Brush with death

January 23, 2011

The lazy blogger resumes …

I was driving back from Cumbria the other week, when I lost my way, not in a dangerous fashion, and besides, the scenery was beautiful. I just added thirty minutes to the trip. I went through Sedbergh, and only with an extreme effort of will (because it’s advertised as a book-town) stopped myself from parking up and losing every last penny in my pockets on new purchases. My bedside is stacked up enough as it is. The road brings you back to the road to Brough, which in turn, when you turn right,  connects you to the A66, and so to Darlington. Where the road from Sedbergh joins up with the Brough road, there is a steep incline as you come to a junction. The road on which you are about to turn is quite heavy, in both directions, with traffic.

In front of me on the road was a very long lorry, loaded with pale green girders. It was going to take some time for it to find a gap in the traffic. For a moment, unbidden, an image flashed into my head (I don’t know why) of a girder slipping off the back of the lorry, and passing through my windscreen and decapitating me. I don’t normally go in for these lurid daydreams. And anyway, a second thought erased the first. If I drew alongside the lorry (since there was space), I would not have to wait so long. When it made its lumbering break for the far side of the road, I would be able to sidle into its slipstream, rather than wait my turn at what would be by then the front of the queue. So I moved my hands on the wheel, and pulled over to its left.

After five minutes (it seemed), the traffic did one of those coincidental both-way breaks, and the lorry found its gap. I duly drew out to the left of it, and slowly drew in behind it as it started to grind slowly into the distance. I was about thirty feet behind it, about to start on the journey east. And at that point, a girder did unfix itself, and crashed through the air towards my car. It landed in front of my car with a thump. I hit the brakes, but since I was hardly moving, this was easy. The girder landed six to nine inches in front of my bumper with a clatter. I got out to look at the car. I hadn’t heard anything, but it seemed possible that it had hit the front of my car, hit a light, hit a bumper, hit a tyre. But it hadn’t. The car behind me had squealed to a stop. I had to reverse a little to pull back out and round the lorry. The lorry-driver was too focused on the girder to do much more than wave vaguely at me.

It wasn’t really till I was back on the road, maybe past Brough and on the A66, that I realised that, had I not pulled to the lorry’s side, I would probably have been driving right behind it when the girder detached itself (and its trajectory was the driver’s side of my car). I suppose there’s a bit too much in that ‘probably’. It was a strange evasion though: a moment of precognition. I saw what might happen, and it happened. Enough to make me wonder about how many different meanings there are to the word ‘luck’.

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Elegy for Paul the Octopus

November 26, 2010

Nearly won a competition with this, but it was proxime accessit, so a shame to waste … the subject is the octopus who allegedly picked the winners in the World Cup Final matches

Did you, Paul, predict each ball,

To pick each winning nation?

Or tensing tentacles, was all

Your skill prestidigitation?

No matter if it was a sly trick:

We still salute you as a psychic.

                          *

Among the mystics, Paul, your star is

As high and bright as Sirius:

Uncommon octopus vulgaris,

You left us half-delirious.

Rune-reading: there is nothing scarier,

Lost titan of the world’s aquaria.

                             *

And yes, dear modest cephalopod,

Though you could have scooped the pools,

We mourn you as a demigod

As you leave us, grieving fools.


Two years (Grace Muriel Greenwell)

September 27, 2009

It’s two years today since my mother died, and that’s an odd feeling. I can’t even remember if it was ten to three or ten past three, and that feels almost rude of me. She knew it was coming (I was there when she was told, very skilfully, by a hospice doctor, that she had very little time, and we had a conversation which went something like

     ME: Well… I think he did that very well.

     HER: So do I.)

She was very phlegmatic about her death, and spent most of her last three days saying ‘Thank you’ to anyone who lifted a finger. It was the last thing she said (to a nurse), and also the last thing she said to me. That was like her: always polite in public.

On the morning of the last day, I was rung by the hospice and told I had better come in fairly quickly (what they said was ‘No rush’, but in such a way that you knew they meant the opposite). It was a Thursday. On a Thursday, a gardener came and sorted out her garden, which was what she liked best. I went out to tell him. For no reason I can think of, he told me a story, almost by return, about his time in the Merchant Navy. The worst job he’d had, he said, was making and taking tea to the officers. It meant filling a large urn and then manhandling it up to the next deck. ‘So I worked a flanker,’ he said. ‘I got some slack tea’ – this is a phrase I had never heard before, and have never heard since (it means ‘loose tea’) – ‘and I put it in the urn. Then I waited outside the door while they drank it.’ He heard the officers splutter on the excess of tea-leaves, and he heard one say, ‘Who’s made this tea? Is it that daft Geordie? Make sure that’s the last time he does it.’ I laughed out loud, looking at the trees and shrubs she’d never see.

In the hospice, having rung my brother, who made it by midday, they had finally moved her into a single room. She was in a coma, and someone had carefully parted her hair to one side, and she had, I remember thinking, no lipstick on: not like her. She looked like the ghost of her father come to life, a resemblance I had never seen. The room was bland and full of rectangles, and I did what I needed to do, however bizarre you think it. I wrote a draft of a poem. When my brother arrived, I made a dangerous dash for a sandwich, fearful that I would miss the moment (it’s silly things like this which you hold on to). I knew it was possible that she might linger for a couple of days, but instinct suggested otherwise. Maybe we all have that instinct.

I’d never seen anyone die. My sister was there when my father died, although, alas, no-one from the family was there when my sister died. These things can’t be planned. I hadn’t any idea what might take place. What happened was this: she raised her head, very suddenly, and opened her eyes. They were grey, unseeing, the colour of sealskin. She attempted three breaths, and her body relaxed. I was talking quietly in her ear: told her we were all there, including my sister. In a queer kind of way, it was beautiful.

We waited fifteen minutes until calling in the doctor and the nurse. Better that way. She was someone I had spent perhaps thirty years, between the ages of twelve and forty-two, not getting on with. And then we clicked, made a truce. There was the palaver of removing her rings, her bag.

We stood on the hospice door-step. ‘Orphans,’ I said to my brother, and we laughed. I didn’t go back to see her dressed up in the funeral parlour. I wanted to hold the memory. So I hold this day sacred, as I do the day of my sister’s death. Not my father’s, and I don’t know why. I didn’t know how much I would miss her.

My mother, aged 4, on holiday in 1926

My mother, aged 4, on holiday in 1926


Ellie Greenwich

September 2, 2009

I may be doomed to note in this blog the passing of the writers of my record collection, but Ellie Greenwich, who died last week aged 68, was – alone, or with her then-husband, Jeff Barry, or with other partners – the queen of a particular sound in the 1960s, and the lyricist and musician behind some of the really great singles – Be My Baby, Leader Of the Pack, Chapel Of Love, River Deep – Mountain High, And Then He Kissed Me, Da Doo Ron Ron – that linger on, on the airwaves and in the sub-conscious, long after they first appeared. Be My Baby, Brian Wilson’s favourite song, as he never ceases to say, is one that can be listened to in a vacuously hummable way, over and over again. It’s true that the production lifts it (courtesy of the now incarcerated Phil Spector), as is also the case with Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep – Mountain High (mysteriously not an American success): but you have to have the framework on which to build, and Greenwich and her partners provided it. The acid test is whether it can be recorded successfully by someone else, and Chapel Of Love, originally by a forgotten group, The Dixie Cups, is, in that first incarnation, quite a mournful little song, slow and actually not very breezy, with a great hook. But hear Bette Midler transform it, and you realise what a nifty song it is (Midler is under-rated in this respect: she is the only singer who sings Cole Porter’s dirge-like ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ at breakneck speed, and makes you wonder why no-one else ever did). 

When I got married, the assembled throng (crowd? assembly?) were treated to first the Dixie Cups, and the Bette Midler, as a warm-up to the main action. We had some trouble with the registrar over this carefully-thought-out choice, because Rules State that, if you are being married in a converted milking-parlour (which we were), that you should not hint at any religious associations. We took some time to strong-arm the registrar and her assistant into submission, but they colluded in the end.

Greenwich’s big years were 1964 and 1965. Like Jackie de Shannon and Carole King, she had an eye on a solo career, but, as with de Shannon, the career never took off, although the royalties on the songs above must have kept her in considerable comfort. On the debit side, she discovered Neil Diamond (sorry folks, I’m not keen). And she also co-wrote Do Wah Diddy Diddy (although she denied writing the ungrammatical line ‘I knew we was falling in love’!), which is certainly catchy, but then so is swine ‘flu. Peter Cook took Do Wah Diddy Diddy to pieces in his spoof interviews with Clive Anderson, when he pretended to be an alien enthusiast who had been asked by extra-terrestrials to explain the lyrics. Her last really big hit was years later (The Sunshine After The Rain).

Ellie Greenwich in 1967

Ellie Greenwich in 1967

What I like about Greenwich’s songs (even when they are doom-laden like Leader Of The Pack) is their great, in-your-face innocence, and their joy in love. And that she rhymed ‘My heart stood still’ with ‘Somebody told me that his name was Bill’. Be honest, you’ve sung it.

You’ll probably sing it in your bath, too, now I’ve mentioned it. The chorus ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ was just filler until they thought of something better. Luckily, they never did.


My sister

March 16, 2009

Today – March 16th – is eight years to the day since my younger and only sister Clare died, and since she was two years younger, it means, very strangely, that I have had a decade of life which she never saw or knew. I could write down a fairly substantial list of influences on how and who I am, but her death had more impact than anything else. It was as if someone had reached inside me and not only switched a lot off, but also yanked at a series of levers. Within a year, I had left the job I’d been doing for nearly three decades, and started trying to do something else, something I wanted, before I ossified. (Much the same happened to my younger brother, and also to my mother – it almost literally sobered her up, made her more resilient. I only saw her crack once, and that was when we – the four of us, the fourth being her husband – went together to see her body in the hospice. She simply said, ‘I remember the day she was born’. Banalities like this are more moving than anything else.)

Death can make you – me, maybe – very selfish. For quite a while, my attitude to the world was that it had known nothing about suffering; coming to terms with the death of others, of people I hadn’t known at all, became hard. It was wanting to own the death as special, a predictable but unworthy emotion. And viewing her, still and cold, was a particularly strange experience, because it was the metastasis of an eye cancer which did for her, and she had had an eye removed over three years earlier. So when we went to see her, she had one eye – the false eye – open. The illusion of her being able to see was disturbing and memorable in even measure.

She was cremated on a Friday. The only significance of this was that it was the local vicar (not that she was a believer) had Fridays off. So we were allocated an as-it-were locum. He was called Norman. Norman came round to discuss the funeral. ‘How long have we got?’ we asked him (we meant, how much of the service did we own?). He thought a bit, weighing up the thirty minutes, and thought that we (my brother and I) should certainly have, between us, a minute. Unless I am mistaken, everyone else left the room at this point.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘my brother and I have things to say.’ In fact, I had at least twenty minutes already written, although I knew I’d have to cut it. ‘But,’ he protested, ‘people get very upset when they are talking at funerals.’ That remark has stuck. I explained that we were both teachers, and that talking was what we did for a living. He wasn’t reassured at all, but, after what seemed oddly like haggling, we got Norman to take the minute – he introduced the closing song we’d picked, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, while we took most of the rest.

My father used to comment, of funerals, that there was ‘a good gate’ (or otherwise). Clare’s half-hour attracted a very large gate. (Ironically, she had re-trained as a teacher of the visually impaired not long before she lost half of her own sight. She was popular.)

Now I need March 16th to have a gate of one. I have a simple ritual, which is to play a series of songs she liked (suspecting she was dying, she had written out a list to be played at any wake), between one and two in the afternoon: she died about about half-past one. I buy some flowers, tulips probably, because I know nothing about flowers, but have a vague attraction to tulips. Somewhere in the centre of this suite of songs is the Mamas and Papas version of ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’, not for the twee title, but because it was a song we both liked, for its contrasts – the soft intro, the swelling and almost raucous chorus. (Really oddly, John Phillips, the leader of the Mamas and Papas, died on pretty much the same day as Clare – two days later, to be precise.)

Every year, I have the same fear, which is that I won’t be able to weep. But I do, and I will.

Dylan Thomas wrote, very gnomically, in his poem ‘refusing to mourn the death of a child, by fire, in the Blitz,’ that ‘After the first death, there is no other.’ I can’t be sure what he meant, but the line makes a lot of sense on its own. I was too young to take in my father’s death (although I was 34): its impact was limited. But after Clare’s death, for me, there will be no other.

Clare, taken by my brother, David

Clare, taken by my brother, David


Grandmothers

February 13, 2009

Victor Borge used to have a routine in which he kidded the audience. He announced that it was his grandfather’s (or uncle’s, I forget which) one hundredth birthday. The audience’s members, having lost their concentration through having laughed so hard, indulged themselves in a sentimental fit, and applauded generously. After a fractional pause, Borge carried on, “Unfortunately, he couldn’t be here to see it… how could he be? He died when he was 29.” At which point, the audience resumed their hysteria (Borge is almost forgotten, isn’t he? Yet in his day he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. He is probably better remembered for his voice-overs for Heineken lager (‘refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach’) than for his classical music spoofs and his phonetic punctuation.

Today (Friday 13 February) is my grandmother’s 114th birthday. Pause, Borge-style. Unfortunately…

She was born in 1895, and died in 1967 – born as Mabel Winifred Catcheside. I was only 14 when she died, of breast cancer, the first of a wave of cancer victims in my family – each from a different source: my father (lungs), my sister (eye), my aunt (stomach), my mother (ovaries), which makes me morbidly wonder where I’m going to catch it, and when. Since she was the only grandmother I knew (my mother’s mother had died two years before I was born), she was the only female family member of that generation I knew at all. Her sister survived well into her nineties, but I met her only once (family feud); and my grandfather’s sister also lived into her nineties, but I never met her at all (family feud). In fact, my mother’s father also had two sisters, and one of them lived into her nineties, and I met each of them only twice each (family feuds, although it was more complex than that). The three  I met only once or twice lived respectively ten, two, and one-and-a-half miles from my parents’ house. It was ridiculous.

My grandmother came from a well-to-do shipbroking family in Newcastle, and her own grandfathers had been successful respectively in the grocery and tailoring trades. I have no idea how she met my grandfather, but she was pretty much part of the Greenwell family before she was 18, and she and my grandfather were inseparable, and had, it seemed to me (and to my mother) very few close friends, being intent on each other’s company. And yet this was surely at odds with her nature, which was outgoing and generous and also highly sentimental. She wept her way through my parents’ wedding in 1951, much to my mother’s annoyance, distraught at the ‘loss’ of her son – who moved into the same road as his parents within three years, and into his father’s office at the ship-repair yard within one year – so he hardly absented himself.

She had plainly been something of a Newcastle society belle – or maybe that was Sunderland, to which she moved shortly before or shortly after her father’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1917. And yet, to be honest, there is fantastically little that I can remember about her. I can recall that she drank (as every adult in my orbit seemed to do) a lethal gin concoction – in her case, ‘gin and mixed’, which is a tumbler half-filled with gin, and  the other two quarters filled respectively with sweet and dry vermouth. It would knock me out – especially at lunch-time, which was when I saw her drinking it. She also disliked salt on crisps, and a separate bowl was maintained for her snacking (I think this is where I get my snack habits from). She also used Edwardian slang – ‘ducky’, for instance.

And yet, oddly enough, the most vivid image I have of her is one which I have acquired second-hand. On her last night at home (before her last journey to hospital), she fell out of bed, and could not get back in. She had a live-in housekeeper (who had been living in for 45 years by that point) who could not possibly lift her, and who therefore lay down beside her to keep her company. And what she said was this: ‘I am very worried about Bill. I am sure he will marry a girl one day, and leave her the next.’ At that time, as I say, I was only – and only just, or even not quite – 14. What on earth had I done to suggest this?

It still puts a crease in my forehead.

Mabel Winifred Greenwell (Catcheside) c. 1919

Mabel Winifred Greenwell (Catcheside) c. 1919


i.m. John Martyn

January 30, 2009

Another one gone, and only 60, although folk-jazz guitarist John Martyn had flirted with death on several occasions, and, having had a leg amputated a few years ago, and having ballooned to twenty stone, he must have guessed that his fighting chances were limited.

When you watched John Martyn at the height of his success, in the mid-1970s, when the albums Bless The Weather, Inside Out and Solid Air succesively redefined what you could do with ‘folk’, he was an agitated, happily alcoholic singer, who would punctuate his amazing performances with rambles and rants. What he had hit on, using the echo-effect of an Echoplex, was the device of singing against a guitar which was playing against a delay of itself. At the same time, he slowed and slurred his voice into an instrument, drawling the words so that they merged into the music (usually he was accompanied by Danny Thompson on double bass, which anchored the enterprise). The sound was stunning, and not at all unlike a sort of slow and enterprising scat. (There was a live album, too, Live At Leeds (then the premier venue),which he produced and had pressed and sold from his home, failing to persuade his record company to do it: in many ways, it’s his best.) At the end of this came Grace And Danger, which has grown and grown in reputation, but which was his last for Island Records – one of the key labels to be associated with.

Later in his career, especially during the dumps into which he fell in the mid-1980s, and when he toured with a drum machine, he seemed almost hell-bent on reversing his reputation. Onstage, he wore shades, and complained about the light, was angry with the audience, and didn’t play well at all, it seemed to me – even though he was playing to the completely converted. Only in the last decade had he somehow worked his way back into favour – with himself, perhaps, as much as with his music. In the last two years, he was given award after award – you can’t help feeling he must have known he was being feted because no-one thought he could last (he himself declared that he would make it to 70).

It was the mixture of reckless and sweet in his music that really appealed – songs about intangible feelings, long soundscapes of rhythm, an electric bonanza of effect and counter-effect. But here he is. on the cusp of that era, with ‘May You Never’, probably his most-requested song (which makes me think of something else, which I’ll add in a second):

When I saw Martyn in the 1980s, he objected in particular to his audience shouting suggestions to him: most frequently for songs on those three major albums. I have no idea to what extent it drives songwriters and singers mad to have to deliver up their most conspicuous successes, years after recording them. Dylan still sings ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ almost every night, just as Eric Burdon sings ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ (not least because he never saw a penny from the original, which is another story). There is an early live album (Miles of Aisles) on which a shirty Joni Mitchell fends off a request by telling her audience that no-one said to Van Gogh ‘Paint “Starry Night” again, man’, and an album – Jazz-Blues Fusion – on which John Mayall ticks off someone who has the nerve to ask for ‘Room To Move’ with the words ‘Why did you come here? To hear an old record?’ Is this biting the hand which feeds you? Perhaps.

But there again, Janis Ian makes a point of playing ‘At Seventeen’, and ‘Fly Too High’, telling her audience they deserve it. And I think this is where John Martyn may have lost his way a little. To have had such huge success in his twenties, and still to be asked to re-visit those years when he was several, albeit less memorable albums down the line, that seems to have bitten him for a long time.

Grouchy or not, he was the kind of singer who inspired great devotion, rather like his contemporary, Roy Harper. That he survived so long when his friends at Island, Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff, pressed the self-destruct button, was an achievement in itself. His last perfomances, from a wheelchair of course, had a kind of heroism about them.