Posts for April, 2010


My apologies to the micro-cohort who regularly visit this website. My posts of late have been somewhat desultory, if not dilatory. Truth is I have been a bit preoccupied and also not particularly well. All is on the mend, however. Three days ago I had an operation for the removal of my gallbladder – all neatly done by keyhole surgery by the great people at Hutt Hospital.  Everything went according to plan although, in my case, the operation took a lot longer than it should because my gallbladder was in a mess (that’s about as much detail as I need to know) and because of the Gallstone.

Gallstones, according to a quick scour through Google, are generally about 10mm across, about the size of a pea. Mine is the size of a large plum, about 30 times the average. I am not sure it qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records but it impressed the staff at the hospital. It looks rather like a miniature boulder of dark, striated sedimentary rock from a model landscape. I am tempted to include a photo with this post but the camera is broken and Barbara thinks it would be in bad taste. I suppose she is right in that for every person who is fascinated by medical adventures there is at least one who finds them, at best, boring and, at worst, gross.

One of the more curious experiences of being in hospital was a period on the second day, when I was still coming through the anaesthetic. A voice kept talking to me from out of the twilight. It wasn’t in my head exactly but it wasn’t anywhere else either. Most of what it said was garbled nonsense that went by me so quickly I could hardly register it. One thing stuck, however, a piece of verse.

Sister, sister, James is one.
Will he ever be undone?
Comb your hair and fan your tail.
Lose your feathers in this gale.

I assume that the word ‘sister’ is used in a medical sense but maybe not. Who James might be, I have no idea.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


In the summer of 1951 I went to stay for a few days with the Wilkinsons. They were old friends of my parents and had been our neighbours too before we moved to London. They had three children: a boy and a girl about the same age as my older sisters and Murray, who was my age. Murray and I used to play together when we were quite small and I can remember one occasion when we decided to go carol singing. As it was some time in June or July, our efforts to gather funds by this method were not that successful. Responses from the houses we visited varied between puzzlement and tolerant amusement (does that add up to bemusement?).

I am not sure if Murray was the leader in the carols but he was in a number of other things. One was his enthusiasm for the Goon Show.

The first Goon Show, billed as Crazy People, broadcast on 28th May 1951.  Murray’s family must have been onto it quickly because he introduced me to it in July or August of that year, about two thirds of the way through the first series.  I was an instant fan.  The Goons drew me into a crazy world that was the obverse of the crazy world I was living in.  This was a world in which I could laugh.  It was built on the wild imagination of Spike Milligan, the protean acting talents of Milligan and Peter Sellers, and the manic energy that these two generated with Welsh tenor Harry Secombe.  The humour was anarchic and surreal but it was also curiously complicit.  You didn’t laugh at it or even with it.  You were there in the middle of it.  You were part of the joke. 

Radio is sound.  Silence is its enemy.  To the Goons, however, silence was anticipation and expectation.  One of the running (pun intended) gags: the sound of heavy boots pounding a pavement at about 20% faster than their normal speed, a pause of maybe two seconds, a resounding splash and, instantly, the high-pitched voice of Little Jim (Sellers) ‘He’s fallen in the water!’.  Often the silence would go on for longer and the anticipation would draw half-suppressed laughter from the radio audience or giggles from the cast (usually Secombe).  No other medium could be exploited in quite this way to draw you into it.  No other medium could hold you with, well, nothing.

When the Goon Shows were redone for television using puppets in the 1960s, they didn’t work.  One of the complaints about them is a standard response to the visual representation of characters from radio or fiction – they look different from the way I imagined them.  There are two ways to interpret this response.  One is that each of us creates our own fully rounded visual image of the character and it contradicts the image presented to us.  The other is that we don’t actually have fully rounded images at all, but pictures that are rudimentary, non-specific, flexible, and open.  The image in the new medium is not wrong but too concrete, too particular.  For me and, I would guess, for many others the second is the case.  I did not imagine Bluebottle as some small, skinny human wearing a wolf cub’s uniform, who I could have faithfully drawn if I had had the skill.  He was a voice, not disembodied because to be disembodied you must live in an embodied world.  Bluebottle lived in a world of sound.  When he got blown up in an explosion and cried, as he inevitably did, ‘You dirty, rotten swine!  You have deaded me!’, I didn’t need to picture blackened flesh or scattered limbs.  I didn’t have to picture anything at all.  On the contrary, if I had been offered a picture, it would have changed the reality and made it less than what it was.  The sonic world of the Goons was a medium in which the impossible could be made real and madness let loose.  Madness, of course, is a manifestation of the absurd.  It has a comic and a tragic face.  To hold that madness, to live in its grip, even for a little while, is to live without explanation or meaning. I have a suspicion that that is what we all must do in the end.

The Fur Coat

In 1951 my mother bought our family’s first television set. I’m not sure why she did it because, in one sense, she could ill afford it.  She had capital but no income. The government allowed her a widow’s pension of a few pounds a week but it was useless because they then subtracted every shilling she earned. She got a job working as a clerk for Jowett Cars but it was pitifully paid. My two older sisters both had jobs, too, and I supposed they paid her board but, in general, the household income was meagre.

Maybe she saw the TV as a cheap form of family entertainment or maybe she bought it to act as a babysitter for me and my little sister, Bridget. Bridget was three and my mother found a place for her at a nursery school attached to the school I went to. I’m not sure now how it worked except that I had to pick her up everyday and bring her home. Nowadays we would have been taken into care if such an arrangement had ever been discovered. Then we were just one such story among many in the neighbourhood.

I can think of a third possible reason for the TV, though. It could have been an act of defiance. There were one or two things like that, things that my father and mother had talked about getting or doing and that she was damned if she was going to miss out on even though he had died. The fur coat was an example.

He had always promised her a fur coat. I guess it was part of the romance in their relationship, the idea that at some point in their lives, when things sorted themselves out, he would enable her to dress up and be a lady. Sometime in the early fifties she bought herself one. It was black beaver, a wonderfully soft and luxurious garment with fur that riffled in little waves when you breathed on it. She can’t have worn it more than two or three times. She never had the opportunity to go anywhere where you might be justified in wearing a fur coat. Later on, after we came to New Zealand and her life took on a few other middle-class accoutrements, it was never cold enough to justify wearing such a thing. She kept it for twenty years, wrapped in plastic, hanging in her wardrobe. I wonder now if she ever took it out and looked at it. Maybe they were times, in secret, when she slipped it on. What did she think about as she stroked it?  Because you couldn’t help but stroke it. It was that sort of garment.

The TV was a console model in yellowish wood. It had thin cabriole legs and twin doors with little wooden knobs. I guess Bridget and I watched it a lot in our after-school, home-alone days. She was very fond of Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben, the Flower Pot Men. I can still remember the theme tune of the former, with its vacuous lyrics. (They seemed vacuous even then, when I didn’t know the word.)

Andy Pandy’s coming to play, la, la-la, la, la-la,
Andy Pandy’s here today, la, la-la, la-la.

I guess you can find someone singing this on YouTube somewhere, I haven’t looked.

Little sisters (or brothers, for that matter) have a special capacity for innocence. They teach you about naïveté, I suppose, and perhaps give you a sense of being more worldly than you really are. You tolerate their ineptitude when you are responsible for them. It makes you feel superior. At other times they are just irritating. I can still hear the childish sing-song with which Bridget recited a poem she had learnt at school. In fact, I can still remember a chunk of it. I must have listened to a few of her proud performances.

It was called Elizabeth and it was about a couple of children going fishing. One reason I remember it, perhaps, is that it is told not in the voice of the title character but in that of her (presumably) elder brother. It is also, in its trivial way, about losing your relatives, so it might have made a subconscious connection.  

But when we’ve hooked them safely on a cunning bended pin
Elizabeth gets anxious and her worryings begin.
She wonders if the fish we’ve caught are sad without their mothers.
She wonders if they’re missing all their sisters and their brothers
Or perhaps she thinks they’re mummy fish and worries, as a rule
To think they may have babies left lamenting in the pool.

I don’t know if she remembers any of this herself. I must ask her.


Words are like footsteps 
                            in the dark.

Nothing before but silence.

Nothing behind but echoes.


Willow Crescent was an abandoned street not far from the edge of the Swain House estate near Five Lane Ends to the north of Bradford. At that time, it had just two semi-detached houses. Ours was the second. Outside our front gate, across the road, was a waste land of scrubby grass and beyond that a stone wall backed by trees. To the left the view was broader and bleaker. The wasteland stretched away until it merged with what might have been part of the Yorkshire Moors – rolling grassland, intersected by the rough black lines of dry stone walls that seemed to stretch away forever beneath a grey sky. The roadway stopped at our house but if you went a little further and fossicked about it the grass you could find bits of crumbing asphalt and the old kerbstones that marked the rest of the intended layout. Willow Crescent was a failed venture.

Bradford was a grey city. Most of the buildings, including the houses were made of grey stone. The air turned to thick, grey smog in winter and even in the summer time you had to bring the washing in as soon as it rained or else it would be covered in grey blotches.

Of course, I was depressed. Not only had I just lost my father but four years in London had turned me into a southern, middle-class milksop, unprepared for the working-class north. On my first day at Swain House County Primary School, I sat next to a snotty-nosed little girl who bestowed on me all the essential English swear words and then proceeded to explain them to me when I asked her what she was talking about. At least, I think that was what she was doing. Her heavy West Yorkshire accent was almost a foreign tongue. Shortly afterwards two boys were caned in front of the class, a stroke each across the palm of the hand by our teacher, Mr Dewhurst. I had never before witnessed such a thing and it filled me with terror.

I hated that class. For the first time ever, I was scared to go to school – not because I was threatened personally but simply because the atmosphere was so unthinking and brutal. I dealt with it by keeping my head down and behaving myself. My school report for July 1951 was unremarkable, although Mr Dewhurst gave me ‘Good’ for Scripture and noted alongside my C for Written English: ‘writes a good story’ and ‘uses punctuation marks very well’.

Happily, the school year ended after a few weeks and the long summer holiday came as a relief. That was the summer we went to the Isle of Wight and I fell in love for the first time. Back home I played cricket with a few of the neighbourhood kids on the wasteland outside our house. We had four stumps, a bat and a pitted compound ball and we paced the pitch out for ourselves. Most of our strokes consisted of hoiks to the leg side but I remember one occasion when Julian, one of the two boys who lived next door to us, connected with a shot the flew high and far to the off. I was fielding over there and I turned to chase. For a moment, I thought the ball was going to go over the wall into the next property where all the trees were but it fell just short. I ran to retrieve it.

I had never been that close to the wall before this. I knew it marked the edge of the grounds of  a big house that we could see as we walked up Wrose Road but I hadn’t paid much attention.  The wall was about was about four foot high and I could just see over the top. Beyond was a park-like area with beautiful trees just touched by the first signs of autumn. Fifty or so yards away, half obscured by the foliage was a cricket pitch, properly mown and laid out, with a game in progress. The players were wearing white, the batsman had real pads. One of them was wearing a cap in the colours of some club or school, maroon and orange circles. As I watched, the batsman received a ball and cut it stylishly backward of square.

‘Shot!’ someone said as he took off for the run.

I didn’t get chance to see any more. The players in my game were calling for the ball. Julian was was waving his arms triumphantly, claiming he’d scored a six.

A few weeks later, I went back to the wall for another look. I was by myself and felt an unprompted surge of curiosity about the cricket players. There was no one there, nothing to be seen except the trees and the close-cropped grass. I quickly turned away. I don’t think I ever looked over the wall again.