An Unusual Use for Tai Chi

Our neighbour Matt goes to West Ham Park to work out. I have seen him twice when he has been at it and I keep my distance, because the social implications of approaching an acquaintance, when one of you is exercising, and, worse, in shorts, and the other isn’t, are too much for me. It’s all right to talk about it when one is away from the scene, however, and when chatting at his gate I referred facetiously to his practice of tai chi. He was indignant.

“It’s cardio,” he said. “Not tai chi.”

“Ah,” I said.

“Today I achieved a personal best.”


“Though I believe that tai chi can have positive benefits.”

“I don’t. It looks silly and it involves mysterious and possibly malign Oriental magic.”

“I have a friend who does tai chi,” said Matt, “and…”

And he described some improvement to the friend’s physique in terms that I didn’t understand; so we agreed to leave it at that.

When I was younger it was safe to assume that someone talking to themselves in the street was either preoccupied to the point of unsociability or mad. These days, the assumption is that they are talking on their mobiles, using the ear attachment with the little microphone. A genuinely mad person, these days, could escape detection for years by raving into one of these things – but with it turned off. The practice of tai chi has raised this problem to a new level of complexity. It looks from a distance indistinguishable from insanity, and even close up it is often impossible to tell – because of the absence of a tell-tale wire coming out of the ear. We live in challenging times.

There is a man who does tai chi in the Park. That is undoubtedly what he does, and he does it for hours. I take Bella, the dog, for her walk at widely different times of the day and as often as not he is there, scowling into the middle distance and hanging his wrist out in a manner that in less enlightened times people used to designate members of the male gay community. Once he was accompanied by a tiny Chinese man who was observing him closely. The man doing the tai chi was wearing the appropriate tunic and baggy leggings, but the tiny Chinese man had a navy blue suit and he kept his arms to his sides. I didn’t hear him speak but I assume that he was there to tell the first man if he was doing it properly, to critique his performance as we are encouraged to say these days. But maybe I caught the observation phase and the feedback phase was to come later: possibly in private.

One day, as I turned on to the path beside which the performer of tai chi was to be found I noticed that one of the man’s leggings was rolled up to the knee.

“Aha, a Mason,” I thought to myself. “He is a practitioner of tai chi and he is also on the Square.”

I congratulated myself on my cosmopolitan level of knowledge, whilst immediately becoming aware that this would be a most unusual combination of belief systems. As we came level, I slowed to the extent compatible with good manners and, from a distance of twenty yards or so, casually examined his shin. It was hideous, covered with angry red marks. At first I thought that they were sores, but as I came closer I could see that they were gashes, imperfectly healed. It was as if he had been savaged by a dog, or maybe a small demon.

Bella of course made straight for the bloody shin and I had to call her away, which rather spoilt my attempt at discrete observation. The man looked balefully at me and raised the damaged leg into the air, where it hung for a moment.

But I did wonder why he left his wounds uncovered. Was it a sign, and if so was it to all those who shared the Park with him, or was it something more arcane? Was it to whoever had caused the injury? Was it merely to heal his wounds through the medium of fresh air?

There are developments in the Park even more worrying than tai chi. Now that Spring is here various sporting and philanthropic organisations have secured permission from the Corporation of London, who own the Park, to mark out pitches in white on the grass. There is a baseball diamond (as I believe they’re called) and a four hundred metre running track, marked to show one hundred and two hundred metre lengths as well. When I was watching the other day I saw several young people achieve personal bests.

Tucked away in a relatively unvisited corner of the Park, there is another device marked out in white. It bears no relation to any known sport.

One can imagine the application process:

Corporation of London: Your device bears no relation to any known sport. It would bring no Amenity to the Park.

First Applicant: But it is our culture.

Corporation of London: That’s all right then.

Second Applicant (later): The fools! They were soft in your hands, like soft-boiled eggs. But Ashtoreth will be satisfied – when She comes.

First Applicant: A little more white on that top pentangle I think…

If my fears are right it is a landing-strip for Hell. It explains the tai chi man’s wounds. It was demons: a dry run. And his exposure of his wounds is a gesture of defiance to the Queen of Darkness: you may have the powers of Hades but I stand in your way and I am clothed with the power of – with whatever power it is that tai chi imbues you with: I must ask Amy.

We must pray that when the Horned One comes it is during the Corporation’s Opening Hours and the tai chi man is in position to save us all.

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Rex (Extra) Sectioned

I tried one of the websites that offer unwanted furniture and personal services – where you are. Using Boolean magic I excluded the furniture and refined ‘personal services’ by entering the word ‘domination’. The results were graphic. Photographs of scenes were provided at which, if they were encountered in real life, I felt that Bella would take fright. I didn’t feel brave enough to telephone the women offering these services. Maria was well-connected. I’d ask her if she knew anyone; a personal recommendation often eases things.

“The fact that I am Romanian,” said Maria, “does not mean that I am a prostitute and a thief.”

“Of course not. But I thought that you might know someone. It’s complicated, you see. It’s not for me personally…”

“Pft,” said Maria. “I know no such one.”

“No worries,” I said, and made for the door.

“Just a moment. I speak to my friend Lavinia.”

She called on her mobile, and talked for a minute in Romanian.

“Lavinia is upstairs. She is busy. She says call this number. They are understanding. Say to them her name.”

I was no further forward, but it was the best I could do. I went home, rang the number, made an appointment and set out with Bella to the address that I was given.

A man answered the door. He put a finger to his lips.

“Neighbours,” he whispered. “Come in, sir, come in.”

He led me downstairs.

“Well, sir,” he said. “Is it to be the bedroom or the dungeon? Is it to the left or to the right?”

“The dungeon, please,” I said. “It’s not me. It’s my dog. She needs acclimatising. Whips etc.”

“No need to explain, sir. Tell it to Mistress Mary. She’ll be along soon. She’s understanding.”

He named a price, which I paid him.

“I should ask,” he said, “Do you need the dog: Rex the dog? You have yours, so I suspect not. Rex is extra.”

The walls of the dungeon were deep red and shiny. There was a bed with rings to which handcuffs would presumably be attached. There was a frame to which a man could be strapped, legs and arms apart in an X shape. The rooms smelt not of bodily secretions but as if an effective household detergent had recently been used to remove bodily secretions. Mistress Mary came in. She was dressed entirely in black leather. She wore no mask but a jaunty peaked cap, also of black leather. She was neither young nor slim and had a friendly face. Bella took to her at once.

“I have a request that you’ll probably find strange,” I said.

“Oh, no, dear, there’s very little that I haven’t been asked. Nothing shocks me.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s my dog. I need to make sure that she isn’t frightened by, ah, people of your sort. I need to acclimatise her.”

“That is quite strange. Shall I try to frighten her and see what happens?”

“Go on then.”

“Grr,” said Mistress Mary.

Bella wagged her tail.

“Try it with a mask on.”

She donned a mask and said ‘Grr’ again. Bella jumped up and licked Mistress Mary’s gauntlets.

“She isn’t very frightened. Why did you think she might be, dear?”

“Well, I didn’t, but AERSIP did. You know, Action for the Elimination of Racism and Sexism in Pets…”

Mistress Mary became animated for the first time. “I know them. Wankers! They had a go at Rex.”

“Rex who is extra?”

“It was so unfair. I had a client. He asked for Rex too. He wanted me to beat him – the client, not Rex. That was all right. Then he said, ‘Abuse me!’

“’Worm!’ I said and give him a whack.

“’No,’ he said. ‘Abuse me with discrimination!’

“I didn’t like the sound of that. Me, as black as…”

“…the ace of spades,” I said.

“That’s the one. “‘I’ll do no such thing,’ I said.

“But he insisted. I shouted, ‘Worm from the Indian sub-continent!’ and caught him a good one across his arse.

“’No,’ he shouted. ‘Give me the red meat! Give me the real bad words!’

“So I did. I shouted them all, dear. I won’t repeat them. Rex, he howled along. And I beat him till the blood ran. He left a happy man.

“But he had regrets: as so often. Two days later I got a complaint from AERSIP.”

I nodded sympathetically.

“Compulsory training?”

“And the rest. Well, dear, I don’t think doggy needs more acclimatising, do you? Is there anything I can help you with? I do the regular as well, you know, and you have twenty minutes left.”

“That’s very nice of you, and you’ve been enormously helpful. But no, thank you. Pas devant la chienne, you know.”

“Oh well. Might have been nice. Tea, then?”


She returned a minute or so later.

“Should I have tried doggy with the whip?” she said.

I looked round. “I’m not sure that you have the whip you did.”

Bella was in the corner chewing it.

“I’m so sorry.”

She inspected it.

“Don’t worry dear. Doggy’s raised the surface in a few places. They like that.”

I left sure that Bella would not let me down; now I needed to find out when the rally was to be, so that she and I could lend our moral support. I rang the Corporation of London.

They laughed at me.

Newham Council likewise.

I told the story to Ijaz a few days later.

‘All acclimatised and nowhere to go,’ I said. “A practical joke, I suppose.”

Ijaz scowled.

“No joke. Is Thoughtcrime Audit. Thoughtcrime. Your Mr Orwell. Your 1984. They are testing to see if you are having discrimination thoughts. I was audited. I said, ‘I am permitted because of my religion.’”

“Newham Council,” I said. “Who’d have thought? With the cuts.”

“Not Newham Council. Much more serious.”


But he wouldn’t be drawn, and when he’d finished his cigarette he went inside and slammed the door.

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Whiplash Girlchild in the Park

I had a phone call from a man at Newham Council. It was not Mr Singh, who had been so helpful when Mr Putin got stuck in my chimney: it was another.

“You are the owner of the dog Bella?”

I agreed.

“Are you aware,” he said, “of the LBGTQ rally to be held in West Ham Park on – April?”

“No,” I said, “but what does West Ham Park have to do with Newham Council? It’s not owned by Newham Council. It’s the Corporation of London.”

I was teasing. This is a sore point. A friend once worked on the magazine published by Newham Council and she told me that the two subjects that they were never allowed to mention were Boris Johnson and West Ham Park. They were the twin elephants in the municipal room.

He sighed.

“Newham Council and the Corporation of London are joint-venturing on the LBGTQ rally. ‘Working Together to Amenitise Newham Folk.’”

“I’m sorry.”

“’Working together to amenitise Newham Folk’. It’s our joint-venture strapline.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to ask someone who knows about straplines. ‘Working together’: is that a participle or a gerund? Do you mean, ‘We are working together …’, or ‘Working together would be nice…’? The Police used to say on the sides of their cars ‘Working together for a Safer London’. Did that mean they were, or was it like ‘Working together for a Safer London: Don’t Make Me Laugh’? ”

“Your dog…”

“And ‘amenitise’: what sort of word is that?”

“Obviously it means providing amenities, or, as we say here, providing amenity: a singular, wholesome and ultimately indivisible concept; a civic concept. But I want to talk about your dog.”

“I’m pretty sure that, if it means anything, it means turning something into amenities, or, as you say there, amenity.”

“Your dog is on our Register.”

“What register?”

“Our register with regards to racism awareness around pets.”

“She was cleared of all charges,” I shouted.

“Nonetheless she is on our Register.”

“I’ll sue,” I said.

He sighed.

“Mr Alablague,” he said, “your attitude is inappropriate. We are talking softly softly here. A softly softly approach is the order of the day. Question marks have been raised with regards to your dog’s – ah, Bella’s – attitude with regards to racism awareness. I say no more about that now, it is a closed book, it is dead. What my concern is at this moment in time is does she also have a negative attitude as regards the LBGTQ community. We have seen that you visit West Ham Park every day with her …”

“What do you mean, you’ve seen that I visit West Ham Park every day with her?”

He sighed.

“Mr Alablague, surely you’re familiar with our ‘If You’re Doing Nothing Wrong, You Won’t Mind Being Snooped On’ programme?”

“Are you joint-venturing that too?”

“Oh yes. And we have sponsorship. From News International. They have first call on any juicy pictures, know what I mean? Does she – ah, Bella – harbour negative or inappropriate feelings for members of the LBGTQ community in any way, shape or form?”

“I can’t speak for her feelings. We don’t discuss them.”

“But does she growl?”

“She treats our gay and lesbian friends in exactly the same way as she treats anyone else.”

The man from Newham Council’s voice was getting raised.

“And the members of the transgender community? The trannies! When they come to your house! As if!”

“You’re right,” I said. “Our friends who are members of the transgender community rarely visit us in our home. We found that they tended to fight with the lesbians. An unfortunate phrase, ‘cis-gendered scum’, was once used. So instead we meet them in a café nearby.”

“A café! In Plaistow! As if!”

“You’re right, of course. There’s few of them. We tend to go to Fat Chaps in Plaistow Road. Do you know Fat Chaps? They’re excellent. We and the transsexuals buy a kebab each and eat it at the bus stop. My point is that Bella is not allowed with us in Fat Chaps, being, as a dog, a health and safety issue. But she’d be fine. Why not?”

The man from Newham Council lowered his voice again.

“The point is, Mr Alablague, that the particular rally to be held in West Ham Park will be rather specialised. They will be celebrating not the culture of the LBGTQ community as a whole but the values of the BDSM community.”

“Come again.”

“BDSM. Leather chaps. Spanking. May not of course have anything to with the LBGTQ community at all.”

“And you want to be sure that Bella will not take fright at the leather masks…”

“You’ve got it: the masks, the whips.”

“She is sensitive.”

“Oh yes. Jumps at her own shadow.”

“How…? Oh…”

“Yes. ‘If You’re Doing Nothing Wrong, You Won’t Mind Being Snooped On.’ You see my point?”

I had to agree. It is hard enough to proclaim your sexual values in West Ham Park without risking the teeth of a frightened medium-sized terrier puncturing your latex.

“I could keep her away for the day…”

“Oh, Mr Alablague, you’re too good, but no, no. Acclimatise her, that’s my advice; acclimatise her to BDSM values.”

“And clothes.”

“Yes, clothes mainly, and whips and so on. Those little things that go under the chin and fit so snugly. The tight trousers and those cruel, cruel zips.”

“Come again.”

“Never mind.”

“Do Newham Council by any chance offer training?”

“Ah, Mr Alablague, the cuts, the cuts: we did until fiscal 2012/2013. But there are practitioners in the private sector who can help and assist. Try one of the websites that offer unwanted furniture and personal services, where you are. As a search term I recommend ‘domination’.”

“And ‘dog’?”

“Oh, no, Mr Alablague, that would in my judgment be most imprudent.”

I promised that one way or another we would not spoil his rally.

“A word to the wise, eh?” said the man from Newham Council.

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My Mother 2

When you die, there is a process by which all the public authorities and utility companies are informed, so that existing arrangements can be brought to an end and all that is necessary is done to tie up any loose ends. I am the named point of contact in my mother’s case.

Two letters arrived in this morning’s post. In one, HMRC commiserated with me on my own death. They said that they recognised that it was a difficult time for me. More dramatic was the letter from British Gas. It starts:

Dear The Estate of Mrs J B-

We’re sorry to see that you have cancelled your HomeCare® agreement. But of course we understand that you have your reasons.

We’re still there for you.

If I believed in an afterlife, I would find the idea that I would have to share it with British Gas particularly chilling.

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My Mother

One of the reasons why I have posted nothing recently is that my beloved mother took ill rather suddenly, a month or so ago. She was in Southampton General Hospital for ten days, where her family maintained a vigil around the clock; and then she died. She was cremated in Southampton and a week ago we held a memorial service at the village where she lived in Yorkshire. This is what I said at the service:

When you get old your mind tends to prefer to deal with things that happened long ago, at the expense of the here and now. My mother started this process about a year ago. Last summer her grandson Will was surprised to find himself swapping war stories from the classroom with her. In the autumn she was full of memories of how she met my father. Last month, on our last stay here, she talked a lot about her childhood. And then, having reprocessed everything to her satisfaction, and with huge dignity, she died. And in a way I think that that was fitting.

Because she was a remarkable woman as well as a very nice one, I thought that it would be right to reverse the process and say just a little about her long life.

She was born in the closing days of the First World War, in Milbrook, in Cornwall. Her father was a solicitor’s clerk, studying for his exams in the evening. Her mother was a teacher; she was Cornish, and in the school holidays my mother spent much time with relations further west, in wild Cornwall: particularly Polruan. She developed a life-long fascination with the sea.

Her father qualified as a solicitor and they moved to Plymouth.

My mother went to university: Bedford College, London, one of the places that pioneered higher education for women. When her father came to London on business they would go out together. Once they arrived late for a performance by the Crazy Gang. This was as dangerous then as it is with Dame Edna now. Bud Flanagan (or maybe Monsewer Eddie Gray) broke off in the middle of a sketch. ‘You dirty man,’ he said. ‘She’s young enough to be your daughter.’

It was at the house in Plymouth that she met my father. He was billeted there during the War. The other lodgers were Air Force pilots. My father was in the Royal Army Dental Corps and my grandmother was relieved to have someone with a life expectancy of more than a week or so.

My father was the love of my mother’s life and she was the love of his, and there is nothing more to be said about this.

When she graduated my mother taught history at a girls’ school in Wimbledon. In the 1945 General Election she campaigned for Ernie Bevin. The family was horrified and sent a delegation up to London. ‘You know he’s a socialist,’ they said. ‘Of course I know,’ my mother said. ‘That’s why I’m campaigning for him.’

This turned out to be a passing phase, however.

She and my father married in 1947 and they lived first in Dorking and then in Peaslake, in the Surrey hills, where my mother was to spend more than half her life.

After my brother, my sister and I were born, she returned to teaching. In was in her blood and she continued to learn and to teach long after it ceased to be her day job. Emily, her eldest grandchild, remembers her Granny teaching her to read.

She was an infinitely loving and practical parent. She was also no-nonsense: she knew her own mind even when she was quite wrong. One of her convictions was that it is always possible to have a picnic on Easter Monday, and I remember at least one occasion, with the family sitting forlornly around the picnic basket wearing all the clothes we owned, while the snow fell softly around us.

She never put up with any nonsense from the cold.

My father died in 1972, tragically young. The illness took years. My mother cared for him and ran his dental practice, hiring and firing locums and when he was asleep doing battle in correspondence with the Dental Estimates Board.

Widowed at 53, she volunteered as a probation assistant. She was modest about this, saying that she did it for the petrol money. But I know that she fought indefatigably for the wives of the prisoners on her books to get their rights, ferried them around in her car, gave them all very direct advice, and developed a sometimes astonishing sympathy for wayward behaviour.

As a family we had always had adventurous holidays, driving through pre-motorway and pre-budget-airline Europe. My father would have spent the previous six months, mastering the local language: he had a talent for that. When she got to retirement age my mother took to travelling again: Russia a number of times; round the Mediterranean; small boats off the coast of Turkey; China once. She scorned America though. I’m interested in history, she said, but America has only geography.

She also had her caravan, on the south coast, where she took her grandchildren for memorable stays. She was a vigorous and loving grandmother. She had in a way a more straightforward relationship with her grandchildren than she felt able to, until quite recently, with her children. And until not so long ago she could out-walk any of them.

My mother had a fractious relationship with cars, but she relied on them in Peaslake. When it occurred to her that she would not be able to drive for ever she abandoned the village where she had lived for fifty years, with characteristic lack of sentimentality, and moved here. She had more or less run Peaslake, presiding over the WI and as an interventionist churchwarden, but she said that at nearly 90 she deserved a rest: she would no longer involve herself in local matters. This turned out to be over-optimistic.

Some time after she left Peaslake there was a huge row there, with resignations and an article in the Daily Mail. Someone rang me up. It wouldn’t have happened if Joan were still here, they said. She would have sorted them out.

I have my own private memories, as do all her family and friends, and they are our own business. In time they will be memories to be treasured rather than as now unfillable holes in our lives. But this is the more public side of her remarkable life, and it deserves to be honoured too.


Your Arse

I was walking with Bella, the dog, to West Ham Park for our daily constitutional. We passed a house from which we could clearly hear Fairytale of New York. This was not the recorded version. There were two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, exchanging the insults crafted all those years ago by Shane MacGowan when he wrote the song. They were accompanied by a piano. Their voices were live. From the street they sounded as if they might have originated in the Indian Subcontinent.

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

they sang.

Then there was the peremptory sound of someone tapping on a hard surface to attract the singers’ attention, so that they stopped singing, and then there was the sound of a third voice, also I would guess from the Indian Subcontinent, possibly the pianist’s:

“Not ‘Happy Christmas your arse’. Not ‘your arse’. ‘Yer arse.’ ‘Yer’. Again!”

As we passed on up the street, Bella and I, and out of range, I could hear improvement, a distinct MacGowanesque sneer. I wondered in what context the finished performance would take place. Would we be allowed to hear it?

I told the story to our neighbour Maria. I had dropped in on my way home from the park to apologise that Augustus Sly, who had been despatched to Vienna to investigate possible links between her bottom and that of the model who sat (‘sat’ is of course is absolutely the wrong word for what she did in this instance, but there is no other one) for Egon Schiele, seemed to have disappeared. He had not reported to me and he was no longer picking up calls to his mobile. In fact I was rather worried, and also cross, since I had paid for him to go to Vienna in the first place.

“Has he got your credit card details, there in Vienna?”

“No, he hasn’t, and anyway I trust him to that extent, but he’s quite capable of getting bored with your bottom and going off on a wild goose chase. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had taken himself to Montenegro to travel the length and breadth of that country, tracing the tracks – so he told me at the time: the forced marches, the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. We met by coincidence when I was uploading a post to my blog from a café in Montenegro that had WiFi.”

“Ah, Apa’tman. He is my country too,” said Maria.

“Apa’tman was in Romania too?”

“Great bloodshed.”

“A great man, I think, in the end.”

“Great bloodshed.”

Actually I know little of the detail of the career of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman, so I changed the subject and told her, as I have related, the story of the performance, overheard from the street, of Fairytale of New York.

“’Yer arse!’”, she exclaimed.

“That’s what I call multiculturalism,” I said, “a song about America, written and recorded by Irish people living in London and now being redone by Indian people living in London. What a great city we live in!”

“No, that’s not multiculturalism,” said Maria, frowning. “Multiculturalism is when people say that because I am Romanian I am prostitute and a thief and I can complain about this, which is hate crime. I am told this by a person from the Council.”

“Multiculturalism has different aspects,” I said. “It is a subtle business, this multiculturalism.”

“I am not prostitute and a thief.”

“It never occurred to me that you were.”

“My good friend Lavinia is both, but I am not prostitute and a thief.”

I wondered whether to return conversationally to Apa’tman or to call it a day, and decided on the latter.

“I’ll be on my way. I just thought that you might be curious about what Augustus Sly might have discovered about a link between you and the woman in the Schiele picture.”

She drew the different conversational strands together:

Yer want to see my arse?”

We escaped.

“Aren’t people difficult?” I said to Bella.

Obviously, being a dog, she neither understood nor replied, but I suspect that she sympathises. When we are in West Ham Park she avoids the company of other dogs. I believe that she regards this as a sensible precaution since she was bitten there by a liver-coloured bitch, but I don’t think that she warms to other dogs in principle. People too she will accept if we introduce them to her but they are of no interest otherwise. When we stand outside food shops, which the better half enters alone since Bella would be a health and safety issue, and people come up to us and try to engage her attention, she regards them with contempt.

“Does he bite?” they say, shivering deliciously and prodding at her from arm’s length.

“Seldom,” I say, wondering yet again why cynophobes are usually so incapable of sexing the objects of their fear.

Augustus Sly has sometimes accused me of having imaginary friends. He believes that Amy is a metaphor and has often said so, though not to her face. Bella certainly has imaginary friends. Her favourite is Dead Rabbit, a constant bed-fellow and companion whom she always gathers up into her mouth at times of excitement. He has a limp and vestigial physical existence but his friendship is entirely imaginary.

Lest this sound cute, she then shakes him vigorously so as to break his neck, again. She is a terrier, after all.

Some people have said recently that the Jesus and the Rabbit sequence, on the restricted access part of this blog, is rather running out of steam. Perhaps I should introduce Dead Rabbit into it. That would beef it up as bit.

Actually if I am going to do that I should continue this whole discussion on the restricted access section. I’ll do that now, if you’ll excuse me.

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Thou, Who didst come to bring
On Thy redeeming wing
Healing and sight,
Health to the sick in mind,
Sight to the inly blind,
Oh, now to all mankind
Let there be light!

we sang. It is a hymn. Thirty or so of us stood in the Norman church, mufflered against the draughts. I would like to record that we were accompanied by a wheezing organ, but unfortunately, so I was told, its action ceases to be reliable below freezing, so it was a piano instead. During the summer months the piano is wheeled out of the way into an aisle or transept but in the winter it is always there just in case.

We are in Yorkshire, spending a week with my mother. Her house overlooks the village graveyard. On the other side is the church, Norman but a different one from that just mentioned. The snow has not fallen here but it is freezing. In the morning the graveyard is white with frost and the path through it is too slippery to be attempted; people walk on the grass beside it instead. When the sun gets going, strips of green appear amid the white depending on the shadows cast by the cypress trees.

The graveyard is always full of people: many of them living. They come to pay their respects more than happens in the South. Half the gravestones are attended by recently bought flowers. There is also work being done on the church roof. Either the lead is being systematically stripped or it is being replaced having recently been systematically stripped. Since it is done in broad daylight and the men have orange jackets and scaffolding I suspect the latter, but you can’t be sure. They leave lights on at night to stop people – who might come up to the graveyard in the dark to place one last flower or steal a kiss together – damaging themselves.

The first night we were here I had quite a turn. At the edge of the church at ground level there were shapes dancing slowly in the breeze. They could be seen by means of the workmen’s light. The shapes were round and indistinct and changed colour as they moved. It was mildly horrifying, and it held the seeds of becoming seriously horrifying when I was able to decipher what was going on.

The better half dismissed my fears.

“It’s balloons for a child’s grave.”

The reality was almost as upsetting. That corner of the graveyard is for children. Not surprisingly it is even more attentively looked after than the rest of the cemetery, with flowers and toys too. This was the grave of a child who had died in infancy and would recently have turned thirteen. There were flowers, toys, damp cards, and balloons bearing the legend ‘13 today!’. It was these that had bobbed around so sepulchrally in the workmen’s light.

Since the night we arrived the balloons have slowly lost their helium, and last night the sole survivor could no longer rise above the ground. I was however sufficiently brushed by the transcendental to attend the nearby church, where we sang, as I say, the hymn Let There be Light.

It’s impossible to concentrate on anything for long in church. Hillaire Belloc (or, as always, possibly G K Chesterton) once said that the longest that one could concentrate on spiritual matters was twelve minutes, which was by happy coincidence (or, as always, possibly divine intervention) the length of a properly disciplined mass. My mind went back to my schooldays, when I had first worried about the ‘inly’ bit of the hymn:

Sight to the inly blind

‘Inly’ is clearly an adverb. ‘In’ is a useful word, but it is a preposition, and you can’t make an adverb out of a preposition by adding ‘-ly’ to it. Its meaning is less obvious. Even metaphorically, one is either blind or not blind, I would have thought. And presumably the blindness is metaphorical, since is to be sorted by a ‘redeeming wing’. I have no idea what that is, even metaphorically.

At the time I was studying Greek classics with a view to being awarded an A Level. My hero was E von Willemovitz Üllendorff. When faced with a bit of Greek that was clearly nonsense, or rude, he would assert that the original had been misunderstood by some intermediate scribe – possibly an Irish monk living on Skellig Michael in the middle of the Atlantic and the Dark Ages, diligently preserving civilisation for the rest of us and having only the basics of the language – and substitute what he preferred.

(I write of E von Willemovitz Üllendorff from memory, incidentally. I can’t find him with Google. Memory plays tricks, but surely I can’t have made him up?)

Anyway my working theory all those years ago was that ‘inly’ was a mistranscription. Recently my amanuensis, Augustus Sly, has shyly confided that when I am in full creative flight, he prefers to guess at an indistinct word rather than interrupt my flow. Thus one Irish monk declaiming Aeschylus to another. Thus perhaps the first editor of Hymns Ancient & Modern, whom I imagine as a Victorian gentleman, bewhiskered and clutching penwiper and pen against the hour. Hymnodists would burst into his office, pregnant with new devotional masterpieces, which they would declaim, accompanying themselves with occasional thumps on the harmonium that he kept in the corner of the room for just that purpose.

“Inly?” he would mouth, but they would ignore him, cranking themselves up into the full apocalyptic last verse.

I declined the sacrament of lukewarm milky coffee and returned to my mother’s house. She is a little hard of hearing and she uses the ‘subtitle’ function on her television, often with the sound off.

When I came in, Mr Cameron was on the screen, wearing his compassionate face. He leant forward confidingly.

“Lobster reunification sir,” he said, or is recorded as having said.

Plus ça change, I thought.


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Ties of Love

On Sunday my godson Richard, having married Mark, with whom he has lived for some time, invited us to a party to celebrate their wedding ties. It was in the West End in one of those slightly anomalous spaces, a room upstairs from a restaurant being put to profitable use, knowingly traditional but the coldness of the beer an indication that the tradition was being packaged for sale not to us but to Americans. I was talking to Richard’s father, Michael, and we were saying how agreeable it was that at occasions of this sort it was no longer necessary, as it would have been not so long ago, to wear a tie. Michael was wearing an open-necked shirt and my sweater was black and polo-necked.

Not everyone rates black polo-necked sweaters. Some think them old-fashioned. I first took to them in the early 1960s. I would wear them with crisp grey slacks and hope that people would say that, since I had thick black-framed glasses too, I looked like Manfred Mann, whose first band was then becoming popular. People quite often did. I suppose that that is another way of saying that they are indeed old-fashioned. But I hedge my bets these days: it is a Yohji Yamamoto black polo-necked sweater.

Manfred Mann had hits with Do Way Diddy Diddy and Pretty Flamingo. I liked them partly because of the black polo-necked sweaters and the black glasses and partly because Mike Vickers played Roland Kirk-style flute, which I was attempting to master. We didn’t then realise that Jack Bruce was in the band; he died last year and was probably the greatest rock bassist of them all.

Michael simply doesn’t like wearing a tie. My own feelings are more complex. At one level, ties were part of my uniform for over forty years as a lawyer and it has been nice to put working clothes to one side. Where I work now, ties are only rarely necessary. But there are more disturbing elements to them too. As we chatted, the memory of an encounter flooded back. It took place not a hundred yards from where we were, not in the 1960s, but a decade later, when I had recently started working as a solicitor. I was in a clothes shop trying on a suit. I won’t tell you which shop. It is still there and there are a number of other branches but my encounter was with a man whose name was over the door, although only in the sense that the shop was named after his father, who owned and ran it. I was being served by Young Mr Grace, as it were.

I admired myself in the mirror. One of the glories of the written word is that you can imagine me in a contemporary suit, something sharp but suitable for the office, something by Hugo Boss perhaps, a simple single-breasted coat with a single button, hanging perfectly. In fact, since it was the early 70s, it was an object horrendous to contemplate, with science fiction reveres, assisted shoulders and the trousers flared: David Bowie meets Hepworth’s. But we were not to understand this until later.

I was wearing the shirt and tie that I had worn to the office that morning with my existing suit, which was now resting over the back of a chair.

“Tie,” said Young Mr Grace, as I shall continue to call him.

“I’m suited, thank you very much,” I said.

“No pun intended,” I added.

Young Mr Grace did not laugh. He looked at me intently, and then roughly pulled my tie off.

“Stand still,” he said. “Don’t speak.”

He went to a drawer and returned with three or four in his hand. Again, the historical perspective is important. When I gave up the day job, I threw out a whole assortment of more or less grubby neckwear. I kept two or three only, and they are slim, discreet and elegant. Forty years ago those on offer would have been far bigger and more colourful: you would probably say blowsier. Possibly there was a feel of William Morris. Certainly they were of silk, flowers were depicted on them and they were generously proportioned. Young Mr Grace tied one around my neck. He did not trouble to place it within the collar of my shirt, so that it sat proud, like the scarves that men wore in those days but much plumper. He stood back, admired it and pinched it between finger and thumb, feeling the resistance of the silk.

“Mr G, it’s…”


Very deliberately he tied the other two over the first one. My appearance was that of a Regency dandy, but incontinent in a manner that such a man would never have permitted himself. As he worked away I noticed a line of sweat on Mr Grace’s top lip. Again he stood back.

“Mr G, I …”

“Shut up.”

He sank into the chair on which my suit lay. He seemed exhausted by his efforts and did not bother to avoid creasing it. Indeed, my trousers he simply sat on.

“Ah, ties,” he said. “I can do without sex – and Father would rather that I did – but I could never do without ties. A lovely floral tie like yours, the second one down, lovely yellows, lovely and plump to touch, lovely silk, it makes me come, just like that.”

I glanced at his trousering, but it was impossible to tell whether he spoke figuratively.

With a groan he hauled himself up and staggered away. Glancing round to make sure that I was not observed I removed Mr Grace’s suit and replaced my own. One is never at one’s most assured when wearing someone else’s trousers.

“Mr G!” I called. “The suit?”

“Bugger the suit,” he grunted, from behind a curtain.

When David Cameron and Ed Miliband appear on the television with their neat jackets and their passionless open-necked shirts, this story is one more reason why I despise them.

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I Don’t Think You Should Have Said That

It is nice to see our various leaders and the commentators in our newspapers announcing that they are Charlie, but it is hard to believe that they are anything of the sort. Being Charlie after all asserts the troublesome right to mock people in their most cherished and sensitive beliefs. Personally I think that being mocked in your beliefs is a useful exercise and may kill or cure them, depending on whether they’re up to it.

(Jesus, incidentally, agreed. As the last of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:11) he is recorded as saying:

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

He didn’t say: ‘Insults? Hand me that Kalashnikov. I’m going in.’

For Christians Jesus is the son of God and a prophet for Muslims, two groups currently displaying a marked disinclination – to the extent of demanding that the state do something about it – to be insulted.)

But our leaders and commentators give every impression of thinking the opposite. We have legislation designed to protect through the criminal law anyone who might feel offended in their most cherished and sensitive beliefs. My wounded feelings are enough to cause you, who used a bad word or offended against some shibboleth or piece of sectarian etiquette, to have your collar felt.

It was not so, even quite recently. Until the end of the last century legislation against racial discrimination and abuse had two motives: to prevent discrimination, particularly in employment, and to stop people being physically threatened, as Mosley and his thugs had done to the Jews in the 1930s. Only recently have governments thought it their job to prevent hurt feelings.

And legislation is just the sharp end of it. It sometimes seems as if the first priority in all our discourse these days is not to say what we think but to avoid saying anything that might offend.

Offence might be at the use of a Bad Word. Just as in Einstein’s theory of relativity the speed of light is absolute and unaffected by the context of the bodies on which the light falls, some words now are so Bad that they are never to be breathed – or even thought – irrespective of context. When they have to refer to them people call them things like ‘the N word’. You can imagine them crossing themselves and resolving on a few Hail Marys as they say this, because even as they do so there is a fleeting moment when they cannot help thinking the word ‘nigger’. It flits unbidden into the forefront of their brains and – oops! – thought crime.

Recently the BBC fired a radio DJ for playing an old record of a song, The Sun Has Got his Hat On, where the word ‘nigger’ could be heard, even though when the record was made (about the same year as Agatha Christie published her book Ten Little Niggers) the term was neutral, and the phrase in the song itself was not abusive. As a result not only has a man lost his livelihood but we can no longer listen to The Sun Has Got his Hat On. That is not the end of the world, but it was a nice song.

Similarly, the entertainment industry has retrospectively abolished cigarettes, the fourth absolute evil of our secular era, along with racism, sexism and dog shit. In real life, decoding the Germans’ wartime communications at Bletchley Park, like the War generally, took place in a thick blue fug, but you would not guess that from The Imitation Game, where the atmosphere is at all times brightly devoid of secondary smoking.

Bad words are easy to spot: bad states of mind less so. Nevertheless many column inches (or are they now column centimetres?) are devoted to discerning doctrinal error in apparently neutral material. Things that you might have thought were OK turn out to have a vein of sexism running through them, or worse. The invariable censorious conclusion: ‘I don’t think you should have said that.’

‘Rape’ is interesting. It is not yet a Bad Word. You are still allowed to say it, though it is considered good manners to lower your voice by a minor third when doing so. But it is becoming an absolute: irrespective, like saying ‘nigger’, of context. The sad and rather sordid saga of Ched Evans, working itself out in counterpoint to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, illustrates this. What he actually did and what she actually did and what the effect of seeing him toiling about in shorts might actually have been on the few hundred die-hard fans of Oldham Athletic (or ‘the Bottlers’ as I believe the club is affectionately known) are no longer relevant. What matters is that Evans has ‘Rape’, or as we will soon have to call it ‘the R word’, figuratively branded to his forehead, like the ‘D’ word inscribed on heretics by the Inquisition or the Stars of David forced on Jews by the Nazis. It is an absolute and we all have to make obeisance to it, not out of empathy with people who have actually been raped, but out of weepy solidarity for those who assert the oblique victim status that – who knows? – they might one day be raped.

Thank God, as so often, for the French. Charlie Hebdo asserts the requirement to think, judge and laugh, and that thinking is better than mushy feelings of victimhood. It suggests that just because many people take refuge in idolatry (and, yes, saying that the Prophet is so wonderful that his appearance can’t be imagined is just as idolatrous as the tackiest Queen of Heaven print) that doesn’t make it good, or respectable, let alone worthy of protection. It asserts that being jabbed by a figurative foreign object can be salutary.

I am glad that our leaders say they agree, proceeding down the Champs-Elysees with their solemn faces and tailored overcoats. I wish I believed them.

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