My Gore-Tex Boots

Many years ago, before we had eCommerce or iPhones, when we still occasionally referred to women as ‘girls’, in short in about the year 1990, I found myself in a small bar in the city of Cork with my then friend B. The bar had literary pretensions and by a fire in a corner of the room, seated on a chesterfield of venerable age, two poets – tweeded, chain-smoking Majors, nursing pints of Murphy’s – were giving each other a tongue lashing. The only other person there was the proprietor, who was called Brian; he pronounced it the English way.

‘You’re from London,’ he said.

I admitted this.

‘Are you familiar with a landlord in London by the name of Norman Balon: his pub The Coach and Horses?’

‘I am, to be sure,’ I said. ‘Do you know him?’

‘I have not met him,’ said Brian. ‘But I am told that he is the rudest landlord in London.’

‘He has that reputation,’ I said, ‘but he’s never been rude to me. In fact on one occasion he showed a degree of kindness. I’ve known many ruder.’

Brian ignored this.

‘I’ve had a card made,’ he said, and he presented it. Under his name and that of his pub it read: ‘The rudest landlord in Cork’.

‘You don’t seem particularly rude to me either.’

‘Aha,’ said Brian.

In those days I had a small house on the west coast, about a hundred miles away.

‘You’ll be going into the west, after?’ Brian said. ‘I wish I were going to the west. I’ve not been out of Cork City for twenty years.’

‘Come too,’ we said.

‘Ah, I couldn’t.’

‘Throw those two deadbeats out, close the bar, put up a sign and head for the coast with us.’

‘I think I will,’ Brian said, eventually. ‘There’s the landlady of a certain pub, who’s been in my thoughts these many years.’

‘Pack a bag then and we’ll be off.’

Brian shuffled away and returned with a small sports bag. It appeared to be entirely full of cassettes (this was 1990) of opera.

‘Tooth brush? Spare pants?’

‘Ah,’ said Brian, and shuffled off again.

‘You’ll need stout shoes,’ we said, eyeing his slippers, ‘for the country.’

But he had none so we set off anyway. We stopped at a number of pubs on the way. Brian appraised them proprietorially and looked down with distaste on the tarmacked car parks as he shuffled across them in his slippers. Eventually we got to my house. He looked out of the car window as we came to a stop.

‘Mud,’ he said. ‘I won’t walk on that.’

‘Not really.’

But it was not tarmac either.

‘You’ll have to carry me in.’

So I did, like a bride.

He paid court to his landlady, plying her with Tosca and fine words, and when he got fed up with the silliness with the slippers he bought a pair of loafers at Wiseman’s in the High Street. Soon he disappeared altogether, although I believe that his suit was not ultimately successful. With her, suits rarely were.

Musing when I returned to London on the footwear required in the far west, I went to a shop where they sell gear for mountaineers and explorers and bought a pair of stout mountaineering boots made of Gore-Tex. They may even have offered a facility for attaching crampons, but if they did I went without. I became extravagantly fond of them and when I went to Ireland I wore them everywhere. I was even surprised to find them the most comfortable shoes to drive in.

Time went by and I lost my house in the west of Ireland. The boots however hung around, as footwear does. They were of little use when I lived in Clerkenwell and less now that I am in Plaistow. The geography of the London Borough of Newham never falls below the picturesque and frequently aspires to the sublime, but mountains are few and far between here, and mountaineering boots are rarely needed. I had thought little of them for some long time when one day last week I went out leaving Bella, the dog, alone in the house. When I got back she had done little damage but she had found and chewed the boots. The Gore-Tex, even after all these years, had proved dog-resistant but she had removed the insoles and demolished one. She was starting on the second when I returned but it was still usable.

I was unable to summon the rage that I would have felt all those years ago. My Irish adventure was long over: the boots a sentimental relic. I replaced them in the shoe and coat cupboard, a feature of the new house on which the better half had wisely insisted. Bella received from me nothing worse than a complementary pet product. After all, she wasn’t to know.

Curiously enough they emerged again shortly afterwards. My parents-in-law, who live in St. Petersburg, are staying with us, and at the weekend daughter three and her husband Alex were here too. My father-in-law has a Brian-like attitude to outdoors. If he goes there he dresses appropriately but while indoors he dresses for comfort. I suppose that in Russia the difference between indoors and outdoors, particularly in the winter, is that much more marked: thirty degrees below in the streets and indoors sweaty with subsidised heating. Anyway, the better half was reorganising the garden and he kindly helped. The rich Plaistow loam precluded his venturing out in his socks, and the better half had given him my Gore-Tex boots to wear. There he was manfully struggling with unwanted branches with his pyjama bottoms tucked into them.

‘OMG,’ I said to Alex. ‘Bella has eaten one of the insoles. One of the boots has no insole.’

Alex, who has a capability in Physics, considered this.

‘Grandfather will inevitably walk round in circles,’ he said, ‘but the garden is not so large as to make that a practical problem.’



We went to Portugal for a week, staying with Rob from Oman (for complicated reasons) and Keith and Marina from London. We were on the seaside. The wind howled, the rain descended relentlessly and the breakers from the Atlantic grew to ever more improbable heights and crashed onto the shore. It was just like the summer holidays I spent years ago with my young family in the west of Ireland.

The better half resolved to mount the improbably high breakers, an aspiration equivalent to the dog’s relentless desire to mount the bottoms of passing Dobermans. She hired a wetsuit and a board and took surfing lessons. It was a doomed ambition, however, although she enjoyed her time in the surf and her trainer, Vasco, has high hopes for her, when the gales have passed over.

Between squalls I saw The Jolly Thought hull down to the west. Rob had hoped to thank the son personally for the Lee Enfield. The pirate ethicist, however, acting as temporary captain, decided against attempting a landing through the uncertain Lisbon shoals. I thought he might send in a ketch but he decided not to risk it.

One day we went into Lisbon. I was last there thirteen years ago. It was the day that the great fado singer Amalia Rodriguez died. I remember driving into the cathedral square in the small hours of the morning and it was alight with candles, a queue of people stretching into the side streets, all waiting to pay their last respects. The next day I bought CDs of fado and resolved to come back one day and hear it in the clubs.

So we did. Portugal increasingly conforms to Spanish timing, and nothing really starts until after nine o’clock, so we spent the day looking at cathedrals, we rode the trams and ate and drank in absurdly cheap and friendly little bars.

There are snooty and expensive fado clubs and no doubt funky ones where tourists are never seen and we chose one in between. The patron was advertised as singing there, which seemed to be a good sign. He was a man in his middle years with swept back hair and an attitude of infinite villainy. There were also two young women. One wondered vaguely if they were his daughters. Backing them were an expressionless guitar player (or viola player as they confusingly call them in Portuguese) and a nervous performer on the Portuguese guitar, which is high and double-stringed like a mandolin, the counter-melody to the singer. He was right to be nervous, as he wasn’t very good.

One of the young women was to start. They were unamplified so she gestured ineffectively to the room to ask for quiet. The better half bellowed Shut Up, which endeared her to the performers. This was to have consequences.

The music was extraordinary, the passion and theatricality of the singing and the interplay of the melody of the song and that of the guitar. The patron and the two women all sang and sometimes the women sang together, facing each other, then shrugging apart, as the words demanded, like an Iberian Agnetha and Annafrid.

After an hour or so of this they came round and sold us their CDs. They had made one each. The CDs were on the expensive side but it was worth it as they signed them for us, ripping off the cellophane first in a passionate manner.

The patron, who was already impressed with the better half’s volume in quelling the room and was not acquainted with her occasional tonal imprecision when in song, flourished his felt-tip and demanded our names so that we could be identified as dedicatees. Marina, Keith, Rob and Mr and Mrs A La Blague, the better half said. He wrote it all down on the CD leaflet, added some affectionate remarks in Portuguese, signed it and returned to the stage for the second set.

He did not however ask which of us was which and this was his undoing.

He embarked on a love song. Raising his arm towards the better half in the pointing gesture with which Mitt Romney appears to feel particularly comfortable, he sobbed:

Ah Marina, Marina!

Then he gestured that he should be joined on stage for a duet.

It had been a long day and Marina, the apparent subject of his address, who is not (as I am sure she will not object to my saying) in the first flush either of youth or fitness, had gone to sleep dormouse-like on the table and so was unable to assist him.

The better half, his real intended subject, is aware of her occasional tonal imprecision when in song and so kept her seat. She suggested sotto voce that I should go on stage and join the patron in a duet but I thought that that would only confirm the suspicions that too many foreigners hold about English men.

It was a tricky moment but it passed in good humour and later the patron was able to explain everything to the better half while Rob and I slipped out for a quick absinthe in a neighbouring bar.

Hours later we woke Marina and went home. It was one or two in the morning and we drove through villages of whitewashed houses, silent except for the occasional brightly lit bars. Along the roadside staggered telephone poles and beyond them were little fields. It was just like I remember the west of Ireland, slipping home from gigs, towards the sea.

wedding music

At the weekend my goddaughter Hannah married her fiancé Brett and we went to their wedding in Milford-on-Sea. You can see the pictures on Facebook if you know either her present or her previous surname. While they signed the register my brother Jonathan played the bagpipes: the Leicestershire bagpipes, whose history and authenticity are rather tendentious. Later he told me that he had chosen some obscure tunes, presumably so that the wedding guests would not sigh and say to each other, Not that old warhorse of the Leicestershire bagpipes repertory again.

I thought back to occasions when I had provided occasional music for weddings. It started badly. My first time involved playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on the flute. The room where the register was to be signed was small and the bride’s mother was enormous. She lurched into my music stand, swept the music to the floor and trampled on it. If ever asked again I resolved to busk.

My favourite weddings have been my own and my daughter’s but the other occasion when I provided music is not far behind. It was in the west of Ireland, where I then had a house. Deirdre was marrying Mike the Bike. Deirdre was Irish, from an immensely proud family, steeped in Celtic culture and the Irish struggle for independence. Mike was from Newcastle. They were to marry in a tiny church on an island in a lake. It was too tiny to have an organ or a piano and I was to play the flute.

The families sat warily, each side of the aisle. Deirdre’s family, notwithstanding the ancestral weight of Irish culture, turned out not to be Catholic, and dithered through the responses and the bobbing up and down, which the Newcastle people performed with cold efficiency.

I played a mixture of things that I had made up and some old tunes. When the couple walked down the aisle at the end I played the Scottish march The Boy’s Farewell to his Dragon, not because it was obscure but because I had it from Hamish Moore’s wonderful record Stepping on the Bridge and I liked it. It all went quite well.

The reception was to be in Kenmare and we drove there, stopping at every pub on the way, which is an old Irish tradition, apparently. Then there was champagne, the meal, the speeches and so on, and after that the celebration proper got going. The wedding party had grown since the twenty or so people in the tiny church and now filled a sizeable hotel. I wandered from room to room, still clutching my old wooden flute, which I had not been prepared to entrust to the hotel cloakroom.

In one room Jimmy Bergin and his band were playing. He is a very fine musician; I met him years later when we both played on Tim Goulding’s CD Midnight Fry. I had a top ten hit in Germany once, he said. It was called Some Cunt Nuked my Village.

In another room was Tim Goulding himself, whom I hadn’t then met but who became a friend later. He was improvising ruminatively to himself on an available piano. I joined in, eventually resolving into a tune with which he joined. After it was over he asked, kindly but not entirely unpatronisingly, Is that your favourite tune? Hard to say, I said; I just found it.

At about one or two in the morning the local musicians arrived, having finished their paid gigs for the evening and come on to jam. One of them was Seamus Creagh. Seamus was a most elegant fiddle player. He was also, as I was shortly to discover, a gentleman. He died in 2009, much too young. He was sitting there by himself playing away, surrounded by an audience that veered between respectful and adoring. My friend Charlie Tyrrell seized me by the shoulders and thrust me through this audience, shouting, Get the flute player a chair.

As he thrust me forward he deposited the main part of a pint of Guinness onto my linen suit and I arrived nervous and soaked.

Sometimes everything comes together and this time it did. We knew each other’s tunes and played beautifully. It was partly luck and largely Seamus’s sensitivity, but it was good. It isn’t by any means always. After half an hour or so we shook hands and I went on my way. Give up the day job, Charlie shouted.

Deirdre’s father came up to me, a Yeatsian gleam in his eye. That music, he said, is the true Irish soul. You English wouldn’t understand.

Yes, I said, but it was me playing it, not you.

He turned away with a massive and contemptuous shrug.

Charlie incidentally came to my own wedding some years later and towards the end we noticed that a crowd of Irish people had crashed it, with Charlie’s assistance. I think that it’s one of the best compliments I have ever had.

At four or five tiredness set in and I decided to drive home. A German lady cadged a lift. She sang a song that she rendered without irony and at the top of her voice as Hey Mr Tangerine Man and she stroked my thigh absent-mindedly. Several times we had to stop so that she could pee, which was a performance as she had voluminous hippy skirts. I remember her squatted down on the cliffs, a lot of brocady material and the occasional alarming flash of very white skin, as the sun came up.

The wedding went on for days, and people drifted back to the village throughout the following week, with many more heroic tales to tell.

The Boots of the Fisherman

People to whom the strangeness and fear in Carel’s paintings appealed would try to help, by suggesting locations and situations that he would enjoy and that he might use. They rarely got it right. Certainly I rarely got it right.

We went once for a week in the south west of Ireland, where I then had a cottage. We spent so much time fretting about the arrangements that it was November by the time we got there. He was in his 80s and this was too late in the year. It was cold inside and outside the house, and it not only rained a lot, but the light, as is its way there, changed constantly – to Carel’s fury. He would stamp back into the house, leaving the plein air behind and shouting ‘Bugger!’, the only expletive that he ever in my hearing permitted himself.

The local people were delighted to have a famous painter from London in their midst and suggested local beauty spots for him to paint. He thanked them politely, but I knew that there was no chance of his painting a beauty spot. Indeed the two paintings that he completed in the week were one of the back of my house and the other of an industrial gate leading onto a scene of soggy farm rubbish.

One evening we went out for supper. There is nothing quite as dark and uninviting as Castletownbere in the rain on a November evening. A café was open, however, and we went in and ordered something to eat.

There was a woman who was both cooking and serving the food, and apart from her and us the only person there was a fisherman. He was paralytic drunk. He sat as upright as he could, gazed unseeingly into the middle distance and from time to time collapsed head first onto the table.

The woman served him some soup, and went back into the kitchen to prepare our fry-ups. The fisherman dabbed at this but was still prone to collapse. This now became critical since the soup intervened between him and the table so that there was now a danger of drowning. In retrospect a sandwich would have been safer. But every time that he started to tip forward, the woman abandoned the range, ran out of the kitchen, caught him just in time and propped him back up, with the spoon back in his hand.

I watched fascinated. Then something caught my eye in the darkened window. Twenty or thirty children holding lanterns and in face paint were drifting up the street. They gazed silently and lugubriously in at us as they passed.

It was like nothing so much as the boys and girls recently dead coming out to play.

I have no idea what they were doing there. It was too late for Halloween and they don’t have Guy Fawkes, for obvious reasons, in West Cork.

Why ever they were there, I could see it all as one of Carel’s paintings: the bright painted faces coming out of the darkness, the woman’s arms unnaturally lengthened as she stretches to save the fisherman from drowning, all too ironically, in his soup.

The street cleared, leaving the window black again. The fisherman with sudden resolution stood up and left, making purposeful but aquatic sounds with his gumboots. The woman retired into the recesses of the kitchen. Silence descended.

I turned to Carel.

Wasn’t that wonderful?

He gave me a faintly reproving look.

Very interesting wallpaper in this room, he muttered.


After I had posted this piece, the moral occurred to me.

Except in special cases, like The Seven Deadly Sins, the story was secondary. The starting point was the location and the figures grew out of that. They responded to the atmosphere of the location, or more likely its geometry. If the figures made a story so much the better, but that was at the third level of importance.

This was not of course what people expected. It was not after all how Spencer constructed his paintings and Carel Weight was expected to perform like a poor man’s Spencer. And for the sake of a quiet life he played along with the expectations.