, W and I spent a day wandering around a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the county of Sussex in the south of the UK. The weather was hot, averaging around 32C in a completely cloudless sky. There was a wonderful quiet sultriness about everything. Birds stayed hidden most of the time in the trees and shrubs, out of the heat, only the occasional call giving their presence away. The members of a distant herd of highland cattle seemed virtually petrified on their feet. A flock of fifty or so grey lag geese plodded slowly, meticulously through a wetland, foraging in what remained of the mud. Butterflies of all colours flitted and danced through the air. Apart from them, the only other living things not apparently subdued by the heat were the hundreds of dragon flies – some of them huge – and damsel flies hovering and darting about with apparently undiminished energy.

The paths on the reserve twist and wander around over open meadow land and through wooded glades dappled with sunshine. Stopping at one viewpoint – a large wooden platform constructed on the slope of a wooded hill to give a view over miles of countryside – we talked with a man who was a volunteer worker on the reserve. He had worked there many years. He had at his side a gleaming modern scythe he used for cutting down thick grass and vegetation. He spoke with a quiet enthusiasm of turning up there at seven that morning when it was still cool with the mist lying all along the ground at little more than ankle-height; of the silence at that hour, of the low sun and long, slanting shadows; of the different birds he’d seen. The world is so beautiful at that time of the morning in such places. There is great order in it.

Coming back to London however, a city I love and have lived in for many years, a depressing reality is nowadays inescapable. Although London itself – and a number of other large cities, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted overwhelmingly in the recent shambles known as ‘the referendum’ to remain in the EU, Britain today is Brexit Britain. That is – Britain going it alone; isolationist, xenophobic Britain; a Britain which has demonstrated to the world in a few short weeks, that its long-held reputation for decency, probity, racial tolerance and solid good sense was skin-deep.

As an indirect result of that Brexit vote, we now have a new Prime Minister. She has gathered around her, a new Cabinet. And whom do we have among her list of luminaries? Well, our new Foreign Secretary is a man spoken of by other world leaders world as a buffoon and liar; another new government minister is a man whose basic honesty, a few short years ago, was tried in two very important aspects and found severely wanting in both – to the point where he was forced to resign. Neither man would be employed by any reputable employer. To cap it all, our new Prime Minister herself stated unequivocally in parliament the other day, that she would indeed, if called on to do so, press the button to unleash a nuclear missile on another sovereign state, killing a hundred thousand or more people.

Are there others out there who, along with me, think the human race, in its present form, is seriously insane?  Two thousand odd years of Western ‘civilisation’ have taught us almost nothing. We continue to behave in a way that is criminally lacking not only in morality but in the most basic intelligence. Go back to the nature reserve. Watch the birds, the butterflies, the creatures of the field, the woods, the grasses, the clouds in the sky – learn from them. They have a timeless lesson to teach. But it seems we aren’t listening. Maybe we’re just too clever.

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Letter from a little island

Tuesday June 28 2016

Dear Europe, World,

Hello. I’ve tried to stay away from Shipwreck Brexit, but the few days since the announcement last Friday that Britain had voted to leave the European Union have been among the saddest of my adult life. That this country – or at least 52% of its voters – a country that has so boasted of  its ‘values’ – its tolerance, its championing of the underdog, its magnanimity – should have opted, when the chips went down, for xenophobia, isolationism and some sugar-coated dream of a nirvana that never was – otherwise known as ‘getting our country back’ – leaves me with a deep sadness. Already the all too predictable is happening – there were reports yesterday of a 57% rise in racist/xenophobic attacks on non-Brits in the UK, including school-age young children. What have we come to? What sort of people have been lurking in the shadows of this land?

And now – and if you can’t see the connection, then you need to open your eyes a little wider – the England football team crash out of Euro 2016 in what’s being heralded as the most ignominious of all national team defeats. The Brits, you see, at whatever level and in whatever sphere, do not take to being team players. We’re divas. If we could have stayed in Europe and ordered everybody else about and told them what to do – well, that would have been pretty nice. We could have handled that. After all, we won the war. Which one? Er – the one that ended sixty years ago. When we stood alone. And which, without the Americans, the Poles, the Gurkhas and many others from other lands, we would have lost. That war. It confers on us a sort of universal entitlement.

But now – it’s looking like the illusion, the self-deception are catching up with us. The edifice is crumbling. As one commentator in the Guardian newspaper put it, ‘England has not yet come to terms with its own irrelevance’. And in my view, until it does, it will sink further and further into the quicksand. Profound lessons need to be learned. Humility would be a good one to start with.

 Yours hopefully,

 Besonian

P.S. Is anyone listening?

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