The glory of Wednesday sings through the grey sodden clouds. Its notes of joy cascade onto glistening rooftops, finally settling on the stark rugged road. The tyres of cars echo the damp virtue of our blessed rain. In fields and gardens the fruits of our sky give food and nourishment to the young growth of an early spring. And we see the green. It is a fresh vibrant green unknown to any other day than today.
The clock ticks. Each new shoot is beginning its exclusive journey through the optimism of youth. You know; we know, their eventual paths towards the closure of Autumn. But we are in love with its innocence. It’s the innocence of childhood.
I wait. The morning is young. A day is ready and waiting. The man arrives. He is young and curious. He likes the piano. My shelves are filled with the food of the week. It’s an old routine for and old man like me. With the love and devotion of the hunter gatherer, I sort through the colourful harvest, dividing and storing. This is the true delight of my Wednesday. I feel blessed to apportion my food into fridge, freezer and cupboard. I can do it. I do it myself with no-one to stand and mock my ineptitude.
Slowly, the kettle comes to life to furnish my morning desperation for tea. Even without sugar it is sweet. I smile. I am comfortable. So much is possible. Whilst the peace and comfort of my current life is no compensation for the sense of loss I feel for time and friends gone by, I have the vision of the future.
The future is neither rosy or ill-fated. It’s just real and I must make the best of it. The rest of the day is immersed in the quietude of silent confidence. I see news of the sick and twisted individuals who offer futile gestures of selfish bias and narrow minded ambition. Why are they there, spouting the poison of the ignorant? Wealth is not power. Fame and recognition is not power.
Experience, knowledge and compassion is a power that needs a high level of management. Use it for good. Don’t build walls with it.
I was creative in the kitchen. Chicken liver pate was made. I gently fried the onions before adding the lovers, garlic and mustard powder. Frying in butter adds a soft calm to the gentle rippling of the much loved pan. More butter was added as I set it in the processor to blend into a smooth conglomeration of comforting flavours. You know what? I made it twatty.
After seasoning, I scooped them into ramekins with a bay leaf and cranberries before sealing them with a buttery carapace. Simple food; sensational tastes.
For dinner I rescued an unctuously soft piece of focaccia from the freezer and plunged it into my vegetarian Boston baked beans. No bacon! The smoky overtures developed into the creamy fullness of the beans and an after taste of understated chillies.
I took to my dream chair. With the comforting hum of the motors, it eased me back into a state of prone relaxation. Then I dreamt of a journey. In dreams my journeys never reach the end. The transport changes and I struggle to walk. I know what I want to do but my dreams know the truth.
Every Tuesday I’ve been raging against the truth. I exercise like a demon on the standing machine and the static bicycle. Is it futile? No it’s not. It’s about feeling. I like sprinting back down the hill, ravenous and craving tea. I sit down but there’s no collapse. That’s the story of my mid-week.
I found two lambs’ hearts in the freezer so I thought it would be an appropriate challenge for the slow cooker. When I was at school, I remember my mum putting whole trimmed hearts into a bowl with onions celery and potatoes before she left for work. We’d come home to a succulent dish of soft hearts and tasty veg. It was quick and it was cheap. Cheap was good; mum had to work full time along with Dad just to keep us clean, fed and clothed. Well I noticed the price tag for two hearts was £1.20. Still cheap. So I scrabbled about the fridge and freezer for odds and ends; you know, keeping the cheap theme going.
Two lambs’ hearts trimmed and chopped
Two rashers of bacon, chopped.
Half a sweet potato
Four small cooked beetroots
A good squeeze of tomato puree
Three cloves of garlic
A cupful of red lentils
Three tbs of Balsamic vinegar
2 tsps of Dijon mustard
1tsp of paprika
1 tsp of cumin powder
Two medium onions
2oo ml of water
Trim the fat of the hearts and slice into chunks.
Roughly chop the root vegetables. Fry the onions and meat in oil, if only for a sense of doing something useful. Make a runny paste out of the spices, mustard and vinegar. Put every thing into the slow cooker and leave for an eternity. Keep an eye on the level of liquid. When the lentils have cooked down add salt and pepper to taste. Heart is quite a strong flavoured meat but if you like offal it should be right up your street. If you don’t fancy heart, you can use meatballs or diced lamb. I you don’t fancy meat use something like chick peas and diced extra firm tofu. To contrast with the richness of the sauce you can serve it with plain rice, fresh tomato and a good squeeze of lemon or lime. Cous cous, bulgar wheat or quinoa can replace the rice or even add some thin slices of mango. I had the price at about £4.17 for the stew. A bottle of balsamic vinegar is £1.95 but it will last as a condiment.
A crude reference to the art of horizontal pleasure?
Well for the week just gone it has meant a whirlwind of emotions. Learning of the death of an old friend was disturbing. Especially as he was only a bit older than me. In addition to the sadness, it heightens the sense of vulnerability of people of my age.
In terms of personal welfare, Tuesday was a good day. I was busy and I thrived. I taught three piano pupils and had a feel-good workout in physiotherapy.
I expected to pay for it on Wednesday; you know, the usual lethargy, crawling about the place like some idle sloth picking at things expecting them to open or switch on. But Wednesday was good. And so was Thursday. There were no late sleep-ins and I had been relatively early to bed.
So when I emerged on Friday the last thing I was expecting was a gravitational awareness day.
Children and adults have they’re own special ways of making you aware of them. We are all experts in magnifying our own persona in order to be acknowledged. Basically, subtle or otherwise, we can get into the faces of those we wish to engage.
Gravity on the other hand practises no such artifice. It simply increases. On Friday everything, including me was drawn downwards. Even sitting upright was a struggle. Everything I handled was sent earthbound by massive forces of weight. So I dropped a few things; I dropped loads of things. I did some cooking but I had to fight to eat it off the table. It was a sit down day.
Saturday was much better. But in sport there were was one high and one low. I’m not including West Brom’s glorious three one thrashing of Arsenal. Simply put, Everton won but England lost to Ireland.
Ho hum. It pales into insignificance to the events of the beginning of the week.
Then there was Sunday. I’d been looking forward to Sunday. It was a Barbican day. Steve, Jane and I were going to hear the Brahms Requiem.
Driving up to Silk Street on a Sunday evening is a rather mundane affair until you reach the approaches of the Blackwall Tunnel. Just before entering that tube of constricting thunderous traffic, we marvelled at the infrastructure required for the thousands of houses and flats squeezed like sardines into the jumbled landscape around us.
All those phone lines and sewage pipes. And where do all those cars go at the end of the day?
Driving through the jungle we know as The City, I gazed at the office blocks where the old stood cheek to jowl by the new. When I lived in London, Canary wharf and the Docklands Light Railway were shining new icons of commercial optimism. The original tower could be seen from almost anywhere. Now it stands there, strangled by the company of interlopers; square stark over-stretched cuboids of little distinction other than their height.
I particularly hate the HSBC building. HSBC was once the Midland Bank or shall I say that Midland became consumed by the corporate greed and naked ambition of HSBC. But I didn’t like the Midland Bank. For new employees they gave a six month probationary period. I lasted five. I found the whole thing suppressive.
Further into the City, things become a little more cosy. The Barbican itself is a raw throwback to the brutality of sixties architecture; a series of building blocks connected by grey walkways set in a backdrop of faded technicolour.
The weather and diminishing daylight did not help. I’ve seen in in the Summer though; it’s still stands ugly and embarrassed.
Yet this is deceptive. Every time I have parted with the Barbican’s cumbersome grace, I have been exhilarated. Because the Barbican has music. It has the London Symphony Orchestra; that beautifully honed collective of sublime talent.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love the Southbank with its upbeat cosmopolitan chic and its vibrant buzz of twenty-first century culture. I like the way people are just so damned nice to each other and their common embrace of all things ancient and modern. But the Barbican has that unique sense of the odd and the intimate. Even the pizza sliced shape concert hall gives us the sense of being amongst friends.
The first half was Schubert’s unfinished Symphony.
Much of his work lays itself open to the indignity of indifferent performance. I have seen or heard too many matter of fact renderings of this fine work. Why is it unfinished? There have been contrived “realisations” of it’s consequent scherzo and finale but they have missed the point. What Schubert has done in two movements is break the ground rules of tonality.
It is a symphony in B minor. To me B minor is a medium of sharp exquisite pain. It is deep heart felt sharp agonies; it touches nerves you never knew existed. A Scarlatti sonata in B minor may give out a muffled scream. You are hurting but nobody else can possibly know.
For Haydn it is a long moment of yearning for something you crave but just doesn’t exist. The Chopin Scherzo and the Brahms Rhapsody belt out their pulsating anguish whilst Borodin’s second symphony is a hapless struggle of hope against fate. (Other interpretations of these magnificent compositions are available.)
Now what does Shubert do with B minor? He turns it into love. It’s not the love of lovers but the love of beauty. He shows B minor to be a friend of love and trust. He blends it with simple major keys; the sort of keys we expect of minuets or sonatinas and he gives them a platform equal to the keys of more profound works.
When you put this little gem into the hands of the LSO, you get the true beauty of the man’s genius. He gives you the opportunity to sing. He gives you the opportunity to love what you sing. I’d have driven to London and back for that alone.
Brahms wrote his German Requiem shortly after the death of his mother. The death of his great friend Robert Schumann and his growing affection and infatuation for Clara, Robert’s widow, may also have been a contributing factor. But I’m not going to speculate about this. A lot of Brahms’ late piano works have a similar level of depth. I always think of them as the acceptance of his unrequited love for Clara. They are sad but happy to appreciate the beauty of her from a distance. The Requiem was written when he was in his early thirties but it’s one great work. It is a collection of deep profound anthems.
From the first bar you are sucked into a world of personal grief, intense regret and deferential admiration for someone now lost to your conscious world. The choir and orchestra were squeezed into the thin end of the packed wedge shaped concert hall. And the choir is the star. For sixty minutes, they are on their feet, singing out the crucial juxtaposition of life, death and the maker of the universe.
Few fugues come as a welcome relief. Somewhere towards the final quarter of this magnificent work, a fugue bursts into life giving you the impetus of renewed hope of a life worth living. If I’d known the words, I’d have stood up out of my wheelchair and led an audience singalong.
Unlike the Schubert eight which I know from youth orchestra, I’m inclined to leave this requiem as a bit of a mystery. I don’t want to analyse it. I just want it to wash over me. I want to be cleansed by the purity of its emotion. It lets me think, it lets me shout and it lets me cry.
To those musicians I have known or admired from afar; those who no longer walk amongst us, I dedicate this concert to you.
What would Mr Fox have said about my title having no full stop? I’d have just sat there dumbfounded. I could not answer. I didn’t have the courage of my convictions. But I was only nine. If he asked me now I’d say: “It has no full stop because I want the reader to read on. There is something too final about a full stop.”
It’s just as well I remained silent. That sort of reply would have seen the old bugger bending my ear and showering me with admonishment.
But I liked Mr Fox. He could play the piano. In assembly he would belt out the hymns. Mrs Beard on the other hand was more lyrical and mezzo forte. The children were less confident about singing up when she played. This is why I’ve always belted out the daily hymn; every school day for twenty two years.
My own hymn practices were legendary. I’d play the music and stare round at the pupils at the same time. I would prowl the hall with piercing beady eyes and strike a subito barbed remark to any potential deviant. If the music suddenly stopped some children would visibly wither. They were usually the guilty ones. It was great fun but I don’t miss it.
Now I think back to my old teachers. Formosa Drive Infants, Fazakerley. Reception class: Miss Colcott. I called her Miss Clip clop. She shouted a lot. Year one, Miss Body. She was possibly the most generously kind forgiving teacher I have ever had. She gave us sweets for no reason. She loved children. On a child’s birthday she would present her little inverted gold covered shoe box with six candles. She’d light them and we sang happy birthday. After moving the box she’d reveal a Mars Bar on her desk. We thought it was magic.
Year two: Miss Smith and Miss Helliwell. We moved house and I changed schools so I didn’t really build a rapport with either of them.
We’d gone across the water to Wallasey. I started at Egerton Grove. The infant head of my new school, Miss Skinner had to decide whether to put me in the A or B class. When I told her I was on Wide Range Reader Blue Book two she didn’t believe me. How could a little scally like me, with an accent as thick as butter from a sprawling council estate be so advanced? I remember her little stamping feet resonating on the polished floor as she marched off to a classroom and returned with the very book. It was a story about an oasis. I told her the word said oasis. I even explained what an oasis was. I went into the A class. She never liked me.
Year 3 Miss Kirkbride. She was crabby. Year two, Miss Seymour. My current cat is called Seymour. Miss Seymour was exasperated by my lack of concern for appearance. But she gave me the love of books and the love of writing. She also persuaded me to start learning the cello. Thank-you Miss Seymour.
Year five was Mr Fox. Yes, I liked Mr Fox even though he was short tempered “Are you as thick as two short planks?” he would bark. But Mr Fox pushed us. He pushed us because we had eleven plus on the horizon.
In year six, Mrs Guest was a welcome relief. Because Mr Fox had driven us she was able to relax. And so were we.
After Liscard Primary School it was Wallasey Grammar School. New teachers. We were on our own most of the time.
“You will do this, do that and get a detention if you don’t.”
Is this what we worked for? Is this what we had after the warmth and encouragement of primary school?
These teachers saw little good in me. I was from Seacombe and I was scruffy. It was nothing to do with my lovely mum. She sent me out every day immaculately tidy and clean. But by the end of the twenty minute bus journey, I looked a little lived in.
The school was in Leasowe. There was mud everywhere. It was a cold environment. The education bandwagon was charging forward and I was expected to keep up.
Two teachers stand out. And they were not exactly nice to me. Mr Lochner taught me maths for the first three years. He expected me to listen but I was a bit of a day dreamer. He’d whack me across the head. I don’t agree with his method but I learned to listen. And he opened up a whole new world. I thrived. My mum was amazed and proud. She loved her statistics and calculations.
Then we had a geography teacher called Mr Gordon. His nickname was Mooney. He knew where I came from. He knew I loved music, even though I came from Seacombe and was the son of a car sprayer.
We found mutual interests. And to this day I thank Mooney for showing me the mountains of Wales. He was an avid hill walker and he organised a coach load of students to go walking once a month. He didn’t have to do that. He could have gone with some mates. But no. He loved it so much he wanted to pass it on.
I’ve done Snowdon twenty two times and many other mountains since.
Then some teachers stood out for the wrong reasons. After three years of progress in maths, I was placed in the top stream. And there the progress stopped. We had Mr Cartwright. We called him Ben from a character in Bonanza. (A much watched western series.) Then as he would often go red with anger we alliterated it to Beetroot Ben. I did gain my maths o level but it was no thanks to him. In year nine, lower fifth form, our English teacher was called Mr Thomason. I can say with no doubt that he was totally unfit to be in the profession. He had a hard sneering attitude to all the pupils in our form. He made it quite clear that he thought us stupid and undeserving of a place in the elite academic stream. We were the last year to do 11 plus and had converted to a comprehensive school. There was another teacher who should never have bothered. He was called Mr Evans.
“Thyat app will you,” he would repeatedly bark. Like Thomason. he only lasted a year. The thing is 1970 was an election year and he was the Liberal party candidate. He received something like 5,284 votes and lost his deposit. So every time he asked a question in the classroom, someone would answer 5,284. Our French teacher, Mr Sharman had sudden eruptions of spittle firing blue faced temper. But he was most noted for one morning, during a rare moment of silence, he turned green (not blue). This was followed by an earnest protracted plea for the whole class to desist from what young men do best in their tribal environments. Yes, he was imploring us to stop farting. It fell on deaf ears and loud bottoms. It was our right to assail any teacher’s olfactory senses with the good old school boy boff. Farting still makes me laugh.
When doing my teaching practice at Guisely school, change over time saw the corridors teeming with the student masses. It amused me greatly to emit the sweet notes from a few pints of Yorkshire ale completely anonymously and listen to the aftermath.
Then there was University College Chester or Chester College as it was known when I was there. I can’t really say much about the tutors there. I did the common first year of BEd and BA. As far as the education department goes there was little to shout about. There was no support. I found going into a school quite daunting. I found the two placement schools cold, elitist and patronising. I needed some encouragement and help.
When it was clear I was up against it why didn’t my so called personal tutor become involved? Did the education department bother to speak to her? I doubt it. Then there was the art department. I loved art but again, I needed teaching; teaching with understanding.
It was slightly better than the education department though. Dear Joyce Emmerson with her turkey’s dewlap gave me some help. But she lived on the campus and was totally immersed in her own world; and a regular dose of sweet sherry. She was very flaky.
At Chester the music department gave me most help. The tutors were personable if a little eccentric. At least they made our sessions enjoyable. For me, a greater knowledge and understanding music opens up that elusive fourth dimension of understanding some of us crave.
There are two other teachers of note. I think that’s an understatement. For years I’d battled with learning the cello. By November 1982 I’d finally passed my grade eight. Then I spent two years under the tutelage of Alan Johnson a cellist from the Liverpool Phil. At last, someone who understood technique and how to teach it.
We had many common interests, the most notable being a love of A60s. Those two and a bit years gave me a real boost in terms of my own cello playing and teaching. It was beginning to feel natural.
The other musicians around me began to give compliments about my overall comfort with the instrument.
On the piano there was Eva. One day in May I turned up at her house. It was an old battered sort of place. In the middle of a massive disorganised room with Buster and Pedro, two cats who answered to no-one, was a beautiful Steinway and an equally beautiful pupil playing a Beethoven sonata. From the first instant, it was clear I was in the presence of a genius.
Eva was kind yet not kind. She knew what motivated me and she had the perfect carrot. All I had to do was turn up and witness her highly intellectual world. Because of Eva I have belief in my musical standing.
Between Eva and Alan, I have achieved a level of musical insight which has been life changing. Of course there have been other influences but on a pedagogic level Eva and Alan rule supreme.
It is truly tragic to reveal that both these titans of local music are no longer with us. I’m really struggling with the recent death of Alan; especially as we’d met up again last September and felt the warmth of a renewed friendship. The world is a cruel place. I see and read of suffering and tragedy. My heart bleeds in so many ways. But now it’s bleeding for my two special teachers.
Last night my window went “tap tap tap.” It was just past two in the morning and I’d been asleep on the chair. Did I dream it? But it was so real. As far as I can remember there have been many incidents of hearing familiar noises after waking up from sleep. Recently the most common has been the snort. It’s always in the same place. Just on the right of the bed, someone snorts loudly. I peer into the darkness to see nothing but the outline of my wheelchair.
Many years ago, my bedroom was above the office of a garage. In that office was a key cutter. This beast of a machine was a truly fascinating thing. In amongst all its precision was a body of cast iron.
A key could be copied by resting the original in a specific slot, allowing the sensors to do the rest. It was heavy. Yet one night I was convinced it has fallen onto the floor. The thump was awesome. I felt everything shake. I even recognised the exact spot where the noise came from. When I checked the next morning it was still sitting very solidly on its usual bench.
When I was a toddler,we lived in a pub. The Sun Inn was on Derby Road in Prescot, just north of Liverpool. My dad has this story of being in the cellar with my older brother: “Who’s that man?” my brother asked. Dad looked behind him.
There was no-one there. When my younger brother visited the pub in the eighties, he proudly announced that he was born in that fine establishment. He asked the land lady if she’d seen the ghost:
“Yes” she replied as though it was as common as seeing the milk man.
After the pub we moved to a council estate in Fazakerley. It was my nan’s rented house on the edge of the city. Down the road the local hospital was set in massive wooded grounds. Of course our parents discouraged us from venturing into the bluebell woods because we were young, it was over a main road and it had a bit of a reputation for dossers and lovers.
I was fascinated. Then my grandfather “Pop” (what a brilliant name for a grandfather) told me about the Indians. Pop liked a joke but he was on my parents side on this one. He spouted forth in great detail about the “Indians” who hunted children and scalped them. Remember the sixties was full of TV westerns where the Native Americans were portrayed as evil savages with bows and arrows. I never went back.
The Victorians were avid raconteurs of all things super natural. My favourite is the story of Spring Heeled Jack. A lot of the first hand accounts are by women who report being inappropriate contact from a character in an unusual outfit; it included a black leather bat wings I believe.
After his lewd deeds he would bounce away so avoiding all capture. Naturally, without any real pictorial evidence each account would become more sensational. There are various accounts available on through the internet so it may be worth a read. Personally, I think far too many Victorian authoritarians were likely to use scare tactics as a way of controlling others. I call it the bogey man principle.
When we moved to Wallasey there were more stories of strange goings-on. The local park and the Quakers’ grave yard were particular hot spots.
There were enough people in white and clanking chains to fuel a Hammer Horror epic.
My mates Andy and Dave told us stories about their own house, a massive flat above a butcher’s shop. Admittedly it was a brilliant curio of a place but I never saw anything. I just remember it as a house of comfort and laughter; plus a mad dog called Rip. He was quite happy to let you in the house but he became a bit agitated when you wanted to leave!
My own father like a bit of a ghost story. He had a few incidents of poltergeist style happenings when he was working nights in Standard Triumph and Gandy Belt. “What did you do Dad?” I’d ask wrapt in his tale of mystery and suspense.
“I told them to bugger off,” he replied. That was his way of dealing with the oddities of the mind.
Personally I can recall two incidents of strange sightings. The first was in the summer of 1985. It was the weekend of my mate’s nephew’s stag party. It was in Aberdeen. The journey up there was a long one. The overnight coach eventually dumped us at Aberdeen railway station. Then it was a local bus to Cruden Bay. I was instantly charmed by the Scottish coastline. The bus skirted the edge of the land.
Long narrow roads twisted and turned through patches of mist and the odd wispy rain shower. Through the mist a faint sun offered a warm glow of welcome. George’s nephew Paul had bought an old fisherman’s cottage. A short distance down the lane was one of those beautiful deserted Scottish beaches. From the front window I could see the constant rolling of the waves washing the pale yellow sand.
We were staying an extra night and returning to Wallasey by car.
It was on that extra night when I had the most bizarre sighting. I was asleep on the downstairs settee when I awoke to see a short stocky man. He was wearing a pale mackintosh over a rather rumpled suit. His tie was a faded red. He had a dark moustache and the ruddy cheeks of a typical whisky drinker. It looked like he had just returned home from work. Without a word he stepped into the kitchen. I followed him but he wasn’t there.
I thought little more of it and returned to my slumber. I never mentioned it to Paul because he had to live there. It was a gorgeous place to live. The following year I spent a week there enjoying the open solitude of the huge sky and the empty beaches. I never saw that man again. I wonder if he used to live there?
The second memorable incident was in 2000. I was living in a flat above a garage. As I opened the front door, I was confronted with a staircase. Back then I could still climb stairs; albeit slowly. The time was around two in the afternoon and I’d been shopping a mile up the road in town. After I’d unlocked the door I saw someone in jeans and trainers walk along the landing. The stairs were quite steep so I only saw the legs. The jeans were faded blue; they were not only faded but dirty, as were the white cracked shoes. I assumed it was one of the people from the garage doing something or other. I kept an open house policy with them in exchange for my peppercorn rent.
I walked up the stairs expecting a familiar face and was met with absence. Who on earth was that figure? It had walked across the top hall with the confidence of familiarity. It was strange. Of course, as Mrs Grose from Henry James’ novel “The Turn of the Screw” said, it was all “stuff and nonsense”.
These were tricks of the mind. But the tricks are so real. That tapping on the window was very real but why would someone do that? If it were some drunken youth the tapping would not have been so polite. If it was a burglar testing to see if I was awake, wouldn’t he have tried the front door first? He should have done because it was unlocked. The next morning there was no sign outside of any snooping.
This brings me to the constant tricks of the mind. These tricks don’t leave any hint of intrigue and curiosity however. They bring a sense of frustration and persistence. Having multiple sclerosis has given my fractured brain licence to play with my nerve endings.
In the evening, when I sit exhausted on my comfortable chair, my senses tell me my legs are freezing. I can be wearing thick joggers and thermals but the little prick still freezes my legs.
What do you do if you’re cold? Move about to keep warm? If I move, the legs do indeed cease to be cold. Instead it feels as though they’re being set on by the flame-throwers of hell.
Who wants polarized legs? And my top half? Wow, that’s tough. I take my trips to the bin and the flower bed in my short sleeved tee shirt.
I go down to the bottom of the car park to get the Tramper and ride it in turbo mode the twenty meters to the front door to feed it a charge. I feel like Jack Nicholson from Easy Rider. For a few brief seconds I feel the vicious winter wind scrape at my bare arms. I laugh in defiance before setting up the charger and retreating to my cosy toasty flat.
What a life this is! I’ll never be lonely or feel isolated; not with my imagination. At the close of the day when the curtains are drawn the coldness becomes a mere tingling. I see it as a reward for surviving another day. I have severe mobility issues but I still think I’m lucky. The current tricks of the mind, brought about by a chronic illness may not be as glamorous as my tales of the unexpected but they seem so real. Logic says my legs are not cold but try telling that to them.
“Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.”
It’s a very valid statement but doesn’t it depend on the size of the waves or the size of your boat? I always tell people that I earned my sea legs on the Mersey ferry. If it was a rough day I would go onto the top deck outside. There I would stand at the front, gripping the rails, trying to imagine the Atlantic. It was pure fantasy. There was no chance of the boat sinking.
The nearest I’d get to a bit of a soaking was when the boat turned to face the tide before docking. By this time I was on the lower deck at the stern. The wind would pick up as the boat faced the current with a broadside. The chill of the air would buffet my cheeks and yank at my hair. I’d disembark with the distinctive sign of a “Mersey Coiffure.”
Then it would be a warming visit to a local inn to break up the short walk home.
There have been other rough ferries. I did the same cling to the rails bit on a catamaran from the mainland in Queensland to Great Keppel Island. The only difference was the sizzling temperature. It still gave me a bouffant. I’ve had some epic cross channel rides. When one is starting to lose balance and stability through MS, even the mildest swell makes a trip to the toilet interesting. We would have everyone milling about in the gentle roll and pitch of a spring day whilst I’d be clinging to the nearest rail screaming inside.
By far and away the best ferry trip was from Stromness to Scrabster. Two hours of heaving mayhem. Once out of the shelter of Orkney we were open to the thrashing of the waves. Fuelled by the constriction of two land masses, this boat began to rock and roll. My mate and I stood inside a glass door on the top deck. It was a display of awesome beauty to see the vicious sea snarling and growling between us and the god-like cliffs of Hoy.
In the true tradition of farce, there was a school party on board. I don’t think it was an ordinary school. Graced with the beauty of an unintelligible Glaswegian accent, these teenagers had no discernible uniform other than a cigarette hanging off their bottom lips.
As the bows dived into the raging foam, several of these intrepid youths thought themselves worthy of strolling around the promenade deck in a force eight. They would squeeze through the heavily sprung door by us and venture out with the sort dour wizened expression we might recognise from early editions of Taggart. I’d count to five then hear their screams as they faced the oncoming wind and sea.
Thirty minutes later, these poor bedraggled souls decided enough was enough and retreated to the downstairs lounge. It wasn’t the end of the ordeal. Once deprived of the perspective of the true horizon and the subsequent stability of knowing whether you were going up or down, the beast of vomit came visiting.
When Gary and I finally decided to spend the last half hour sipping a fine malt, the bar was awash with the groaning Glaswegian masses turning various shades of green. There’s an important message here. We knew about the horizon thing. It’s all very well letting yourself get thrown about but you need to keep a sense of perspective; id est, the horizon.
And so I come to my own personal sea. How on earth does one manage the currents, the undercurrents, the swell, the rollers, the waves, the spring tides, the neap tides, the rip tides, the storms and the doldrums? For most of the time, we are ferrying across the Mersey. (Get that bloody tune out of my head!) We get a succession of short journeys; some are calm and some are stormy. But they are short journeys and we can see across to the other side. Sometimes there is just a horizon if we’re lucky enough to see it. Sometimes we are just clinging to the life raft. And sometimes we are under. There are two styles of under water being; we can be focused and determined life the ruthless gannet or a bit drifty just waiting for our natural buoyancy to bring us back up. Then there is overwhelmed, when the sea has invaded our space and shows no sign of abating.
I’ll tell you about my voyage between September 1989 and the following July. Rearmed with another two litre Mark Four Cortina, I set off one fine Autumn evening to Yeadon. Where? Yeadon is the home of Leeds Bradford Airport. It was also the home of my old pal Martin. I was going to stay at his during the week for my PGCE at Leeds University.
My parents thought it was an earthquake. When I received that fat brown envelope from the university in March of the same year, I sneaked upstairs to open it alone. I’d had a few previous rejections but this seemed too full to be a bugger off letter. With shaking hands, I ripped it open and smiled. Then I shouted. Then I clumped about the bedroom like an over active hippo.
“What the hell………” or words to that effect interrupted my euphoric jubilation. “I thought it was an earthquake,” said my father as I handed him the letter. I was at the harbour, berthed and preparing to sail.
The first weeks of the course gave me calm waters. I was back every Friday with a bagful of washing (thanks mum) to teach the piano over the weekend. Every day was a sea day but the university days were serene and still. Even my best efforts in the Robin Hood and the Narwab Tandoori did little to ruffle the waters.
But I’d sprung a leak.
The first real signs of MS were holding me back. Concerned by a growing weakness in my legs, I went to see the doctor. Two days before Christmas day he told me to stop drinking. So I did. I became everyone’s taxi.
One day in the holidays I took my two nephews up Moel Famau.
There was no sign of the weakness. Was not drinking the answer? Had I carefully sailed round the trouble? (Well we know the answer to that!)There had been some roughness but it was balanced by the excitement of the imminent teaching practice in the new term.
“You may have to suspend your weekend piano teaching,” advised the course director. I promised to do just that then carried on as usual. No-one noticed. I felt like a racing yacht cutting through the swell, bouncing off the breakers.
The shadow of MS was banished to the bottom of the in-tray. I was standing proud at the helm.
On the final day of the practice, I celebrated with a night out in Leeds. It was brilliant. We saw two live bands in the Duchess of York. The pub was full of thirty-somethings. People moved out of the way. There was no pushing; so civilised. I was in the land of the grown-ups. I’d sailed the Atlantic. The hole in the bows was still there but it had little effect. In fact I was ignoring it.
In the summer term I took my trusty old bicycle to commute between Yeadon and Leeds. Despite the consequences of a full and unhealthy diet, I was battling through the waves. On the journey back, I had to be careful. It’s downhill to Leeds. Coming back I took a more circuitous route to avoid one long hill but there was Brownberrie Lane. It was over a mile of hill. It was hard sailing but sail it I did. The engines were well and truly tested.
I was still at the stage when I thought exercise and fitness was the best way to overcome the leak. It didn’t make any difference at all but I had the satisfaction of still being afloat. And the year had been fruitful. I’d qualified as a teacher and there was a job waiting for me in North London.
The voyage that followed lasted twenty two years.
Once established in my new home I proceeded to plough through the roughest waters. Balancing jobs, social lives and the leaky boat was testing. But even in the calmest of waters, a hole is still a hole. I remember a bad storm in late 2000. I’d stumbled across a deep depression. The waves were high and I began to drown. No-one wanted to sail with me (I don’t blame them) so I was capsized and all alone.
What righted my boat? It was a sense of order and self-discipline.
But it was a sign of things to come. The storms never really went away and my navigation began to suffer.
Today, I’m back to single handed. The leaky boat has failed me in many ways. But it’s still sailing. I’m up to my neck in safety gear. I have the most enormous life jacket and the only thing I’m drowning in now is this metaphor. In reality however, I’m still waving.
There are many more voyages to write about but 1989 to 1990 was a key journey.