Distant Showers Sweep Across Norfolk Schools

For the lucky ones such as I, memories of the past are akin to imaginary creatures, amorphous yet solid, there but yet not quite there, subject to being shaped by the will to make things fit with the idea of an ideal past, yes, once again those blue-remembered hills of yore.

Lately I have been listening to the work of a band called ‘July Skies’. They deal in a particular kind of musical nostalgia that is designed to evoke in the listener the distinct feeling of a place and time, and by goodness it works. The mainstay of the band is a young man named Antony Harding. He holds some singularly unusual ideas for a contemporary young man, and he can be found expressing them during a 2006 interview in a highly eloquent and captivating manner at this website, http://www.pennyblackmusic.co.uk/MagSitePages/Article.aspx?id=4113 . His views really resonate with me – as a younger person I often found solace in visiting old deserted buildings, sitting quietly and listening to the sounds they made, imagining the lives of those who had once lived there… I was a strange little chap, really.

The title of this posting strikes me as emanating a strange, calm serenity, invoking something of a Turner landscape in the reader. In my mind’s eye I see huge skies flecked with streaks of blue-grey rain that descend upon and partially obscure the clusters of tiny grey buildings dotted amongst the green at the bottom of the picture. It actually comes from the name of a track on the July Skies album ‘The Weather Clock’, and in my opinion Mr. Harding totally succeeds in using appropriate instrumentation and almost intangible atmospheres on this recording to conjure the feelings and sensations of growing up and living in post-war twentieth century Britain. It’s a world of grass poking through grey concrete slabs, grimy windows, gritty pavements designed to inflict maximum damage to children’s knees, sweet wrappers blowing through deserted housing estates, a lone mother wrapped up against the cold pushing a pram up a steep hill… Real or make believe? Who knows? Why should we care if it feels right, which it does… One track is called ‘Waiting for the Test Card’, and it does remind this listener in an uncanny way of the butterfly-stomached anticipation that the test card appearing on the television screen brought to those of us of a certain age… impossible to convey to many today, as we face saturation television digitally penetrating our homes from satellites or cables twenty-four hours a day… the old guard are disappearing too… last year the genius that was Oliver Postgate, this year Tony Hart. My old musical sparring partner Skip has more to say on their sad passing on his blog over at skipcormack.blog.co.uk, please take the time to visit. I don’t always entirely see eye to eye with him, but in this case I do. These remarkable and gentle men were inspirations and friends to thousands of British children and I cannot help but wonder if the braying hyperactive ninnies who host many children’s TV programmes nowadays will be remembered with such warm fondness by their viewers. Mind you, Barney the Dinosaur seems, although oh-so-slightly annoying, quite a big-hearted kindly chap and little O is very taken by him indeed…

I’m sorry if these last two postings appear to have had an overly sentimental sepia tinge to them… it’s not that the past was better, for that is not the case, it’s just I feel, as I’m sure many do, that to a degree we have slightly lost our way as humans at the moment. Yes, the past is a distant country that we once visited, but it is still a place that we may have much to learn from. To paraphrase Blur (Back together again! Nostalgia for an age yet to come, anyone?), ‘Modern Life Is (not entirely) Rubbish’. If we can be informed by the past, then that can help us to have a viable present and a hopeful future…

Next posting I will try and inject a bit more humour into proceedings. After all, as ‘The Reader’s Digest’ (now there’s a publication to get nostalgic about if ever there was one!) has told us on countless occasions in Dr’s waiting rooms as we nervously await our appointment, ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine.’

So I shall leave you with this…

“What goes ‘Ha Ha Ha Thump!’?”

A man laughing his head off.

Bye.

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A Song From Under the Floorboards

Nostalgia…

Not what it used to be, eh?

Not entirely true in my case. As age advances upon me, steadily eroding what little remains of my once proud and noble frame, my inner eye turns both autumnal and misty, wandering down the leaf-strewn pathways of yore in search of the blue-remembered hills of my childhood.

What rubbish.

The only thing that has advanced steadily over the last few weeks is my waistline, thanks to the zealous administrations of my dear mum-in-law, who cosseted us daily with a diet of unconditional love and bacon sandwiches during our winter break in dear Old Blighty. Yes, age in its inexorable manner is advancing, but more with a gradual and somewhat sneaky creep than a steady march, or so I would like to believe. The British air did however seem to bring a degree of additional hirsuteness to your humble correspondent, not to the balding pate unfortunately, but my sideburns and inner ears would have given Benicio del Toro a run for his money in the remake of ‘The Wolf Man’ due to wend its way to a pirate DVD in a store near us later this year. ‘ Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night, can become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms, and the moon is full and bright.’ I reminded A. She told me to act my age, please be quiet and reminded me that I should simply go to the hairdresser when I got back to Phnom Penh. Oh well. As a boy I was fascinated by the original ‘Wolf Man’ with the brilliant Lon Chaney in the role of reluctant lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot, indeed the mere thought of all of those great Universal and RKO horror films induces huge waves of nostalgia (hurrah! He’s back on the subject again!) in me. Grampian Television, the north of Scotland’s very own canty and couthy television channel had the great idea of running all of the black and white horror classics on Friday evenings at 10.30 and I successfully pleaded with my long-suffering parents to be allowed to watch them. I was around the tender age of ten, just the right age in those pre CGI days to be roundly terrified at the sight of a rubber vampire bat or the grotesque make up of Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster. Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, was my favourite, particularly in ‘The Wolf Man’. To this day I can replicate the eerie orchestral music that accompanied the stop-motion transformation sequence, and the first thing that comes into my head upon seeing a full moon is the tortured visage of Lawrence Talbot pleading to be locked away for the safety of all, but to no avail… more visceral horrors would come (Oliver Reed’s impressive monster, ‘An American Werewolf in London’s’ tongue-in-snout approach to the genre) but Chaney’s sad and tortured figure remains the definitive take for this afficianado.

Even before the one-eyed monster in the corner of the living room became a fixture in our lives I loved to be terrified as a child. I had a hugely overactive imagination which amplified every creak and groan in the house and lent every deep shadow a sinister purpose. This imagination was fuelled in equal parts by books, comics, newspapers, the eventual arrival of television and real life. In particular by Elizabeth Cormack, my nana.

A great deal of my early childhood was spent in the company of my beloved nana. My mum’s mum was a skinny, wiry little woman with a cigarette permanently hovering somewhere around her tiny frame, seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and a truly mischievous sense of humour. I loved her to bits. I used to spend most of my summer holiday at her house, and those early summers are imbued with a sense of true magic that is a joy for me to recall now, over forty years later. Her husband, my dear grandfather, died when I was six years old. I loved him also, a big, gentle, kind man who bore his crippling and debilitating illness with stoic dignity. His name was Alfred, and my baby talk attempts at pronouncing his name led to the family nickname for him, Avva. My nana came from a deeply superstitious highland family, and in addition to being immured in those superstitions had also inherited some of the more unusual gifts that the family possessed, including second sight, fortune telling and an ability to see into the spirit world. Of course, to a child growing up in this environment these things appeared perfectly natural. I too would peruse tea leaves to determine the significance of the shapes within the cup. Nails could only be clipped on certain days, and all clippings (and any hair trimmings) would have to be burned lest dark forces got hold of them and used them in spells or charms. I would avoid playing with the deck of cards on a Sunday to ensure that the devil would not come and sit on my shoulder and lead me down the narrow way to damnation, and I would nary bat an eyelid when my nana would launch into a conversation with my dear deceased Avva.

Her house was a place of wonder also. No gothic castle or witchwood cottage could compare to that tiny two-bedroom council semi-detached with the large tree in the front garden and the quietly sinister wooden shed that lurked behind it. The shed really gave me the creeps. It had been taken from its former resting place at the nearby beach, where the story went it had been used to house the remains of sailors washed up on the beach during the second world war… even before I was aware of its history, I hated to spend any longer than necessary in there. The ordinary garden implements, musty pots and half-empty tins of paint all stacked to the front of the shed must be hiding some dank and long dead secret behind them… what were the dark stains on the floor? Pitch? Seawater? Dried blood? Perhaps some ancient oozing emulsion of the three that would rise up from between the floorboards and physically grasp at my ankles, firstly immobilizing me before dragging me down in a sticky confluence to join the gurgling slime below for ever…

The bedroom I slept in had its share of terrors also. A huge iron framed bed that had cavernous dark spaces underneath, where all manner of Nameless Ones lurked, awaiting the coming of the dark when they could crawl and slither out and sit upon my legs and chest in the pitch black of absolute night, their loathsome visages only inches from my terrified face. Years later I watched a BBC2 Horizon programme where scientists tried to explain this phenomena of ‘phantom feelings’ in the night, linking it to the alien abduction hysteria prevalent at that time. Nonsense. Those scientists were scared little boys that didn’t want to admit that monsters existed. Not only did they live under the bed, but they also hung out in the wardrobe…

The wardrobe… the wardrobe was a huge, looming, dark presence in the room, right at the foot of the bed. In the still of the night it creaked and groaned, and if you listened really hard one could hear the slight click as the door opened to allow the denizens within access to our world. Boy oh boy did it scare me. Reading ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ did nothing to alleviate those fears – I knew that Narnia did not lie behind the mothballed garments hanging in there, but rather a Lovecraftian domain of ancient demons and their deformed spawn just waiting for me to pass into their hellish netherworld.

But this was all grist to the mill of the young J. I loved to be terrified, scared witless, blanched with fear etc etc. The long, bright, adventure filled summer days of my youth were balanced by the dark, scary, exciting winter nights. There are many more stories to come about my childhood during that time when the realities of growing up were tempered by the magical realm of childish imaginings, many more tales of mystery and imagination, but for now, enough…

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I wonder if little O will one day fondly remember talking to his daddy about the monsters he imagines lurk in his room, or how his memory will recall the shapes and sounds and smells of the night that are currently a part of his reality. Nostalgia is also something that we fortunate ones should never ever take for granted. For I wonder too about the Khmer people around me, colleagues, friends, who have known real monsters in human form, monsters who lived alongside them breathing, eating, drinking, laughing until the day they changed… what of those monsters, some of whom still walk these streets… do they spend their waking and sleeping hours haunted, like their surviving victims, by the ghosts of the recent past…? Or have they locked away the memories in some dark wardrobe of the soul…?

For the most part I continue to only guess at the hellishness witnessed by so many of these quiet people… some have talked to me about it, and the things they have told me make me wonder if any part of them has the strength to recall any of their childhood with the warm feeling we are fortunate to call nostalgia…

Peace be with you.

The English Cold*

Hello again. I have returned.(sound of muffled boos offstage)

Temperatures of -11 across southern England, bloody carnage in Gaza, winter vomiting virus, the credit crunch, the demise of Woolies, MFI, Zavvi and more, 1000 jobs lost at M & S, goodbye to Harold Pinter, Eartha Kitt, Ron Asheton… an alarming number of people thinking Jeremy Clarkson would make a better Prime Minister than the dour Scots incumbent, and most shockingly (for the UK press) no gong for our Brucie (Forsythe, that is – Springsteen is a Yank and doesn’t count)… yes, the family winter holiday in England has been shadowed by some pretty strange and unsettling events in the UK and elsewhere which I have watched with a growing concern that is nevertheless tempered with a distinct feeling of distance… in a few days we return to Phnom Penh and our expat existence, back into the warmth and mild craziness of the city that has been home to us for over three years, away from the freezing fog of gloom that seems to currently envelop the sceptred isle…

Fortunately we have had a wonderful time with our families and friends, and young master O in particular has thoroughly enjoyed the festive season and all its excesses. Many delightful images from these last few weeks crowd my brain and banish the lingering, lurking dark shadows cast by the tabloid grimsheets, the bleak mid-winter pinnacle that was scaled by ‘Eastenders’ (‘Dancing On Ice’ is no longer recommended by the beloved tabloids – whither the Dickensian scenes of yore? “ Oh, Gorblessyew no, no ‘ot chestnuts for me, guvnor… iffen I drop ‘un, me and the missus and kids will fall frew the melted ice…”) and all the other frankly awful programmes that crammed the digital airwaves in the name of entertainment. British television has sunk to new depths of triviality, repetition and crassness, so much so that the endless property and antique programmes that fill the morning (and afternoon) schedules are beacons of old-fashioned family values in a cloying sea of profuse profanity and backstabbing viper-tongued fast-cut mediocrity. No, that last phrase does not refer to the Queen’s Speech. It was the usual ‘aren’t-things-orful-for-one-and-one’s-subjects, but if we all pull together we can get through this (becorse one is just the same as you plebians underneath it all)’ stuff and nonsense. You can’t fool me with all that Helen Mirren smoke and mirrors nonsense, ma’am… also full of smoke and mirrors but the best thing on the X-(mas) box by a haunted-country-house mile was something called Jonathan Creek, starring the mumblingly excellent Alan Davies – it was a good old-fashioned brain-teasing complex whodunnit crossed with a gothic mystery, so let us rejoice just a smidgeon, as all hope for British television may not be lost after all.

Or is it? Smoke and mirrors pretty much summed up the New Year festivities as presented on’t telly also. It seems that the nanny state has decided once and for all that we should not be subject to the sight of drunken revellers drowning in the Trafalgar fountains or spewing over the Royal Mile, but rather we should enjoy an annual incrementally more expensive and destructive firework firefest around the London Eye… wow! After about five minutes the realization dawns that one colourful big bang is pretty much exactly the same as another… never mind, there’s always the bafflingly obtuse Jools Holland and his Hootananny to turn to – this year the audience was again the boringly usual selection of middle-aged ‘celebrities’, mainly unfunny male comedians, that must make up Jools’ drinking buddies, the only real humour coming from this years diva in residence, Duffy, who appeared to have not only ingested rather too much electric soup before raiding what she thought was her wardrobe (but was actually her mum’s lace curtains) but also to have taken several substantial hits of helium prior to performing… the Minnie Mouse revival starts here…

However, the season to be jolly was not all artifice – real joy was to be had from watching little O shuffle wide-eyed through the frosty leaves in the wood behind his grandparent’s home, shout his greetings to Santa up the chimney on Christmas Eve, rip the paper from his presents with exuberant glee on Christmas morning, proudly ride his red tricycle around the tree (with matching feather boa adorning his neck), tuck heartily into his Christmas dinner with lip-smacking relish and then regale us with ribald tales from the playschool as he puffed merrily on a monstrous Cuban cigar and sipped from a large glass of Cognac in the fuzzy ennui post Her Majesties fibfest. Okay, so that last part was also a fib…

It has been heart warming to see how O has again taken to his family in the UK, the strengthened bonds forged during this holiday and it will be really hard for us to say goodbye, as it always is…. Sorry, this is getting a bit maudlin, isn’t it? Let’s lighten up and talk about something cutting edge and, like, relevant to the real world out there. So, who’s going to win Celebrity Big Brother then? Ulrika? Tommy Sheridan? Ooooh, who knows? Who cares? I certainly don’t. I should be given an honorary place on yet another waste of thirty minutes of valuable lifetime, namely BBC 2’s ‘Grumpy Old Men’. Rick Wakeman is on there, and definitively proves on a weekly basis that wearing a sparkly cape and eating curries and drinking beer to rile macrobiotic bandmates in Yes was not his sole contribution toward lightening the burden of humankind through humour. Yes folks, being grumpy can be fun!

Apologies for the lack of Christmas Quiz this year. Couldn’t be bothered, to tell the truth – compiling it would have cut into valuable Celebrations/Toblerone/Quality Street eating time over the holidays. Who knows, I may spring a surprise quiz at some point in the not too far distant future. Or not. We’ll see…

Next blog will be brought to you from the Kingdom of Cambodia, for the time being it’s bye-bye from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland… mind how you go on that ice…

*an album by July Skies – watch this space closely for more effusion on these guys soon…