That joke isn’t funny anymore

“I have been nominated to post 180 Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform tablets that profoundly influenced me, at any point in my life. One each day, for 180 days. I was instructed to post each tablet without explanation”

Day 1

I know it’s supposed to be ‘without comment’ but I’m sure you’re itching to know more about me, especially my thousands of new followers. This neo-Babylonian list of expenditures, probably from Sippar, Mesopotamia (modern Tell Abu Habba) takes me right back to spending several sleepless nights researching coffee machines. I eventually settled on a Gaggia Classic (pre 2015 model with the solenoid valve). Of course I modded it with an after-market Rancilio steam wand. Happy days.

Day 2

This tablet from Warka in Iraq (from the collection of the NY Meteopolitan Museum of Art) is an administrative account concerned with the distribution of barley and emmer. I have to confess I didn’t know what emmer is, embarrassingly enough. I’m sure the rest of you are aware that it’s an ancient grain, and with the explosion in baking during the lockdown (we’ve even bought a Kitchenaid mixer!) I’m sure there are plenty of people enjoying emmer loaves with their breakfast this very morning, now that esoteric flours have been made readily available by the likes of Dove’s Farm (though I see they’re out of stock of their whole meal emmer flour at the moment). Anyway, I digress, because what this tablet really brings to mind is my childhood breakfast ritual. I had to use the shallow white rimmed bowl which was a perfect fit for three Weetabix to lie flat, side by side. The spoon had to be the rounded one with the dimpled decoration on the handle-end and the silver plating largely rubbed off the inside of the spoon-bowl, showing the warm (brass?) metal underneath. It was used first to sprinkle a decent layer of sugar across the three biscuits, then it was essential to have an unopened bottle of milk so that I could pour the creamy top of the milk over the middle Weetabix before moving first to the one on its left, then the one to its right, before eating in the reverse direction to the milk pour.

Day 3

This tablet from the collection of the British Museum (not currently on display) was found by the remarkable polymath, Sir Austen Henry Layard, at Kuyunjik, near Mosul. Layard is also credited with discovering the site of the biblical Ninevah, and believed that the Syriac Christian communities were descended from the ancient Assyrians who would have produced this tablet (which is particularly distinguished by being bilingual in Sumerian and Akkadian). One wonders what he made of its content, which the museum catalogue describes as: “incantations against the evil ‘asakku’ demon, which together with many other malevolent forces has attacked the sufferer in the head. The first spell describes its evil effects, and the second is recited over a kid, as a substitute to which the evil is transferred so that it can be effectively banished.” As a keen comparative religionist he must surely have been struck by the parallels with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I’m not sure that I have ever been attacked in the head by a demon, though, conversely, I was once ‘slain in the Spirit’ at a Mission England crusade in Barnoldswick in 1984. At least that was what I believed to be happening at the time. When I hit the deck (assisted by a couple of volunteers enjoined to catch slayees as we fell) I recall wondering how long was a seemly time to remain prostrate in order to avoid scandalising the faithful by appearing less than suitably zapped, given that any supernatural effects appeared to have worn off somewhere between the vertical and the horizontal. I had expected to be seeing visions of glory or something, but the cracked paint on the ceiling of the former Majestic cinema failed to resolve into the form of the face of my Lord, or any other edifying manifestation.In due course, I would come to conclude that Catholics had the right idea by employing experts in the power of the ocular such as Michaelangelo to ensure that ceilings, where appropriate, should convey a more reliable sense of the numinous, regardless of the emotional state of the viewer.

Day 4

I’ve skipped a (Welsh) couple of days, I think. And I’m vanishingly unlikely to make it to the full 180 tablets. Yet I haven’t thrown the towel into a laundry bin of self loathing. Yet. Must be all the mindfulness self-care stuff that Spotify has been throwing at me.

So, here we are with this delightful tablet from the John Rylands Library collection in Manchester, which includes a very rare example of a building-plan on clay. The assumption is that it’s the plan of a temple, and it includes captions giving the lengths and thicknesses of the walls. The outer walls are three cubits thick, and the inner, two cubits, which strikes me as quite hefty (though I haven’t delved too deeply into mural architecture). I suppose they didn’t want their gods to escape. Given that surviving reliefs from Sumerian and Akkadian temples show them doing stuff like chasing dragons around with thunderbolts, I suppose that shows a degree of prudence that is also spoken to by the very survival of so many cuneiform tablets, most of which detail contracts for the transfer of oxen and the like that it’s frankly difficult to get too excited about (though I am now working on it).

When it comes to religious buildings it is probably elevations that hold more interest for me than plans, and in any case if you get high enough you can see the horizontal shape spread out below, as well as how the building relates to its wider environment. In 1988 towards the end of my first trip abroad, Inter-railing with Angela, I scaled the 533 steps to the top of the world’s third highest church, Cologne Cathedral, and looked out over the Europe we were leaving behind. I have climbed 7/8 of the way to the top of Durham cathedral tower with Katie, only for her to bottle out and refuse to go any further; Ed & I took turns to wait with her in a little niche off the spiral stairs so we could at least have a quick look out from the top, and see the Wear loop its way 270 degrees around the city like a gated moat.

But the most memorable time atop an ecclesiastical structure, at least with the benefit of the hindsight that is memory, was on the unassuming roof of Pusey House in Oxford. I was up there with Nick Penfold during a break in preparations for our college production of Murder in the Cathedral that was to be performed in the chapel. I was co-directing, and Nick set-building. We had been loaned keys that got us to places not normally accessible, including the roof, so up we went and got a view of our college that not many would have had, over the top of Vinson Block into the quad. Nick was a good friend. A really good friend. Not long before, I’d spent much of the Easter vacation at his home in Hale Barns. A few short years later, he got his first proper post-graduation job as a writer of technical manuals (the important bit was ‘writer’), bought a motorbike, and rode it up the M6 towards a wedding in Scotland where he never arrived. Nick’s death was when I discovered what grief was. Is there a height from which he looks down and sees the plan I can’t? We’d both had similar Christian conversion experiences and involvement in evangelical groups in our teens. We’d both lain on our backs on a summer night in Wellington Square drinking cider and concluding we could no longer be sure.

But I’m with Thomas Hardy, and his oxen: hoping it might be so.

Thursday’s Child

After a year-long hiatus because of the arrival of our foster girls, this academic year I got back to my part-time Creative Writing MA course at Swansea University. One of the modules I’m doing this semester is ‘Writing the Self’. In the first session last week one activity we were asked to do was to take a decade in your life and write it about in sentences of no more than three words. Then the homework was to take an aspect of that piece and write it up in around 1,000 words. The segment I chose was: “Thursday’s are dad’s. He parcels news. Busses it away.”

I held dad’s hand at the bus-shelter, shielding my eyes from the sun, looking south towards the Sough Bridge bend in the A56, waiting for the X43 ‘White Lady’ from Manchester to curl into view. Even for the intellectually curious, childhood is an unsceptical place and I didn’t wonder until much later why the poppy-red double-decker carried that name, the  cream coaches with a cherry stripe having been repainted in Ribble Motor Service’s standard red a little before my living memory.

As the bus bobbed and wallowed towards us, dad stuck out a superfluous arm, as if the slowing vehicle might crawl past us, its double folding doors obstinately closed, if he didn’t formally hail it. I let go of his other hand and stuck my arm out too, copying him in the universal language of filial piety. In his outstretched hand he held a brown paper package, tied with string, about the size of a couple of paperback books of the type he didn’t read. It was addressed, in thick black pen, Craven Herald, High Street, Skipton. No stamps.

In a hiss of hydraulics the bus dipped to a halt, its eye-round headlamps glancing back up as the doors furled open in a feat of mechanical origami; dad stepped a foot onto the wide platform, propping the parcel against the chrome retaining rail on the shelf by the windscreen. “To be met off the bus at Skipton”, he announced in a familiar and invariant formula, pronouncing‘bus’ as if he’d been slapped on the back while saying it, the vowel strangled like those he used when ordering ‘hem and iggs’ in the cafes I thought were posh but weren’t. “A’reight Jack,” nodded the driver, combining salutation, valediction and phatic query.

The bus shushed back to life and sailed off, its sweetish tang of diesel exhaust fading into the honeyish base note of laburnum. We walked the three garden widths back to our little drive -a grand name for a parking spot that could fit two cars but rarely needed to. On the way I plucked a fuchsia from the spill of pinky-red belling over Mrs Carlisle’s front wall, and sucked its purple tube, relishing the minuscule hit of sweetness amid the astringent plantiness.Dad opened the car door, got in, leaned across, and opened the door on my side. Just the two of us on these Thursdays, so I got to ride in front. I’d had a toy steering wheel for Christmas, with a little squeaky horn and stalks for the blinkers and windscreen wipers, but its rubber sucker wouldn’t stick to the dimply plastic of the dash, so I wedged it between my knees, best I could, and sat, my eyes level with the glove compartment, the seatbelt hanging uselessly limp across my neck, waiting to garrotte me should the worst happen. There were no inertia reel tensioners until we got the fancy red ‘Caledonian’ model, last of the Hillman Imps, a year or so later. This one did have the fancy metallic paint though. It was called ‘Silver Moss’ (I had the paint sample card from when dad picked the car up in Barlick) though Pondweed Green might have been a fairer description. “A nice little pedal car”, my brother Iain had called it, leaning through from the back when seven of us had crammed into it for its first trip out, me on mum’s lap and the other four kids (Jackie now married and John away at college) on the back bench seat meant for two.

Now, dad crunched the car into reverse, leaned unencumberedly round, his left arm across the back of my seat, right hand guiding the wheel, and backed us out of the drive, into the road opposite the park gates and we drove past the Portland stone cenotaph in the direction the bus had gone a few moments earlier. We’d pass it, waiting at Earby bus station, as we headed up towards Stoney Bank Road, past grandma’s, then over the tops to do the weekly shop at Morrisons in Keighley, my only other connection with the town being that, by happenstance, I’d been born there four and a half years earlier.

Thursday was dad’s day off. His work was parcelled up on that bus: a wedge of off-white copy-paper, with the occasional hole punched out by an over-aggressive letter ‘O’, typed up with all the news of interest, and a good proportion of none, that had come to his notice (and his notice had considerable gravitational pull) in West Craven in the week up to that morning. He was often still clattering away on the typewriter to ensure some last minute scoop was filed as the White Lady breached the Yorkshire/Lancashire boundary just up the road, then a rapid bit of boy-scout knot-work with the parcel string and the nearest dad came to breaking into a run, ensuring his weekly dispatch got those few yards to the bus in time for its journey to the Herald in Skipton. There his copy would be edited, typeset on great clattering monotype machines, and cast in hot metal before the press ran through Thursday night to get the paper across the Yorkshire Dales and onto the newsstands by Friday morning.

And now, I’m writing about dad writing; following in his footsteps you might say. But I wouldn’t. Yes, dad’s living depended on him getting words on paper, but he would never have thought of himself as a writer. Or at least if he was a writer, it was in the same way that a surgeon is a tailor: there’s scissors, needle and thread involved, but that’s not really the point. Yes, I can say that dad was a journalist, but he never used that term. He was a reporter. And I can’t be sure, even here, writing the so-called self, that I am.

In memory of Auntie Shirley

I’m in the back seat of dad’s car on the way to school. Mum is in the front passenger seat, and to my left, in the back, a blue biro slowly and meticulously draws a simple flower on the plain page of a notebook. A round centre grows a series of identical ovoid petals. 

It seemed odd, a grown-up doing this childish thing (I would now say childlike – a huge and significant difference). Later, discovering that Auntie Shirley did yoga, I realised that she must have been practising what we would now called mindfulness, long before the shops filled with colouring books for adults, and smartphones put meditation in our pockets. These simple flowers were mandalas, I suppose. While she was slowly drawing those flowers, Auntie Shirley wasn’t smiling. Her absorption seemed too intense for any signal of feeling directed outwards. I think, though, that these morning journeys on her way to the playgroup that mum ran with Auntie Shirley were the only times that I recall her without a smile on her face. It was a smile that seemed largely oblivious to things that make most of us smile, coming from within, rather than triggered by outside stimulus. Most of us smile when we see, or think of something that makes us happy, contented, loved. Auntie Shirley’s unwavering smile expressed her resolute facing towards happiness, contentment, love and making those things happen in the lives of those she was caring for. Whatever strong serenity she drew from her  yoga and meditation, and from her Christian prayer and worship, she carried into her work and relationships. I recall a strident preacher in the days of my evangelical fervour once describe yoga as ‘a landing pad for satan.’ What nonsense. Too many people have been wounded and made to despise faith by that kind of exclusionary dogma. Auntie Shirley, like mum, saw, I believe, the best in everyone and every thing, and gently drew that best out even from places where it was determined to remain hidden. She had the kind of faith that gently, undemonstratively, embraces those who can’t embrace it for themselves. 

52233472Picture from Pendle Today (https://www.pendletoday.co.uk/news/a-double-diamond-celebration-1-7151285)

Auntie Shirley was not my ‘real’ auntie. As was common back then, any adult friends of mum and dad were ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, and Auntie Shirley and Uncle Doug might as well have been family for the part they played in my life. Auntie Shirley was a central and much loved part of my upbringing in the little playgroup in grandad’s old terraced house in Barlick, where she was half of such a marvellous partnership with mum. She continued to be a loving and interested part of my life as I moved through school, away to university, marriage and family. Christmas cards continued to come every year, shamefully unreciprocated, until eventually one change of address too many meant they eventually no longer arrived (though it wouldn’t surprise me if they were still being sent). On increasingly rare visits home, when I saw Auntie Shirley at church events and then the funerals of mum and, much later, dad, that full-faced smile was always there. People age, of course, and die, but somehow real smiles, the ones from within, born of love, stay the same so Auntie Shirley, even though she has now gone to her rest, has always seemed somehow ageless to me. That smile, shining with love, and hope, and faith, and care will be carried by all of us who were fortunate to have been known by her, and passed on to those we care for in our turn.

 

 

End of a sensing

Rain lashed at the window then changed its mind. Stillness fell into the nothing happening moments where we are just waiting for the things we have to do. Hours can be filled with talk when they are leading to more hours. When they about a parting, it’s all about, if anything, what’s the combination for the key safe, what time’s your onward train, yes, I’ve got my passport.

Food we thought we’d want but didn’t sits on the table with one of us eating some of it, but not much. How did you sleep? Not bad. Off and on. (Rubbish, really – same effect as the night before we came, different cause: anticipation has home advantage for me.)

At the bus stop, I see my first Icelandic police officer. An American is being invited to stay some extra time, in prison, if he likes. He explains, patiently, as if to an uncomprehending idiot, that he just got into an argument with his friends and laid one of them out. ‘It was like that’ – he bangs one fist into the other palm’ – ‘you can ask anyone here’, he gestures to the crowd pretending not to pay attention.

Iceland offers its brief farewell of lashing hail in the few yards from bus to terminal doors. The rest is the international language of airports: (even more) overpriced coffee, made-in-China fluffy-toy nods to where you’ve been. I buy a puffin and a lamb with an Iceland-flag foot for the girls. Then the liturgy of queuing, people watching, and nodding back to your phone if you accidentally catch someone’s glance.

Then the smallest part of the journey. That insignificant distance over an ocean, strapped to a hurtling chair.

Forememberance

In Hólavallagarður the snow-covered graves have a curious air of comfort where I’d expected only melancholy. Everything is rounded and mounded. A double tomb looks like a settee, its occupants, Þorbjörg and Snorri, reclining in comfortable oblivion behind an orange glowstick cross. A pair of birds tweet in the white laden branches. Fairy lights twinkle in a miniature glasshouse. The no longer living are more present here than their people among whom they rest, scrunching past in their buses, swatting snow from their cars, buying their breakfast bakery.

We had set off in a snowstorm for the Catholic Cathedral, skirting hidden pavement to tread in Wenceslas tyre tracks. I hammered the bell in the yard, padded steaming into the narthex then kneeling before the crib said a prayer I tried to believe, hoping it might be so.

After the graveyard, coffee in an old theatre, three languid cups, laced with comfort; coats hats gloves swaling on radiators.

Heading out again, the day has turned, the magic of snow given way to the low trickery of slush and sleet. Feet planted in remaining snow find ice, rain runs fast in tyre-track rivers, and rolling tyres spew arcs of spray. We stoop, rain leg sodden, up Skólavörðustígur, wind threatening our footing, to Hallgrimskirkja. There, we are drenched in delight: a choir of wool-sweatered teenagers fill the slender grey-blue vault with a beauty as strong as its delicacy.

We know, I think, not to expect more. The slither down to Harpa’s glass and light is less conjunction than annotation. Good work, it says. You chose well. That’s enough.

The last leg back to the apartment, slush seeping through lace holes and wicking up trouser legs seconds the assessment. Stay in. Being is as good as doing. Enjoying memories is the reward for making them. Remembering them is the price for what passed.

Lying here in bed, rain slaps the rooflight, and somewhere, not far, fireworks keep the year new.

From the unlight

Twilight, gloaming, dusk. All of these seem redolent of evening, and this mid-morning barely light does indeed feel like nightfall. The clock makes it clear it’s getting lighter but my eyes are little convinced. Still, we could do with a word for the light of a morning reluctant to stretch out and shrug off the night.

We woke up into what felt like dead of night. Traffic moving on the ring road and and an advent calendar of lights in the apartments opposite betrayed the time.

On the bus, there is for a time no sky and no land. The brain insists on pale gray clouds and white snow, but much of the time an honest look sees one undifferentiated plane, slowly slowly increasing in luminosity. That word too doesn’t feel right. There is nothing about this light that the word luminous connotes. It is a barely perceptible paring away of darkness to reveal that there is no longer nothing.

Then, some quite sudden realisations. There is a subtle variegation in the clouds. Then a line of clouds doubles itself. Then, the lower line of clouds is the ridge of a fell. The snow plain unfolds into ridges and rills. Shadowing in the snow suggests things beneath: ripples of rock, tufts of turf? It won’t tell us yet. What is small and what is far away?

A bank of cloud pulls back. A stadium roof letting in real light that comes from above rather than the strange non-glow that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

Then sunrise, and everything in the -8 degree air is in ultra high definition. Orange-pink-plum clouds scatter above low ridges, pockets of spruce, and the flags, frozen lake, cemetery and church of Þingvellir. Fingers exposed to click and swipe warn with rapid pain that soon they won’t work and don’t want to be lost.

Then, those few hours of limpid daylight. Geysers and gulleys floodlit and spotlit simultaneously. A half moon is staking its claim for equality. It will get more than that, but not yet. Yes, it’s a rush from site to site, next Geysir then Gullfos. They’re tourist traps, sure, but then we are tourists, eager to be snared by beauty. Chosen for us, yes, but not without good reason.

At Gamla Laugin, my showered hair freezes within seconds of stepping into the pool’s absurd warmth. After a few minutes I walk round the edge, through bubbling and spitting ponds and the scalding streamlets that feed the pool. It’s -10. My feet feel as alive as they ever have, every nerve receptor alert to danger, my head reassuring them of the return to 37 degree comfort soon. Clouds of sulphur-scented steam are apricotted by the last of sunlight waving from behind the horizon, handing over to the brilliance of the orange lit glasshouses that feed Iceland and gild its darkness with space-age sparkles scattered across valleys on the sleepy drive back to Reykjavik.

To the Land of Ice

3am. On the road, on the motorway, wondering where the light that’s too early for dawn is coming from. Impossible to tell if the clouds are illuminated from below, above or within. The pale ochre eye of Sauron over Swansea. A wash of barely luminous cloud giving way to Blackness above the tunnel of road lighting, clear up close, but snaking to a ribbon of ghostly haze ahead, around the Newport junctions that might have leaked, along with smear of dock and industry to the lowering slabs of sky. A wide flat curve swinging strings of coastal sodium and blue-white led across the horizon below the unblinking red eyes of the second Severn bridge crossing’s piers.

9am. It should be aeroplanes they call ‘the tube’. Slotted in, we cigar the sky, held up by wings that don’t seem joined on enough; that made, before we took off, weird mechanical noises like most vehicles no longer do, scaring a little bit more those fellow passengers who do fear. Occasionally it bumps and jolts. I can’t see out. I can’t feel the forward momentum. Head lolling, eyes closed, I could be on rutted road or unriveted rail but for the rushing off-white noise in the middle of my head, just below the music in my earphones: a minimalist drone by Star Transit – Not quite.

9:50 Landing. Smooth-ish wheels, but wind-swung tail yaws the tube around the landing/gear’s axis. We stop with a clinking of seat-belt clasps. A chill squeezes through the bodies squirming to leave. It grabs my right hip, edging off the seat. Welcome to Iceland, it grins.

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10:50 The bus rolls languidly along a road that would be car-strewn and closed back home. The sun is a distant acquaintance of the clouds. It’s morning, the sun hasn’t even risen yet, but it feels as though it’s already been and gone, leaving faint footprints of light that gloam on the wind-dust snow settled on rills over the dunes – or is it moraine and till? I’ll look it up – that hunch against the flat-ironed sea.

A guy next to a van hits the ground repeatedly with some kind of pole. I’ve no idea what he’s doing, and this is not the kind of landscape or climate to invite idle conjecture. Whatever it is, it’s important and nothing to do with me. Every human activity and artefact here looks as though it exists only as the product of intense and earnest planning and effort. Go to hot countries and everything, from gleaming mall to squalid shack to twisting vine and palmm grove looks as though it was, or could have been, just slung together anyhow and it would work, kind of. And if not, it could just crumble or overgrow, and no matter. Here, even the vergeside LED advertising board, which will be the brightest thing I see all day, looks as though it was sternly muscled into place at risk of frostbite and fracture. We will live here like ordinary folk, it says. You came here for geysers and glaciers? Well good for you: get on the bus. Our work is done. We’ll be in Starbucks. In our shirt sleeves, because we can.

In between days

All is liminal in the going-up-midnight under-the-covers space where a looked and longed for break and a broached and breaking deadline interfere.

My mind is full of what I haven’t done instead of embracing what I will.

(Nonetheless, thankfully, I will.

New year, new something

One of the pieces of advice I would have done well to heed, but haven’t, is: Write something every day. New Years’ Eve is as bad a day as any to commit myself to the inevitable failure attendant on pursuing such a resolution, so here goes. My ambition wants me to write at length, so to avoid o’erleaping I must be brief. The fear of falling on the the other side has kept me from vaulting. My sides are pricked by being just seconds away from a new decade, but all I feel is the smart, not the surge. Yet here nevertheless are a few words.

(That’s something. 

Poem of the North 3.3

There are, of course, many ways of dealing with the breaks after the 8th and 10th lines imposed by the 8-2-1 brief given to Poem of the North contributors, but I think there’s a case to be made that prolific poet, biographer, and founder of Rack Press,  Nicholas Murray has used the form as well as any. The shifts in tone from the light (but sharply focussed) nostalgia of the first eight lines to the darker self-knowledge of the couplet, and the sardonic twist of the final short line, are finely-tuned and compelling.

I don’t think I realised until writing about it now, how closely my own piece shadows (however palely) the form and tone of Nicholas’s. I’ve struggled before, as I think I’ve mentioned, with how to render the cadences and linguistic differences from standard English of regional varieties without it seeming inadvertantly comic, but here I felt liberated to ‘go for it’ because it’s intentionally exaggerated, although hopefully with a jagged (or jiggered?) undertow.

I was tempted to provide a glossary, but hopefully there’s no real need. If there are any dialect words or meanings you’re unsure of – well, these days you can look them up online more-or-less like any other word (though be careful to read past the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for ‘teacake’ if you wind up there). You may want to check on back-to-backs, though. The narrator of Jigger seems to me to have voiced a common misconception that they are terraces with their back yards opposite each other across an alley/jigger/ginnel/jennel and so on (take your regional pick). If I’ve misunderstood, well never mind – it’s provided a bit of grist to my poetic mill.

We kicked on doors an’ all on mischief neight,
burrit were ginnels that we scarpered dewn
at ‘ends o’ terraces. Back-to-backs ‘ad long sin’
bin teared dewn, but they din’t have nor yards
any road up: they cou’n’t ‘ave, cos, well —
they were back-to-back, tha daft ‘aporth!
An’ did yer all scoff spice while yer were laikin’,
‘before havin’ butties in ‘teacakes yer mums were bakin’?

Nay. O’ course yer din’t. But that’s not right.
A rose, by any other name, and all of that.

Our word games turn  so easily     to spite.

(I suspect I may be the daft ‘aporth, though, with a ‘volta’ whose ambition o’er reaches itself and falls on the other side…