One of my friends on a Forum I help to administer, has posted about spending Xmas Day away from home for the first time ever. This has reminded me of my mother’s last Xmas. She had lung cancer and, to relieve her from shopping and cooking, she and I were invited to my sister’s parents-in-law for Xmas day. It was my firxt Xmas not spent with just our family, and the only real thing I remember about it was that the film premiere that night was the first Michael Keaton Batman, the one with Jack Nicholson as The Joker. They were all going to watch it, and I realised, as the comments flowed, that nobody except me had any idea about the film, that they were expecting another Adam West ‘Biff! Bang! Pow!”, and I had a secret glee at watching their faces once it started.
We only watched about fifteen minutes of it. Mam was tired, and I took her home, made sure she was settled, and slipped off home myself.
The following day, she started to be in pain, and she died three days later, with me there to see how peacefully she passed, more or less in her sleep. That was twenty-eight years ago. It’s a memory that’s sad and painful but I thank my friend for recalling it to me today. Tomorrow, I have the Xmas that circumstance has forced on me, yet which I have embraced, namely on my own, happy and free, and only communicating with those of my friends who drop in to that Forum. If I could have a Xmas in company, it would be with people whho are no longer here to share it.
As a former Solicitor, steeped in the Law, I understand only too well the danger of protesting a Jury verdict. No newspaper reports, however comprehensive, can duplicate the evidence that a Jury hears. You cannot second-guess them unless you have yourself sat through every second, listening, assessing, balancing what they hear and see in the same fashion, and even then yu are one mind, not twelve. So if I am to be true to my principles, I cannot raise my voice in protest at the decision to acquit former Superintendant David Duckenfield of 95 charges of Manslaughter by Gross Negligence of Liverpool fans whi=o atended that infamous match at Hillsborough.
But I do. From the day of the game, and that awful fuzzy sound that came out of my car radio, the sound of horror, death and unspeakable disturbance, through thirty years of study, reading and listening, I condemn this man, and I will go on condemning him.
An atheist is not supposed to believe in an afterlife, an existence of a different order than ours, although technically atheism is a lack of belief in God, a God or Gods and, as such, is not logically incompatible with the concept of another stage of ‘life’. So I say he is only not guilty in life but in what may yet be to come, he has yet to pay, and he will pay, 96 times over, once each for every single person his arrogance, incompetence and stupidity caused to die.
Ninety-six people, former Superintendant David Duckenfield, ninety-six lives. They do not wash away that easily, not even on a Jury’s considered verdict.
In these recent years when the famous and the meaningful seem to have been leaving us with a frequency that’s been painful, one of the few things to cheer me has been the unfailing regularity with which I have woken up every day to find that the death of Clive James has not been announced. But everything comes to an end and, after many years in which Clive has been expected to die of his leukeamia, that unbroken record has ended.
I first encountered Clive James, unknowing, in 1970. There was a single, ‘The Master of the Revels’, by Pete Atkin, an odd, jaunty little tune with unusual instruments, crisp lyrics and an indefinable air of melancholy that seemed odd in amongst all the professional jauntiness. The sing was much beloved by Kenny Everett, and played every Saturday morning until he was sacked from the BBC for an unfortunate joke that, in those years of greater deference, was not to be tolerated. I did not know then that the lyrics to the song were written by Clive James.
I was more aware of him in 1973, when he hosted Granada TV’s Cinema, but my real real introduction came in the Eighties, when I borrowed the second collection of his Observer TV column from the Library. From then on, I was hooked. And nearly ruptured one Friday night, reading one of these books in my bedroom whilst my sister in her bedroom was trying to sleep: have you ever tried to laugh hysterically in silence?
From then on, I have bought practically every book Clive James has published. A friend lent me the six albums by Pete Atkin, then long-deleted, and I taped and played them in the car, incesssantly, and slowly built up my own collection. And I joined Midnight Voices, then an internet mailing list for fans of Pete and Clive. I got to see Pete Atkin at Buxton Opera House, and unexpectedly Clive James had joined him.
But it all comes back to the words, to the things being said and the way in which they are being said, and whilst I am in awe of how they are being said, for I love words and the ways they can be put together, this would be meaningless without the content. Clive James always wrote about something, not merely for the sake of writing. And he wrote things that I recognised and understood and that I could, given a higher degree of ability, have written myself. I like that.
And it’s come on a day when the celebrity chef, Gary Rhodes, and Jonathan Miller have preceded him into that twilight. Goodnight, Clive, you made this life wonderful with your writings, your lyrics and your poems. Somewhere in the beyond, you will be sitting in an outdoor cafe overlooking Circular Quay, the typewriter full of shells, the sky full of sun and the blue water, your notebook open, forever.
This is going to be the least interesting of the three posts about my expedition to Portsmouth, because it’s about the coming away again, and that is never inspiring.
There couldn’t be much more of a contrast between yesterday and today. I really did fll on my feet for that one, because when I raise the blind, everything is grey: dry, cold but enwrapped in a light mist, several points short of a fog, with vision limited to about a hundred yards.
Technically, I should be getting down to Portsmouth Harbour Station for 9.45am, but when I’m less that ten minutes walk from Fratton Station, two stops nearer, why should I? The twitchiness returns, especially as I am boarding the train at the wrong station, and besides, I prefer to do my waiting in the cold of Platform 1 rather than the comfort of my room.
So farewell the Ibis Budget Hotel, which was simple, neat and clean and ideal for my short break. I rattle my suitcase along, over the bridge and into the Sttion where no-one gives a toss about my ticket. I’ve nearly an hour to wait here, so I inculcate patience and a blank mind upon myself.
Trains tick away, each one moving my service nearer to the top of the teleboard. I finished the penultimate chapter of my current novel last night and I have a complex last chapter to write, of which I wrote three paragraphs before going to bed, and I am trying to avoid serious thought until I’m somewhere where I can write at length. But a structure is evolving in my head, no matter how much I try to keep to the business at hand.
The last train before mine is for Southampton Central. As it eases in, I estimate there are fewer people on it already than are waiting to board at Fratton. Guess it must be true what they say about the rivalry, eh?
At last, my train approaches. I board, select a quiet little space and lever my suitcase awkwardly onto the rack. I then board my headphones and resumewhere I left off with Jerusalem. We’re a long way past Petersfield before I look up and realise that we’ve outrun the southern mist, and that the sun is now beaming down and crowding it into small, feeble pockets.
In fact, by the time we reach Woking, the last stop before Waterloo, it’s a really nice day again, the sun warmer in its light than yesterday on the water. It’s too nice a day for long train journeys now, especially ones with no better purpose than coming back.
Truth to tell, I’ve spent most of the journey alternately immersed in Alan Moore’s mighty tome and developing the structure of this important chapter. Sometimes, I have lines to write down, brief paragraphs, things I don’t want to lose. The rest of it: all I need to know is what each movement is about, not the exact way it plays. This is what I mean about building a structure. As long as I know, and understand, the steps, I don’t need all of the words.
As we ease in sslowly through Clapham and Vauxhall, I pay a bit more attention to my surroundings. For a few moments we follow the line of the grey, churning Thames, four or five views between tower blocks. I catch sight of part of the London Eye. We pull in about ten minutes late.
That shouldn’t make a difference as my schedule allows me an hour here to get to Euston, so I don’t panic, even when the Northern Line ticket machine won’t accept my Bank Card. I have the cash, I get the ticket, I walk straight onto a Tube Train and I walk off it six stops later with nearly half an hour to spare.
When the Manchester Piccadilly train is called, my reservation in Coach B turns out to be a bloody long walk away. I get there only just in time to board and wrestle with the suitcase again before we’re moving off.
And it’s more of the same, reading, mp3, the occasional note, slotting words into place, for the next two hours.
I think that I can tell I’m heading North in this November of 2019 when the rain starts sluicing down some time after Milton Keynes Central. But I’m wrong about that, it’s a South Midlands belt that dires up before we reach Stoke-on-Trent. Rain streams aross my window, the theme from Department S across my ears: why do all the best theme musics come from the Sixties?
At last, I start filing my shoulderbag with all the things that have alleviated the boredom of travel, and I haul down the suitcase and get out at Stockport, where no-one shows the slightest interest in my ticket. That completes the set: no-one bothered at Euston or on the train. Outside, the wind is something fierce.
There’s a final spit in the eye from the weather, which starts to rain just as I get off the bus, and blows in my face all the way to the end, where I live. The first thing I do when I get in is stick the kettle on: I need a coffee. I also need to unpack my case, put everything away, and flop out.
Usually, when I take the week off for my birthday, Thursday is my day for heading up to the Lakes. This time, I chose something more ambitious, something I’m glad I did. Though none of this post is really about Portsmouth, I’m going to signal the end with a photo taken down there. Maybe I’ll go back, one day.
I wake up in Portsmouth, after a soothing, warm night’s sleep, to a sky that couldn’t be bettered if I could afford to order it from the most exclusive Harrods catalogue. It’s a clear blue, with trace amounts of cloud around the edges, and that sharpness of sight that only comes in the cold. If I were in the Lakes, I’d be looking to get up Scafell Pike and strain my eyes for the Irish mountains.
But I’m not in Cumbria, I’m in Hampshire, where breakfast is a continental affair of fresh crusty baguettes, ham, soft cheese and orange juice, and there’s a bus stop round the corner to take me to the Harbour in fifteen minutes. The route number is 1: I’m 64 years and two days old and this is the first time I’ve ridden on a number 1 bus.
It’s a single decker which means that from my lowly position I don’t get to see much, and what I can see is mostly meaningless to me, even when we’re going through the City Centre. Later, maybe. At least I know how to get back, not to mention how close Fratton Station is for tomorrow morning.
I get off the bus under the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower, which defintely wasn’t here in Dad’s day and would have scared the seagulls if it was. Near at hand is HMS Warrior, the Navy’s first steel-plated ship according to its plaque, and it is the subject of the first photo I take with a camera loaned to me by my mate Andy after my own digital compact packed up on me.
The entrance to the Dockard is near at hand. After I’ve had my bag searched – Alan Moore doesn’t appear to be contraband, though the Counter-Terrorism Status – Heightened signs are prominent – I’m free to wander the public areas as I will, though some attractions, such as HMS Warrior, or the mock-up of HMS Victory – yes, that Victory – cost an additional fee to board and explore, the latter in guided tour parties only.
I’ve paid for two Attractions and the most importnt one is at hand, the Harbour Tour. First trip is 12.00, which is the best part of two hours away, so I take a leisurely stroll along old buildings that have manifestly not changed since my Dad was here, inspect the Victory from outside (without, sadly, feeling the least breath of History) and step into the Royal Navy National Museum.
Strangely, or perhaps not strangely at all, I find I cannot take ny interest in any modern history, that is, anything post 1949. It strikes me that what is missing is one man I came here hoping to see in some sense. I would give the world to have him here beside me, to see these souvenirs and relics through his eyes, to have him lead me around, making everything come alive for a boy who wishes to be ten years old again. You can never have the things you want most.
I come outside and stroll back towards the Harbour Tours wharf. It’s still more than early, but this is me, hey? I buy a Diet Coke from Costa Coffee and sit myself on a three-stone bench that’s like a shortarse trilithon from Stonehenge to drink it and draft some of this piece. I’m under the sun, unexpectedly warm for mid-November, and the tide is washing in, a constant surge that’s a backdrop to my thoughts. Near at hand are buildings my Dad must have known, yet the wider sky-line screams of the modern age. I find the past invisible.
That is until I board the Solent Cat. There’s a closed saloon below, with hot and cold drinks available, and an open deck above, and I am up those steps to where the real views will be available. And this is where I start to feel something more. I’m on the water, and this is where I will find that link.
And that’s before we back out of the wharf and into the Harbour proper, and I can see the sheer expaanse of it, from the prominent harbour mouth close by on our left, backed by a low skyline of green hills and wooded slopes that I surmise (correctly) is the Isle of Wight, to the immense spread to our right.
We turn in that direction, leisurely following the east shore, the Naval side, diverting around a Police Boat with flashing blue lights that’s supervising divers. There are yards and wharfs and steel-coloured destroyers, with docks and bays beyond, identified by a commentary from the nearby cabin. It should be cold up here, on the water, and yes I’m got a thick maroon pullover on under a big coat, but I feel no cold.
I’m not usually good on water. On the last day of our honeymoon on Madeira, my wife and I went on a Dolphin Watch cruise off the south of the island, in the more placid waters below Funchal. As soon as I sat down, I grabbed hold of a thick coil of rope and would not let it go the whole time we were on the ocean. I didn’t relinquish my life-line until we were once again docked at the Marina, at which point my sympathetic wife said that she wasn’t going to say this whilst we were sailing but she didn’tthink the rope was attached to anything. To which I replied, “I didn’t think it was either but I damned well wasn’t going to check!”
Portsmouth Harbour’s a long stretch from the Atlantic Ocean but today I’m my father’s son, without the slightest concern for what we’re floating upon, up the Naval side and back down the Commercial side, the Gosport shore, and I am taking photograph after photograph.
Is this why he joined the Navy? To be on the water? How much was he influenced by Uncle Arthur, who served in the Navy in the War, in the South China Seas? Could he choose that freely? Questions coming too late to be answered, but in a way my pilgrimage has fulfilled some of its purpose. I will not be frightened on the water again.
As we turn to cross the Harbour entrance, and again as we lie ‘at anchor’ at Gunwharf Quay, there’s a gentle swell rocking the boat evenly.Though the cloud has the sky more or less surrounded by now, there’s a broad shaft of sun beaming down on me, and I’d be content to sit here the rest of the afternoon, on the edge of this vast, circumscribed expanse.
The last lap to the Dockyard Quay is just a crossing from one side of the Spinnaker Tower to the other. After that, there’s nothing more the Dockyard can do for me so I stroll out in search of somewhere quiet and convenient for a spot of lunch. The Ship Anson qualifies on the first two counts but its food is a bit on the pricey side, given its setting, so I take my time over a pint and a bit more of Jerusalem (I have outrun what I managed before by now).
The signpost tells me it’s only three-quarters of a mile to the City Centre and I’ve got the afternoon to play with, so I walk it. It seems I wasn’t as unobservant as I thought on the bus as I remember shopfronts and the splendid gates of the HMS Nelson, but the Centre was a bit disappointing. I definitely fancied a bit of Pizza Hut so strolled round looking for the familiar frontage, without any luck. Another KFC, a Burger King, yes. Also a Waterstones, and I never pass those. For a mad moment, I considered buying a book they had, a souvenir of my visit, but I couldn’t find a price on it anywhere, and when that happens, you know that the price is Too Fucking Expensive.
The need for food was now getting important. I enquired of a nearby newsseller who told me there is no Pizza Hut in the centre now, since it’s dead there after 5.00pm, except over Xmas, they only do online deliveries now. He points me to Debenhams restaurant where they do hot food, except not after 2.30pm, so I say a loud internal “Soddit!” and spring for a double burger with onions from a well set-up cart: pretty bloody good too.
So. I’ve got a lot of writing to do, and nightfall’s visible down the other end of the block so I grab a bus back and get off at the Pompey Centre. I know I’m in the vicinity of Fratton Park, Portsmouth FC’s ground, but it’s not until I walk up to the Tesco Centre, for sandwiches for tea, that I realise, in daylight, the ground’s right behind it!
It all makes for a long evening but this is not the only piece of writing I shall be working on tonight, and an early bed is on the cards. The photos attached to this piece are all my own work (if not my camera!).
I’m off on another Expedition, a longer one than any before, for I’ll be away three days and two nights and blogging each day’s experience. This Expedition is to a place I’ve never been before, in a County that’s one of the handful remaining that I’ve never visited before, and it’s less a break at an odd time of year for holidays than a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage wiithout religious significance, save only in my own head. I am going to Portsmouth, to HM Naval Dockyards. Seventy years ago, my father completed his post-War National Service, stationed here. As some of you already know, he died before my fifteenth birthday, after a long illness, before I could sitand talk to him about experiences I would never share, even vicariously. I am here to see what he saw, or what is left of it seventy years on. I am here to try to capture even a tiny fragment of what was taken way.
Most of today’s episode is going to be about travelling, and that means paranoia. I have now defined myself as a twitchy traveller. It comes from the independence and control I enjoyed as a car driver, until ten years ago, and from my experiences with the decaying public transport of this country. When you have to rely on the 203 to get to Stockport Rail Station, you set out early, which is how I ended up composing the first draft of this on Platform 2, a half hour before the London Euston train is due.
Counting the 203, this journey had five legs. I don’t get to relax this early. But the 11.43 is on time and, at risk of spoiling the dramatic tension, the whole journey goes off without a hitch.
The only thing resembling one is that I’m supposed to have a reserved seat in Coach F, the exact midpoint of the train, only it’s not reserved. It’s still free, mind you, but then so are nearly fifty percent of Coach F’s seats, so hardly had we set off but I transferred myself to a table-seat, though this meant the suitcase I’d struggled to lift into the luggage compartment opposite ‘my’ seat, was left a way down the coach. Twitch.
I’ve done this journey mny times, but never quite this lte in the morning, which I suppose explains the empty seats. Usually, London is a visit, back in a day, but this time it’s a way-station. So I don’t bother with the scenery, which is damp and dull under expectant clouds.
Having finally completed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I need another massive book to read on railways rides, and I have the perfect replcement in Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, a 1,000 page hardback. This was a Xmas gift to myself back in 2016, but I only got about 200 pages through it then. Having no other reading material on me, I anticipate serious headway this time.
Between the music and the reading, the journey goes well. The next twitch starts on coming into Euston, five minutes late. I have forty-five minutes to get to London Waterloo, which is six stops on the Northern Line, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Can’t keep the boy from worrying but I’m at Waterloo with fifteen minutes to spare, which is positively last minute for me, panicking because I can’t see the teleboard to learn which platform I need, and then I can’t find the entrance which, in keeping with the pantomime I’m descending into is, yes, behind me. Platform 13. Good job I’m notsuperstitious.
I’m now in new country, South of the River for maybe only the third or fourth time in my life. I’ve only ever been to the South Coast once before, to Worthing, to deliver a letter.
But this is flat country. First there are London streets and skyline cranes, then nondescript hedges and fields that are not made any more appealing by the slowly fading light. There are no heights to look up to in wonder, looking for routes to ascend, not any to be crossed, providing no vistas to look across and upon. Everything is of a level.
We pass through Woking, Guildford, Godalming and lessr places. A gaggle of schoolchildren get on at Petersfield, including one tall, long-haired blonde with an appealing face who looked like it wouldn’t take much effort to make herself look sixteen, though she might be pushing it for eighteen. They depart at Fratton, which puzzled me slightly given Portsmouth FC play at Fratton Park. But the last few stations are thick and fast and, almost bang on time, I debouch at Portsmouth Harbour.
Crossing the bridge above the platforms, I see the first sign of ships, masts and riggings, and I emerge from the sttion overlooking a prt of the Harbour and queues for the Gosport Ferry to the Isle of Wight. Under my breath, I speak to someone who is not there: “I’m here, Dad. Took a long time, but I’m here.”
The entrance to the Dockyards is only a few minutes walk away. I head there to buy a two-attractions ticket for tomorrow but I cn’t bring my suitcase through the gate: security, it might contain a bomb (it doesn’t). I was allowed to leave it in charge of a helpful lady whilst I nipped inside for tickets.
I’m staying at the Ibis Budget Hotel on Fratton Way. The hotel sent me directions on how to get there, but after pretty near five hours of train travel, not to mention lugging a suitcase around with my laptop in it (as well as a shoulder bag with a 1,000 page hardback in it), I bottle out and get a taxi. Long before I get to the Hotel, I’m bloody glad I didn’t try walking. And along the way, I discover I’m only about five minutes walk from Fratton Station, so I know what I’m going to do on Thursday morning.
When I arrive, I get a choice of rooms on three floors. The Ground is good enough for my arthritic knee and hip and it’s real close to Reception. It’s a triple room, which means it could have slept three: someone to share the double with me and a voyeuristic third sleeping cross-wise in a bunk-bed single (or maybe sneaking down to join us if she’s a she… first night away from home in nearly two years and I’m already having erotic fantasies).
There isn’t a Pizza Hut within easy walking distance of the Hotel, but there’s a KFC opposite (there’s a MacDonalds too, but I’m talking food here) so that’s tonight’s evening meal sewn up.
I’m here. There are no photos to post because the light was bloody miserable by the time I got to the Harbour. But tomorrow’s the big day, and I hope it’ll do me a favour and be drive. This is where my Dad served his country, and I’m damned glad he never got to see what his country has become. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch a sight of a spectre, a face I’ve not seen in nearly fifty years. It’s what I’m here for.
Generally, I avoid Political Posts, but comes a time when you can’t just let it slide.
Yesterday, at the Cenotaph, it was reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned up with his hair unbrushed and his coat open and flapping. He stared around during the one minute silence whilst everyone else had their head bowed. He walked forward before he was due to do so and he presented a red wreath which he placed upside down.
Hardly respectful to those we choose to honour on that day. In the past, various Labour leaders have been sharply criticized, by the media en masse, for what has been deemed to be insufficient respect for this ceremony. I need hardly tell you there has been no such en masse criticism of Mr Johnson.
Once upon a time, the BBC was the envy of the world for its honesty and impartiality. Under Electorl Legislation, following the calling of a General Election, it is legally required to be neutral.
This morning, on BBC Breakfast News, coverage of the ceremony was shown. At the moment it fell to the Prime Minister to lay his wreath, the footagecut to Mr Johnson, his hair and apparel immaculate, place the wreath corrrectly at exactly the right moment, before cutting back to the rest of the ceremony. In this sequence, Mr Johnson was dressed differently from before and after, moved forward from a different place and carried a green wreath, instead of the red one in the other footage. This exactly placed footage came from the 2016 ceremony.
Why did the BBC conceal what happened and insert replacement footage of something three years before? If you listen to their explanation, it was a ‘production error’. Doesn’t everyone carry around with them news footage of old events and in error cut them into modern film shot less than twenty-four hours previously?
We are being lied to. We are the mushrooms in the old joke, because the BBC kept us in the dark in a General election campaign, and when such a blatant and shambolic trick was exposed, so disrespected their audience that they threw shit into our eyes.
Is this ‘error’ the only ‘error’ the BBC have made? You don’t have to be a cynic to answer that one when the crudity is blatant.