New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

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Down with the Dead

He feels the print marks of the nails. He wonders where he is. He’s been hoping for something tranquil. The place is full of monsters. Behind is a large shapeless mouth that swallows them up one by one, only to disgorge them. As Jesus approaches, the mouth closes leaving no trace behind. Faces turn to human. He talks to them. It’s the last time they might hear the sermon on the mount. Billions listen. A heckler on the back row yells out, “God is dead,” to a mixed reception. Jesus finishes: “Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He leaves, followed by many.

Ecce homo

Pilate gives up his fight against Chief Priests dressed in 19th century suits. Who can understand them? The scourged Jesus picks up his cross to the sound of the Muezzin from Temple Mound. He staggers up the Via Dolorosa under an arch he doesn’t remember seeing before. He hears his mother, dead for nearly two thousand years, shouting, “This is my beloved son.” In his confusion, he stumbles back through time. A Roman soldier hoiks from the crowd some poor sucker called Simon. Not the one aka Peter, who’s not to be seen. This guy carries the cross the rest of the way. That nice lady from St Veronica’s mops Jesus’ brow. They pass the souvenir shops selling printed Turin shrouds while you wait. Jesus trips over the manhole made for him before all time. Some women collecting for the local hospice smile reassuringly. He looks up to Golgotha. They walk on, past Orthodox and Catholic guardians exchanging holy-water-pistol fire. Simon lays down his cross. UN soldiers emerge from their bunker to nail Jesus to it.
He refuses mingled wine and gall, and exchanges words with the two blokes alongside having a bad Easter. In literally excruciating pain, he mutters something about being forsaken by his father. It is finished. It is accomplished. It’s over. He won’t be seeing rainbows any more. He’s thirsty and takes the wine.
A few hundred yards away there’s an explosion. The veil of the temple is rent in twain. Into thy hands, I commend my spirit.

Is seventy the happiest age?

The papers have been full of a survey claiming that seventy year olds are the happiest people. I read about it in The Times yesterday. I don’t know if it was the same survey as The Mail covered today, which claimed that the biggest regret in life of the seventy year old is the one that got away. Maybe, but I reckon that by then the feeling is more one of relief. My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has the characters at it in their sixties but after seventy you’re on borrowed time and the story of your life has been constructed, with the sub-plot of that special memory concluded before the last chapters. Also, to dampen any residual ardour, you can take a guess at what medications are now in their bathroom cabinet.
The Mail article seems to confuse being seventy with the seventies as the music they listed as septuagenarians listening to featured Queen and Abba. I’m sure we all appreciated Freddie Mercury and liked Abba, us men lusting after Agnetha’s bottom and the girls dancing about as well as she did, but that wasn’t our music. That started with pre-army Elvis, we learnt the game with Buddy Holly, progressed through the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison, had a spell as folkies, before being taken by storm by The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Dusty. We’ve been together through life with Dylan. As any older sibling would listening to a younger one’s taste, we thought seventies’ stuff derivative or pretentious, as in prog rock. Post punk, it got better so we could claim The Pretenders and Elvis Costello as ours. One of the biggest pains in the backside from being old is seeing the middle-aged in their positions of authority getting their history wrong. The narrative created by them concerning the fifties and sixties is invariably skewed by their own somewhat precious preoccupations.
Research a few years ago said people were actually happiest at 74. It would be great to think that the best is yet to come, but I think the reason for later-life satisfaction is that the strife is more or less o’er, the battle done, and we await our personal last trump. In the meantime, we want things for our children and grandchildren more than for ourselves, sometimes even when that’s the last cake in the tin.
I remember well the moments of triumph in my life, the net bulging, the Oxford acceptance, the early promotions. But all my childhood family have gone. There’s nobody left here to tell, at least no-one who’s remembers. Loneliness can be a function of age as well as circumstance. To be fair, the children do try to look interested.
Where I still have ambition, as in trying to promote my book, write a second one, or pen an interesting blog, I still have stress. The good fortune of being older is that worries come singly rather than in succession. The bad part is the exception to this of ill health and death.They’ll not seem like winning the victor’s crown. Yet the best victory is defeat.
And the best age to be is whatever you are today.

You’re a long time dead

When I finished “Where’s Sailor Jack”, I thought I’d got about as far as I was ever going to get in seeing a meaning to life. Since then, Mum’s died. It’s only gazing down with a handful of earth that you realise how far under six foot is. Feeling the moist earth below the green grass of Lancashire is a chillingly cold comfort. I’ve finally got round to booking my spot in the same graveyard, where my headstone will join those of all four grandparents and both parents.
Luke says: “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” He’s right about there being no person in the grave. Where he was though, there wasn’t even a body. Recognising that problem for the rest of us, Paul sees us all raised at the last trumpet in a twinkling of an eye, conjuring up images of a low budget zombie movie. If time is the great illusion, both could be right. My hope is that my soul, in me from birth but created from living my whole life, will be combined with my resurrection body taken when I was a young man. My physical body will decompose to put nutrients into the dark earth.
Without this, the impending, suffocating darkness would make present life a charade. Life never feels pointless for long. If there is a timeless eternity, today’s events are in that just as much as rose and blue tinted past ones are. In my children’s souls already are events that will take place after I’m gone.
This is not an elegy in a country graveyard. There’s no escaping the future coldness of personal time. Without others, these end days would be bleak. Next, to find out if they are anyway.

The Church of England

“ A captivating story that draws you into the lives of Bob and Richard, where a working class, Church of England upbringing deeply influences their passage through the world of corporate business.”
These words come from one of the reviewers on Amazon of Where’s Sailor Jack? In late 1945, I was christened in St Chad’s Church in Poulton-le-Fylde. I was confirmed in Southport in the early sixties as a regular attendee of Christ Church in Lord Street. Janet and I married in 1987 in St Michael’s, the parish church of Blewbury in Oxfordshire. Unless lost at sea, I’ll be buried according to Anglican rites in Poulton Graveyard on the Garstang Road, along with my four grandparents and two parents.
Of the three churches, Christ Church was low and envangelical, with the other two middle of the road or a bit higher. Back in the sixties, evangelicals did not take a literal truth approach to the bible. A middle of the road church didn’t have to be wet. A high church didn’t have to camp it up with too much genuflection and incense, at least not in Lancashire.
Since the reformation, my family has always been Anglican, the dubious origins from Henry VIII proving no barrier to faith. I have a direct ancestor taking a moiety in a pew in Heptonstall in 1680, not long after the Book of Common Prayer’s adoption. None of the next generation down in the family has followed the path though. To them, either Christians are seen as born-again and thus gullible or God-bothering anachronisms. And not without reason. The evangelicals make the bible a rule book, leaving no room for the Holy Spirit to work. The liberals usually seem to fail to make their social concern translate into practical policy. If the high church reaches out to the world, the sniggers drown out its over-rich message. This next generation down of the family, who studied mainly in the Humanities, accuse me, a physicist, of irrational belief. They ignore the quantum of uncertainty; they ignore Godel demonstrating that the world cannot contain its own explanation. They categorically dismiss the beautiful world of allegory in the hope of salvation for all and in the profound idea that the human can become the divine.
But if Anglicanism fails and schisms into three tiny pieces, who then can keep alive this most insightful of faiths in England? The Free Church or the Catholics? I can’t see it. The former will be too intolerant and the latter’s preference for superstition over allegory too fanciful. And both start with public perceptions shaped from the personal failings of their members.
The world looks in no better shape. To add to the problems of the Reformed and Catholic churches, the orthodox world has links with unchristian nationalism. But then the dove was never free. Caged within these institutions, the Spirit can still do its work in the hearts of humans.

Thoughts on Cecil Parkinson

 

Cecil Parkinson died yesterday. When he was Secretary of State for Energy I met him on a few occasions and quite liked him as a guy. He was one of those rare politicians who changed things. The liberalisation of the City, appropriately termed Big Bang, released incredible amoral forces. His break-up of electricity in privatisation changed the landscape of the country forever, bringing down King Coal and sending me on to a different career path from the one I’d chosen. By then I was Finance Director of the CEGB. As Chou en Lai might have said about the French revolution, it’s too early to say whether Parkinson’s reforms were good or bad things. Undoubtedly, carbon emissions have fallen as a result. Britain has boomed as the world financial hub.

But I’m a northerner, without the patience of a Chinese intellect. The resulting higher exchange rate from Britain’s financial status and eighties Government indifference meant that our manufacturing base closed down far more quickly than elsewhere. These days, with my son at Nottingham University, I sometimes drive past Ratcliffe Power Station down the A453, and get goose bumps at the throb of the turbines I can always feel. The CEGB’s best power station, I can remember first going there when I was just turned 30 as Financial Controller of Midlands Region for a torrid meeting over the next year’s budget. Towards the end of the meeting, the Maintenance Superintendent challenged me to an arm wrestle over the last bone of contention. I took one look at him and gave in. Those guys were totally committed to doing the best job they could. Now all coal plant will be closed within 10 years, replaced mainly by combined cycle gas turbines. There’s nothing like as much engineering fun in those. It’s not too early to say I don’t like what’s happened.

The one thing I could never understand about Cecil was that excruciating accent, even worse than Mrs T’s. Son of a railwayman (I’m 14 years younger and the Grandson of one), from Carnforth, with local role models Thora Hird and Eric Morecambe speaking the clearest, plainest English you can get, he preferred to sound like a constipated cow. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson were only changing trains.

I know there are generational reasons. When I went up to Oxford in 1964 a northern accent was hip, whereas a generation earlier the great BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme moved his Boltonian into neutral. Peter Kay hasn’t had that need. My wife is from East London, my children from North London and they speak naturally in their native tongues, with only the occasional misunderstanding between us. It’s their identity and my gruffly lugubrious tones are mine.

The Armed Forces and the Conservative Club no doubt both had their impacts for Cecil. For me he changed his voice well beyond what was necessary, to something so much less pleasing because it was clearly false. He spoke so deliberately that he could sound slow-witted. His mid-career downfall maybe demonstrated that too well. He should have stuck with Lanky.

Does Mandarin have northern and southern accents?

Who’s a boomer?

Born just after the war finished in late 1945, I always assumed I was a baby boomer. My class at primary school was told that’s what we were. But only the younger members of that class are now caught by the ONS classification. Someone born in 1964, a boomer according to the ONS, could only be the child of one for me, a consequence of the fallibility of condoms in the pre-pill era, not that they worked well if still in the top pocket of a jacket. Older boomers respected the music of their older siblings, like Elvis. They learnt the game with Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney.
Then came the sheer northern working class, grammar school (Ringo excepted) energy and vitality of the Beatles and the Mersey sound. That’s what I still think of as baby boomer music. It was the sound of delight from the first lower class generation to get a shout. The Beatles were immediately followed by The Stones, The Kinks, and The Who from elsewhere in the country. Male mainly, but we got the brilliant Dusty early. From the US, Dylan in a sense capped it all as he still does more than half a century later. One of the characters in my book sums up early boomer attitude to what followed when he was made by his wife in the early seventies to listen to a Yes album. “I’d rather listen to bloody Mantovani.”
I quote from Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde and even a Snow Patrol song in the book, but not Bowie. Although only a year younger than me, not a word of his crossed my mind while I was writing. Even those of us who’d gone to University were in gainful employment in the white hot heat of the technological revolution by the time he hit it big, the few who’d gone to Art School included. We heard him on car radios driving to the factory or the office.
The wall to wall coverage since his death has reminded me of the many songs of his that I did know, and they were good, but I enjoyed his Tony Newley impressions best! Conversations with contemporaries reveal similar views. There are at least two categories of boomer!

New Year musings

 

By the time you reach 70, the New Year isn’t just an occasion for looking back over the last year but over your whole life. The Christmas card intake is reconciled with the Christmas Address Labels file, notified mortalities too easily deleted and unexplained absences placed under investigation. My mind has thus turned quickly from Christmas to Easter. When Jesus was up there on the cross, did he say “It is finished” as John had it, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” as Matthew and Mark report, or “Into thy hands, I commend my spirit”, Luke’s version? How did he view his life in that literally excruciating pain? As success, failure or journey to the next place on the itinerary?

To promote my book I’ve joined Facebook. Gawking at the timelines of friends from long ago, I can see lots of smiling faces with happy family lives. I can also read some grumpy words from less satisfied souls. Nearly all the evidence in both camps is of careers petering out rather than as outright wins or losses. But there’s enough there to suggest that success in the private sphere matters more than the public.

And have I made the most of myself? I married late at last to gain a happy home and family as a smiler. I occasionally grump that I didn’t quite make the highest echelon in anything. I was a good footballer who couldn’t turn pro. I just missed an Oxford first and went into business rather than nuclear research. I peaked as CFO of a major company very young, but then career flat-lined. In later life I’ve written a novel which was appreciated by those I would have expected to like it but with little traction elsewhere.

Jesus could well have said all that the apostles have quoted.The words show mood shifts but aren’t contradictory. My novel argues that what you become in life is with you from birth. For me, Jesus was wholly man throughout his life, and from his death wholly God at the start. He looked down from the failure of the cross to glimpse the success of his life.

I should have achieved more. There was too much indecision, too much procrastination. But I do have a great family, and have had some wonderful friends, human, canine and feline, from a long and fortunate life. I did eventually finish the novel that was in me, even if it didn’t grab most. I thank God for it all.

As his Bobship wrote: “My love she speaks softly. She knows there’s no success like failure. And that failure’s no success at all.”

Hordes

I’ve banged on a couple of times about thinking myself a yeoman, someone who will come to the defence of the country when needed but who will bugger off back home straight afterwards. I wouldn’t be a fat lot of good at seventy anyway, although I’d probably be more use now than I was fifty years ago by telling everyone to keep their head down. But those like me have to face what for us is an unpalatable truth, that many people, particularly young men, revel in the camaraderie of the crowd, even or especially when it leads to danger and death. In evolutionary terms, this is none too surprising, as such behaviour is seen in other apes and fits in with hearing a collective voice in our heads to go forth and multiply. It’s where revolution springs from. There’s not much wisdom in age either. There will always be a General who thinks he can win the next war.
A settled state of affairs is not exciting enough, even if reasonably fair and efficient, and if a wish for excitement can be shared with a horde of others then the need for something new and extreme has received its own validation. When things are relatively stable, life seems trivial, and the surplus time spent on hedonistic pleasures usually forgettable. It could be that the cult of the individual espoused in the West matches the needs only of narcissists, a group I probably belong to given my need to write blogs. Most folk want a group purpose too.
And yet despite its many internal wars, particularly in the gruesome twentieth century, the West has developed a society which has survived and grown through the middle ages, the renaissance and the enlightenment. Apart perhaps from in those few crazy years when our hormones uncouple our bodies from brains, doesn’t this show what people prefer? Maybe, but those outside our club can observe what goes on and don’t like what they see. Our culture has moved on a long way from the enlightenment.
I’ve read many gloomy articles suggesting that the West lacks the will to defend its values against the gathering hordes. We certainly don’t see society creation as building the Kingdom of God on earth any longer, if we ever did. That’s been kicked into the world of metaphor or make-believe. But that also means that we won’t turn the other cheek for long or ever love others as ourselves. After a few defeats, I reckon our governments will play dirty.
Yes, until the end of time the devil rules the world. My advice in the very long interim is to steer clear of bad crowds and duck when the cannonballs fly.

Labour Englishness

I picked this title up from Isabel Hardman in Monday’s Times in an article seeking to explain how the Labour vote in Oldham had survived Jeremy Corbyn. Wednesday’s Times had another columnist Alice Thomson trying to define Britishness, albeit reluctantly. Although not always expressed as such, the question is being asked in two separate contexts: the secularisation of the indigenous British on the one hand and the wish to find a statement of national identity that can be applied to more recent immigrants on the other. Inevitably, this second context is today dominated by Islamic considerations. Forty years ago the issue would have been seen in black and white terms. But now, black and white cultures are understood not to be that different, both containing a love of blues music, football and cricket, a liberal attitude at least towards heterosexual sex and perhaps a residual affection for Christianity.
I’m seventy years old. I feel like I’m one of the last Victorians and am one of the first baby boomers. I remember well my Victorian grandparents and liked them. I used to sell deck chair tickets for brass band concerts in a Lancashire seaside town as a vacation job and there was nothing cold or austere about those folk born in the 1880s who came along to hear that hauntingly mournful sound. They would talk to me about space travel and ask about the concert taking place in the Hall behind the bandstand that evening, a Merseybeat band usually.
In 1964, aged just 19, I was delighted when Harold Wilson became prime minister, and in 1966 I even canvassed for Labour in an adjacent village. I always like Harold, his northernness being part of what I meant by Englishness. I’ve not voted for Labour much since 1979, when I was in no doubt about south-coast Sunny Jim in preference to Mrs T. After then, a party that preferred metropolitan entryists to Denis Healey wasn’t for me. I admit to a regional aspect to this but not being able to hack the single-issue politics of demonstrations, marches, spokespeople and lobby groups, is perhaps also related to being a mix of villager and townie in background, never urban. I have a conceit I cannot rid myself of, the English as yeomen, living their lives in private but available when the nation needs them.
Alice Thomson talked about Britishness. I am one sixteenth Welsh, fifteen sixteenths English as discovered by genealogy. Since 1600 and therefore probably from 600, my roots are either northern or from Worcestershire. My Y chromosome is fittingly from Yorkshire, just over the boundary line in Heptonstall, but this doesn’t prevent me from indulging in friendly rivalry with the ugly buggers from the dry side of the Pennines. There’s no Irish or Scottish in me, much as I enjoy lilting Celtic music with accompanying tales. The only time I side with Scots is on New Year’s Eve, and I have every year since the BBC started that wretched programme containing no vestige of culture from the ice rink at Somerset House with fireworks over the Thames. I’ll tell my east-ender wife how I’d prefer Andy Stewart singing, “Donald. Where’s your troosers?”’
I am mainly what’s called anglo-saxon, that mix of Germanic tribes settling with those who had come to virgin Britain earlier when there was still a land bridge with Europe. In my youth, that was what was meant by English, although after 1066 the ruling class were not English in this sense. My male ancestors probably didn’t get the vote until 1918, not a lot earlier than the women. I’m chippy to that extent.
I was christened as an Anglican in a church mentioned in the Domesday Book. Nearly all the big events of our family, the births, marriages and deaths have taken place in a church. I find hope and comfort in the Christian message of God being with us, that humans can become God, that victory is in defeat and that only at the end of time will God be all in all. I am happy to view the three aspects of God as less than Almighty before then. For me, a lesser God is a greater God.
In more recent times, I’ve read the less reductionist philosophers espouse the notion that personhood is the story we tell ourselves about our life. In my novel “Where’s Sailor Jack?” I toy with the notion that the story we become is somehow in us from the start, another quaint conceit I can’t shake off. Even having the idea though shows how deep is my sense of personhood as a Lancastrian, middle of the road Christian, fortunate beyond belief but not a member of the ruling class.
The first person I talked to in my life who didn’t have a white skin was a high-born Hindu from Calcutta when I went in 1964 to University at Oxford. This was at a time of white social mobility. From being born in a village in 1945 as the war ended, and brought up in a terraced house with an outside lavatory to going to the most prestigious and snobby University in the country if not the world 19 years later is testament both to what the Labour Party enabled and to the Christian conscience of paternal Toryism. Did I have in me then that a multi-cultural Britain would be established within another half century? I certainly can’t recall it. The nearest I got was singing “We Shall Overcome” along with Joan Baez.
There isn’t just one England. I imagine that both Isabel and Alice are from the home counties, while being thoughtful and well-meaning women. In the unlikely event they were to read this, they’d probably find it somewhat anachronistic.To the extent that they’re county set rather than metropolitan, there could be the odd view they’d recognise. But then we all are anachronisms by the time we’re seventy. Like my Victorian bandstand chums I would talk to the young people about the today’s equivalent of the space programme and rock music, if Simon Cowell hadn’t bought up the rights. I think that’s my Labour Englishness at work.
So I’d be in trouble both on secularisation and on immigration if my upbringing, religion or whatever didn’t tell me that you can’t force anyone into belief and you should treat your neighbour as yourself.