Under the Clock

August turned out to be a bit of a hiatus for the blog – not altogether planned, but what can you do! However, here’s a wee story to try and get geared up again for September.

Everyone waits under the clock, I mused. As usual I was horrendously early, Amy horrendously late. But I knew better than to expect anything else of my scatterbrained sister. She’d turn up in her own good time, hair flying, possessions in disarray, full of apologies, and can-you-forgive-me’s, and you-know-what-I’m-like. And of course, I do and I can and we’ll hug and head off for a lovely lunch at Patisserie Valerie – so handy for the station, how clever of you Jen!

But sometimes, just sometimes, why can’t it be me that’s the scatty one? The one who always makes the big entrance,  instantly claims the limelight and has everyone vying for her attention. I sighed. That just wasn’t me. I’d always be the one hovering in the wings, ready to hang up the coats, fill the glasses, pass round the hors d’oevres.  I was the Martha, she the Mary.

My mind wandered thus as I watched the hustle and bustle of the busy station, the ebbs and flows of  arriving and departing passengers. I like people-watching; it’s kind of soothing, endlessly fascinating. That’s probably why I lecture in drama and psychology at the University. Ah there she was, on the other side of the barrier hunting furiously in her bag. She’ll have lost her ticket I thought. I resigned myself to wait a little longer – you can’t get through the barrier without your ticket these days.

All at once I became aware of a figure headed in my direction. Oh my goodness, it was Ethan, almost as I’d made him materialise just by the power of thought. If I’m honest he was never exactly out of my thoughts, ever since that time we worked together on the end of term production. I thought he felt the same but he seemed to just disappear once the show was over. I suspected that he’d overheard me telling that creep Russell Tyler that I wasn’t interested in having a relationship with anyone because I was focused on my career. But all the same, if he’d been really interested surely he’d have asked me about it. I was just glad I hadn’t made a fool of myself over it.

And now he seemed to be heading straight for me with that great big stupid grin on his face. Except… I took a quick look over my shoulder, I’ve been caught out more than once responding to a smile that was actually meant for someone standing behind me. But no, he came right up to me. “Jenny! I was just thinking about you and hey presto there you are!” He was thinking about me??

I didn’t reply and must have stood there like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Ethan’s smile faltered and he looked ready to retreat. I suddenly panicked and grabbed his sleeve. “Ethan! I’m sorry, you just took me by surprise. My dad always used to say that if you stood long enough under the clock at Central Station, you’d see the whole world go by!” Now I’d started, my mouth just wouldn’t stop talking.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Amy standing a few yards away, watching the spectacle of her big sister, the academic, clutching at the sleeve of a rather dishy young man and chattering away nineteen to the dozen. Rather to my surprise she didn’t rush up and demand to be introduced.

I’d just got to the bit where I was starting to explain the whole Russell Tyler thing when Ethan gently put a finger on my lips and shook his head. “I know. And I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch but there was a bit of a family emergency and I’ve not been around for a while. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got off the train and there you were almost as if you were waiting for me.”

Which of course I was. I could hardly breathe as we looked deep into each other’s eyes. I knew I was going to make a complete fool of myself now and I didn’t care. Just before I closed my eyes, I saw Amy give me a thumbs up as she turned around and melted back into the crowd. I’ll say this for my sister, she may be scatty, but she’s a blooming genius when it comes to emotional intelligence…

cnetral station clock

Advertisements

Perfect Moments

Looking at old photos can be a bittersweet experience. There are often very mixed sentiments involved in remembering those captured moments. Perhaps because it’s painful to look back at a time that is lost and regretted. Or because the smiles were just for the camera and were hiding some personal turmoil. The pictures can only record a single moment, but looking at them can sometimes stir up a whole complicated set of emotions. I suppose its inevitable that as you get older you are increasingly remembering people that are no longer with us or a self that that seems long gone.

005 (2)
A moment full of hopes and dreams from our wedding in 1974. Both sets of parent and Father Gerry Hughes, have since passed away, as has our marriage. But it’s a lovely memory nonetheless, and one I can look back on with fondness.

But you can’t keep looking back at the past and blaming yourself for the way things turned out, the if-only’s. I confess that sometimes that tendency is there in me. And then I have to remind myself that the only way to heal is to forgive yourself for your shortcomings and understand that you did the best you could at the time. It’s human to get waylaid by wishing that things could have been different. The trick is to remember that our history is what makes us the people we are today, inevitably older, but hopefully wiser and more tolerant too.

So, while there will always be a few ghosts along the way when we delve into our past, there are also, happily, some moments of perfect joy. Moments which encompass so much more than just the image, but all the emotions associated with it. For me, many of those moments centre around my children and grandchildren, from the instant I first held them in my arms to all the small childhood tragedies and triumphs along the way, when yet another little bit of your heart is captured and gladly given away.

One such instance comes from decades ago, a sunny day at the beach when we’d packed the children into the car for an impromptu picnic, not something we did all that often. It was when we were living in Holland near the border with Germany, so the beach was one on the banks of the River Rhine – there are sandy beaches along its length just at that point. Anyway, the children had run down to the water’s edge and were splashing each other, jumping in and out of the spray.  I have an idea they were wearing those plastic sandals called jellies – or maybe they were just wearing their good sandals!

It was such a lovely day, bright and hot, and I closed my eyes for a moment, breathing deep. I opened them to see the image that has stayed with me all these years – the sunlight sparkling on the water, a heat haze over the wet sand and my four children visible through it as they played on the shore maybe 40 metres away, the sound of their squeals of laughter floating towards me. All wasn’t well with our marriage at this point and I don’t have a photograph, but this was a perfect moment out of time which nothing has ever been able to spoil.

These moment, these tender moments of the heart, I think come much closer to our true memories than any camera can ever capture. Sometimes you look at a photograph and although you know you were there – the proof is laid out in front of you – you can’t actually recall how it felt to be there, how YOU felt. Or you know that the photographer has failed to record the real all-singing, all-dancing you but instead has brutally chosen the moment when you are looking uncomfortable in a badly chosen outfit or were squinting at the sun.

All in all I prefer to close my eyes and explore the inner pictures which are much clearer, much nearer to who I really am and how I remember things. Often those moments aren’t the ones that are imperfectly captured on film, but are instead indelibly imprinted on my heart and remembered with infinite tenderness.

sparkling on water

 

 

 

Here be Dragons

It’s 50 years since man first stepped out on the surface of the Moon. Scarcely anyone will have missed that fact as it’s been splashed all over the news and social media. As one of the millions who watched the whole thing on telly first time around, I’ve enjoyed the coverage, the remembering. In particular there’s been a fascinating  podcast by the BBC World Service called 13 Minutes to the Moon which gives you all the inside stories on every aspect leading up to the momentous moment when Neil Armstrong made mankind’s “giant leap” on to the lunar surface on 20 July 1969. Here’s the link https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2/episodes/downloads – it’s well worth a listen!

I guess it’s in our nature, our very DNA, to want to explore our world and beyond. To find out what’s just beyond that bend in the road up ahead or what we’ll be able to see from the top of that hill – or from another planet! That urge to know can lead us down an unfamiliar lane just to see what’s there, or at the other end of the scale take us on mighty voyages of discovery to encounter whole new continents. Our maps have evolved over the centuries from drawings of shadowy lands marked “here be dragons” to the marvels of pinpoint accuracy we have today. Today WE can explore other continents from our armchairs just by typing a location into Google Earth.

A little voice at the back of my head suggests it’s not the same as actually going there, breathing the air, smelling the smells, feeling the ground beneath your feet. No, it’s not, but it’s what we do. We imagine. We explore the whole world, the whole universe, just by closing our eyes and imagining. Our brain is like a Tardis. For non-Doctor Who fans, the Tardis is the Doctor’s ship that can take him anywhere in time and space. The point about the Tardis is that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. Just like our brains. Just like our ability to imagine places we’ve never been, futures that haven’t happened yet. And then we can come right back down to earth and go and sit in the garden to enjoy a sunny day in the here and now.

Neither are our explorations confined to filling in the unknown areas on the map. We also delve into the past, constantly trying to piece together the elusive history of mankind, not to mention of the very universe itself, right from the Big Bang until a projected point in the future when it will all presumably come to an end. We want to know. We need to know. And it’s not just the universe, there’s a whole world of self-discovery to be explored too. When things happen to us, when we go through big challenges in our lives, we often need to dig deep into ourselves in order to process these events and if necessary overcome them. And even without those challenges, most people have an insatiable curiosity to know more about where they came from, about the influences that have made them who they are. It’s all part of our human need to understand ourselves and where we fit in to the grand scheme of things.

So, when President Kennedy announced in 1961 that America would send a man to the moon and bring him safely back home again before the end of the decade, he wasn’t just expressing a vague ambition. He was tapping in to that never ending desire of mankind to be forever expanding the boundaries of the unknown. (Not to mention the USA’s obsession with getting ahead of the Russians in the space race!) JFK was in effect committing the resources of a nation to what was at the time an impossible aim. Whatever it took to develop the technology and the systems to reach the goal were devoted to the task – millions and millions of dollars, thousands and thousands of people hours.

There were many successes and failures along the way, including the tragic fire which engulfed Apollo 1 and claimed the lives of the entire crew. But the setbacks only made Nasa all the more determined to learn from their mistakes and do whatever it took to make things work. Until finally man did succeed in escaping the shackles of earth’s gravity and walk on another world.

BUT… however profound and wonderful that achievement was – and it was truly an unforgettable moment when the whole watching world heard the words “the Eagle has landed” and breathed a great collective sigh of relief – think of this… What if an American President, or some other world leader, announced an intention to eliminate hunger or pollution or homelessness by the end of a decade? What if there was no limit to the resources that were poured into fulfilling even one of those aims? In that case, it could be that if and when mankind ever again stands on the surface of the Moon watching Earthrise, we could do so in the knowledge that our home planet has become a fitting haven for all the souls that live there. It’s not impossible, after all look what we can achieve when everyone works together towards a common goal

janfeb2018_l03_apollo8

 

Reality Shift

I’d brought flowers, a card, a marker pen to sign the stookie.

A nurse asked me to wait a minute. “Just sit there,” she said. I watched her walk the length of the ward to the duty station, indicate me as she spoke to the ward sister. I lowered my gaze as they both turned to look at me, not wanting them to see me watching.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the sister approaching. She looked at her fob watch, smoothed down her apron, composed her face. I turned towards her. I knew that what she was going to say would turn my world upside down.

Desert Island Flash Mobs

So there I was, putting together my list of music should I ever be stranded on Radio 4’s famous desert island with only 8 disks, a book and a luxury item (as well to be prepared don’t you think?). Which song out of Les Miserables should I chose? A quick look at You Tube will help…

Except there’s no such thing as a quick look at You Tube! A couple of hours later and I was still no nearer to choosing between Do You Hear the People Sing and Bring Him Home, both stirring in different ways…

But I think I have chosen my luxury item – never mind the endless supply of pens and paper, or the marvelously comfortable pillow or even the concertina which I’d love to learn to play. No, it’s got to be a device to get me on to YouTube! Actually if I had that, I wouldn’t need any of the rest of it, I’d have the perfect companion to cover every mood and need. Well except for real human companionship of course – there’s really no substitute for a hug.

You know, when I first started listening to Desert Island Disks, way back in the sixties, the internet hadn’t even been invented yet. No internet shopping or Skype chats with your nearest and dearest on the other side of the world or online petitions seeking to right wrongs and change the world for the better… It’s even hard to remember how we managed without all this wonderful convenience we have at our fingertips nowadays. Mail order catalogues, expensive phone calls, demonstrations in the streets. Nowadays demonstrators can orchestrate their efforts on social media. Back in the day I it was word of mouth, phone calls, pamphlets. I suppose we just use whatever we have at our disposal, for better or worse.

Anyway, I digress. What caught my attention when I clicked on You Tube, was a video of a flash mob singing “Do You Hear the People … ” in a shopping mall somewhere in the mid west of the United States. Have you come across this phenomenon? If if you haven’t, type “flash mob” in to Google straight away! Or wait, maybe you’d better leave it until the next time you have a couple of hours to spare – if you’re anything like me you’ll get caught every time! I It’s just that I love watching the faces of the crowd when they realise what’s going on. It’s totally infectious and joyful. Go on, click on this link now – I defy you to watch it without a huge happy grin on your face!

A Simple Matter of Right and Wrong?

I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard people being referred to as being “of their time”. It’s usually to excuse something about their lives that today we would find reprehensible or unacceptable. The Me Too movement is just the latest manifestation of our long painful progress towards the concept that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, colour, creed or orientation. And that it’s not alright just to sweep it all under the carpet and leave the burden of getting over it on the victim’s shoulders.

Does it make a difference when we discover that our heroes have feet of clay? When we learn that Charles Dickens had a secret mistress, Nelly Ternan; or that Chaucer is likely to have raped a woman, one Cecilia Chaumpaigne; or that the charismatic John F Kennedy turned out to be a terrible womaniser and numbered Marilyn Monroe among his probable conquests? I don’t know… Perhaps one does look differently at an author’s work when you understand more about the dark side of where it came from. Or can the truth, the art, stand independently from the artist? I am mindful of a couple of quotes from the late, great George Harrison:

I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else.

Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because its the very best of me and the part I give most willingly.

I suppose I’m largely content to go with that and read a book or listen to music on the understanding that I am sharing a vision, a truth, wherever it might have come from. That is valid in itself. If I know or learn something detrimental about the writer, that may or may not cause me to look differently at the work. After all, many of the lessons we learn in life come from our mistakes, our dark times. And I still feel inspired by the words of JFK when he declared in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Whether or not he actually ‘borrowed’ that phrase from his old headmaster or was a less than faithful husband, they are nonetheless stirring words, worth repeating.

dickens

And I still think of Charles Dickens as a great Victorian novelist who cared about the social conditions of his day and wrote most movingly about the plight of the poor. If he wasn’t in truth the unblemished family man he’d have you believe, he did on the other hand engage in many philanthropic deeds including setting up a home for “fallen women”. Perhaps I will read the cosy fireside scenes with a somewhat more cynical eye and make a mental nod to the hidden Ms Ternan, but I can still enjoy these marvellous books and wonderful writing.

 

caravaggio
I wonder if we find this painting of Caravaggio’s any less beautiful when we consider that the artist’s short tempestuous life encompassed an arrogant and rebellious existence which included the taking of another’s life. For which murder he allegedly escaped justice by fleeing from Rome to Malta. His works are displayed in galleries throughout the world. Flawed genius or reprehensible rogue? I leave it for you to decide…

As to more contemporary transgressions. With each new revelation about the movie industry, I find there are now certain films I can never watch in the same way again, if at all. Fiction or not, I don’t want to be drawn into falling in love with that handsome leading man, or a director who, it turns out, sees sex as a weapon to be wielded. These are more than private indiscretions, this is an abuse of power, a whole rotten system which needs to be called out for what it is. Me too!

So I suppose I’m saying that moral ambiguity does surely make a difference and does force you to encompass a wider picture of what you thought you knew. You might think “How amazing that someone like that could produce something so beautiful” or “No wonder he says that, look what was happening in his life when he wrote it”. Of course all this only highlights how little we really know of another person’s soul, of their motivations – someone like what, exactly? We see everything through the prism of our own experience, understanding and yes, preconceptions. Not to mention what we read in the press or social media.

What about right and wrong, black and white? Yes, there’s that too. If a thing’s wrong then it’s wrong – isn’t it? It’s wrong to kill. Even if it’s in self-defence or to save someone’s life?  It’s wrong to steal. Even if it’s to feed your starving family? It’s wrong to lie. Is there anyone who hasn’t bent the truth or concealed it in order to protect the innocent? I suppose what I’m saying is that I always want to know the WHY; the story behind the headline, the circumstances, the mitigating factors, the actual facts and why they are being presented in the way they are.

Here’s a final headline for you to ponder: BODY OF PROSTITUTE FOUND IN ALLEY. I remember being stopped in my tracks by that one. I suddenly found myself feeling angry that some poor woman whose life had been cut short in the most brutal way possible had to suffer the final indignity of that heartless and judgemental headline. I found myself wondering what had happened to her in life to have brought her to the point where she was selling her body to men in a back alley. She could have been someone’s mother or sister or daughter or wife. She was a woman.

The paper could have chosen any of those words to describe her; they could have said ‘female body’. They could have had some consideration for the family who might have had to read about their loved one in such dismissive terms. But no, they went for the sensational. They summed her up in an attention grabbing headline for the sake of selling more papers and making the rest of us feel quite comfortable and safe, because, after all, it hadn’t happened to US, but to one of THEM.

rumor-mill