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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Warp Factor 9

My father was always dapper when he left the house at the weekend. His suits were tailored by Harry Davies in Moss Side. Saturday morning would see him shaving, polishing his shoes and slicking back his hair with Brylcreem. Before leaving he would brush any lint from his suit – using a clothes brush which hung on a little wooden plaque in the hall. The plaque was next to a small font of Holy Water, but Dad would pass on the chance to bless himself. Going back through the house, he would leave by the back door and say the same thing over his shoulder every time:


I have never been fond of science fiction. Even as a child I would only watch the likes of ‘Star Trek’ when there was absolutely nothing else on and then for amusement only. One of the most amusing of the many amusing conventions of ‘Star Trek’ was the way in which the members of the crew were thrown about when an impact occurred. This phenomenon is referred to online as ‘Star Trek Shake’ – which makes it sound like a dance craze for geeks which, if it existed, would surely make onlookers weep  tears of pity until their eyes smarted.

All reserves of the limited acting skill available on the Star Trek set were called up and drained as the ‘actors’ threw themselves around and grabbed hold of space-age consoles with flashing lights and vibrating joysticks. All this occurred while an emergency klaxon blared - as though to state the bleeding obvious. Spock would wobble ever so slightly and say something smug, before reserve jet boosts would kick in and propel the craft back to safety. I imagine that dustpans could then be deployed to sweep up any debris.

On an average Saturday night throughout the 1970’s my father would return home and recreate this scene. He would move around the building as though it had just been hit by a meteorite. He would turn the radio volume to ‘11’ to alert the entire neighbourhood to the emergency. In lieu of illuminated space consoles he would cling to items of furniture. Undeterred by the debilitating effect of warp factor 9, he would flip his congealed dinner into a frying pan and cook it until he was sure it was piping hot. This would usually involve the creation of enough acrid smoke to trigger the smoke alarms of our next door neighbour.

The burnt offering would be washed down with lemonade. The smoke would clear, the craft would steady and Galway’s answer to James T Kirk would climb the stairs to recover from another exhausting journey into outer space. The Captain’s retirement would be signalled by the loud cascade of loose change from his pockets into a bright yellow Holsten Pils ashtray on his dressing table.

Bernadette asked me yesterday if I could think of any items that could go into Dad’s room at the nursing home - to "help him feel more at home"

I asked if we still had the ashtray.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015


“Have you been to Milltown?”

“No Dad.”

“Have you been to Cloonagh?”

“Not today Dad, no.”

Physically, my father is in a nursing home in Manchester. Spiritually, he is in the west of Ireland. He thinks I step into the room from County Galway when I visit and, in many ways, I wish I did.

In July 1945, the British ceded sovereignty of Suite 212 at Claridge’s in London so that Crown Prince Alexander could be born in ‘Yugoslav territory’. Disappointingly, my letters to the Queen and the Taoiseach to create a similar arrangement for my father’s time in room 7 at Brocklehurst Nursing Home in West Didsbury remain, as yet, unanswered.

Moving my Dad from his armchair into his bed is a long and laborious process. His upper body strength has waned – but he resisted help. He tried a few times before success and his big chest eventually rose to the right level for the walking frame. This position is now the closest he gets to upright.

Before the journey to the bed commenced there was a window of opportunity to remove remnants of lunch from Dad’s front. Mum stepped in, held the front of the polo shirt taut and removed all crumbs with her dust-buster before setting it back into its charger.

On arrival bedside, dad’s rear end had to be aimed precisely at a sweet spot in the centre of the bed – the spot which allowed his legs to be helped across into the snugness at the foot of the bed. A few millimetres out and the result is chaotic.

We were a few millimetres out.

“Get the undertaker!” called Dad - as my mother struggled to organise his feet into some kind of comfort.

Having made the bed earlier, Mum carefully folded back the bedding in readiness to receive the man we traditionally referred to as ‘The Old K’ (mother was ‘The Old Q’).

“Will I cover you now?” She asked.

“Cover me with clay,” he answered.

Friday, February 27, 2015

'No Bra Time for Happy Hour Girls'

Maude and the girls were all sleeping soundly. It was late last night and I sat on the sofa to focus on the exciting events of my day.

I dozed off.

I awoke in the glow of a blue screen. SKY had dozed off with me and was now on its standby menu. I was still wearing Maude’s glasses – I’d put them on earlier as a way of amusing everyone and trying to do the ‘funny thing’. I remember a Steve Martin appearance on David Letterman a few years ago. Martin came on and ostentatiously sat in the wrong chair before standing, sighing and saying:

"Always trying to do the funny thing..."

Maude wears the glasses for watching TV - so I thought I'd give them a go, to see the world through her eyes. Everything was a bit blurry. I jabbed at the SKY remote control and brought up a channel at the shady far end of the satellite spectrum. Tinny dance music crept into the room. I pushed the glasses down to the tip of my nose and peeped over them. All I could see on the screen was a large leather sofa. An unseen female voice recited a premium rate number, along with some salacious encouragement to call. Her tone trailed off with lack of interest and began to remind me of an announcement that might tell shoppers that a range of bakery items was ‘reduced to clear at the end of aisle 8’.

I sat up, decided that this channel was not for me and reached for the remote. Just as I was about to switch back to the safer territory of standby, three figures appeared and took to the sofa. Three women in little more than lingerie remnants and g-strings - which seemed more revealing than actual nudity.

Two of the women were soon talking animatedly into cordless phones and seemed to be interacting with indecent callers. Their conversations were accompanied by gyrations, lewd gestures directly to camera and carnal contact with the sofa's upholstery.

The 3rd woman, in contrast, looked bereft. She smiled nervously, gulped and adjusted her negligible negligee. She did not appear to have a caller and looked off-screen for some kind of guidance. I imagined an overweight and perspiring man in headphones urging her to carry on regardless. She turned back to face her public and began to brandish a rosette showing the number 3. I guessed that this number was added to the premium rate number flashing at the foot of the screen to speak to her directly and chivvy her on to some form of gyration to match that of her colleagues.

I wanted to call.

I wanted to call to say that everything would be alright, that there must be other ways to pay the bills and that the cushions didn't match the sofa.

I wanted to call to suggest that she now had enough ‘body art’ and should resist peer pressure and the temptation to get any more tattoos.

I hit the information button to learn that I was watching the enigmatically named:

‘No Bra Time for Happy Hour Girls.’

The next feature on the channel was to be ‘Anal Housewives 2’.

I couldn’t possibly stay tuned – I hadn’t seen the first one.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

'Happy Place'

‘Wake her up!’

‘She is awake, Dad.’

‘So she is. Is that her talking?’

‘Yes. She’s talking to Clarence.

‘She’s like her mother – she’d talk to a lamp-post.’

Bernadette was cheerfully engaging with the dementia patient in the bed opposite.

‘How are you doing Clarence?’

Clarence held his forehead in a very woeful attitude and then responded in a heavy West Indian accent:

‘Under pressure! I’m under pressure!’

The small ward was home to four elderly men all suffering from their own version of dementia: 

My father - whose mind transported him to his 'Happy Place' (the pub) each day. He referred to the nurses as ‘barmaids’.

Austin, a second old Irishman, who frequently asked for whiskey but settled for a cup of tea.

Clarence who regaled his second wife with joyous memories of his first wife and then wondered why he felt 'under pressure'.

Sidney - who watched all activity like a hawk and claimed ownership of everything on the ward:

‘Hey, that’s mine!'

‘No it isn’t Sid.’

‘Yes, it fucking well is!’

Clarence was about to launch into an elaboration on his ‘pressure’ for Bernie's benefit, when my father intervened.

‘Give me the wallet now.'

Bernadette stood up slowly and processed to the bed – appropriate ceremony and solemnity for an appearance by the wallet. I was about to liken the wallet to something I had recently seen at Beamish Museum, but I stopped myself. Dad brought the battered pouch very close to his worn out eyes, surveyed its shape and rubbed its surface. My mother had been instructed by him to send the wallet in with two twenty pound notes in it. Bernadette was the nominated ‘keeper of the wallet’ for the day.

Dad removed a note. He shook it, pulled it and creased it a little to ensure that it was a single note. I thought he was about to do a magic trick. He then held it so closely over his eyes that it resembled a little mask. Bernadette hovered over the bed. Eventually Dad gave up on his attempt to see:

‘What is that one?’

‘It’s a twenty Dad.’

‘That’s mine!’ shouted Sidney.

Dad removed the second note from the wallet and went through the same routine. My mother had told me that he wanted to give some money to me for the girls.

‘And what’s that one?’

‘That’s a twenty as well Dad.’

‘Give that back!’ shouted Sid.

Bernie rolled her eyes and smiled at me.

Clarence distracted Sid for a minute or two.

‘Hey, you can have everything I have. It’s yours. I don’t need the pressure!’

Dad was waving the two notes in front of his face in one last check that neither of them was stuck to another note. He placed the original twenty into his mouth for a moment – like a cashier using that little clip on a till before giving change for a large note. He replaced the second note in the wallet and waved the wallet for Bernie’s attention.

Bernie took the wallet and processed back to her armchair.

Dad could hear that Bernie was back in place.

‘There,’ he said as he took the note from his mouth and handed it to me, ‘split that one. Ten each.’

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'Seeing the Bigger Picture'

"This is a competency-based interview and the first competency we'll cover is 'Seeing the Bigger Picture'"

I had revised all the competencies and I certainly knew the gist of this one. I repeated it to myself:

"Seeing the Bigger Picture.
Seeing the Bigger Picture...."

I turned it into a private mantra because I didn't want to 'see the smaller picture' - a tableau with an interviewer who had not taken the time to make a last minute check on her nostrils. A picture in which the foreground was dominated by, and the eye was irresistibly drawn to, a pendulous bogey.

The interview ground on - as interviews do. I talked too much. I made too many hand gestures - as I grasped for inspiration in the overheated office air. Pauses naturally occured each time my answer ran out of steam. The interviewer watched as my hands settled down, then smiled an indulgent professional smile as she prepared to ask her next 'competency-based' question. It was during one of these pauses that I wondered if the snot was a prop designed to distract candidates. I wouldn't claim to be up to date with cutting edge recruitment techniques, but remember this experience if Claude has some nostril company during the interview stage of 'The Apprentice' next year.

"That's great," my interviewer said. Her tone suggested some relief as we trotted into the home strait of our exchange. "We've covered all of the competencies now. Finally, do you have any questions for me?"

The interviewer closed her mouth. This pulled the shutters down on her indulgent smile and signalled procedural closure. I put on a 'just thinking of a really intelligent closing question' face - I think I even cupped my chin in my hand as I did so. Nothing came - other than the realisation that the woman who politely awaited my response would have to breathe shortly and would have to breathe through her nose.

As I opened my mouth to speak, she exhaled. The tiny bat of snot made its bid for freedom and floated like a leaf on the breeze. A part of me wanted to press my excitable hands back into service to reach for the bogey. It was the same part of me that always wants to shout "No! He's having an affair' at the point in weddings when the vicar asks for 'any known impediment'  (even at weddings when I don't know that the groom's having an affair). I wanted to catch the bogey as much as a child wants to capture a floating bubble.

The mantra in my head began again, just in time.

'Seeing the Bigger Picture.
Seeing the Bigger Picture.....'

The snotleaf came to rest, unmolested, in the warm cradle of its mother's lap.

"No," I said. "No questions. I think you've covered everything."