Sunday, 6 April 2014

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Heart Attack.

Deep Vein Thrombosis.

Throat Cancer.



Car Crash.

The list above contains events or conditions which have stricken friends of mine in the last 12 months: all, to some degree, life-changing. It's very VERY scary - each individual case, in its own right, for obvious reasons: one doesn't ever wish to see such ailments, and their potentially devastating effects, visited upon peers, loved ones...anyone in fact. But what gives additional pause for thought is that all of those conditions (apart from the last one on the list - hardly a condition, but I'll come to that in a moment) have hit people of a similar age to me. In some cases slightly older (throat cancer, heart attack, diabetes). In the remainder, people younger than me.

That shocks me in all sorts of ways. Too close to home. A recognition that I've (we've) reached the age where these things are starting to make themselves known.

The last one in the list is something which I was involved in, earlier this year. In the event, I consider myself lucky: I escaped practically (if not completely) unscathed. I have a few slight residual problems to contend with, but they're fading, minor, little more than an inconvenience. Less than two weeks off work. A few seconds or a few inches either way, and it could have been a very different story. But in the event, I was very, VERY lucky.

I don't take that outcome for granted, and the uncertainties that some of my friends are now facing make me feel that nothing should ever be taken for granted, as such.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton

Yes, yes, it's been a while, I know.

Well, amongst other things, I've been doing lots of reading. Latterly, this has been The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton, by Caroline Smailes. Regular visitors to this blog (denoting use of the past tense, namely, when there was something on this blog to actually visit with any kind of regularity) may remember me reviewing her previous novels - mainly because they've been bloody good, but also just a little bit because she's been one of my bloggy friends since before I first set up this place.

So, true to form, I thought I'd write a review of this latest offering. Which means I need to try and remember how I might write a review. Well, before that even, it means I need to remember how I might actually write.

Here goes, anyway. I don't think this contains spoilers.

The story revolves around a local swimming baths, apparently built over a spring with special healing properties. Having lain derelict for a while, the baths are taken over by three individuals calling themselves 'water-healers', reopened, and renamed The Oracle. Its reputation soon spreads: paying visitors queue up as tales abound that all sorts of ailments have been cured by the waters within. As talk of the place grows, scepticism amongst many in the local community turns to curiosity and, in some cases, to a certain desperation that their ills and misfortunes - and the wayward turns their lives have taken - might be miraculously put right.

Perhaps inevitably, altogether darker, more troubling rumours about the goings-on at the swimming baths circulate and persist, and these turn out not to be without justification.

This fantastic-sounding setting becomes the stage for a number of all-too-human dramas to be played out: firstly that of Laurel, coerced into applying for the job of receptionist by her mother. It suits them both - Laurel for the chance to get some time away from looking after all her siblings, and her mother for the opportunity to have extra money coming into the house. As time passes, she becomes drawn into the peculiar happenings at The Oracle, and its water-healers, far more than she would have expected or wanted.

The central character, Arthur Braxton, makes his first appearance in the story at the expense of a cruel and humiliating joke at the hands of school bullies. The very nature of this humiliation is heightened thanks to the now-ubiquitous sharing of (too much) information on social media: feeling totally rejected by his peers and having long been ignored by his family, he seeks solace in the esoteric confines of The Oracle since finding he has nowhere else to turn. His story becomes woven into that of Laurel's, and others besides.

The weirdness of the setting, as it is steadily revealed (and which draws on Greek myth, though lightly and wryly) is in sharp, almost binary contrast to the lives of the protagonists, with their so-very-earthy concerns. An already-noted skill of the author is her ability to make her characters vividly tangible and real: imperfect and blemished, and always believable enough that I can wince or rejoice at their reactions to the situations and decisions they face. These two contrasting elements, deftly melded together, are what gives The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton its dynamism, not to mention its poignancy.

Throughout, a number of themes prevail, in sometimes bleak circumstances. Big themes: love, hope, acceptance, expectation, disappointment and, ultimately, redemption (as well as a hefty dollop of the sometimes extreme steps people take when self-preservation is their only concern). From the irrational, collective 'fear of the other' which eventually leads to its desperate embrace, to the delicate agonies (painfully detailed) of teenage love: all combine into a narrative as poignant and powerful as it is mischievous.
Needless to say, if you got this far, I would recommend it.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Four score years and sixteen

A week and a day ago I was at a motorway service station, of all places, when I got a call from my mother, who told me in plain and simple terms that my grandmother had died.

I wasn't particularly expecting such news, yet in some ways I've been preparing for it - consciously and otherwise - for some years. She was a stubborn old thing, how she clung on to life and retained some ferocity of spirit which shone through in her last years perhaps because of, rather than despite, the compromises to her independence, her health and her clarity of thought.

I don't feel sad, as such, that she's died. 96 is a fine age and, I think, it's a fine achievement in life for anyone to have lived in their own house and manage most of their affairs (regularly catching the bus to go to the shops several miles away) up until the beginning of their tenth decade.

Sadness and grief, whilst they overlap in significant ways at particular times, aren't entirely the same thing, though. I believe I've been carrying the grief around with me, relatively lightly these last few days, but that it may gain greater potency over time. Perhaps finding an outlet next week at the funeral. I'm not sure how much that grief is about the death of someone whose time had very much come, and how much it relates to those of us remaining in our family. Precious few of us, and my mother having to manage more assaults on her health than I would wish anyone to ever bear.

Still, I think my grandmother has been passing for the last 3 years, at least. I hadn't seen her for a while, but she would no longer recognise me anyway: in her mind she now almost exclusively was situated in a time anywhere between 30 and 50 years before I was born. The unfamiliarity of her surroundings in these last couple of years - though in the village she had always lived - gave her a sense of disorientation on a daily basis.

Yet it's perhaps during one of her frailest times that I have my favourite memory of her. Looking impossibly tiny and lost in a hospital ward late in 2009 after a severe bout of double-pneumonia (the decisive blow to her health that meant she could never return home again), she was yet full of life when she was helped to sit up in her bed, and her only talk was of getting out and going home: the nurse told us that she'd actually been writing notes and passing them to other people on the ward asking if they wanted to plan to escape with her.

At that point, she was 94. I'd consider it an achievement to get anywhere near that age, let alone show such grit and determination.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Two Links

Compare and contrast...

The Coalition's Programme For Government: Civil Liberties

Sample quote: "We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason."

Today's front-page headlines

Sample quote: "The government is to offer a blank cheque to internet and phone firms that will be required to track everyone's email, Twitter, Facebook and other internet use under legislation to be published on Thursday."

Thursday, 3 May 2012


Today is one of those rare days in which I do something which makes me feel like a proper grown-up. I went to the local polling booth and voted in the local elections.

I have my doubts about just how democratic the process is anymore (a discussion for another post, maybe), but nonetheless that feeling is dwarfed by the sense of importance attached to voting itself. It's a hard-fought-for right, after all, and we're seeing enough of those being eroded (legal aid for those on welfare benefits; a health service free at the point of use thanks to NI contributions, etc) by the smash-and-grab tactics of the coalition government.

I'm well aware of the difference between local elections and the general election, yet it's hard not to want to vote according to my view of the political situation nationally.

So I looked at the ballot paper.

Conservative? Never. Never have, never will. I couldn't ever, and my levels of sheer disgust at Conservative policy - their attacks on the poor and less fortunate, their elevation of monetary value above that of society, their use of austerity as an ideological lever - are higher than they've ever been.

Lib Dem? Before the last general election, they seemed like one of the few remotely credible choices. Untainted by any association with the recent interventionist policies (i.e. wars) of the last decade or so - but then, untainted by any association with office. Seemingly left of centre, and certainly left of New Labour. Obviously since the election it's been a totally different story and they are forever tainted as the enablers in the coalition government, over and above any restraints they claim to have brought to bear on the Conservatives.

Labour? No. See above in terms of interventionist policies. Also, I always considered myself a "natural" Labour voter, if not necessarily a tribal one. Left of centre, from a working class background, and hence feeling all the more betrayed by the last Labour administration in its abandonment of the working classes and social democratic principles to the extent that so many of their policies are barely distinguishable from those of the Conservative.

UKIP? Don't make me laugh.

Any others on the ballot paper I confess to remaining ignorant of, and therefore don't consider it a good use of my vote.

So, for the first time in my life, I spoiled the ballot paper. I'd rather not have, but I didn't feel I had any choice. Again, what the respective parties offer on a local level does not do enough to deviate from my thoughts about them in principle and I couldn't vote for a local candidate if I have such strong feelings about their party on a national level.

So today I rendered my vote invalid, as an expression of my sheer disgust. I'm not happy about it, but I felt I had no alternative.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Misreading the signs

I had to make a sudden and unexpected journey yesterday. As I did so I saw a sign next to a building plot, which I read as

Open Sausage Land

Conjures up some strange images, certainly. The actual wording was, as you might expect, much less interesting - "open storage land".

I've also started reading the book by Caroline Smailes that I mentioned in the previous post. I had a certain amount of trepidation as I began reading 99 Reasons Why yesterday - not due to anything about the book itself, might I add. Just that the last couple of times I read her novels, I had to put them down and return to them at a much later date since they coincided with some rather challenging times that I was facing. So yesterday, as I travelled across the country to visit a loved one who'd had a sudden admission to hospital, I wondered, "what could possibly happen this time?"