Things I Miss About Dad

Dad and LoochTwo weeks ago, my Father died of cancer. The initial blaze of grief has now burnt itself out, leaving behind the cold, grey ashes of spent emotion, but I no longer feel quite so overwhelmed.

When a loved one dies, it initially feels like a huge, ragged hole has been ripped in the centre of Life. I now realise, though, that by talking about my Father, a definite silhouette is being shaped from the shadows – he is gone, but the legacy of who he was and what he did remains. It is small compensation for his loss, but a compensation nonetheless. Here are some of the things I miss most about him.

Children loved him

You can tell a lot about a person by the way children react to him or her, and children (for the most part) loved my Dad: his own children and grandchildren, his nieces and nephews; and those he taught in a scholastic career that lasted more than 25 years.

Why did children love him so much? The answer is simple: Dad possessed a fantastic imagination, and combined this with a child-like sense of fun and irresponsibility. Only six months ago, I had an angry phone call from my ex, in which she explained that my children were repeating an inappropriate limerick at school that began ‘My friend Billy had a 10-foot willy. . .’ the words of which had been carefully implanted in their minds during an afternoon being “looked after” by their grandfather.

It brought a smile to my face, as I had been taught the self-same rhyme as a child . . .

He taught me to revere the written word

I was not spoiled as a child . . . except when it came to books. Dad loved second-hand bookshops, and introduced me to the pleasures of nosing around amid dusty stacks early on in Life. When it came time to leave, I was often weighed down beneath a pile of books, but was never forced to leave any behind. As a result, I grew up with a deep-seated love of reading and the acquisition of knowledge.

His sense of Humour

Dad had a fantastic sense of humour – cheeky, irreverent, and rude – and he loved a wide range of comedy greats: Laurel and Hardy, Tony Hancock, Dads’ Army, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Alan Partridge.

He was also a great lover of anecdotes, especially when they related to some minor mishap that had occurred to him or a friend. An example? Dad made a painted sign – FARNBOROUGH GALLERY – that was screwed to the woodwork outside my uncle’s picture framing shop. When a night of heavy wind struck, though, it whipped off the front half of the sign, leaving behind the words, ROUGH GALLERY.

He was kind, gentle and humble

Life teaches us lessons. Some of us learn from them and, in the process, develop wisdom and maturity; others ignore them, and merely grow old.

Dad belonged to the first group, and valued a simple, uncomplicated Life surrounded by family and friends, who in turn valued him for his kind, gentle nature.

He was also the most effortlessly talented person I have ever met – whatever he turned his hand to, he was good at, be it painting, drawing, cookery, DIY, motor repairs, sport or playing the guitar and piano – yet he was truly humble, and disliked any form of praise.

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And so the grief begins . . .

DadMy father died on Tuesday. Through a constant whirlwind of creativity, I have kept ahead of the emotion, desperately laying lines of track in front of the steam train of grief that rumbled behind me.

But yesterday, the engine’s prong caught my heels and set me to stumble; the wheels were upon me in a moment, and I was crushed beneath their weight. I lie forgotten now upon the sleepers, a parched and broken thing, my lidless eyes fixed upon the glare of a dark and distant sun: my father is dead.

Emotion now leaks from me like water from a colander, leaving me feeling dirty and soiled. Grief is a carrion-feeder, and it has rolled me through its claws, spitting me out pecked, ripped and raw. The pain is physical: it slithers through hollows in my guts I did not ever know were there and grips at my heart, squeezing clumsy rhythms from its pulse; my body strains for release from a pain that is inescapable and coldly cruel: even the condemned man can at least draw comfort from the shadow of the noose and know that his suffering will end.

As a young man, I pictured growing old as a series of stages. It is not. We grow old through a process of accretion: age gathers against us like drifts of dead leaves blown against the foot of a fence: the baby disappears below the infant, the infant below the child, the child below the adolescent . . .

But the ashes of each iteration remain, withered to charcoal, but still capable of combustion. And when the winds of Life blow hard, they lift the leaves, expose the embers, and ignite the fires of everything we have already been. Who among us can truly claim, on occasions, not to crave the warm reassurance afforded the baby? Or to feel sometimes the fear of a lost child?

Grief has stripped me bare, leaving all of these different aspects exposed, each one uniquely painful. The baby within me wails incessantly, the child strains and reaches out for arms that are no longer there to lift, hold and comfort.

And so I find myself today suddenly yanked into a future I never thought I would have to face, reflecting upon time wasted, words left unsaid, and the fact my own children will likely one day face this horror, too . . .

Yecla, mi querida

El año 2017 fue difícil para mí emocionalmente y, a veces, pensaba que no podría más con los golpes.

Pero, hace unos seis meses – cuando el dolor fue inaguantable – algo curioso empezó a ocurrir: empecé a soñar casi cada noche con Yecla. Los sueños fueroiglesia_purisima_yecla_t3000780_jpg_1306973099n (y siguen siendo) como ningunos sueños que he tenido jamás.

En primer lugar, no contienen nada de imágenes confusas ni indistintas – los sueños son totalmente coherentes, hasta tal punto que, al despertar, parece que realmente hubiera estado allí momentos antes. Y tengo la cabeza llena de sensaciones casi reales: el sonido de las campanas por la mañana; el olor del pan fresco por las calles; el sabor del café bien hecho; y la sensación del viento en mi cara, ese viento caloroso que sopla a finales de septiembre en Yecla, cuando el calor del verano se ve vencido por el otoño y el anochecer llena el cielo con colores rosados y dorados.

Pero, sobre todo, sueño con la gran belleza del pueblo, la belleza que solo se refleja en los ojos de un extranjero, porque para él (o ella) hasta el edificio más dilapidado o rutinario es nuevo e interesante. Sobresalen en mis sueños las calles rectas del centro del pueblo, sus iglesias, sus montes, sus olivos y campos.

Me he preguntado por qué mi mente hace estos viajes nocturnos a Yecla tan a menudo. Creo que es una forma de escapar de los estreses de mi vida, porque el año que pasé en Yecla hace 18 años fue, sin duda, una de las épocas más felices de mi vida. Tenía 24 años, y estaba lleno de grandes emociones, esas emociones que uno se siente cuando tienes todas las libertades de un adulto, pero ningunas de las responsabilidades.

Conseguí la amistad de un grupo de personas excepcionales prácticamente al llegar, personas que me cuidaban y que tenían la paciencia de pasar tiempo conmigo cuando mi dominio sobre el Castellano consistía en “Cerveza” y “Soy de un pueblo cerca de Londres”. (También tenía la “ayuda” y “cuido” de los hermanos Ortín Ortíz, quien llenó mi libro de vocabulario con tonterías – gracias a ellos fui a una ferretería buscando una “boina para hacer café” y dije “Hola, tengo mocos grandes” a un camarero cuando lo que realmente quería fue suelto para tabaco).

Otra aventura: mandé una carta anónima de amor a una de mis alumnas adultas en la academia donde trabajaba (escrita con la ayuda de un amigo español para que las faltas de ortografía y la escritura no revelaran mi identidad, una decisión que tuvo consecuencias desastrosas cuando la novia de mi ayudante encontró la carta y pensó que tenía un amor secreto).

No sé porque nunca tuve el coraje de decirle a la alumna como sentí, pero cuando pienso en eso ahora, entiendo un sentimiento expresado por un poeta inglés: que las palabras más tristes en cualquier lengua son, “Pudiese haber sido”.

Este año ya ha traído cambios: mi padre se está muriendo, he pedido la mano a mi novia, y ya voy terminando mi sexta novela. Llevo cinco años sin salir de Inglaterra, y más de ocho sin visitar mi querida Yecla. ¿A lo mejor ha llegado el momento de hacer otro cambio, y coger un avión?

Malcolm Young, R.I.P.

Last week, one of the greatest riff-writers and rhythm guitarists in the history of rock died – Malcolm Young of AC/DC.

Malcolm Young was Angus’s elder brother, and while all of the focus has always been on Angus’s jaw-dropping lead guitar and onstage histrionics, it was Malcolm who ran the band. Without the sound of his Gretsch slashing out those super-tight chords in perfect lockstep unison with the bass and drums, the band would not have rocked half asMalcolm Young hard, especially in the guitar solos – listen closely to a song like Gone Shootin, and you’ll find that when the solo really takes off, it is because Malcolm has changed what he is playing, not Angus.

Also, never has any musician done so much with so little – a few simple chords played atop basslines that pump out root notes – and for such a length of time: no matter how many times Young returned to the well, fresh water remained, water with the sharp, ice-clean bite that only the DC can deliver.

So perfect was the formula, in fact, Young never needed to change it. During AC/DC’s entire career to date, there has never been any deviation from the pattern: no minor chords, no acoustic guitars, no experiments with synths or brass sections or trios of backing singers. What you got was simple: Malcolm’s guitar on one side, Angus’s on the other, and a thunderous rhythm section straight down the middle.

Malcolm Young suffered dementia at the end of his life, to such an extent that his memory began to fail him: a music journalist wrote that the most heart-breaking sight he witnessed in his career was Angus, 30 minutes before a gig, teaching Malcolm how to play his own songs, a process they had to go through on every night of the tour.

Both the Young brothers have influenced my guitar playing style over the years, but it was not until I focused hard on how Malcolm played that I learned how to make music rock with the type of dense, dynamic wallop I had always heard in my head. Malcolm Young may be dead, but I am certain his music will still be relevant and influential 50 years from now to anyone who writes ROCK in capital letters.

Samuel Peyps, Sexual Predator

Samuel Pepys. The very name conjures images of 17th century London and Merrie Olde England – powdered wigs, livery coats, lantern-lit taverns, plague, fire – and his diary is celebrated as one of the most important historical documents in English social history.

And yet, Pepys was a rampant sexual predator. There can be no doubt of this, for, unlike Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey – against whom, we must remember, there are mountains of allegations, but no convictions as of yet – Pepys stands accused by his own pen. Pepys

On 18 August 1667 Pepys wrote: ‘Into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I … stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again’.

Elsewhere, there are more successful encounters as he gropes and forces himself upon shop girls, tavern girls and street girls, with Pepys showing a particular yearning for girls in their teens, such as his wife’s 17-year-old companion, of whom he wrote on August 6th, 1665:

“Dressed and had my head combed by my little girle to whom I confess that I am too friendly, recently often putting my hands in the two things of her breast; but I had to stop it lest it bring me to some major inconvenience.”

So, here’s the thing: where does Pepys fit in among all the recent public indignation about sexual predators among celebrities? Are his diaries tainted by his predatory ways? Should their place among the canon of English literature be re-evaluated because of this disgusting and reprehensible behaviour?

Or, if on the other hand, we dismiss his sexual predations as the norm for that period in history, where is the cut off? When is the point in history that we say, ‘Before this date, it was fine to grope women, as that was the way men were back then; but after this date, it becomes criminal behaviour’?

WWI: Popular Misconceptions

I have read about WWI nearly all my life, and with it being November 11th today, I decided to compile a list that I hope might rectify some popular misconceptions about the war.

The soldiers were not always stuck in trenches: 1914 and 1918 saw huge armies engage in huge battles that swept across Belgium and France. It was not until the beginning of winter, 1914, that the armies became immobilised, and trench warfare began. This static period of warfare lasted until 1918, when the German spring offensive, and the subsequent British, French and American counterattacks, created a war of movement again. horses-and-men-in-gas-masks-during-tests-to-find-the-best-protection-against-gas-attacks-pic-dm-965360765

The British were not heavily involved early on: Britain had a very small standing army, and was only able to send six divisions (roughly 60,000 troops) in 1914, most of whom were dead by 1915. The survivors referred to themselves as “The Old Contemptibles” after a dismissive remark made about them by Kaiser Wilhelm.

The French suffered terribly: disastrous tactics and uniforms that included bright red trousers meant the French had already lost 300,000 men dead by the end of 1914 (or, to put it another way, in just five months). The scale of this disaster is best seen in the perspective of subsequent years: for example, in the whole year of 1916 – which included the terrible Battle of Verdun – the French lost 252,000. By the end of the war, nearly 5% of the entire French population was dead (as compared to just over 2.5 % for the British, and 3.5% for the Germans) and a further 2,300,000 men had been wounded.

CaptureThe Germans nearly won the war in March, 1918: the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) broke the British lines and sent the British army tumbling back in conditions that verged on a rout. A twelve-mile gap opened in the line, and German troops poured through, threatening to break out and drive a wedge between the British and French armies. However, the fast-moving German stormtroopers leading the attack could not carry enough food and ammunition to sustain themselves and the offensive petered out.

The soldiers were not always floundering knee deep in mud: in spring and summer, the trenches were relatively dry; in winter, they iced over. The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele is mainly responsible for the popular image of WWI soldiers as being perpetually slathered in mud, as torrential rain flooded the Ypres area while the British were conducting a major offensive. The troops were made to fight there for more than three months with very little to show for it; the entire battlefield was later captured in a single day during the summer of the following year.

Poppies were chosen as a symbol of remembrance due to a poem written by a Canadian doctor, In Flanders Field.

German helmets, though similar in design, were far bigger in WWI than they were in WWII. This is something film makers nearly always get wrong. Watch out for it.

Parents Without Children – Part 2

Yesterday, I saw my children for the first time in 17 weeks. The reunion was intense: my daughter and son ran to greet me, shouting my name, and leapt into my arms when they reached me. My six-year-old son clung to my neck like a monkey; my nine-year-old daughter merely nuzzled my chest softly as I stroked her hair and fought back tears.

IMG_6831Then we sat down in my mother’s living room, and I listened to all their news, gabbled at that 78 rpm speed so typical of excited children: what they’d learned at school, what books they had read, what sports they had played. For a brief moment, the champagne of emotion washed through me – fizzy, fun, intoxicating – as the emotional bonds of parenthood rekindled, and I connected again with all that is best in me, those facets of personality I strive to possess on a permanent basis – to be kind, attentive, caring, humble.

But as is so often the way in the muddied maze of divorced parents, the grey clouds soon gathered as innocent comments made by the children began to form a composite picture of what was happening at the other end of the line: letters and presents that had been posted but had not arrived; inconsistencies in the reasons given why the children could not stay with me at weekends.

As I listened to this with growing irritation, I noticed that my children are now realising something is amiss between Mrs Mummy and Mr Daddy Man. My six-year-old suddenly announced that his greatest desire would be for everyone he loves – parents, Grandparents, aunties, uncles – to “all live together in a big house”. He then asked why this wasn’t possible, but in a rhetorical kind of way, speaking more to himself than to me. “Don’t we have enough money, Daddy?” he asked. My attempt at a response stuck in my throat like a wishbone.

My daughter is nine, and sharp as a tack, with a quick, agile mind far beyond her years. She said nothing on the subject, but her eyes as we parted spoke volumes. She does not yet possess the language to vocalise her thoughts on the situation, but the dismal, spiky shadow of divorce’s after effects already creeps behind her, mirroring her steps, waiting for the chance to trip her, bloody her nose and beat out a little of the child from within her.

As we kissed and embraced at our parting, I thought suddenly of my ex and of all the years of pointless bickering and petty hatreds that have filled the gravel pit formed by our failed relationship and that lie now between us like brackish, stagnant water – the slightest stirring of the scummed surface releases all sorts of foulness. And I realised the irony that, as my children grow towards maturity, part of me is constantly stumbling back towards the pettiest facets of infantilism . . .

The 109s’ Flight Log: 23/10/17

Last weekend, we headlined The Star concert hall for the first time. We have played this Guildford venue before (in fact, the first time we played there, we almost had a fight with another band) but never as the headlining act.

IMG_2071There is no feeling quite like getting up onto a good-sized stage and blasting out songs with experienced musicians through a decent PA – suddenly, all the long hours of practice and song-writing make sense: the crowd’s presence causes something secret and hidden within the music to awaken, unfurl its wings and take flight.

The audience’s reaction serves to fuel this process, leading to a state which most musicians describe as the “extra member” syndrome: adrenaline causes the interplay between instruments to become so instant and intuitive, it literally sounds as if there is an extra person on stage playing along with the band, filling out its sound and adding muscle to each song’s dynamics.

The Star gig was the first at which very few of the band’s friends attended – meaning the crowd was composed of strangers who were genuinely interested in the music – and I realised how well social media complements playing live: when people see our name on a live line-up, they can Google us, see really professional videos of songs that are really professionally recorded, and make an informed decision as to whether they like our music or not.

It certainly seemed to have worked last Friday: one gentleman had driven up all the way from Cornwall solely to see us perform.

Much kudos to him, and I hope he thought the trip worthwhile . . .

 

The 109s’ Flight Log: 23/10/17

Last weekend, we headlined The Star concert hall for the first time. We have played this Guildford venue before (in fact, the first time we played there, we almost had a fight with another band) but never as the headlining act.

There is no feeling quite like getting up onto a good-sized stage and IMG_2071blasting out songs with experienced musicians through a decent PA – suddenly, all the long hours of practice and song-writing make sense: the crowd’s presence causes something secret and hidden within the music to awake, unfurl its wings and take flight.

The audience’s reaction serves to fuel this process, leading to a state which most musicians describe as the “extra member” syndrome: adrenaline causes the interplay between the musicians to become so instant and intuitive, it literally sounds as if there is an extra person on stage playing along with the band, filling its sound and adding muscle to each song’s dynamics.

The Star gig was the first at which very few of the band’s friends attended – meaning the crowd was composed of strangers who were genuinely interested in the music – and I realised how well social media complements playing live: when people see our name on a live line-up, they can Google us, see really professional videos of songs that are really professionally recorded, and make an informed decision as to whether they like our music or not.

It certainly seemed to have worked last Friday: one gentleman had driven up all the way from Cornwall solely to see us perform.

Much kudos to him, and I hope he thought the trip worthwhile . . .

Flying the Zeppelin

I listen to at least four or five hours of music every day while I am writing my books. Every year or so, I hit an obsessional phase, during which I spend weeks listening to nothing but the same band. At the moment, the band of choice is Led Zeppelin.

I have the deluxe versions of all their albums and some live ones, so I have more than 10 hours of their music, and this constant diet of some of the best riffs in rock music has percolated down from my ears to my fingertips: a lot of the songs I am writing now are emerging with a distinctly Zeppelinesque sound, which is no bad thing – it is always a joy to take something I feel is perhaps slightly derivative, and then hear the other guys in the band add their own input and turn it into something totally fresh.wealp95792

This is the main reason that all our songs are attributed to The 109s rather than to individual band members: I may write most of the riffs, but they do not become songs until everyone else has added their magic to the mix. The amount of drummers and bass players that have been financially shafted over the years due to unfair song-writing credits is legion.

This week The 109s will be working on material for the third album, ironing out the artwork details for Hollow Point (our second album) and preparing for a headlining gig we have this Friday, October 20th, at the Star in Guildford.

I hope to see some of you there.