‘I Don’t Like Mondays’

drawing of car on top of trainI am travelling to work as usual but I have changed my route slightly with a view to using the outdoor parking area. So, tootling gently along and preparing to turn right at the appointed moment, I am mildly irritated to find that there is an obstruction accompanied by a degree of ill-tempered inter-vehicular communication, blocking my preferred exit so I have to drive on to the next one. It’s 8.15 on a Monday morning, I already don’t need this.

Missing that turn means heading for the underground car park, a dismal affair at the best of times, but with the influx of new parties having permission to use it, it’s currently wearing an air of contained chaos along with the obligatory grunge. My car and I plunge down into the murky depths. At the bottom, there’s a narrow-ish track with, to the right, some shops and to the left, a railway line. In fact the track is a lot like a station platform with all the bustle you’d associate with that environment. Vans juggling around bikes, bikes juggling around people, and everybody rushing. The buses come down here too to discharge passengers bound for the day care services above, so wheelchairs and the occasional lurching individual unsteady on their pins but going like the clappers anyway, appear – like those targets used by the military to teach soldiers how not to shoot the good guys.  I pick my way along, keeping an eye on the drop to the left onto the rail line.

 

Suddenly, a van pulls in from the right and starts to move into my space. Any closer and I’m taking the 8.45 to Victoria, assuming my unorthodox boarding strategy doesn’t impede its progress. I holler. The driver ignores me so I stop. This is one situation in which discretion is probably the best approach but there’s a jam up ahead and he is stationary in it. I leap out of the car, hurl myself up the road after him, and let him have the full glare with elbows akimbo in through his open window. He winds it up and lets off a stream of invective without waiting to hear what I have to say. It looks as though he may be used to this kind of encounter, in which case he’s going to win because he’s undoubtedly better at voluble ignorance from inside his cab than I am at articulate indignation from the middle of the road.

I retreat and head back to my car to resume my journey. Well, that’s the plan anyway but there’s a flaw in that the car has vanished. I trawl the locality, up and down, in and out of road-side establishments. Eventually I come across a man at a fruit and veg stall who knows what happened and it’s not good; it’s far from good. He’s been talking to a Detective Chief Inspector and now I get to talk to him too. I explain what happened and he tells me my car has been impounded so I’ll have to apply to get it back but it might be ‘a while’ because they’re investigating a murder that has major implications and my car is one of its casualties. ‘But I’m going on leave!’ I wail, with all the naïveté of a person whose winning lottery ticket just emerged from the heavy-wash-spin cycle as a bedraggled lump of papier mache.

At this point, the fire sprinklers start up and my new T shirt becomes transparent. To say this is not turning out well is an understatement. My car has been impounded in a murder case and won’t be released for decades, I am late for work and I am essentially naked in a public place.  What to do?

Well, wake up of course[1]. They say some dreams take only seconds of real time; but this one took a life-time’s worth of anxiety metaphors and, when I’ve got them all pinned down and translated I am SO going to have words with the local chapter of Psychotherapists Anonymous. They’d better have insurance is all I can say

[1] Yes, really sorry about that but it happened and it took me most of the morning, which did not involve close encounters with trains or involuntary indecent exposure, to recover. Vivid narrative dreams that I actually remember are a rarity and normally I’m just left with a vague feeling of having fought off the screeching  hordes of Hades with nothing to show for it but a couple of detached spider legs on the pillow.

 

From From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

‘McCartney and Hendrix Should Not Be Held Responsible’

drawing woman playing guitarDid we talk about my guitar lessons? No, probably not.  Well, after a zillion years of consuming the product of other people’s efforts, I’ve decided to take a shot at it myself. I did used to play, plucking out a melody on an upside-down old acoustic and receiving the adulation of family members, but that’s where it stopped. When you’re a leftie, anatomically speaking, in the early sixties and have the social constraints both of class and being a GIRL, the idea that account might be taken of your disadvantage never occurs to anyone. Yes, we had Paul McCartney but beyond noticing that his guitar was the wrong way round, we never gave a thought to how he managed to make the same notes as everyone else or what he did with his strings. At the time, we were more preoccupied with his boyish rabbit-in-headlights appearance which contrasted nicely with Lennon’s rather more rakish demeanour. Looking like the kid who just got detention for hiding in the cloakroom during break and hauled out by his ear, Lennon was the Beatle parents least wanted their daughters to warm to, although even he was preferable to any number of Rolling Stones whose unwashed and deviant personae sent dads into a frenzy of gate-keeping activity. To say there was a national lock-down for teenage girls during that era is to suggest that Khrushchev and Kennedy were maybe having a bit of a spat over a few silly weapons in Cuba. Had there been DIY stores at the time, the run on locks and heavy duty razor wire would have cleaned them out.

Anyway, the upshot was that, plonking aside, I never really got to ‘do’ any music. Even when Hendrix crashed onto the scene, his handedness rather passed me by.  By that time I was at art college and although art was essentially the medium through which its practitioners would abstract and interpret the real world, actually living in it was not terribly cool so we didn’t. As a result, I was more inclined to float enigmatically and with a studiously vacant expression to ‘Purple Haze’ than try to figure out how he achieved an Amaj7. It didn’t matter of course. Unlike doing the high jump, playing tennis or rounders, or passing maths exams. Ok, maybe the last wasn’t so much down to being left handed as being mathematically brain-dead but you get the picture.  With tennis, I was always facing the wrong way and spent most lessons searching in the cow field for a ball that my powerful but undisciplined clout sent there. Rounders? Goes straight to first base and you’re out. Embarrassing but not injurious, unlike the high jump when, taking off from the same start as the righties, you end up in a tangle of legs and poles through trying to pirouette in mid-air having taken off from the opposite foot.

The delight, although possibly not for my close neighbours, is that a search through that wonderful Emporium, the Internet, reveals gee-tars of all kinds, including a selection properly constructed and strung for lefthanders. Unfortunately, the one I bought didn’t come with a plug-in talent chip so I’m having to struggle with fingers that now seem ridiculously short and fat, a chest I can’t see over to find the chords, and a left hand that has suddenly become more wooden than an entire series of Space 1999[1].

I have a patient teacher. He plays heroically along while I crash and stutter from A to C, D to Em, then G to something that ought to be C again but plainly isn’t.  After practising the simple ditties he left me (‘Jambalaya’ being one and ‘Wonderful Tonight’ another and I am SO SORRY you guys.) I discovered I have two speeds. The first, my troubadour mode, results in recognisable chords at least and goes chord tuneless-wailing, chord more-wailing. The vocals, if we can call them that, offer an interval of time during which I can line up for the next strike of the strings in the manner of an ice skater preparing for a big jump. There is certainly a jump but I rather fancy the scores would come in at a generous 3.2 leaving me well out of the medals.

My other speed is George Formby. Told to keep moving, never mind what the right hand is doing, my left is going like the clappers on the grounds that any attention to its activities will bring it shuddering to a halt. You won’t have heard ‘Sorrow’ played in the ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ styleeee I expect and for that you should be more than grateful.  In fact if you pay me, I might consider not putting it on YouTube. I’m not greedy, a couple of quid each would be fine. Tonight I have a Roxy Music number in my sights.

[1] What can you say about Space 1999? Like Thunderbirds without the strings, it was on British TV in the 1970s and probably set the standard for Blake’s 7. We were easy to please.

 

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

‘February-ish’

drawing cat and photographerThis week has been quite an eventful one in the life of our rather unremarkable little hamlet. Described variously as ‘picturesque’ (Oooh!), ‘quaint’ (Aaah!) and ‘sleepy’ (Oi!), our hitherto undistinguished residential aggregation has attracted the national press. Why, you may ask. Ok so you didn’t but you might as well stick around; you’ve got nothing better to do or you wouldn’t be here, right?  Apparently Dark Forces have infiltrated our local political environment.  Already somewhat right wing, apart from a very few socialists and a larger LibDem enclave whose meetings are apparently attended by one of my cats, the locality was obviously thought fit for an assault by an unpleasant but not banned extremist organisation in the guise of a harmless looking mum who appears to be involved in everything from Scouts to taking out vandals single handed.

Not that we have too many vandals. For the most part the kids here are decent and responsive so that even teenage boys are capable of mustering a social nicety when greeted in the street.  Headlines trumpeting the activities of miscreants generally end in the shocking revelation that litter bins were pushed over and bring to mind an article about terrorists hitting a nearby town.  After describing in detail across an entire front page the alert, the police, and the evacuation of three shops; the journalist, somewhat unwisely in my view, added the clinching commentary of an eyewitness that it was, ‘Really cold out here!’  Well that’s terrorists for you, no consideration of climate or people’s clothing requirements in the event of being decanted onto the pavement in December.

So anyway – Harmless Mum (HM) decided to get herself co-opted onto the parish council (think Dibley[1] here) which woke up with a start (even the bloke responsible for burials and booking the village hall) and began consulting protocols that hadn’t borne the gaze of human eye since Bob Cratchet’s day. The upshot was a parish council election and the sudden racking up of national interest with retired councillors putting themselves back on the market and a couple of new ones emerging to take up the slack, an ill-judged reaction as it (nearly) turned out.

The village, we were told, was divided with HM cornering the market in other HMs who were evidently able to get past the poisonous politics to the wonderful warm human being beneath, and the rest who consulted Babel Fish which translated ‘community involvement’ as ‘subversive infiltration tactics’. We were out in force. There were paparazzi.  Well, one anyway, presumably on the lookout for a rumpus which, disappointingly, did not transpire while I was doing my civic duty at the polling station.

The upshot? According to the parish web site (oh yes, there is one although you can quite easily end up on the god-botherers’ home page and narrowly miss signing up for the graveyard grass-mowing rota) the Good Burghers of the village thwarted the Silly Burghers by just twenty votes.  We went back to being journalistically immaterial.

[1] That’s the BBC’s The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French, just in case this publication ends up in a time capsule under a bridge.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

‘Soaked Again’

drawing of person and dogs

Ok, you’re getting the hang of it now, Brits really do talk about the weather constantly. This is because it is generally neither insipid nor deeply traumatic but impactful in that must-find-something-that-doesn’t-go-transparent-when-wet sort of way.  British weather is idiosyncratically variable such that prediction is rather more psychic than meteorological and today is no exception. After hurling rain with the consistency of stair rods most of the night and glowering in a hostile manner most of the day, it turns the heat up the moment I hit the fields.

Not that this evaporates the moisture (I say moisture – it’s more like an Olympic swimming pool dangling on threads at knee-height) from the vegetation.  No. Two yards in and I’m soaked from the feet up and the grass is at chest level so now I’m wading through the equivalent of the Thames and gathering enough seeds to keep me in lawn mowing for the better part of this century.

Donovan the Lonely Horse has friends today, both in outdoor kit.  A nod to him (if it still is him, I’m not that great at equine face recognition) and I’m nearly deposited full length over a patch of nettles.  The thing about long grass is that, while the motion is essentially one of wading through water, the behaviour of the medium is not the same at all.  One wrong placement of the left foot clamps the distal end of a clump to the ground and constrains the proximal end under which one’s right foot is now hooked so that an impromptu triple axel is both beautifully executed and irritatingly unappreciated.  The dogs, of course, are simply further convinced of the madness of humans and in that they are not far wrong. After all, I wouldn’t be out there at all if it weren’t for them. 

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

‘Rain’

It’s a Bank Holiday here in UK land – or the fifty-first state as it’s more commonly known.  Fifty-first? Fifty-second?  How would I know, I don’t even know how many counties we’ve got here and you could fit the whole shebang into Central Park with room round the edges for immigration and a dog track.  Although you’d have to find somewhere else for the Scots as they are currently on an independence high and sawing their way along Hadrian’s Wall with a view to casting themselves off[1].

Anyway, Bank Holidays are the times when us Brits arm ourselves with barbeque gear, enough food to feed the massed armies of several small republics, and an optimism that consistently fails to be met by reality.  The heavens open, we are deluged with rain and we retreat indoors with all the neighbourhood kids, their dogs and assorted elderly relatives waiting for the men (or man more often, as his mates are now down the pub) to dash in out of the thunderstorm periodically with unidentifiable, partially singed, and often still bleeding, bits of dead animal.

It didn’t used to be like that.  In fact when we wanted to be wholly dispirited and soaked to the skin in the interests of leisure, we would drive for hours to a coastal town in vehicles held together with string and started with the aid of a large spanner.  There we would sit in shelters on the sea front gazing dismally out at the pounding grey sea and rubbing the blisters caused by the compulsory wearing of plastic sandals.  Soggy tomato sandwiches and tea made at five in the morning from a flask that contributed a vaguely metallic flavour to the contents were something of a highlight as this frugal repast at least distracted the adults from that other traditional activity – yelling at the fractious and justifiably whingeing kids.

When that was all over and we had taken another painful stroll along the seafront for the bracing quality of the air, everyone would pile back in the car for the journey home. Dads would then, as one, leap out again and attack the engine with a spanner and off we would all go in clouds of exhaust fumes back to our home towns; all of which seemed to require exactly the same road for roughly 92% of the journey so that an immense queue would build up and vehicles whose spanners and string had not been up to the job would fall by the wayside.

For children, this was a wonderfully exciting diversion as a breakdown might mean the summoning of an AA Man. These jolly chappies would turn up in motorbike and sidecar and salute to your dad, and was that something to talk about at school or what!  It beat a couple of dead leaves and a beetle on the nature table that’s for sure.  If you were really lucky, you got towed to somewhere exotic like Pocklington or Nafferton and didn’t get home until after midnight.

Today, the Bank Holiday weather is doing its thing so it’s on with the wellies and out with the dogs to encounter people who have come to the countryside with the express intention of not meeting any animals.  Please then, go to CenterParks and sit on the astroturf under a polythene propagation tunnel.

[1] In 2014, they hacked through 42% of the way then got confronted by the English with a crack team of Morris Dancers and went home again.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

‘When We Only Had Radio Luxembourg and Buying a Bulb Was Men’s Work’

drawing 1950s cabinet radioRecently, I felt compelled to add some variety to the sounds escaping the windows and boot of my car when either of these is opened. The neighbours at least will have observed that I’ve had the same cd in the deck for several months and so, clearly, something has to be done about it. Time then to burn a special edition so I crank up the media player, load a blank and start dragging and dropping tracks onto the slate.  But what’s this? No drive?  How can that be?  It was there yesterday, it ripped yesterday, it was acknowledged as a drive yesterday, for all I know Bill Gates himself approved its presence and tickled it under the chin yesterday, but today – zilch!

I check out Help and Support; there are reams of FAQs but nothing that addresses the recapture of errant CD drives. Online then; it’s the drivers maybe.  Nope.  I shout at Media Player but it doesn’t respond, other than to confirm gently, as to a rather dim child, that it needs a CD drive through which to effect the burning of a cd. I resort to tea because that usually shifts something, but not on this occasion. It would appear not even a large mug of Lapsang Souchong is going to persuade it that the drives with which it was wholly acquainted a few short hours ago are still within reach if it would only look.  It’s time for the Shut Down and Restart approach – that’ll teach it. And lo, after a great deal of packing away of programmes, counting its fingers and toes, and then setting out its pens, pencils and blotting paper again, a full set of drives appears on the map with not a squeak of an apology for absence.  That’s half an hour of my life I won’t get back although the tea is always worth having and, under duress, an obligatory biscuit. But most importantly, I am fully equipped in relatively short order with the means to put together a collection of tracks that should last me a good year if I keep the car windows closed[1].

Back in the day, this would have been nothing short of magic and people would have brought you toads in the hope of taking home a bit of Bert Weedon. In the 1960s, the only access to music that wasn’t Joe Loss and his Big Band came via the BBC Light Programme on Sundays when we got two hours of Pick of the Pops to be recorded but never replayed on a reel-to-reel in strict silence with absolutely no visits to the loo in case the flush became forever embedded in Mike Sarne’s Come Outside.

Alternatively, there was Radio Luxembourg which transmitted in the evenings but, with your parents generally monopolising the one piece of equipment in the house, could only be heard at youth clubs.  These palaces of entertainment; offering table tennis and possibly a quick snog if anyone suitable turned up, often boasted a wooden cabinet the size of Oswestry out of which scratchy bursts of melody would be coughed as the frequency wafted in and out of range.  These devices would also heat up during the course of the evening, usually as the strength of the signal improved, so that they would suddenly expire with a kind of pfff and an alarming spark as accompaniment.  The trick was to turn them off mid-evening in the hope that, when switched back on again later, you would have made it up the chart past Pat Boone and arrived at a bit of Elvis before the bulb went.

Yes, bulb. Lord knows what bulbs were doing in those things but they were clearly of the incendiary type rather than the sort whereby, if you hang about long enough, you get daffodils.  If they blew, arcane rituals were activated that usually involved a visit to a small, unlit retail outlet up a side street and housing a bloke in a brown warehouse coat.  Only men were inducted into these rituals although, in the absence of sons, daughters may be granted access, a socially risky strategy that necessitated some introductory butch language on the part of the Dad so as to establish proper credibility with the shop owner. It was a lengthy ritual. By the time the dead bulb had been inspected by everyone present, a grubby dog-eared book of serial numbers consulted and the order finally placed to be collected in – well, let’s see, it’ll be coming from Hull tha knows – Elvis had fallen off the toilet and the Beatles had invented colour.

[1] This has been superseded by iThings that plug into your car’s radio and could keep you entertained from Brighton to Bangalore with tracks you no longer recognise because you only played them once before downloading them from iTunes.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

‘Ye Gods’

cartoon drawing wet catOkay, you win, I APOLOGISE you pestiferous, pea-brained, gnat-witted, god of Excessive Precipitation.  Clearly I have upset this cloven-hoofed repository of extreme grandiosity by suggesting that the British weather really didn’t do anything terribly exciting, just got damp a lot so that we’re always obliged to carry raincoats.  By way of vengeance, he, she or it has taken it upon themselves to dump somebody else’s monsoon on us so that parts of the country got a month’s worth of rain in twenty four hours.

Now you’d think that, this being an island, the excess would just run off the edge into the sea, leaving us with some nice green fields and a bit less dust, but no; instead it heads for a High Street Near You and fills it up to the gunnels (or the Aga if you’re from the Home Counties), leaving old ladies sitting on their roofs waiting for the fire brigade to turn up in a boat. Most are seemingly taking it as it comes, or at least the ones considered fit to provide a sound bite for reporters, who are also trapped and have little else to do but gather commentary.  Naturally, we don’t hear the interviews that start So how difficult has it been sitting in your Ford Fiesta for fifteen hours with three kids under seven and your Grandad whose marbles are currently absent without official leave?  Presumably the reporter daft enough to go down that route is picking his teeth out of his shirt and consulting his PDA[1] for the whereabouts of a cosmetic surgeon.

Fortunately we’re not on flood alert here although there is a river nearby and there was an occasion when the entire community was trapped in the village by twenty yards of water that had failed to drain away from one of the two roads out of the main residential area.  The fact that many of the residents of that road had moved their cars to the other available road and blocked it seemed to escape everyone’s attention and the council got an ear-bashing for its negligence in clearing the offending drain. That’s democracy for you.

Trevor Baylis, the delightfully dotty inventor of the wind-up radio (by which I mean the radios you wind up to make work, not the ones that wind you up and stop you from working), lives on an island in the middle of the Thames where flooding is clearly a regular thing. Trevor’s got it taped though: his sockets, hand-painted dark green to match the walls but with white plugs and cables attached, are sited at waist height, and there are odd little wooden contraptions that clip across the bottom of the doors.  The piece de resistance is a raised concrete area outside the house upon which chairs and tables have been placed in the manner of a front garden.  It is painted grass green, and neatly demonstrates the distinction between capacity for invention and any sort of design sense. With any luck, Laurence Llewellyn Bowen[2] will be round sharpish to splash on some terracotta masonry paint and construct an emergency lifeboat out of MDF and some tastefully positioned appliqué motifs with a naval theme.

Meanwhile, I will knit water-wings for the cats and fit them each with a dorsal fin with a satnav in it.

 

[1] Personal Digital Assistant. It’s what we had before iThings.

[2] Remember the BBC’s Changing Rooms with all that flounce and MDF?

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

Not Being First Fish

drawing of fishA wasp drops onto the pond, flails about a bit in an unequal struggle with the surface tension and, GLOMP! A fish snaps it up and disappears.  Then – Splash! Thrash! PWARGH! Wasp floats to the surface, not so lively but still kicking.  Another fish eyes it up.  GLOMP! Then PWARGH!  And back comes the wasp, this time with distinctly critical vital signs.  Fish Number Three approaches, gets a bead on its profile and GLOMP! Fish disappears. I wait.  No regurgitation; this wasp is being recycled. To recycle a wasp, it’s smart to be Third Fish.

 

Title story from Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

Edited 10th September to replace image with new version.

‘Ye Gods!’

Trevor Baylis, the delightfully dotty inventor of the wind-up radio (by which I mean the radios you wind up to make work, not the ones that wind you up and stop you from working), lives on an island in the middle of the Thames where flooding is clearly a regular thing. Trevor’s got it taped though: his sockets, hand-painted dark green to match the walls but with white plugs and cables attached, are sited at waist height, and there are odd little wooden contraptions that clip across the bottom of the doors.  The piece de resistance is a raised concrete area outside the house upon which chairs and tables have been placed in the manner of a front garden.  It is painted grass green, and neatly demonstrates the distinction between capacity for invention and any sort of design sense.

Excerpt from Not Being First Fish, by P Spencer Beck, 2015

‘Not Being First Fish – and other diary dramas’

fish and titleThe truth, the half truth, or nothing like the truth? It depends, says the pseudonymous author, on whether you recognise yourself. But if you didn’t leave the gate open to cavorting cattle on a rural bridge, or become unsettlingly aroused at the sight of a Saab, you’re probably ok. You can find it on Amazon (UK and US) Barnes and Noble, and also eBayChildishly grown up.