Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Weep, You May Weep, For You May Touch Them Not

We cremated my grandfather yesterday at 1.30 at the local crematorium. The place is surrounded by woodland and though beautiful is perishing cold at any time of year let alone in the middle of December.

I hope the service was what he would have wanted. Aside from a few favourite hymns there were few instructions. We had Jona Lewie’s “Stop The Cavalry” played at the start and end of service which raised a few smiles. It was one of his favourite records and we all have memories of him playing it constantly, much to my Nan’s annoyance, while he beefed up the percussion by striking a glass with a knife or a spoon. I have very vivid memories of him singing along to the “dub-a-dub-a-dum-dum” parts in a voice that strove joyously to be completely out of tune and atonal. Entirely deliberate one suspects from a man who sang in the church choir as a young boy.

What can one say about funerals? Other than to say they get more sad with each one you go to and each new one you go to reminds you of all those that have gone before...

It was sad. Very sad. But it was good to be together as a family. The New Year will bring some hard challenges as we all pull together to sort through the remains of my grandparent’s lives together – the house and possessions need to be attributed and sold. It isn’t going to be easy. And the solicitors are being harshly efficient. My sister had an estate agent ring her on the morning of the funeral wanting to arrange a viewing of the house so that it can be valued.

Wisely she told them to wait until the New Year. I realize there is a lull in the housing market at this time of year and the estate agents are kicking their heels but even so... a bit of tact wouldn’t have gone amiss.

We gathered in a local pub afterwards and said goodbye to the old patriarch the old fashioned way. He would have approved, I’m sure.

Wherever he is now I hope he is happy. And I hope he knows he is still loved.

As are all those who have gone before, all those who populate the many happy Christmases of my childhood. So many people who I now can no longer touch but who yet touch me still.

A very Merry Christmas to you all. I hope it is spent in the company of loved ones whose closeness to you, you will treasure.

The best memories of all are made of this.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Silent Night

My grandfather would always walk out of the room when he heard this carol. It was bizarre. Up he’d get and storm off grumbling to himself. I can remember my Nan smiling sadly to us all and explaining it away with “he just can’t bear to hear it; it’s to do with the war”.

It puzzled me for years. Sometime in my teens I thought I had it figured. Silent Night is a German carol. That must be it, I thought. The Germans, the war time foe. Though his reaction was so extreme this hardly seemed a decent explanation.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that he finally told me the reason. Before his illness and old age robbed him of the ability and the will to tell me stories of his war time experiences he just came out with it one lunch time while we were tucking into fish and chips.

My grandfather was a seaman in the Royal Navy and took part in a great number of the convoys that carried and fetched supplied to and from South Africa, Europe, Malta and the Med, etc. His ship, H.M.S. Kelvin, saw a good deal of action and was one of the ships celebrated for breaking through the curtain the Germans and Italians had put around Malta – it was certainly the exploit that he spoke about with the most ease and pride.

This other story though was more painful and was one he’d carried around with him for more than 60 years without speaking much about it...

I believe his ship was part of a night convoy in the North Atlantic. It was winter and bitterly cold. A man overboard would be dead within minutes – from the cold rather than drowning. The going was cautious – German U-Boats were about and very active. The ships were effectively operating under black-out – no lights, engines only and no radio communication. Anything to minimize the possibility of a U-Boat picking them up. Another stipulation was that the ships were not allowed to stop. Not for anything. Not even to help a comrade fallen overboard. They had to keep going; they had to get through.

The ship ahead was unlucky. A U-Boat picked her off sometime in the small hours and she went down spilling her crew - hundreds of men - into the water.

The other ships, including my grandfather’s could not stop to pick up the survivors. They knew this. The men in the water also knew this and very softly sang Silent Night as the convoy and their comrades continued on into the night and away from them.

I cannot imagine the pain of having to live through that night and of having such a memory bubble to the surface for every Christmas that you experience afterwards. If not for his reaction to the carol we would never have known.

When I hear Silent Night now I too will feel sad and an aching sense of pain though for different reasons. And I shall remember all the Christmases when my grandfather disappeared out into the kitchen to bang about with the kettle until the carol had finished.

And I shall feel regret and I shall feel sorrow.

But mostly I shall feel pride.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


My grandfather died this morning. He went very suddenly in his sleep.

All things considered, not a bad way to go.

He will be missed not least for the hole in the world that he leaves behind.

Friday, December 04, 2009


The foyer in the building where I work has, as its centrepiece, a water feature. A huge brown stone monolith of odd angles and aesthetically engineered drops that guarantee a playful background plash of water whenever a visitor drops in to spend a week’s wages on a cup of tea in the cafĂ©.

Or at least is does when the bloody thing is working.

Unfortunately it hasn’t worked for about a year. It was turned off last winter due to suspicions of “a small leak”.

I guess this is an occupational hazard for a water feature. That and people lobbing pound coins down the plughole or going for a number 2 down the chute.

For various reasons it wasn’t looked into. It got overlooked. The water feature became a dusty dry stone sculpture that only dreamt of the cool flow of legionella rich water gently caressing its chiselled corners.

Until this week. The idea of restoring water to the “desert” feature suddenly became “of the moment”. It became my task for the week. My pre-Christmas mission.

Experts were called in and assembled. Opinions were voiced. An agreement was reached. Existence of the leak needed to be empirically proven or disproven one way of the other.

So an experiment was launched. The water was switched back on. The algae on the stone was moistened with H20 once more.

Like all water features, ours works by recycling the same water round and round. The continual movement prevents stagnation and bacterial build-up. A simple ball-cock mechanism adds fresh mains water whenever necessary to compensate water lost by evaporation or hoodies taking a rare bath. Yesterday, once the system was up and running, we disabled the ball-cock. With no fresh water topping up the system we’d soon be able to see if we were losing any.

We started at 3pm and my brief was to switch the thing off at 5pm when I went home and then back on again tomorrow morning at 9.

At the most we were expecting maybe an inch of water to disappear.

Instead, at 5pm I was gobsmacked to discover that not only was the water feature dry but the entire reservoir tank was also empty. The pump was gamely sucking up hot air.

Where had all that water gone? Several gallons of it had vanished down into the guts of the building in the space of 2 hours without any evidence of it ever having been there.

We have a mystery on our hands.

Further investigations will take place today. I daresay some dull, prosaic explanation will be found. Personally I’d like to imagine that the water has escaped into another dimension, possibly feeding a waterfall in Narnia or topping up a jacuzzi for a couple of half naked elf maidens.

Or perhaps, like a recent episode of Doctor Who, the water has taken on a sinister life of its own and is, even as I write, seeking out some poor unwitting human host whose body can be possessed and turned to some dastardly scheme of world domination. Indeed, it may explain the congregation of strange gentlemen who daily hang around the front of my work building, foaming at the nose with various sized cans of Special Brew growing out of their bottom lips and who have an undissuadable penchant for defecating up the pilasters.

It’s something in the water, I’m telling you...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Day The Music Died

I’m wondering if I have fallen out of love with music.

Or, to be precise, new music. The discovery of it. The giving a go of new bands. The trying something new. I seem to have become as locked into the music of my formative years as my parents were when I was a kid.

Why does that happen?

When I was a teenager (though I came to record buying late) I was an avid music consumer. I would buy a batch of records every week. Singles, EPs, LPs, picture discs, I couldn’t get enough. I can remember going to a record shop in Birmingham and spending so much money that the shop assistant was kind enough to not ring the amount up on the till to save me from embarrassment. I must have blown an entire week’s wages in one go on rare records and collectibles. That seems so obscenely hedonistic now.

In no time at all I had built up an impressive collection of literally hundreds and hundreds of records (which I still own). They took over my entire bedroom. All of them boxed, alphabetized and inventorized. It was a collection that I lavished love and time on. And each weekend I’d carefully load up my turntable with my latest acquisitions, carefully wiping the dust off them with the special cloth I had bought for this purpose and savouring each hiss and pop of the needle swinging itself into the opening groove.

It was my life.

And then somehow, in the nineties, my expenditure dropped off, my interest waned and was pulled elsewhere. I moved on and got into other things. Books, computers, gadgetry, travel. The fact that the nineties were an awful decade for decent music only hastened me out of the scene.

And now, here in 2009, I’m somehow completely on the outside of it all. On the outside looking in but unsure of where the door is or if I even have enough interest to want to open it and step inside. A few new bands have caught my ear – The Doves, The Editors – but I haven’t gone as fanatically overboard on them as I did when All About Eve arrived on the music scene in 1985 or when Kate Bush released “Hounds Of Love” in the same year.

The passion for new music has left me.

My MP3 player is proof of this. The majority of its contents have been sucked from my CD collection and I’d say that 90% of that is from the eighties. I’ve become trapped in my very own time warp.

I’m no longer “down with the kids”. I’m looking at them and frowning at the infernal noise they listen to and dare to call music – much the same way, I suspect, as when my father just couldn’t appreciate the blisteringly fierce music of The Jam’s “Funeral Pyre” and dismissed it as tuneless rubbish. At the time his music of choice was Buddy Holly and Marty Robbins.

Is this the fate that has now befallen me?

Worryingly, checking my MP3 player this morning, I can’t fail to notice that “El Paso” is already on there...

*Sigh* It’ll be “Rave On” next.

And not in a cool way either.