186. Japan in mid-Essex

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Digging into the novels of Haruki Murukami – above all the ‘Wind-up Bird Chronicle’ and ‘1Q84’ – has been one of life’s great pleasures. But I would still like to see Japan for myself.

The tea ceremonies, the yakuzi, the high-speed trains. The discipline of a people able to live, commute and work in tight spaces. The Buddhist temples. Geisha girls and indigenous whiskies. Obedience. The political legacy of the emperors, and the permeation of US business culture. Obedience. The martial arts propensities. And above all the cherry blossom in spring.

The BBC’s Monty Don made a great documentary about Japan last year. He arrived in Kyoto for the first cherry blossoms in late March, and captured vivid shots from the limited number of days when the blossom adorns the trees.  It was like a gorgeously mad dream.

I may never be rich enough to witness it in person. So have come to treasure the road where I live. Cherry Garden Road, Great Waltham. It lives up to its name, by virtue of 10 or so full-sized cherry trees planted along the length of the road, and another 12 or so that are still growing.

Here are my photos of a nearby tree, over the 16 to 23 April period. It’s a good time to be here.

185. TV Smith

Saturday brought a warm April evening. I stood outside the Cricketers pub, in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Where I first met my wife, in September 1980.

463 months later, I’m with my top mate Jono, his daughter Lyra and his brother Toby. Great people, with whom I can be myself, no pretence required. The bouncers point us to an extension of the pub, entitled The Venue. We get our armbands at the door, and I note that the Cricketers is presenting the gig with SPUNK (Southend punk) club.

I’m always nervous before gigs. Tonight, I’m not sure if I will like the music. Or if I will feel too old. It has been too long since I last did this. We only catch the last song of the first act, Toska Wilde, a cross-dressing singer. Don’t hear enough to have any opinion.

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The second act, Emily Flea, a punkette, could be straight out of the 1980s. As a pint of Hophead pale ale sinks in, relaxation begins. There are 30 people here at most. Emily is a two-chord bundle of animosity, who lets her guard down when her girlfriend joins her on stage. They fall about laughing at forgetting the lyrics. She is soft and loving beneath that spiky carapace.

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Lyra is watchful, still 14, sticking close to her dad in this dark venue. She had played us three self-penned songs on her guitar earlier in the day. Maureen and I were stunned. Melodies and words and playing to take your breath away, showing a maturity that made me think of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. She may already be more of a musician than Emily Flea.

Another beer to ready us for the next act, the Petty Antics. Two sixth form lads, by the look of it. Baggy white teeshirts and floppy hair belie the sound: the floor-shaking guitar and drums of the White Stripes, and a voice that is more unpolished death metal than Jack White

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How can this lad not be hoarse for the next two months? He talks politely and happily between songs, clean cut as the boy next door. Then off they blast again, and the last song is extended for several minutes beyond its natural life, as the singer/guitarist goes all Townshend/Hendrix and lets his guitar feedback from the floor, where he crawls on it, kicks it around and then tries to stick it up the drummer’s nose.

My ears ring happily. Time for a Jack Daniels. The barman nips around the back into the main section of the pub for parts of each order. Maybe 50 people are here now.

Should it be more? The tickets were just £6, and the place could hold 250 punters, easily.

Tim (TV) Smith was the singer for the Adverts in the late 1970s, before I met Maureen. You might know them for the song ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’, or perhaps ‘One Chord Wonders’.

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TV Smith has become a bit of a hero for Jono in the 40-year interim. Touring, in bands and as a solo artist, making more records. I know nothing about him, but am told by my music-loving mate that he is a modern version of the medieval troubadour.

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Travelling to gigs by train, lugging his guitar case, and, tonight, selling his CDs from a small corner table, while the other artists perform. 63 now, this Romford, Essex-born man has a cool black leather jacket with multiple zips, white hair and the smile of an angel when he talks to those who approach him.

He is proper skinny, white arms carrying not an inch of spare flesh, as he steps out to perform.

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The first few songs test the water, as the crowd edges nearer. He plays his acoustic guitar and sings with his eyes closed. Could TV Smith still be nervous, even after 40 plus years of performing? He talks disparagingly about Brexit in one of the song breaks, and everybody is quiet. We are shy as well. “Have I said the wrong thing?” he asks, honest vulnerability vying with that seraphim’s grin.

The ice breaks with ‘Lion and the Lamb’. It has an epic feel. People start to sing along, Toes tap and legs move.

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And your glamour fades so quick
Soars up like a rocket
Down like a stick, down like a stick
Well, be strong when they want it
Be weak when they want it
If you want to fit

 Stand and say
I am the lion and the lamb
I am part of the plan
I am the lion and the lamb

His short songs come thick and fast now, with no introductions. Often with strong social commentary. My third Jack Daniels is a toast to this persistent celebrator of British underdogs, who is beginning to open his eyes now and again, as the momentum picks up. Still lost deeply in the physicality of what he does, strumming powerfully but now visibly letting himself feel the crowd willing him on.

He ends with a couple of Adverts songs, and people join him onstage, singing along.

A heartfelt round of applause and TV Smith is done. He wanders contentedly around the stage, tidying up, while everyone winds down. I imagine him going home alone soon, or staying in a cheap bed and breakfast. He looks like he has found his niche in life, and maybe until death.

As we drive back to Chelmsford, remembering kicks in. How these types of intimate music evenings, in small venues, are so cathartic for the soul. It is such a joy just to be present, watching the crowd as much as the musicians. Taken out of yourself for a few hours. So that you wake up the next day, thinking: “I lived a bit last night”.

 

 

184. Pastille

Pastille might be my favourite among our six cats. Maybe not. This was her resting this evening after a hard day in the sunshine.

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Cajoled by Lauren, we bought brothers Pastille and Pippa in autumn 2011, and another kitten, Bob. When they played together, rushing up and down the stairs, Pastille always came off worse. Slightly smaller, and less inclined to fight-play. So I made Pastille a promise: “I’ll always look after you.”

Pastille and Pippa both had a sex change about one year later. Pippa became pregnant and then the vet, when neutering Pastille, noticed she was female.

Pastille needs the most love of our six. She insists on eating separately from the others, and if the litter tray is unclean, has been known to shit on carpets and under beds. So she has been cursed more regularly by me than any of her peers. The other five all venture out into the fields at the back, and catch vermin that they bring back for our inspection. Pastille stays within the garden, and often the house.

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When she was about three, at our previous house, she was basking in the sun one day when a monster tractor came growling past in the field at the back, spraying fertiliser. I watched her sprint at greyhound speed towards the house, and then take off through the air when the garden ran out. She hit the back wall of the house about five feet up in the air, and then stayed at this height, running round two intersecting walls like Spiderman, before dropping down to ground level and disappearing into the house. Amazing and hilarious.

A couple of years ago she was very poorly. Her coat was tatty, and her fur falling out. She was constantly either scratching her fleas or licking herself. And shitting everywhere. Her weight had fallen to the extent that lifting her was like picking up a nearly empty shopping bag. We had the brainwave of feeding her fresh, uncooked chicken, and it worked almost straight away. The weight went back on, the fur flourished and the fleas disappeared, helped by medication.  No poo on the carpet for well over a year now. She clamours for the chicken each afternoon.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in the lounge she quietly sits down next to me. And then a purring makes itself known, rumbling away like the inner voice of the universe. It is the most perfect thing.

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183. Halfway

 

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My original idea was to write one blog per day for a year. September 2018 to September 2019.

Easier said than done. The reality is that life gets in the way, with its schedules, moods and fatigues. So the new target is to allow myself about 14 months. But to still write 365 blogs, that wrap up the course of this life. This means that the halfway line has been reached.

While I suck on a lemon slice, and retie my laces, some observations come to mind. Digging back through my life has been at times joyful and at other times torturous. Maybe that is normal? I have no idea.

Remembering when I was happy certainly brings a surge of happiness into the present moment. I find myself creasing up, often crying with laughter at the funniest bits. Not sure anybody else found it amusing, but I am grinning now at the drunken notion in Blog 100 of pulling someone’s head off because they dared knock over our drinks. And Blog 145, my favourite joke. The piano player with Tourettes. Also Sue holding up that magazine as she sank below the river in the last blog. Or when Eric walked into my bedroom to see me strumming along meatily to ‘Smoke on the Water’ (Blog 20).

The surprise bonus is how catharsis comes knocking after the effort of recalling and mapping out the difficult times. I never relish that task. Opening apertures to darker periods causes some very real depression in the here and now. The feelings can linger heavily and gloomily for a day or more. And then some kind of psychological magic goes to work. The poisons leech out.

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Absorbed by the gift of confession? Cauterised by exposure to the light? The blogs can theoretically be seen by anyone around the world able to read English.

However it works, there is a substantial healing to old wounds. Maybe not completely, but more than enough new strength is accrued each time to push me on and down into the next looming trough. (Can a trough loom?)

There is never much of a writing plan, aside from a rough chronological timeline. I like to let spontaneity have its head. To wake up quietly, have a coffee, watch the sun rise, and let the subject matter reveal itself. What is asking to be written today?

Finally, thanks very much to everybody that has shown appreciation, or commented. It’s a lovely feeling to get positive feedback.

182. Big mistake

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My highlight of summer 1985 came one August morning as Maureen, her best friend Sue and I were walking along a Thames towpath, somewhere in Berkshire. We were heading back to our hired boat, moored a few hundred yards further along. Bearing bread, milk, newspapers and, in Sue’s case, a magazine.

At one point the path narrowed, and Sue was forced to walk next to the river’s edge. Then she was gone. Disappeared. We looked in the river. All that could be seen was the magazine, tightly gripped in a fist, jutting just above the water level. Sue, a Scot, had paid for that magazine. It came out of the river still readable. The three of us wept with laughter, even the drenched Sue.

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The boating holiday took in Windsor, Reading, Oxford and all points between. Good fun, nice pubs, great sights, fair weather, and good company, with Sue’s husband Martin making up the foursome. In Oxford, I had a pizza whose chillies were so spicy that I hallucinated, feeling like I was coming out of my body.

I enjoyed a three month summer break that year, from the July day when quitting Britvic to the dreary October morning when I re-joined the rat race. I had to go back to work, as unemployment benefit – despite its mortgage payments – was insufficient to have any kind of a life.

Equally, Maureen was travelling to London each day. That was unfair and I had to step back up. The path of least resistance – and what I saw as the best chance of a job – was a return to betting shop management, this time with the independent London bookmaker A. and R. Dennis. Six days a week by train up to Forest Gate and back.

It was depressing, a defeated return into an unwanted career. It had to be done. But so depressing that I remember next to nothing of the job. My cashier Bridget, a Geordie woman, always left a cigarette smell in the toilet. Pat the window cleaner, supported West Ham. (It was the club’s best ever season, third place). TV screens were being introduced into the shops, so the punters could view live racing. The punters were not threatening. Neither were they memorable. I hated the travelling with a vengeance.

One Friday evening, our friends Paul and Katie came over to Chelmsford, and I tipped lots of massively welcome pints of bitter down my throat in town, at the Railway Tavern.

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Woke at 9 the next morning. 75 minutes late. Fuck, shit, bugger, bollocks. I phoned Martin in a panic.

“Mate, I need a big favour. Can you drive me to Forest Gate by 10?” He was round in about 10 minutes, and I somehow got the shop ready before Les, the district manager, popped in at 10.30.

I think my subconscious was trying to extricate me from a life without meaning. That attempt failed.

A few weeks later, in early May 1986, Les came into the shop unexpectedly one afternoon, and stayed to watch me balance the books after racing finished. From his pocket he extracted a wad of settled bets from the shop. It was standard procedure at head office to look through the occasional batch from each shop, to check for any major mistakes or foul play.

On the top of the batch was a winning greyhound bet settled for about £240. Trap 5 to beat Trap 6 at Hackney. Les looked at me with intensity. “Remember this one?” I actually did. It was from the shop’s biggest punter, Barry, a black guy who worked in a business next door. I said: “Yep, he had been winning prolifically on the afternoon, betting it back and winning more, and I called him over for that one as he had forgotten to collect.”

Les grimaced. “Sorry Kevin. Trap 6 beat Trap 5.”

“Oh no. Shit. I think I know what’s coming next.”

He counted out the wages and holiday money owed to me. “Got no choice mate. We know it’s a mistake, as your settling has been good. But if you can do it once, you can do it again. We can’t take that chance. Too expensive. No problem with giving you a reference though.”

I didn’t know whether to exult or fret on the train home. Looking back, I believe that whatever part of our being looks out for us had deliberately engineered my over-payment mistake.

Maureen was stoical. “Don’t worry. I know you’ll get something.”

We lived just a few hundred yards from the dairy run by Chelmsford Star Coop. I got myself down there the next day. “I lost my job yesterday – you got any vacancies out on the milk rounds?”

I was told they might have something. A phone call the next day said I could start next Monday, and would get a couple of week’s training to see if I suited.

What time did they want me in?

Four o’clock.

Had I ever got up that early?

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181. The cat that wagged its tail

 

Daughter Lauren and her partner Chris have a cat named Lorelei, which has begun to ape their dog Max. Lorelei has spotted that Max gets most of the privileges, and is determined to get in on the act. There they are together, in Max’s basket.

So she now wags her tail, instead of twitching it, and places her head on Lauren’s knee, and looks at her longingly. Hoping for more attention and petting.

Lorelei has always caught my attention, as a tough, self-contained creature, set on doing her own unique thing. A bit of a hard nut. Uncompromising. Maybe some parallels there with Britain 75 years ago. Not the world’s greatest power anymore, at the end of World War Two, but still sitting in at the top table, on its own merits, having fought heroically against the Nazi war machine.

Somehow, Lorelei, recently, and the UK, over a period of decades, have been persuaded not to be themselves.

Lorelei, to her credit, is at least looking to slip into the tenacious, energetic and alert ranks of border collies.

Britain is now rarely distinguishable from a US poodle, or, as Pamela Anderson said a few days ago, “America’s bitch”.

Now it stands at a crossroads. One choice is to roll over abysmally, yet again, to cosy up to the world’s bully, run by the world’s grossest politician. The other is to show some backbone, by refusing to allow Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States for what is essentially top-class journalism, in particular for exposing evidence of American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Dragged by police out of the Ecuadorian embassy at the end of last week, after the South American country buckled to US pressure, Assange is accused by the US Department of Justice of conspiring with former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to commit “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”. Manning was arrested in 2010 for disclosing more than 700,000 confidential documents, including a video of civilians murdered from a helicopter in Iraq.

It is easy enough to search out this video, contained in the 17-minute film “Collateral Murder”, on the internet. Released by Assange and ‘co-leaker’ Chelsea Manning, it shows classified footage from 2007 of American helicopter crews slaughtering a group of 12 Iraqis. The dead included two Reuters reporters and a family in a car, containing children, which stopped to help a wounded person lying on the sidewalk.

It is the vilest thing I have seen in years. Please watch it, while remembering that Assange and Manning risked their freedom to make it available, and that the protagonists were participating in an illegal invasion and occupation, outside of international law. (In my professional writing, I always refer to the US-led invasion of Iraq, rather than the ‘Second Iraq War’).

The dialogue that you will hear between the helicopter gunship crew and their command centre illustrates beyond doubt that they had as much concern for human life as did those who were responsible for sending them to Iraq in the first place. Comments of “nice” at each death. “Look at those dead bastards.” And “we lit them up”. Standard operating procedure, for the US invaders.

It is a great aid for me to remember this film, when the human livestock journalists at the Daily Mail run a headline entitled “That’ll wipe the smile off your face” as Assange is taken away by police. “A soaring ego, vile personal habits, and after years in his squalid den, hardly a friend left,” says the Mail, unwittingly describing itself.

Shocking as the Iraqi footage is, it is one of countless horrors inflicted on Iraq and other sovereign Middle East nations, in the name of “freedom and democracy”. So for me, Assange’s Wikileaks does the world a huge service every time it publishes details of these and other horrors. His reward for that service has been growing media-inspired ridicule, and what looks like a deprivation of his human rights.

Theresa May has stressed that nobody is “above the law”. So presumably we can expect Tony Blair to be dragged, handcuffed, from his multi-million pound Georgian home in London. And sent to The Hague to stand trial. Under Nuremberg standards, Blair can be tried for the deaths of a million Iraqis. Assange’s ‘crime’ is journalism: holding the greedy and powerful to account, baring their lies and empowering the globe with facts.

Over many years, Wikileaks has consistently exposed not just war crimes but the slime-for-ethics in which many politicians and corporations wallow.

Hence, the Australia-born Assange’s honours and awards:

– 2008, The Economist New Media Award
– 2009, Amnesty International UK Media Awards
– 2010, TIME Person of the Year, Reader‘s Choice
– 2010, Sam Adams Award
– 2010, Le Monde Readers‘ Choice Award for Person of the Year
– 2011, Free Dacia Press Freedom Award
– 2011, Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal
– 2011, Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism
– 2011, Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism
– 2011, Voltaire Award for Free Speech
– 2011, International Piero Passetti Journalism Prize
– 2011, Jose Couso Press Freedom Award
– 2012, Big Brother Awards Hero of Privacy
– 2013, Global Exchange Human Rights Award, People‘s Choice
– 2013, Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts
– 2013, New York Festivals World‘s Best TV & Films Silver World Medal
– 2013, Brazilian Press Association International Human Rights Award
– 2014, Union of Journalists in Kazakhstan Top Prize
– 2019, Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize

These awards recognise Wikileaks’ role in bringing wrongdoing to light. In case anyone has forgotten, that is the key role of the press, or Fourth Estate, which is enshrined in the US Constitution’s First Amendment. Not to entertain, lie, dissemble or show political bias, but to hold power to accountability, and to seek and reveal truth. To never stop calling out power, irrespective of your political loyalties. Again and again, until the fuckers are so ashamed that they start to improve their behaviour.

Maybe Wikileaks influenced the 2016 election results in the US, as some say. Did voters take account of the exposé of Hillary Clinton as a backer and beneficiary of jihadism in the Middle East? There is no proof. But, if revealing truths about the corruption of Clinton and the Democrats somehow caused Trump to be elected, so be it. That process of revelation is what journalism is for, above all else. Electorates need facts to vote. Clinton reckons Assange “must answer for what he has done”, which is interesting.

Assange has consistently, deliberately and unashamedly spoiled the flower arrangements of the turds who sit at the top table. Like the detailed description of American ambassadors discussing how the governments in Syria and Venezuela might be overthrown. Good for him.

I have no idea what he is like as a man. Is he a rapist? If there is convincing evidence, and Sweden wants him, then send him for trial for that alleged offence, not to a kangaroo court in the same United States that tortured Chelsea Manning. Yet much of the corporate media writes of the second eventuality as if it is the way forward, like turkeys anticipating Christmas.

“If he is extradited to the US, that’s pretty much it,” said my mate Martin, also a journalist. “Journalism will become even more indistinguishable from PR, unless you risk breaking the law.”

One of the best independent political journalists, Glen Greenwald, was spot on in his observations. “The move is clearly a threat to the First Amendment, because it criminalizes core journalistic functions,” he highlighted.

Greenwald explained this clearly. “The Obama DOJ – despite launching notoriously aggressive attacks press freedoms – recognized this critical principle when it came to WikiLeaks. It spent years exploring whether it could criminally charge Assange and WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. It ultimately decided it would not do so, and could not do so, consistent with the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment. After all, the Obama DOJ concluded, such a prosecution would pose a severe threat to press freedom because there would be no way to prosecute Assange for publishing classified documents without also prosecuting the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for doing exactly the same thing.”

If the Trump government is handed Assange on a plate by Britain, a precedent will be set for anyone in the world who publishes facts about the United States. That poses a greater threat to press freedoms than anything I have seen in this life.

Back to the crossroads, where the UK has the option to further disgrace itself by inserting its tongue even more deeply into the bright orange anus of Donald Trump. And fully become “America’s bitch”. The cat that wagged its tail. The has-been country that helped throttle the last vestiges of a free press. A little province in a big US-centralised empire, just like Australia, which has said nothing to protect its citizen.

Or we could show courage, mettle, independence and the spirit of fairness and justice for which Britain is still known internationally. Is that a myth? Or can we treat a top journalist and truth-teller with respect. It is not too late.

The pictures at the end of last week indicated that the decision may already have been made. Multiple policemen manhandling a sick journalist.

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180. Aaron Ramsey

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My good mate Martin Clark and I watched Arsenal play Napoli Thursday night. As always, we chatted about everything under the sun, including  Julian Assange’s arrest.

That darkness was outshone by Aaron Ramsey’s performance. I cannot think of any footballer who makes me happy in the way that Aaron does. Because he enjoys playing, and transmits that to onlookers. And because he is so gifted, and imaginative, and unpredictable. I was babbling superlatives almost every time he touched the ball. Two footed, fit, fast, balanced, skillful, brave, shrewd and loving every second that he plays for a living.

At the peak of his powers, aged 28, you would think Arsenal would do everything in their power to hang onto him, including the wage rise he craved. The manager Unai Emery seems ambitious, but has made a colossal blunder, in my opinion. Juventus will pay him £400,000/week. I know, silly money. But get past that impossible, unwarranted and insane football salary reality, and you have a match winner who can help win trophies. The winning goal in two of Arsenal’s three recent cup final victories is proof of that pudding.

And take a look at his goal against Fulham. Four touches.

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The first and last bearing the hallmarks of a football wizard. How I would love Ramsey at West Ham.

Maybe he’ll get his hands on the Champions League trophy over in Italy next season.