Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sheila Regina

It is usually a spontaneous thing.  We tend to meet The Tuckers around the ‘reduced to clear’ section in Tesco and then head back to our house - or their house. We pool the kids in the garden and have a glass of wine. 

I play guitar with the Tuckers’ eldest – he’s 12. I recently taught him the Elvis version of ‘That’s Alright Mama’ – something he’d never heard. It felt like we were rebooting Rock and Roll.

Maude enjoys a singalong and always makes the same request:

‘Play ‘How Long Will I love you?’ Pleeeease!!!’

The ‘Ultimate Guitar Tabs’ app on my phone has come in very handy lately. I can’t remember chords or lyrics any more – my brain is full of shopping lists and clouded by apprehension of impending children’s parties.

‘Of course my darling – anything for you.’

As I played the Waterboys song I realised how similar the chord progression is to ‘When will I see you again?’ by ‘The Three Degrees’, so I slipped seamlessly into that song.

Maude suggested I ‘pack it in’ and return to her favourite and her only request. I did as I was told, but playing The Three Degrees reminded me, obviously, of Prince Charles.

When Prince Charles was an eligible bachelor in the 70’s they forced him into the company of leading figures from popular culture – mainly to make him appear fashionable and less out of touch than he inevitably was and remains to this day. He memorably met and became a fan of the black all-girl group The Three Degrees. He was apparently quite taken by the lead singer – Sheila Ferguson. Some reports have used the word ‘besotted’. He even invited the group to perform at his 30th birthday party.

What a missed opportunity.

Had he gone with his instincts, we would now have a mixed race heir to the throne and the monarchy could worry less about its inability to connect to the majority of modern humanity. 

Queen Sheila would have looked tremendous at state occasions and she would probably have brightened them all with a song and some sequins. The other 2 degrees could have become Ladies in Waiting and/or Overseas Ambassadors for Disco.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

'Hatful of Gladwin'

'Is that a cravat?' asked Archie.

'No, it's a scarf.'

I was showing Archie pictures of our family trip to the bleak tundra that is Edinburgh Zoo in late March.

'I am, of course, wearing a cravat under the scarf.'

Archie smiled and admirably feigned interest in the rest of the pictures.

We were catching up with Archie and Leap after a long estrangement. We were in a bar in town. It was one of the bars with fruity beers and an Italian name designed to justify its high prices and to distinguish it from the unashamedly Geordie bars: The Market Lane, The Beehive and (surprisingly still trading under the name) The Blackie Boy.

Archie and I have always enjoyed talking about music - ever since we lived in neighbouring bedsits. We were on the ground floor and one of Archie's sash windows didn't lock. If I was locked out I would climb through the window and probably borrow a cassette on my way through.

I could see that maintaining an enthusiasm for pictures of my children pointing at two bedraggled zebras who couldn't believe their bad luck at ending up on a Scottish hillside was becoming a strain for my old friend, so I moved the chat on.

‘I'd love to know what you think of my ideas for niche compilation albums. Original takes on songs we all know....'

‘I'm all ears...’

‘Do you remember Joe Gladwin?’

‘Of course.'

‘Well, though I say it myself, I do a really good impression of Joe Gladwin – nearly as good as my Max Wall. I also know enough chords now on the ukulele to put my uncanny Gladwin to music.It’s a concept album of ‘Joe’ singing Smiths songs: ‘Hatful of Gladwin’. The backing obviously wouldn’t be as elaborate as the originals – more strummy uke than jangly guitar.’

'I'm liking it.'

The twinkle had returned to Archie's eye. As he considered the Gladwin concept, he stroked his beard. I watched as fragments of crisp left the beard and danced in the mood lighting before they dived into his beer.

''I'm thinking of tracks that showcase Joe's trademark rolling of the 'R':

'Reel Around the Fountain'
'Girl Afraid'
'Miserable Lie'
'William, it was really nothing'

Arch struggled to hear my Gladwin rendition of 'Reel Around the Fountain' above the noise of the bar, but nodded and looked positive.

'Amazing! I love it. What are the other albums? You said 'concept albums'.'

‘Well, the other compilation album I was toying with is called ‘Now That’s What I call Fetish...........1'. That one's not as well thought through, but I do have an opening track'

Archie's interest was now well and truly piqued. He leaned in to hear the title and his face glowed with approval as I whispered:

‘The First Time ever I soiled your face.’

Friday, December 04, 2015

'John from down the road'


'It’s John, Dad - I’m going now.’
‘Is it John from down the road?’
My father suffered from Lewy Bodies Dementia - which meant that, in his case, he hallucinated. His visions often involved animals and some of the things he said suggested he thought he was working with sheep. This was fitting for someone who grew up on a farm. He reacted well, apparently, to the ‘therapy donkey’ they took into the nursing home.
The beastly hallucinations moved Dad on from his imaginary pub - in which he described the nurses around him as ‘barmaids’.
When I visited him for the last time he moved his hands at one point as though he were daintily tying a knot around a tiny neck - possibly of a small animal which had found its way over the high side-guards to share the comfort of his bed.
When he had finished doing whatever it was he thought he was doing, my mother and I took turns at holding his hand to soothe him. He was agitated and called out for each member of his family - repeating each name over and over again until something told him that person wasn't coming and he shouted then for the next one. 

He didn't shout much for his immediate family towards the end - not for his wife or children. Rather he shouted for his mother and his siblings. This made me think that only his long-term memory was still firing. 

At work I am a temp with no memorable identity. It felt a little like that with Dad at the end. Who knows who ‘John from down the road’ was, but it probably wasn’t me.
The final gentle nurse in a long series of gentle nurses adjusted the bedding. She asked us about the family while Dad slept one of his last sleeps. She had just come on shift and hadn’t known him awake. He roused just before we left and became animated. He was talking about something or someone being ‘behind a wall’. My sister answered and played along with the events in his mind. After he spoke the nurse was surprised and remarked:
‘Oh! He’s very Irish isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ we said, ‘he is’.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

'Our Temp of the Month'

I haven't worn a lanyard for a long time. I wore one once when I worked for Waterstone's. That was just a big 'W' - it didn't open doors or access sandwiches - unlike today's 'smart' lanyards.
As I have mentioned, there is no picture or name on my current badge. A dry-wipe marker works on the blank surface of the badge part. I could hand-write a name and title of my own choosing - but that might qualify as tragic.

Some temping agencies reward particularly diligent workers with web fame as a 'Temp of the Month'. I read of one chap who was 'living life to the max' as a temp. I don't think his assignment was in the Newton Aycliffe area. 

Nonetheless, I do leave the lanyard on for a while in the evenings – so that people see it when I'm filling the car up or so that the neighbours catch a glimpse of it when I'm putting the bins out. It signifies that I am working – albeit anonymously.

I wouldn't want anyone to place me in the same pitiable bracket as Eric across the road.
Eric made a faint attempt at working for a couple of years when we first moved in. He delivered catalogues that he stored in his small shed/garage. Eric had a badly planned extension which left him with an integral ‘shed’ with a half garage door. It’s the shed equivalent of one of those slimline dishwashers that people squeeze into a galley kitchen. Eric now spends most of his time in his demi-shed. 

I do wonder if Eric has served time at some point in his life. Like Dr Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities' who was sprung from The Bastille only to crave a garret, my neighbour too seems to need the reassurance offered by an enclosed and cell-like space. 

Eric and I fell out in 2006 over what he perceived to be inconsiderate parking on my part. He didn’t speak to me for years after that – until I helped raise the alarm and get the paramedics in when he collapsed in his garden last year. He spent a night in hospital and sincerely thanked me on his return.
He hasn’t spoken to me since.
Likewise there are several people in the office who have decided that they too can’t be bothered engaging me in anything approaching a long conversation – on account of my temporary status. Don’t know how long they think the conversation they are avoiding could possibly last. Having said that, I have witnessed conversations take place in the open plan office that lasted long enough to merit a temporary contract all of their own.  

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Tiddles 2

When I print anything at my new place of work, I have to key into the printer my email address and password. Other members of staff simply tap their lanyard card on the printer and the machine warms to their identity.
‘Here’s your badge. It’s blank, because you are a temp.’
As I came into the building the other day, a young stray cat was hovering around outside. I stroked it and thought nothing more of it. When I got in to the office I soon realised that the cat was the subject of a major fuss:
"Was it tagged?"
"It must be lost!"
"Who will take it home if the owner can’t be traced?"
"What will the person who takes it home call it?"
"How will it integrate with the existing pets of the staff member who takes it home if it is not claimed?"
My manager drove the cat together with the office junior to the nearest vet. The junior had to go: ‘to hold the cat and keep it calm’.
The cat returned to the office. It wasn’t chipped and all were relieved that it had been saved from wandering in and out of local houses and tarting for food – which is what cats enjoy doing and do very well.
The HR person found some capacity to oversee a fast-track recruitment process – for the cat.
I was in the quaintly labelled 'Reprographics Room', enjoying the hum of the machines. The hum provided some respite from the incessant chat that was all around me outside the haven of the Reprographics Room.
The door opened.  I turned – expecting to exchange shallow pleasantries (nothing too deep, I’m not staying). I could see a human hand hold the door open for just long enough to allow the cat, no longer stray, to enter the room.
The cat swaggered in – a dinky little lanyard around its neck with a photo and a name I couldn’t quite read from a distance. It gave me one of those looks – one of those looks of disdain that cats do so well – and then sprang atop the neighbouring printer.
‘Tiddles2’ was the legend on the card – I could see it now. The card dangled over the control pad for the printer. My printer timed out waiting for my password. The printer for 'Tiddles2' started printing something – no doubt from the cat’s own desktop. Images emerged in full colour:

  • Tiddles2 sends an email
  • Tiddles2 ‘answers’ the phone
  • Tiddles2 on Skype

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Puppy IS just for Christmas

‘So, have you caved in yet about the puppy?’
In an attempt to integrate with my colleagues I had previously conversed about my daughters' desire to have a pet dog.
‘No. they now have a toy one, though. It gets up onto his hind legs and woofs. Their mother got it and asked them to keep quiet about the price. They told me when she had annoyed them with a particularly vigorous teeth-brushing session.’
My colleagues are obsessed with cats and dogs - they watch Paul O’Grady’s animal show and over lunch they exchange thoughts on the cuteness of the animals featured. Lunch occurs on a balcony. I join them and try really hard not to throw myself off the balcony when the conversation gets too pet-centred. The only thing that stops me some days is that I know I would land on the young teacher training students below. I know I would be doing them a favour in the long-term - arresting their progress into a career of stress and frustration. But I think of their loved ones - and mine - and stay on the balcony.
Today I contributed with the story of how my father brought home a puppy when I was a child. He walked in with great nonchalance and hovered until we noticed the puppy peeking out of his jacket. I think he'd won it in a game of cards - he wasn’t the type to nip into a pet shop.
They loved the story. To use the parlance of pet cats - they lapped it up.
‘The puppy didn’t last long, though...’ I added (sad face, big pause).
There was an intense pet-loving hush all around the balcony lunch table (laden with microwavable containers and weight-watchers crisps).
‘You see we lived on a dual-carriageway….’
‘It was only about a month old when it went to puppy heaven.’
‘Oh, that’s awful. You must have been traumatised you poor thing.’
‘Not as traumatised as that poor little puppy. ‘Rebel’ we called him: he was a cheeky little thing.’
One of the women had frozen mid-lunch. Her plastic fork hovering between her microwavable noodles and her awestruck mouth. I added a detail that probably sounded like overkill - but it was a  detail of truth.
‘And how unlucky was Rebel? To be mown down on such a quiet day of the year.’
The plastic fork was still hovering.
‘But I suppose people still need to drive about on Christmas Day.’

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

'Trevelyan's Corn'

I always feel a little sorry for National Trust volunteers – in much the same way that I feel sorry for ardent royalists who camp out for royal events and proclaim undying ‘love’ for the royal family – very rich people they don’t know and who don’t know them. 

Each public room at the National Trust’s Wallington Hall – the home of the Trevelyan family – had a tweeded retiree bursting to tell us fascinating details about the d├ęcor and which Victorian notables had swaggered around it. I knew without being told that the wallpaper was by William Morris – that man certainly got around and I’ve always admired his knack of concealing the joins when he papered – something I’ve never mastered.

I observed to the elderly guide in the central hall that one of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings depicting the history of Northumberland took a lot from Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Work’ - painted a full decade earlier. She smiled and moved on to recite her script to some loud Americans.

The name Trevelyan, though, was troubling me. I spoke to my mother that evening and she sang a few lines of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ down the phone - reminding me that the Irish convict transported in the song ‘stole Trevelyan’s corn’. Wallington, we realised, had been home to Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British administrator who famously described the Irish Famine as:

‘an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’

‘So what will you do?’ my mother asked, ‘Will you go again and mention their oversight in the background information? Maybe send them an email.’

I thought about this and realised that either action would be a very English response and would be politely rebuffed, or passed on. I recalled a dispute I once had with Maude – during  which potatoes were used as missiles. This memory led to my decision to employ direct action and involve my daughters who would be simultaneously thrilled and reminded of their heritage. 

‘Operation Wake Up Wallington’ began to take shape. 

Aurora produced a storyboard, a plan and an equipment checklist.

Backpack 1 (me): ukelele, potatoes.
Backpack 2 (Aurora): potatoes, water pistol.
Backpack 3 (Casta): potatoes, water pistol, harmonica.

Mission Plan:      
Enter Wallington Hall.
Smile and act 'normal'. Take leaflet.
Move through rooms, walking normally and not giggling. 
Dad asks question about wallpaper and looks really interested.
Arrive in central hall.
Wait until central hall is empty (apart from old lady in tweed).
Dad talks to old lady. Girls get out as many potatoes as they can hold.
Dad gets out of way. Aurora (best aimer) throws potatoes at old lady (not face).
Dad gets out ukulele and stands in centre of hall (best sound).
Dad sings ‘Fields of Athenry’ and shouts the line about Trevelyan.
Casta (worst aimer and loudest shouter) uses noise and potatoes to repel all those who try to  enter until Dad has finished song (or security people appear).
Run away.