Tablet 6

Keen eyed readers, of whom there is at least one, will have noticed that I’m not partial to keeping to the rules of these ‘challenges’ and today I deviate yet further, for this is not a clay tablet, but a stone inscription. The Behistun inscription, located in what is now western Iran. It is often known as the cuneiform ‘Rosetta Stone’, a comparison which itself betrays the imperialism that places Western culture as the norm against which others are measured (and invariably found wanting). It is a trilingual inscription, in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian), and was instrumental to archaeologists in deciphering cuneiform script. As a not wholly irrelevant aside, the picture below (By KendallKDown – From my own collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8751106) shows damage to the inscription apparently caused by British soldiers using it for target practice during the Second World War.

What made it possible to decipher cuneiform was placing it alongside contrasting scripts in the same context and then comparing them with other scripts from different contexts. The diversity between the scripts is as important as their commonality. So, diversity is important.

In a previous post I mentioned Dominic Cummings’ most recent blog post, which is effectively a job advert for government advisors to join his team, and his frequent use of the first person suggests that he really does think of it as his team: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit — don’t complain later because I made it clear now” he says, after already making clear that he will be avoiding “the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire)”. There’s impressive doublethink in seeking out ‘weirdos and misfits’ then indulging in a bit of macho posturing about ‘binning’ them if they don’t – erm – ‘fit’, but anyway. It sounds as though he’s aiming for some ’sock it to the man’ subversion of unwieldy and oppressive power structures there. Perhaps that’s the tone he’s aiming at. Except that now he is the man. And I’m not entirely convinced that tearing up a rule book designed to ensure fairness and equity in recruitment and employment practices is quite the way to go about ensuring diversity and fresh-thinking at the heart of the government machine (even if it may in places have ended up unnecessarily cumbersome, unwieldy and not wholly effective at achieving its aims). Because Cummings is all about diversity.

So long as it is his kind of diversity. So long as it is diversity within remarkably constrained parameters. He spells out fairly clearly what he means: “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.” Ooh – you can fairly hear the grinding of his teeth, and see the imprint of his nails against the palms of his clenched fists. ‘Babbling’, ‘drivel’ – the contempt is palpable. As so often the idea is rooted in potentially fertile soil, but the plant it has produced has mutated into something ugly, poisonous even. The logic, as far as I can find it, goes something like: studies have consistently found that the ‘performance’ of ‘teams’ has no strong correlation to diversity in categories such as gender and ethnicity, but is strongly correlated with diversity of ‘knowledge processing’ and ‘perspective’. This is summarised in a Harvard Business Review article (https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse):

 “Knowledge processing: the extent to which individuals prefer to consolidate and deploy existing knowledge, or prefer to generate new knowledge, when facing new situations

Perspective: the extent to which individuals prefer to deploy their own expertise, or prefer to orchestrate the ideas and expertise of others, when facing new situations.”

I can’t help wondering about the limited range of knowledge that can be called upon, and the restricted perspectives of ‘others’ whose ideas and expertise can be drawn upon if other aspects of identity than the purely cognitive are dismissed with no more than a petulant “blah blah”. 

I can, however, see all too clearly the effects of ignoring, dismissing, belittling, and indeed oppressing and violating  those whose ‘diversity’ doesn’t fit  (or even ‘misfit’) into the mechanisms that reproduce political and economic power. But then I suppose I would say that as one of those “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties.” No wonder he doesn’t want any of us to apply. 

Yes: Fragile

I was undecided if and where Yes should appear in this list. I clearly didn’t get the memo that punk was supposed to have swept away everything that came before and in my early to mid teens I returned to my brother’s record collection, and began building on, and branching from, his taste by buying albums of my own. 

There were other acts of broadly the same time period and genre that might be less potentially cringeworthy to name here. For example The Strawbs were less pompous and more politically aware, while Jethro Tull had a wild-eyed strangeness that arguably has a more direct line to things I came to enjoy later. Quite why Yes were my prog outfit of choice, I’m not sure. I don’t think there is any time or place that they can have been regarded as cool. Okay: maybe that’s why. 

Moving from  mixed comprehensive to school to a boy’s grammar that was lost in time, just as pimply testosterone awkwardness kicked in may have had something to do with it. “I was into Yes when I was your age,” Charlie Tickner, our Biology teacher admitted when he saw the Roger Dean designed Yes logo meticulously graffitied on my exercise book. I read Tolkien and the Runestaff books of Michael Moorcock (but never made what might have been more credible leap from there to Hawkwind) and copied the style of Jon Anderson’s fey and faux fabula in my English lesson compositions for Boggy Morton, and copying the fantasy art style of Roger Dean (cf. a recent post) in art lessons and at the home of my friend Jonas who had an actual airbrush!. My brother only had a few Yes albums, but I spent my pocket money buying up the rest, mainly from John Phillip’s in Skipton, and I remember getting ‘Close to the Edge’ from a record shop on the edge of a market square somewhere (maybe Kendal?) on  a day-trip somewhere with mum and dad. The inner sleeve had the lyrics reproduced and my own handwriting changed overnight as I copied Roger Dean’s style, and from then on for years would always write with a narrow calligraphic nabbed fountain pen and write my d’s with a curved rightward flick from the ascender. 

By the time I really got into them, Yes had already disbanded (though they would later reform in various configurations I have had little interest in (if a band employs the singer of a tribute band to replace their singer, are they the same band or have they become their own tribute act? It’s a conundrum to make the Thesuss’s ship problem seem simple), and I felt a sense almost as palpable as grief that I’d been born too late to see them live. I remember my brother going to see them on the ‘Drama’ tour when Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had been improbably replaced by The Buggles, and although I sensed that line-up was not really the Yes I loved, I still felt a crushing envy that he’d seen many of their best songs played live. 

It was post-punk indie music and its culture, spearheaded by John Peel on late night Radio 1, rather than punk itself that saw off, for a time, my love of Yes (or anything vaguely in the same generic ball-park), but as I got older and the importance of musical tribalism ebbed, and broadcasters I respected such as Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 and Stuart Maconie on 6 Music rehabilitated prog in general and Yes in particular as having a valid place in a musical history that no longer needed a year zero, I was able to return to Yes and to some of the bands they had led me to (I have a particular soft spot for Caravan’s ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’, bought in Cardiff one teenage summer when I was staying with my sister, Jill), and to discover some of the interesting prog tentacles I was only dimly aware of at the time, perhaps from listening in the bath to Tommy Vance’s ‘Friday Rock’ show: such as Goblin, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, and the whole Krautrock scene in both its ‘space-rock’, electronic and motorik forms: Faust, Amon Duul, Can, Neu!, Tangerine Dream. I can also see something of a connection between the long form intricacy of Yes’s classic prog and much ‘post-rock’ that I came to adore, and the fragility of Jon Anderson’s strained high register vocals finds an echo for me in some of my favourite vocalists of more recent times: Jonsi of Sigur Ros, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Jonathan Higgs of Everything Everything (although I’m not very musically literate, the ‘art rock’ characterised by the latter seems to be a fairly direct successor of prog with its intricate musicianship and and shifts of tempo and key.)

What I regard as the ‘classic’ Yes line-up toured for the band’s 35th anniversary in 2004 and fortunately my good friend (and, in large measure, musical mentor) Donald had followed a similar musical path to me, so we bought tickets. It ended up coinciding with a scout camp that my son Edward was due to attend, and so that I didn’t have to make the choice between them, Donald drove down to pick me up at the camp, I left Ed with other parents that I knew for the evening, and over two decades after I’d forlornly thought my dream of seeing Yes was over, I got to see them in their native habitat of a packed arena, complex with bombastic Roger Dean designed staging, before Donald drove me back through the night to a dark tent and a sleeping six-year old in the small hours of the morning. Yes’s setlist that night had three songs from ‘Fragile’ – the most from any single album – and that seems to be the best representative of their output for me, still carrying echoes of the psychedelia in which the band were formed, before they had developed the full-on pretentiousness that makes them easy to laugh-off, so that’s the album cover (Roger Dean, of course, his first for the band) you see below. Nevertheless, I will still defend ‘Tales from  Topograpic Oceans’ until, well, until I admit within seconds that it’s a pile of ridiculous pompous overblown bollocks. But I still love it. 

Outside of my ‘circle of competence’

Tablet 5

Here is another tablet from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s extensive collection. Dating from the 20th-19thC BC, the tablet is of a type used by the Assyrian merchants to track the income and expenses generated by caravan shipments, which traded in a range of goods transported by donkeys which were themselves valuable goods which formed a key element of the trade.

So: led by donkeys. You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Many years ago, in a secondary school art class, we were asked to do a painting on the theme of transport. My favourite band at the time were ‘Yes’ and I plagiarised a painting of three cone-shaped planetoids hanging in space from the inner-sleeve of the ‘Yessongs’ triple-gatefold, on the spurious grounds that it represented space travel. As I was putting the finishing touches to my masterpiece, Mr Cawood disappeared into the storeroom and reappeared with a poster-sized catalogue of Roger Dean’s artwork that featured the very picture I had just copied. I was mortified, but instead of just admitting the obvious, I blustered the excuse that yes, I was a fan of Yes and had been inspired by Roger Dean, but didn’t have that particular album and the resemblance was just coincidence. It clearly wasn’t, but a mix of misplaced pride and deserved shame kept me from admitting what was obvious to me, to my teacher and to my classmates, and I even elaborated unnecessarily on the story with some nonsense about the rock-like structures actually being futuristic spaceships or something. It wasn’t for an exam or coursework or anything, and artists are continually drawing inspiration from the work of others and even doing direct reproductions of the subject matter and composition of others’ work, and I had adapted Dean’s work to make it fit the transport/spaceship theme. We hadn’t been specifically told we couldn’t copy someone else’s work or ideas, so I wasn’t breaking any rules. I even believed my own story, and felt angry and indignant, as well as humiliated, that Mr Cawood had confronted me in front of my classmates, and that they were taking the Mickey out of me for being ‘rumbled’ by him. This turn of events stung all the more because only the week before I’d been praised for my ingenuity and sensitivity when we’d been asked to interpret the transport theme in clay, and while others made crude models of sports cars and other mechanical conveyances that aren’t readily suited to the ceramicist’s art, I’d fashioned a rather lovely pair of feet.

I was reminded of this when reflecting on Dominic Cummings’s No.10 rose-garden performance, his stuttering, pause filled responses, and the look on his face under questioning. At the time, like many I’m sure, I was literally putting my hands on my head and screaming ‘What? You did what?’ when he told us he’d driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. I am predisposed to despise Cummings for a variety of reasons, and over the past few days I have composed, in my head, what could have been a monumental essay on the dangers he and his ilk pose to our society. At times I have fantasised that I could whittle my thoughts into one of those social media posts that goes viral, and I have thought of all the approbation that would bring: the admiration of my friends, the congratulations of strangers sympathetic to ‘the cause’. But then I have thought of the vituperation of the trolls, the angry threats by direct message, and the silent contempt of those of my family and friends of a more conservative persuasion. And I am paralysed. Cummings needs to go; those who are directly or indirectly victimised by his ideas and those of the Tory ideologues need to have their voice heard and amplified. But who am I, I comfortably off, middle-aged, middle-class, Oxford educated white guy to weigh in with my hypocrisy? When people share posts showing ‘the media’ – that frenzied mob attacking poor Dom outside his house – crowding together without thought of social distancing to get their picture or quote, when all he did was, in his mind, seek to ensure the safety of his child (and I can actually believe he believed that’s what he was doing), then although it seems obvious to me that it’s not a fair comparison because they are not people with power helping to drive policy and decision-making, I can’t, in good faith say no more than ‘that’s different’ in response to their whataboutism. But any response that might make a difference takes effort, time, and perhaps above all empathy, and when I feel angry and hurt and indignant, that’s difficult to find.

There is a problem with Cummings, and it isn’t primarily that he drove 260 miles to Durham when most of us were staying at home regardless of circumstances. It isn’t even that he told a stupid and implausible fib about ‘testing his eyesight’. In his circumstances – as I did in that art room – I may well have done the same. The real problem with Cummings is easy to overlook in the hot air of the media fire-storm, but fortunately (though you might not know it from looking at Facebook) the media is still more than face-mask comedy and clickbait memes. There are plenty of places you can see evidence of this but if you’re genuinely interested in Dominic Cummings, this might be a good place to start: https://members.tortoisemedia.com/2019/09/18/190918-cummings-and-i/content.html?sig=V3ep8Di90VEsADMEg8fZ7UUHeKwBE-FtKNLriRS7hGY

Or you could go directly to the words of the man himself. Since long before anyone had heard of coronavirus, I’ve been reading Cummings’s blog. I was talking about it with my son, now himself a Civil Servant as it happens, at Christmas. You might have heard about it yourself now, as his editing of a post about the risk of pandemics to include a reference to coronavirus that wasn’t previously there, has made the news. The blog is fizzing with really interesting ideas, many of which I think deserve to be at the heart of government thinking and decision making, such as the importance of evidence-based decision making and the contribution that things like AI and machine-learning could make to more effective governance. I find much of what Cummings writes convincing, and much of what I have, after further thought and reading come to find unconvincing, I nevertheless find seductive. I can really see the appeal of Cummings to the class of people that constitute the current Government, perhaps because I am a cigarette paper’s width from being like them. But go and read, carefully, the most recent post on Cummings’s blog, written shortly after the Conservative government was returned to power (https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos/) and if you don’t begin to see serious dangers in having such a person at the heart of government, with the influence he clearly has, then come back to me and we can talk substance. Spoiler: it’s not the ‘weirdos and misfits’ thing I have a problem with.

Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

I was perhaps a little too young when punk came along for it to work its full effect (as some of my later choices will attest), but its energy and iconoclasm did manage to reach beyond its urban heartlands and into my pre-teen consciousness. Aged I suppose nine or ten, I began to tag along to a Christian youth fellowship my sister Jill was involved with (weirdly, in retrospect, it was called ‘Snuff’, which really does sound punk, but actually stood for ‘Sunday Night United Friendly Fellowship’). There I developed one of those brief infatuations with someone older that is entirely platonic, but nevertheless life-changing. At the same time that I was being lured onto the shoals of God-bothering by newly written ‘choruses’ by the likes of Graham Kendrick that have since become staples of bland mainstream worship, I was being tossed in the turbulent waters of a pre-pubescent identity crisis to the soundtrack of The Members, The Membranes, The Stranglers, The Sex Pistols and — most importantly both at the time and for my eventual preferences — The Buzzcocks. My mentor was a guy called Andy Brennan. He was a lot older, and already working, I think. I copied as many of his affectations as I could: wearing no socks, and having my housekey and wallet strung on a shoelace tied to my belt loop. I couldn’t procure any velcro fastening trousers (“Much easier for taking a leak,” he told me in the public toilets of a Lake District car-park on a Snuff hiking trip), but (on the photo that is currently my Facebook profile pic) I did wear a tartan shirt emblazoned with a Buzzcocks button-badge and a nappy pin.

At first I was oblivious to the significance of the cultural rupture that punk (supposedly?) represented, but I started to get the hang of it when I proudly showed Andy the blue vinyl 12” of Mike Oldfield’s disco-influenced ‘Guilty’ that I’d bought, and he laughed right in my face. Soon I was buying punk singles from the racks in Slater’s, alongside the kettles and radios and vacuum cleaner spares, attracting reprimands from my sister for having the Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ (‘she ain’t no human being’) cover on display (“What will mum and dad say? That’s just disrespectful”) and tittering with schoolmates over lewd and crude Stranglers’ lyrics — “Shiiiit, there goes the charabanc. Looks like we’re gonna be here all summer, well what a bummer” — though at the time I’d no idea what a ‘clit-OR-is’ was. At a Kelbrook Village Hall disco, I even won a punk dancing contest: while everyone else merely pogoed, I added ‘dead ratting’ to the repertoire, (as taught, of course, by Andy) falling to the floorboards and thrashing epilectically. I won a mug with a smiley face on it, which wasn’t really very punk, but then nor was I, and I’m sure the award was more of a joke than a tribute.

It is The Buzzcocks that find their place in this list, not only because they were my favourites at the time, but because their mix of playful irony and serious anger, brash racket and perfectly crafted pop polish are strands I’m still attracted to. Howard Devoto, who sang on their debut ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP would go on to form ‘Magazine’ – an important band in my later return to post-punk and Indie, and the ‘Cocks influenced many of the artists I would come to adore later, in one case coming full circle when Mike Joyce of ‘The Smiths’ played drums when I got to see The Buzzcocks for the one and only time after one of their many reformations. I also got to see Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto share a stage at the weirdest gig I’ve ever been to, along with other (anti)heroes, Mark E Smith and John Cooper Clarke, at a chaotic ‘celebration’ of punk at Manchester’s Bridegwater Hall in 2004.

Most of my punk and new wave records were 7” singles. It would have been quite a collection but I sold most of them when I had a regression to prog in my mid-teens. I have a particular memory of buying ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ b/w ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ on a trip to Scarborough, when I also annoyed dad by buying a job lot of empty 7” picture sleeves that I covered a wall of my bedroom with, along with a huge poster of Debbie Harry. When we got home I spent an evening playing the two songs repeatedly, back to back. The Buzzcocks were very much a singles band, so the record that represents the initiation of the punk strand of my musical taste has to be their 1979 compilation, ‘Singles: Going Steady.’

The Complete Mr Fox

Ok, I give in (sort of). After being nominated for the ‘album cover challenge’ several times and usually ignoring the request, while enjoying looking at the contributors’ choices, I’ve decided that now my big brother John has tagged me, that I’d better do as I’m told (sort of).

The usual format of this (as if you can possibly have missed it) is to post the cover of a record that has been influential on your music taste, one a day, for ten days, with no further comment, and the latter condition is one of the reasons (sort of) why I’ve never done it before. I can’t just post the covers and say nothing about them (as you are about to find out, in spades)! Imagine ‘Desert Island Discs’ without the chatter about why they’ve been chosen. And usually people end up discussing the music and its significance in the comments section anyway, so I reckon I might as well just save you the bother by telling you why they’re there up front. Also, I haven’t planned this out in advance so I might decide I’m done before 10, keep going beyond 10, get bored part way through and give up, have a hiatus of a few days while I think about my next choice, or do a Christopher Kenworthy and post a load all at once out of impatience.

Then there’s the whole nomination thing. Whenever I fail to respond to one of these ‘challenges’, I always feel really terrible that it will be taken as a snub. Then I feel really terrible that I’m narcissistic enough to think that anyone will give a hoot whether I respond or not. Then I feel terrible that I have such low self-esteem as to think no-one will care. Then I feel terrible that I don’t really feel terrible at all, as I’m not that bothered about anyone else’s feelings. Then I feel terrible that I don’t care enough about other people’s feelings, but am nevertheless hypersensitive about what they think of me. So every possible nomination I might make feels like I’m treading a minefield. “Why’s he nominated her and not me?” I imagine someone thinking indignantly. Or “Oh, he’s trying to smarm his way back into my good books after that arsey put down on that meme I shared.” Or, “Ant who??” Maybe it’s unusual to overthink things this way, but I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only one. Can I? Regardless, it all means that I still haven’t decided whether I’ll not bother nominating at all, or maybe set up some arbitrary criterion that minimises the sense of me choosing people by ‘preference’. (People I’ve never met in real life like Julie Matthews? People who I’ve got no real idea of their music taste already like Michael Hackfort?) ’.

Now I’ve reached this point, to be honest, the music choice is starting to look as irrelevant as my choice of Sumero-Akkadian clay tablet, but I will push on regardless. I’ve decided that I should only include albums that I can clearly feel have a direct link to my music taste now. So that cuts out some early favourites from when I was a child. I remember first getting really ‘into’ music with Pete Addison when we were in primary school. We were both the youngest of our families and influenced by older brothers. Queen, Elton John and Rush are things I recall listening to with him that I wouldn’t be that bothered about now. We even went through a bit of a spell of writing songs together, though neither of us played instruments so all ‘performances‘ were a cappella and emphatically without an audience. I can even remember the entire lyrics and tune to a song we wrote about then Radio 1 breakfast show DJ, Dave Lee Travis. I think we might even have sent him a tape of it, though I don’t think he played it.

It was my brother John’s music collection that I really started getting interested in (having already divined that my other brother’s taste wasn’t up to much – sorry Iain, but Supertramp? Really?!). Perhaps I got a little too interested in his records for John‘s liking, after I actually cut-out all the badges and moustaches and epaulettes and stuff from his Sgt. Pepper LP. On reflection I’m lucky I didn’t get an actual battering for that. I was a bit unsure where to start this musical journey, though. I nearly plumped for Bo Hansson’s ‘Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings’ (I nicked the portrait of J R R Tolkien that came with that, too), which tied in with my brief obsession with all things Middle Earth, and whose moody Hammond organ and synth-driven instrumental is not that far removed from a lot of the post-rock/ambient-ish stuff I listen to now, and which influenced the more dramatic Nordic soundscapes of the likes of Anna von Hausswolff, whom I saw live a few years ago supporting Efterklang in Halifax Minster. Other choices I considered were from the folk-rock genre, such as Fairport Convention (which John chose for one of his own ten albums), and Steeleye Span.

However, the record I’ve gone for is one that admittedly I haven’t actually listened to that much over the years but which can still both take me right back to playing it while still in primary school back in the 70’s, but doesn’t feel to me to belong specifically to that time in the way the more mainstream choices might have done. It is music that I can imagine, if I hadn’t heard it before, discovering on Stuart Maconie’s ‘Freak Zone’ on BBC 6 Music, or ‘Late Junction’ on Radio 3, and thinking that it’s the sort of thing I’d like to check out further. It is definitely a folk-rock record, and while that isn’t a genre that is itself central to my taste, this has a sense of the uncanny, drawing on traditional music but giving it an intense and experimental twist that links to the more obviously ‘proggy’ stuff I would get deeply into in my mid-teens (before rejecting for a time – more of that to come), and the self-consciously subversive yet affectionate mining of a specifically English tradition that is associated with the ‘hauntological’ movement that my great friend and musical mentor Donald would turn me on to in the noughties. I’m pretty sure that the album pictured is the one that John had and which I therefore played. It is a compilation of the two full length albums released by a band led by husband and wife duo, Bob and Carole Pegg. Guys, gals, and non-binary pals, I give you: The Complete Mr Fox:

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.


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.