A sepulchral Victorian fashion

ST. ALBANS, Feb 27 – Strictly speaking, when some wag deploys the term ‘as p—-d as a newt’ to describe someone in their cups, they should actually say, ‘as p—-d as a mute’.

The mutes in question were professional mourners, especially favoured in Victorian times, when they knew far more about the dramatic potential of Death than we do, inclined as we are to do our utmost to ruin a good Death by turning it into a ‘celebration’.

mutes mutes mutes

Bedecked from head to toe in fifty shades of black, mutes were hired to attend funerals as the silent friends of the deceased, to stand outside the departed’s house, or the portals of church or cemetery, there to usher the spirit on its way with a touch of visual solemnity.

All that standing around embodying sepulchral melancholy must have taken its toll. And so it was customary to ply said mutes with copious quantities of drink after the internment. Not surprisingly the mutes did not hold back and, it seems, were often the worse for wear.

Not a bad job, all things considered. Perhaps we could revive the role. Anyway, here is a short homage to the lost art of the Victorian newt, apologies, mute – been at the gin.

MY MUTES AND  I

Come, silent sentinels of Death!

Let your hats be steam-punk stovepipes,

Tall, black, out-blacking black, jet, noir ..

Shall be your crepe, a-swaddling heads,

Beards dyed Death adumbral, black inked,

My ink shall die in every eye,

Indelible not – my life’s run.

And you, mute sirs, black-capped, silk-gloved:

Stand, without my door, standards raised,

Black-wrapped and dripping doom, stand you!

Mute. Shud’ring as you feel Death .. pass ..

Your glass! Hand me your glass, mute swan!

Let’s to the bar, let life be loud!

Sepulchral mutes, you’ve stood me proud.

by R J Askew

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Trouble with books

ST. ALBANS, Feb 20 – My kids will not want them – my books that is.

Hundreds of dusty old Penguins, Picadors, Corgis and Pans confer no value, no status. Out with ’em. Box ’em up. Cart ’em to Oxfam. Into the skip with ’em!

Some boomers are taking pre-emptive action already, I hear.

A St. Albans book-group recently strayed from considering ‘The Kite Flyer’ to mull what exactly one is to do with one’s books when one downsizes  from ‘family, detached, five-bedrooms’, to ‘twee terrace, with view of Abbey’.

Book spines

Light and space take precedence over shelving for Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy and Jean-Paul Sartre, it seems. Light is just so efficacious, so now. Sorry, JP.

LPs went decades ago and CDs, if not gone, are semi-gone, boxed up in the garage. But books are different, especially for readers of a certain imprint. They remind us of moments in our lives. We remember where we were, who we were with, life lived. We touch our past when we run our eyes over their spines. Is that a cigarette burn I spy on ‘Animal Farm’?

But this is all far too sentimental for the age of Apple and Amazon. De-materialisation rules. And books, well, real books are just too inconveniently physical.

And so they will go. The scene will be repeated hundreds, thousands, millions of times in the next couple of decades: books thudding into plastic crates, motes of dust in morning sunlight, girlfriend sneezing. Charities will cart a selected few thousand off to Africa. (This already happens.)

My ‘Palgraves Golden Treasury’, a small book I’ve had since I was eighteen will be ‘let go’, along with my two four-leaved clover leaves pressed within its pages. The book is a part of my soul. But who needs a soul in 2020, 2025, 2030 – the decade of death for many a book.

Book spines

That said, we still venerate books. Pictures of aged tomes are lovingly retweeted on Twitter. Some atavistic yearning for the comforting certainty of a hushed library beats within many of us. We instinctively know the rightness and beauty of it.

Yes, there will be a cull, disposing of a generation’s books will be the thing to do. It will happen, for the most part quietly and quickly. But, equally, there will be a counter movement. Isn’t there always? Value will be found in the humble Penguin, slowly and surely. Yet-to-be-born ‘bookies’ will discover a strange appeal in that slightly beaten copy of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. They may never buy a new book in their lives, but they will come to love the old survivors. They will collect them, in a geekish way at first perhaps. But then value will be found to exist in those foxed Penguins, Picadors, Corgis and Pans.

And then, don’t you know, by about 2050, the coolest thing in the world may just be to be seen sitting up in your pod on the moon reading a genuine 1975 paperback copy of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus Alone’ – worth about a hundred million NMDs (New Moon Dollars).

Still planning to throw my book away kids?

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by R J Asew

Charismatic megabeast

ST. ALBANS, Feb 13 – We humans are capable of great achievement, progress, passion. We are also greedy, nasty and brutal. We are all too often at odds with ourselves for ridiculous reasons. And we are not too kind to other creatures.

Take elephants. They’re like whales – charismatic megabeasts. And we slaughter them. Some people at least eat whales, but elephants? We steal their teeth to sell, to carve, to own, for status. Of course, we protest about it, sign petitions on Facebook and so on. But nothing changes.

It’s not just elephants and whales of course. We all know that. We all know that we are destroying the very nature we depend on for our own survival. Could it be that we are the elephant in the room? It’s an uncomfortable thought. But we have to face it to change our ways.

So here’s one for the tuskers. Our attitude towards them and the rest of Nature will determine our own fate. Don’t look away now …

elephant 1

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM CRIES

.

A man in China craves my teeth

And so will pay to have me shot

By men with automatic guns

Who will not stop because I’m here

You have to hear my trumpet shrill!

My teeth they crave, my life to take!

I hear the engines of their jeeps …

Of course they’re drunk, they always are

On greed! Your greatest drug of all

Help me! Help! Please hear my cry!

How many more of us must die?

Because a man in China lusts,

To own, to have, to carve my tusks?

.

Three men with guns burst in on us

RIP! RIP! of shooting fills our room

ZIP! THUD! of bullets sewing doom

A tear of pain in tusker’s eyes

As he succumbs and silent dies

.

Don’t look away! DON’T! look away

.

A ‘Made in China’ chainsaw coughs

In a grinning poacher’s bloody hands

A smuggled smoke between in his lips

As chainsaw whines triumphantly

And dentistry for elephants – begins

by R J Askew

(picture credit: www.andybiggs.com)

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‘Scrag – Up The Hill Backwards’ – book review

ST. ALBANS, Feb 9 – I read this story when I was on holiday with my family of three teens in a tranquil part of England during a very pleasant spell of sunny weather. This is how life should be, right? OK a teen is a teen is a teen is a teen. But on the whole my crew are model citizens. I try to be a good dad. I’m a lucky man.

So why do so many men mess it up? Why do so many of us screw up the lives of those we are supposed to nourish and guide? What makes a man like Richard the vile step-father in Jesamine James’ acutely beautiful SCRAG – UP THE HILL BACKWARDS turn evil? I guess a shrink might offer a load of reasons with footnotes to all sorts of studies. But the word evil works for me.

SCRAG is not about Richard though and it is not about his evil doings, few of which are detailed. The story is about Jes, his step-daughter, her suffering, intelligence, resilience, defiance, and survival.

SCRAG

I’ve read and heard a lot about evil men like Jimmy Savile preying on kids. If we are honest we all know it has gone on forever. It is one thing to be hurt by a stranger, but when the violator is a parent, or step-parent. How does a kid live with it? A kid doesn’t know how to front down the person who is supposed to defend them not destroy them.

SCRAG shows us how Jes works things out as best she can, how she copes, how she makes her little escapes, and then her big escape, and ultimately takes a very, very big step to deal with the evil man who is her worst enemy.

It is a harsh story. But it is also achingly beautiful because of the insight it gives into a normal kid’s spirit. Yes, she does some bad things. She sleeps around in a lovelessly casual way to ‘dilute’ her tormentor’s influence on her. She does glue with other messed up kids, at least one of whom dies young. She sneaks INTO a children’s home to find friends and solace. And when she is older, Mr.Vodka awaits: ‘I said, go easy on the mixer!’

The writing in SCRAG is intelligent and matter of fact. It is stripped of sentimentality. The story shoots straight and sparingly. It is coolly and sharply told. No words are wasted. And it is very convincing.

SLOW BOAT

I could see the traces of pink paint in the knot swirls in the long case of one of Richard’s collection of clocks. And I could see the cobbler’s wooden lasts burning in the fire before which Jes is sitting in her trap of a home, scorching her leg.

The lasts for me were symbols of a more solid time. Naive I admit. But that’s what I felt as I read that passage. So, too, later on, Jes bemoans the loss of so many pubs – in part because she wants a drink – but, more significantly because of the loss of community spirit. Perhaps bad things are less likely to happen when we get out from the intensity of our self-contained little worlds. Maybe there is a message for all of us in this as our online lives see many of us sinking into potentially damaging isolation. For is it not in that isolation that men like evil Richard flourish?

Jes is not beaten, never beaten spiritually, though she is physically beaten. She plots her escape. This passage of SCRAG was top draw because it made me feel how it was for her, the sheer terror of what she was attempting to do .. to .. just .. get .. on a bus .. and go. And, ach, the pain of it when it all goes wrong for her. Yet she persists, this is the point .. she persists, keeps going. Until she finds herself in the shadow of another controlling man, a manipulative youth using religion to get his lustful way. Jes literally ends up on a slow boat back to her original tormentor, on a canal boat with a cunning exploiter at the tiller.

I learnt a lot and I thought a lot as I read SCRAG, which would make a powerful and moving stage or screen drama. It would show that Jes, through her art, had triumphed in a creative way over the destroyer who was Richard and over whom she does triumph personally.

Perhaps anyone who has suffered an evildoer like Richard would draw comfort from SCRAG. So the book deserves to be out there and read because its message is an important one of survival, and a slap for those of us who are complacent or dismissive about the things others less fortunate have to endure.

I also believe that reading Jesemine James’ story is a vote for her and for other survivors like her, and against the destruction wrought by the likes of Richard and Jimmy Savile. You will grow to love the way Jes leaps onto her beloved bike to get away from things, perhaps you would do the same in her shoes.

See SCRAG’s many great reviews on amazon.co.uk: http://amzn.to/190fmgG

review by R J Askew

‘I’m not a hearts and roses man’ – Christian Grey

ST. ALBANS, Feb 6 – Yet all Christian Grey lacks at the end of the 50 Shades trilogy is a labradoodle puppy to go with his wife and kids. Maybe he has one. I didn’t get beyond book one, though I quite enjoyed it – rather like a voyeuristic gate-crasher ghosting through a noisy neighbour’s party.

Something deep within me quietly approves the taming of Christian and his seeming reversion to a recognisable mean as the head of a well-heeled family.

christiangrey 3

Perhaps the real dom in the dungeon is not Elena Lincoln – Christian’s abusive seducer – but western Momdom in general. And let’s face it, Christian was annoyingly able, an impossible corporate James Bond winner godhead dreamboat hunk bad boy, a sort of north-face-of-the-Eiger romantic challenge, all rocky frowns, with n’er a finger hold in sight for a girl pull herself up by.

Perhaps The 50 Trilogy is just a reworking of Mills & Boon plot number one, with a few butt plugs, nipple clamps and helicopters thrown in. All good fun. All very liberated and liberating. Many would disagree with that of course. Real abuse and real darkness lurk behind the façade. But let’s brush that under the sumptuous carpet of money being made.

Not that I’m envious, mind. No, this indie author is now well beyond envying E L James. It’s worse, far worse. In idle moments, I find myself dreaming up novel ways to replicate her formula with a few fan fiction embellishments to Mister Christian. Of which, more anon – perhaps.

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by R J Askew

‘The Wrong Shade of Yellow’ – book review

By R J Askew

ST. ALBANS, Feb 2 – I want to escape, I need to escape, but it is always easy to defer the actual moment. There’s a drainpipe to fix. And the kids still need a bit of watching. And so we read-escape.

I started reading Margaret Leigh’s THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW  . [http://ow.ly/IIWGW] on a grey Monday morning in November. I had the makings of a cold. Not ideal. I knew nothing of the author and nothing about the story, other than I liked the title and the splash of yellow on the cover. And I like bikes. And there’s a bike on the cover.

Here’s to serendipity, I thought. Here’s to escaping the known knowns in my life.

THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW is delightful reading journey about an actual journey at a mid-point in the author’s life journey. It’s the sort of journey many of us would love to make if only we.. The drainpipe, right? We are too busy, too settled, to dull to get off our comfy backsides to do it. The fact is probably a little less palatable to us, actually. We are probably too fearful to do it. We have too many possessions, too much to do, too much to lose. Too, too, too, too.

Yellow cover

Not Margaret Leigh. To be fair though, she has the right background for a cycle ride from London to Greece in search of utopia. She’d already moved around a bit in her life – from three continents – and avoided the usual middle-class career rut, basically by not having a career. A doctorate in church doctrine tells us she was never cut out to rocket through the glass ceiling to prominence in some serious busy-ness.

She is the sort of person who prefers to plough their own furrow, or, more aptly, peddle their own bike. We need such people. Their vague impracticability is a sort of repository of useful genes, in a world where the quest for efficiency kills individuality. Our hopes for a better future are kept alive by such people because they are not afraid to take a risk, to imagine a silly jaunt and just do it – damn it!

SINISTER PURSUIT

Margaret Leigh’s big bike ride is not what you would call a model of hyper-organised efficiency. She hasn’t ridden a bike for decades and she is lugging all kinds of stuff she will never use, but can’t bring herself to ditch. And guess what she does ditch. Her maps. Yes, the maps are gone before she’s got out of Holland.

The great thing about meeting new people, and we do meet Margaret Leigh through her charming little work, is that we learn their little ways. The author has very definite views about Belgium, Italy and dogs, for example. And she is not a purist about her journey. When she feels the need to is ready to resort to the odd train, though this causes her all sorts of problems, principally getting up and down stairs.

So how does she fare? Brilliantly and terrible, in equal measure. She suffers a sinister pursuit by a small black car, a rib-cracking injury, gratuitous insults on the open road, increasing worries over money, 40-degree heat, the threat of savage dogs – especially as she gets closer to her dreamed of utopia. But it is the annoying people she encounters who seem to drain her the most: surly ticket clerks, moronic bank staff back home, insane camp site owners, German tourists who have brought everything with them. Then there’s the snakes, spiders, flies and a pan-handling dog.

That said, she meets some beautiful people, especially when she reaches Greece. She catches their moments of pure joy in their company. Indeed, this is was the key characteristic of THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW for me, the joy the author conveys to us. It starts in Holland, once she’s plucked up courage to pedal forth after being stuck on a pink gin palace with a lugubrious Brit.

She experiences, ‘a growing sense of freedom and joy’ and ‘days of pure joy’ as she warms to being out on the road and alone in her tent at night, close to nature. The rhythm of the journey makes her philosophical, too. ‘There’s something to be said for illusions,’ she says, ‘They protect us for unpleasant realities to come.’ And this on reaching Nice, ‘There’s something unspeakably lonely about cycling in the city. I never once felt lonely in the countryside.’

HAPPY FISH

Her internal compass directs her ever southwards until she reaches Greece, where a native say as she looks out over an idyllic bay, ‘see, even the fish are happy here.’ By the time she reaches Greece she is at times blissfully happy as she peddled among lonely mountains where her only companions ‘were eagles.’

Yet not everything is perfect. She records the ugly blistering that tourism causes. And there are those damned Greek dogs – definitely not pets – vicious farm dogs. But even one of her worst encounters produces a moment of ‘quite extraordinary grace, of providence.’

And then this, as some instinct draws her ever on to her utopia, ‘There was no feeling quite like the one that came from free-wheeling down a gentle slope, wind in my hair, and not a care in the world.’ Marvellous! If we close our eyes and concentrate for a moment, we can feel it, too, if we have it in us to.

And so to Methoni – utopia – a place without even an artichoke festival to roll one’s socks up and down. And a camp site ‘unhygienic enough to deter Germans.’ Sauce! But we know what she means. You can be too hygienic.

The author is in ‘the land of doves cooing’ – even if she can barely afford to eat and she’s its furnace hot. Sparrows feed from her hand.

But this is Greece, land of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, tragedy and there is a minor tragedy in THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW. Perhaps it is the nature of all Utopias, all escapes to a better place and a better time. Ach, the human condition!

You will have to read THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW to learn the significance of its winning title – a title which sort of put its arm around my shoulder and whispered ‘read me’ into my ear. May it do the same for you.

See all THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW’s reviews here: http://ow.ly/IIWGW

‘Short words are best’ – Churchill

By R J Askew

ST. ALBANS, Jan 30 – Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral, the day when the cranes on the River Thames dipped their jibs in regard for a great life lived to the full, as the barge bearing his remains passed through the heart of London.

Churchill, who lived his life through words written and spoken, would doubtless have had something acutely apposite to describe the moment of the moment.

His utterances married simple pragmatism with artful flourishes: ‘The essential structure of the ordinary British sentence .. is a noble thing.’

Churchill_NeverGiveUp.jpg... word face

So too, his language mirrored the instinctive activity of his life: ‘What if I had said, instead of “We shall fight on the beaches”, “Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter”?’

And oh how he plays and mocks and toys with words and meaning: ‘Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes.’

You can hear the voice of this modern Demosthenes in every syllable: ‘We shall fight them on the beaches…’ Both orators overcame speech impediments.

This quote could be the motto of every natural born editor, struggling to defend THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE against the depredations and insults of barbaric ill-usage: ‘This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.’

TIGER JOCKEYS

He wasn’t a natural student. Yet he was a natural player at politics and language was his weapon of choice and one he wielded to deadly effect. Perhaps the essence of his linguistic style is captured here: ‘Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.’

Imagine the mischievous pleasure he would have had with some of our soul-numbing linguistic infelicities, ‘political correctness’ for example.

Of course the language he uses is just the medium and the medium is not the message. The message is far more potent with him. When I read this, I immediately think of several current tiger-jockeys: ‘Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.’

Yes, he was a self-confessed egotist: ‘We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm.’ Many hated him, but far more loved him. Yet it was his own nation that plunged the political dagger into him shortly after his greatest triumph on its behalf.

See how he deftly positions himself here in the role of the servant: ‘It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.’

that will earn and deserve your enduring regard.

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by R J Askew