…and Diet Coke. There are worse ways, and even less healthy ones, to see out the end of a year.
I’m doing this one alone, like Xmas, and like each year going back. As I don’t have a TV, there shalln’t even be Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, which when I last watched it, looked a bit too obviously recorded in October to be convincing. So there’ll just be me, whatever fireworks my neighbours have lined up for this year, and some fine and private thoughts.
I’m not doing any summaries either. Just get this over with, get it out of the way and on to the next one. I’m going alone, even though I know a perfectly nice forum where I would be welcomed with virtual open arms. Sometimes things happen and then you’re trapped in your own flaws.
So to all those who have read here in 2016, I wish you the year that will be best for you, the fulfillments you most need, the love that warms you the most and, given just who takes over the Free World in January, access to the best nuclear bunker available. We are who doomed to the cinderball this planet might easily be by next December salute you.
I’ve posted a couple of times previously about my annual visit to Dukinfield Crematorium to pay my respects to mt father, who died in 1970, when I was three months short of my fifteenth birthday. I’ve been mourning his loss, and the effect of his absence upon me, for longer than he lived, and for three times longer than he was there for me.
In a short while, I will be traveling to the Crem to pay my respects to my mother, who died twenty-five years ago today. I was with her when she died, saw what I firmly believe was the passing moment. Though she had been in severe pain for the last seventy-two hours of her life, I know she died in peace, in her own chair, in her own home, among her own things, with one of her children with her, though whether she knew I was there is another matter, upon which there is no answer.
The two visits have always been different. I missed my mother, but I did not suffer her absence the way I did with my Dad. I was an adult, I had just turned 36, as she had just turned 65 (our birth-dates were six days apart), I had my own home. I had been in love and been in a relationship that was still active, albeit fitfully, but which would still last another six years.
And my sister and I had had notice: she had been diagnosed with lung cancer seven months earlier. There is a world of difference between being a child whose father is immortal, even through twenty months of illness and hospitalisation, and an adult with forewarning, who has already lost all his grandparents.
In the early years, I would always take flowers. Mam loved flowers, especially red roses. She always brought them for Dad so I brought them for her. I did consider taking over bringing them for Dad, but after all that time – she had outlived him by 21 years – it would have seemed false: he’d have hardly recognised them as coming from me, would he?
But flowers in late December? When it was always icy and fingers were frozen? Finding them to buy them was bad enough but out in the open, they’d hardly last. it seemed wrong, cruel almost to the flowers. For twenty years or so I have gone on my own, and talked to her as I have done with my Dad.
It’s been a shitty year, not that I’d have ever dared to use language like that in front of my mother, who was strict and, one could almost say, domineering. I grew up with issues with her. Maybe I’d have had similar issues with Dad, had he lived, I can’t know, but in the optimism of such things, I believe not, just as I believe that if he’d lived, he’d have at least tempered those issues. My mother became a widow at the age of 43, with two children and little money. She never re-married, she never even dated.
Whether I’d ever have gotten to the point of confronting her, I don’t know. She wasn’t a person you could easily confront, not about personal issues. What I did know was that, from the moment she told us about her cancer, and the Doctor’s confirmation that it was fatal, “months, not years,” I knew that I would never speak of these things to her. I couldn’t do that to her, no matter how much it might help me to speak of such things, to protest.
She’d only have told me that I was exaggerating again, reading too much into it, overthinking.
It’s been a shitty year, but not in every respect, merely overwhelmingly so. In the summer, I received a course of counseling, long overdue, dealing with my feelings of grief, of inadequacy. Forty-six years after the fact, a large part of it was bereavement counseling for my Dad. It was tremendously beneficial. It didn’t ‘cure’ anything. It didn’t change facts, didn’t relieve me of the effects of things done and undone, yet it helped enormously. Someone listened. Someone understood, reflected, validated my emotions after a lifetime in which they were either derided as being ridiculous, or more often buried under the surface and allowed to fester, because I knew they would not be regarded.
Something else happened after that, a revelation for which I was completely unprepared, that has wounded me on a very deep level. It’s something for which I have taken responsibility, accepted instantly guilt that may not be mine but which I am constitutionally unable to see in any other light. A failure by a failure where I most should not have failed. No matter how much I’ve grown, no matter how self-confident, relaxed, mature I’ve become, no matter how much I know that that confidence in myself is justified, there are things that if done at the right time will lock you in and never allow you to escape.
It will be a conversation long overdue, far too late, and far different today than any that have come before. Having it out with someone who isn’t there to listen. But there is no other time or place where this can be done.
Watching Manchester United play Sunderland yesterday, on a somewhat dodgy livestream, I whooped with delight in a way I have not done so for quite some time at Henrikh Mhkitaryan’s brilliant goal. But I hadn’t seen it properly. I thought he’d swept it across himself, with his right foot, and that would have been brilliantly taken if it had been, but then I saw the replays, and saw that Ibrahimovic’s cross from the right had actually curled behind Micky who, instead of checking his run and doubling back, had actually launched himself forward and flicked the ball off the heel of his right boot, over his own body and in, for a truly amazing goal.
It put me in mind of another Old Trafford day, a long time ago, when I was in the crowd. We were playing Everton on a Saturday in February 1994.
United fans will need no further clues than that to identify the game, which was a day that will remain in all the memories of those who were there, forever. It was no mere Premier League match, because on the Thursday night before the game, it was announced that Sir Matt Busby had left us.
It was only the previous May that our long wait for the League title had been fulfilled, winning the inaugural Premier League. It brought great satisfaction and joy to all of us, but a substantial part of that was Sir Matt could see it. Could see that we were back where he had put us, were once again what he had made us. The look on his face, that night, the pride restored. Now he was gone.
I had a League Match Ticket Book (LMTB) then, or, should I say, it then had me. It had belonged for years to my mate Steve, but in the early Nineties recession, money was tight and he could no longer afford it, and offered it to me. It had to stay in his name, because such things were not transferable (no matter how many thousands were being used by other people), and the deal was that if he could afford it again any time in the next five years, he’d take it back: after five years, it would be treated as ‘lost’ and I would keep it unconditionally. After all those years of painful waiting, I got it in time for the Resurrection Title: life is incredibly unfair.
On the day, I followed the usual routine: lunch at the Canadian Charcoal Pit at Burton Road, double burger, fried and diet coke, park on the other side of King’s Road, in Stretford, and walk up. It was a long walk, fifteen to twenty minutes either way, but it meant that I was on the right side for heading home, and by the time I got back to the car, the worst of the early rush had dispersed.
I set off, down the road to the underpass under the railway at the famous Warwick Road Station (now Old Trafford on the Metrolink), and out into Warwick Road South alongside my other beloved Old Trafford, the cricket ground. Up the road, across Chester Road and onto what is now Sir Matt Busby Way but which was then still Warwick Road North, the crowds gathering the further I went.
I had been doing this for years now, but today was different. Down the Warwick Road, the ground screened by the terraced houses to our left, until we cross the railway and come onto the forecourt. People milling about, but whereas there was usually a buzz, a constant sound, I had never before nor since heard Old Trafford so quiet.
And that with far more people than usual. I’ve heard it estimated that at least 10,000 people attended Old Trafford that day, without tickets, many without even the hope of getting tickets from touts who had a field day, who just felt compelled to be there. But whilst I was certainly not silent, the wash of conversation was a low hum. Those who spoke spoke quietly, respecting what had brought us all here.
In the middle of all this was something incredible. From the first announcement of Busby’s death on Thursday evening, fans had been arriving at Old Trafford and leaving scarves on the forecourt, behind the Scoreboard End. Mostly United scarves, but scarves of other clubs. By Saturday lunch, it had become a Shrine, a Shrine of Scarves, coming together spontaneously, an unbelievable sight.
The Shrine had now been fenced around by barriers. It was the heart of the silence. People were queuing, six, seven deep all around it, patient queues formed up behind the man or woman at the barrier, paying their personal respect. There was no pushing, no hustling, no fretting about time. Whoever was at the barrier was allowed their own time to commune, before they turned and shuffled out, letting the next person in line into their place.
There weren’t just United scarves and tributes. I remember seeing honest, heartfelt tributes from our worst enemies, Liverpool and City, but then Matt had played for both clubs pre-War. But these weren’t the only ‘foreigners’, and I prefer to believe that it was just human decency, overcoming our tribes.
It was a moving scene, the only sound the whispering of scarves, from people too far back, throwing them over our heads, onto the Shrine.
Once my time was up, I moved round the stadium to climb up to my seat in J Stand. This was a corner stand, an arc between the South Stand and the old Scoreboard End: the far right corner from the television point. I sat next to Steve’s Uncle Fred, who had been following United so long, he’d been at Wembley to see us win the Cup in 1948. We got on ok, but on this occasion, we greeted each other with handshakes, understanding the formality of the day.
We were playing Everton. Every credit to them, their fans were immaculate, beautiful. Though I believe that any club, bar one, could have been at Old Trafford that day and their fans been as perfectly-behaved. The exception are our hated rivals at Leeds United, who demonstrated their class the next day, to the visible shame and disturbance of their own team. Had they been our opponents that day, the game would have had to have been cancelled: they would have started and we would have moved as one and done them, and I include myself for once.
With kick-off looming, the PA requested silence from the crowd, and not the usual cheer when the players entered the field. Dutifully, we fell quiet. The players would be out in one minute. But they weren’t. All told, it was six minutes before they emerged and in that six minutes the whole crowd kept the silence, complete (except for one voice in the Scoreboard End who, about halfway, said in an ordinary voice, “Well, come on then,” and the whole stadium heard him).
Then, at last, we heard a solitary piper, and the strains of ‘A Scottish Soldier’. He emerged from the tunnel in the diagonally opposite corner, alone, followed by two lines of men in black coats, Wor Bobby among them. After them, the referee and linesmen, in green shirts, and the players in two silent lines, all the way to the centre. Everyone formed up around the centre circle, and the referee blew his whistle to signal the beginning of the official minute’s silence and, unbelievable as it seems, physically impossible as it surely was, Old Trafford grew even more silent. Nothing, not a sound, until the whistle relieved us and everybody roared, and at last the game could begin.
We were top of the League, by a distance, but that lead was being cut into by Blackburn Rovers. I can’t remember where Everton were in the table. Everybody wondered what instructions Fergie would give the team. Would he tell them to forget the League for the moment, just go out and play, play your hearts out for him? We hoped he’d say that, but the canny among us told ourselves that busby would have said to concentrate on the three points.
He told them to play. And Everton responded in the same spirit. We won it 1-0 but how it wasn’t in double figures, I still can’t understand. Ryan Giggs got the goal, early on, with his head: there could have been no-one more appropriate, as the Priest at Busby’s funeral included in his address, the mythical figure of ‘the young boy running down the wing with the wind in his hair.’
But Everton, without being any more defensive than necessity and our play demanded of them, held us off. For twenty minutes in the second half, there was a spell of attacking football such as I have never seen on any other occasion. United simply flew forward, in waves, over and over. At one point I turned to Fred and asked, “Did the Busby Babes ever play like this?”.
His answer was, “Not often.”
United were turning it on. I thought that I must be watching the kind of football Matt Busby saw in his dreams.
And in the midst of it, the moment of which Micky’s goal reminded me, and which is the belated point of this memory.
Giggsy had the ball below us, on the left, and played in a cross towards Eric Cantona, running diagonally towards the edge of the penalty area. It was meant for his head, but it was just not quite the right height. Eric leapt into the air to take the ball on his chest. As he did, he spun his body, in the air, deflecting the ball behind him, evading the two defenders trying to cover him.
As the ball dropped, and he came out of his spin, he took one step and put his laces through the ball. He didn’t look, he just knew where it had to be. By rights, it should have been the Goal of the Season, but instead it thumped against the base of the near post, and out, with Neville Southall gaping.
I turned to Fred and asked, “Did I really see that?”
Had I been at Old Trafford yesterday, and been witness to Micky’s moment of glory, for this first time since that long ago game, I would again have turned to my neighbour and asked him to confirm that I really had seen what I thought I saw.
It’s a sorry spectacle, the greed with which 2016 is grabbing people to take with it, the latest the 96 year old writer, Richard Adams, the creator of Watership Down.
I heard about it late, in 1975, bought it, read it and, like almost everybody else, loved it. Like the best of stories, it began as a story for Adams’ own children, to be told on car trips and at bedtimes, and, like The Hobbit, generations earlier, when written down it was quickly sold.
And he changed the course of fantasy fiction as well. After Watership Down, there was a pronounced towards beast-fable, stories focusing on animals of every kind, the most notable example perhaps being William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, and its many sequels, of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. But it was Adams who opened that door for them to follow.
And I remember going halfway across Nottingham, to its only suburban cinema, in 1978, to watch the animated film, from which Art Garfunkel’s ethereal ‘Bright Eyes’ had already spent several weeks at No. 1 (six of them eventually).
Adams went on to a long and successful career as a writer, though I only read two more of his books, his first two sequels. Shardik was set in a fantasy world, full of made up names and places, none of which felt or sounded real, and was about a bear that was worshiped as a god. I was disappointed and didn’t keep the book long.
His third, The Plague Dogs, I was sensible enough to borrow from the Library rather than buy, sitting up late on a Friday night to finish it, at about 3.00am. It was a good book, and it was full of route-maps of the dogs’ progress, drawn by Wainwright, but I wanted to finish it and take it back as soon as possible, because it was impossibly flawed.
It needed a strong editor to tell Adams to cut it back by about 100 pages, and to knock back his obsession with animal testing. That was an essential part of the book from Adams’ point of view, but his constant attacks unbalanced the book, came over as a bee in the bonnet rather than any well-reasoned protest.
I never read anything else by Adams.
But he wrote Watership Down. And we honour him for that.
After last week’s shenanigans, it was good to get back to a serious story, and one that looked to have a bit of meat on it, as it should, given that the end of season 3 is now very close. Also, it starred everybody’s favourite red-haired Major, always a plus point in this sector of the galaxy.
There was an understory as well, just to give other members of the cast some screen-time, about Chief O’Brien being ‘in the zone’ on the dartboard, but since it was entirely perfunctory, it needed no more mention than that, save that it was a particularly obvious contrivance to get everybody else into the episode when they had no place in the overstory. Twenty-odd years later, everybody, the programme especially, would be entirely comfortable with going solo, which would have made for a stronger experience overall.
Not that I initially, and for some time, was convinced of that. This was a purely personal response, based on the story originally coming over as a retread of that bloody awful season 1 episode, ‘Progress’, the one with Brian Keith hamming it up all over the shop.
The open, at least, was excellent. Though it’s three months on, Kira is still mourning the death of Bariel, praying before the rather more ornate Bajoran version of a candle, when Sisko interrupts to advise her that the First Minister has died. A new First Minister, in anticipation of elections, has already been appointed: it is Kai Winn.
Kira is horrified, as is Odo but, apparently no-one else. There was an ironically contemporary twist to things, given the very recent Electoral College confirmation of another gross election mistake, but it very much looked like the Kai would be adding temporal power to her spiritual domain. The story would be about undoing that prospect as a consequence of Winn’s own fanatical, and potentially fascistic, ambitions.
Kira is back at her devotions when she’s interrupted again, this time by the Kai herself, asking her to undertake a personal mission. Louise Fletcher is, as always, the perfectly cloying, creeping figure, steadfastly denying her own personal gain but never quite approaching conviction, secure in knowing that her power insulates her from having to really justify herself.
The set-up is that one of Bajor’s previously most agriculturally productive provinces, soil-poisoned by the retreating Cardassians, needs specially developed reclamators urgently. With these, the forthcoming planting season could be transformed, food for export be granted, Bajor commercially uplifted and its application to join the Federation advanced by years.
The fly in the appointment is that those reclamators have been ‘stolen’ by another, less significant province, and a selfish, arrogant leader who is holding Bajor back by refusing to give them up. The Kai wants the Major to go in and persuade these miserable bastards to give ’em back. She’s perfect for the mission because its her home province, and the leader is Shakaar, her former leader in the Resistance.
Shades of bloody Brian Keith methinks, especially when Kira beams down into a typically Bajoran farming community, and finds that the soil is dry, barren, arid. I mean, we knew Kai Winn’s tale of stolen equipment wouldn’t stand up even if you stapled it to a wall, but thankfully Shakaar was no old, stubborn and stupid old fart but rather an intelligent, thoughtful and clever man, kudos to Duncan Regehr in the role.
The real truth is that Shakaar’s community, who are farming to feed their people rather than exporting for profit, have legitimately received their reclamators only two months previously, after a three year wait, and been promised their use for a year. It is the Kai who is intending to ‘steal’ them.
There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie here, as others from the Resistance are also farming, and Kira’s old sympathies are easily invoked. But she’s learned from past mistakes, at least initially, and mindful of her duties, and the genuine value of the Kai’s project, sets up a face-to-face meeting between Shakaar and the Kai. Until, that is, the Kai sends the militia to arrest Shakaar.
After that, it’s back to old habits, as Shakaar gathers his old buddies and heads for the hills, Kira among them. The Kai is outraged, not least because Shakaar’s rebellion against her Prophet-inspired vision is gaining an awful lot of public sympathy. And Sisko isn’t disapproving this time: he takes great,polite pleasure in informing the Kai that Federation regulations forbid him from acceding to her request that he get his security in there and blast the bastards to buggery.
He even gets to tell Winn that her immediate threat to withdraw Bajor’s application to join the Federation is the little kid threatening to take his ball home that it is, although the actual word he uses in ‘overreaction’.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile Resistance is running round the hills like the old days, giving the Militia the gleeful slip just like the old days, although old habits are gaining ground: more than a few want to stop running and start fighting back. An ambush is laid, but both Kira and Shakaar find out that it is one thing to kill Cardassians and another to fire on Bajorans, especially Bajorans like the Militia leader, Colonel Lenaris (a carefully measured performance by a young-ish John Doman), who are themselves ex-Resistance.
This time a parley works. Lenaris, despite his record and his duty, is no more willing to kill former Bajoran Resistance folk than Shakaar. Rather than capture Shakaar’s band, they return to their farms, with the reclamators, and Lenaris conducts Shakaar and Kira to the office of the suddenly temporary First Minister. With the backing of the Army, Shakaar will stand for Election as First Minister, and he will win. Especially because, if the Kai doesn’t withdraw, the details of this episode will be made public. A lovely mix of democracy and blackmail.
As you know, I don’t read ahead unless I can’t help it, so I don’t know the longer-term implications of this move and what part Shakaar may have to play in future seasons. But he’s clearly that most dangerous of leaders, a clear-headed, thoughtful, rational, intelligent and principled man (thank heaven we don’t have any of them in real life, eh?) so I’m assuming he’ll be back.
And given that, once Kira returned to DS9, without a word of reproach, her first act was to blow out Bariel’s flame, I’m definitely expecting him to be back…
Most of you will remember her for playing the Granny in The Royle Family, but I remember Liz Smith, who is the latest to leave us in 2016’s great toll, for another role entirely, almost at the beginning of her career on television.
Liz Smith played – was – Mrs Brandon on all four series’ of Peter Tinniswood’s sitcom I didn’t know you cared, its title, and the underlying plot of its second series, taken from his second novel about the Brandon family. Robin Bailey as Uncle Mort, John Comer as Mr Brandon and Liz Smith as Mrs Brandon, Jesus!, was that series blessed with a heavyweight cast.
Of the three, Liz Smith was probably the least experienced, but did that show? No, it didn’t. She was immaculate, brilliant, crushingly funny. And she went on to be as willfully, and unashamedly, oddball in everything I saw her do. This bastard year cannot be over fast enough.
This blogpost’s title? Tinniswood already had one catchphrase lined up, Carter Brandon’s mumbling, “Aye. Well. Mm.” and he gave Robin Bailey the angry, “I served all through t’First World War!” Liz Smith got the spectacularly meaningless, “It’s not conducive, our Mort, it’s not concomitant,” with which she would weekly berate her brother.
It never caught on, except with me. I remember it fondly, I remember Liz Smith spendidly, and I mark her passing, however grand the age, with regret, yet again.
Old Xmases are magic, populated with people you will never see again.
Sitting on the bed with Mum and Dad, me on Dad’s side, my sister on Mum’s side, watching both of us struggle to get things out of the Xmas stocking they filled every year. She got the one with red trimming, I got the one with green, though I preferred the red.Fighting to get your arm right down to the little thing at the toe, and pull it back with the strings tangling your arm all the way.
Watching the people you love unwrapping the gifts you’ve had so much fun buying for them, their expressions. I remember visiting my then-girlfriend one Xmas: she already knew I’d managed to get her a couple of early Chieftains LPs which she expected I’d tape for her, because her record deck didn’t work so it had to be all cassettes. But she knew I had something she didn’t know about and was all eager to get it. The look on her face when I stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out… a plug. Then snapping my fingers and going, oh yes, you need something to go on the end of that, and back out to the car, her kids racing out to look, and coming back in with this box: a not too expensive but still decent hi-fi system, including record deck. I still remember her speechless expression and how, still unable to speak, she flung her arms round my neck. Best Xmas present I ever bought anyone.
One year, my best mate bought me Spike Milligan’s ‘The Goon Show Scripts’ for Xmas, which made me laugh out loud (so did the book, raucously), because the present I had bought for him was Spike Milligan’s ‘More Goon Show Scripts’, and then only because they didn’t have ‘The Goon Show Scripts’ in the bookshop I went to.
Re-learning how much fun Xmas could be again, watching the excitement on the face of the kids.
Old Xmases. Xmas was always better then, no matter when ‘then’ was. They are part of your memories, along with the people who cannot or will not celebrate with you again.
To all my memories at Xmas, to all our memories of when Xmas was Xmas. And to the new memories Xmas will make for us this year.
At work, a customer wished me Happy Xmas in Welsh. According to Google, he said Nadolig Llawen, though he could have been speaking Timbuctoo for all I knew. So I wished him Happy Xmas in the only other language I know how to say it, wildly inappropriate as it might have been, and I wish it you here, in Spanish.
Last week, I linked to the latest in the Guardian‘s Saturday Lifestyle section series, ‘Widower of the Parish’. I cannot help but do so again, in tears over a Xmas that recalls to me that of 1970. I wish this anonymous man and his children everything it is humanly possible to wish in the absence of the only presence they want.
The flat door has been shut and locked behind me, and downstairs the porch door is closed, and if anyone else is going to go through it now, it won’t be me. It’s not quite yet noon as I write, and my Xmas has begun. Ian Dury and the Blockheads are on the boom-box, the turkey is in the oven (defrosting in a cold room). There’s dusting to do and I’m going to change the bedclothes, including the duvet cover. The duvet’s getting a bit limp – I was allowed to bring it with me from the homeless flat when I moved in here seven years ago come February, and it wasn’t new then – and though it’s still good and warm, I might look at getting a new one in the New Year.
Otherwise, though, it’s music, the paper, the internet, reading, and of course my daily thirty five minutes of thirty year old transcription. But the break’s begun, even if it’s only three days until I go back, and for those three days I can relax in my own company.
I’ve no plans to post anything during the rest of the day, nor yet tomorrow, but who knows what “creativity” might prompt? To all of you out there, those who Follow this blog, those who alight here randomly, my Xmas wish is that you each and every one of you will have the Day and the season that fulfills your wishes. Greg Lake, one of those who left us in this utter arsehole of a year, once sang, “the Xmas we get we deserve”. Well, I hope that you have the Xmas that’s beyond your wildest deserves, the Xmas that owes nothing to deserve and everything to happiness, peace and being good to each other.
Keep that in your heart and try to make it work every day until I write a version of this for Xmas Eve 2017.