160. UFOs over Hackney Marshes

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Now and again, during our time living in Ilford, Maureen and I would travel over to Clapton, in East London, to visit Violet, my grandmother on dad’s side. First of all in the car, before it was sold, and then via a bus to Bow, and then a second bus that stopped right outside Norbury Court, the name of the tower block where she lived. Up at number 13C.

It was a rough area, to which Vi had been rehoused along with many other residents from her old road in nearby Homerton. Her sisters Flo and Lil lived together on the same floor. Often we would look down from Vi’s balcony to check that the Vauxhall Viva wasn’t being dismantled in the car park thirteen floors down. To get that high, you had to ride up in a lift stinking of piss, facing a gauntlet of vulnerability to some of the young local lads. Muggings in the lifts were not unknown. Unemployment in the area was rife in the early 1980s, and there was a menacing feeling that lingered around the foot of the building, where the wind whistled through the open entrances.

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Inside there was a different kind of endurance test. Nanny would feed us with monster-sized dinners. I can still remember the taste of her roast potatoes and gravy, and the difficulties in clearing the plate. We were allowed half an hour’s respite before she wheeled out pudding, bless her. If memory serves, there was also a cake offering later in the proceedings.

I struggle to remember what we talked about, except for one occasion when she mentioned that she had seen multiple unidentified flying objects (UFOs) from her balcony. She had a great view across the river Lea onto Hackney Marshes, where there were reportedly 120 adjoining football pitches at one stage in the 1950s and 60s. The lack of light over the area at night made the sky clearer here than the surrounding areas.

I’m pretty sure my reply would have been dismissive, that she was imagining this. I do think that she had probably read reports in the local papers that she took. Hackney Marshes was the home for regular paranormal sightings and many ‘crop circles’, which would have made their way into East London media. Did she sit and look out for anything that might vaguely resemble a UFO?

Looking back, I would love to have pumped her for all the information she had. There have been tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of UFO sightings around the world, to the extent that the good old ‘no smoke without fire’ axiom has to come into play. Is every single one of those untold YouTube videos a fake, or misconstrued?

My cousin’s son swears on his life that he saw and followed a UFO for miles in his car one evening, guided by the triangle of lights that is so common among reports. Back in Blog 22, I describe a camping holiday in North Norfolk in August 2013, when sleeping outside under the stars to view the Perseid meteor showers. I still do not know what happened, for sure.

The ‘aliens’ theory is not the sole explanation. It is a matter of public record that hundreds of German scientists and engineers were brought to America after WW2, some of these high-ranking Nazis, as the US pushed to maintain military advantage over the Soviet Union. The defectors included Wernher von Braun and his team that had invented the V2 rocket. With a little persistent digging, it becomes apparent that the Germans were working during the war on several new forms of aerospace propulsion, which had no need for conventional fuel.

If that particular research paid off, then you have a far more reasoned explanation for some of the ‘UFO’ sightings across the world. As the US’ chief military ally, the UK would have been party to the technology. But then again, you might argue that the technology would now be old hat, relatively, and would surely have been brought into the public gaze by Washington and its NATO allies?

It would be difficult to have a strong idea about any of this. But it made me smile to think of Violet looking out across the soccer pitches at night. She is long gone, as is Norbury Court. How I would love to have quietly joined her, for a ringside seat. Probably chomping on a big slice of Battenberg cake.

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159. Concresence, again

 

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One of the unexpected pleasures in this blogging lark has been that other bloggers have started to ‘follow’ the posts. I generally try and return the compliment.

The original idea was to write myself through the wintertime blues and leave a record of my life for the kids. And perhaps to fill in some of the gaps that friends were not aware of. Above all to be truthful, which hasn’t always come easy.

I don’t write with any audience in mind. Just to please myself. But it has made life more interesting to begin reading the blogs of others, to see how they do it, and to become familiar with their styles and subject matter.

All of the people below have provided enjoyment, entertainment or education. One guy mentioned previously (Blog 110) is astijake John (https://astijake.wordpress.com/), who writes mainly funny and sad personal stories – and tells them very skilfully.

Similarly, the blogs from Mark Bickerton (https://markbickerton.com/blog) are either page-turning excerpts from his novel about life on the road or other witty and poignant insights into the reckoning with self that any of us avoid at our peril.

jason Scott Brendel’s blog (https://jasonscottbrendel.wordpress.com/) is also worth checking out. Irony and absurd humour that is right up my street.

‘Football Explainers’ does what it says on the tin, with regard to a wide span of soccer stories and issues, mainly concerning English soccer (https://footballexplainers.wordpress.com/).

William, who writes ‘a1000mistakes’ (https://a1000mistakes.wordpress.com/) is much appreciated because he writes about music, often reminding me of artists that I haven’t played in a while or opening a window onto Aussie bands I know nothing about. His art blogs are great because I know of so few of the painters he covers.

Another excellent reviewer – films this time – is The Arcane Nibbler (https://arcanenibbler.com/). His ‘Reviews and Assorted Crap for Your Engagement and Enragement’ are exceptionally well considered and laid out.

One unexpected source of help has been ‘2JustAnotherPost – Beauty, Health and Fitness’, whose blog (https://2justanotherpost.wordpress.com/) gives simple exercises for tired, under-exercised bodies.

Finally, ‘Kirilson’ is a real surprise package (https://kirilson.com/)Visits to some beautiful Italian and Bulgarian cities have provided readers with great photographs.

There are also many other blogs I have enjoyed, maybe to be mentioned another time.

158. Lynch’s fix

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I am not self-pitying.

Life’s ups have held sway over the downs, and my resilience and reason kick into play when the black dog turns up. But sometimes it looms so darkly, and growls so menacingly, that going to bed early is the best option.

Yesterday was such a day. Pinning down the why is as much art as science, but I can point to six immediate triggers, in no particular order.

The weather. The torrential rain and grey sky contrasting with the marvellous mini-heatwave in February. Sunshine is my forever tonic, lifting my spirits in the face of all challenges.

Our male cat Bob is limping badly. The question of whether to let him heal naturally, or take him to the vet – and incur unpredictable expense – is a torment.

Writing about the misery of Cheltenham, in March 2000, brought a little of that feeling back.

I lifted a heavy box onto a wardrobe and felt a calf muscle pull and ping. Every subsequent step was a reminder that middle age is finite, even though I’m clinging hard.

The comedown from a great birthday: the weekend away and a Monday evening meal with Maureen, daughters Lauren and Josie plus my brother Neil. And Max, pictured with Lauren. That beautiful border collie is enough to cheer anybody.

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And the bastard moon. I don’t keep records but there are mentions in preceding blogs of how one or two of the last 10 days before the full moon tend to hit me for six. There is a power in that waxing that cannot be explained nor battled, in my experience (Blog 96).

If I wanted to add to the list, there is always the background stuff. I try to ring-fence this from the here and now, lest it become overwhelming. Again, with no prioritisation:

My dad’s short-term memory is blitzed. 91, he cannot remember what was said 30 seconds ago. Fortunately, his daily routines are burned deep into his psyche. Newsagent, cooking, shopping, cat, bowls club. When he can no longer cope, a troubling choice looms for all of us. He loves being at home. “King of my castle”, he says.

Maureen’s health. Unremitting headaches, recent returning symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, a cough that has lasted for the best part of two decades. And the condition of plantar fasciitis, which has limited her ability to walk far or stay on her feet for extended periods. That last one is improving. And we are wondering whether she has a gluten allergy, which could explain a few things. Unsurprisingly, her moods can be as low as mine.

Josie’s partner, Jackson, will not talk to or be in the presence of Lauren’s husband, Chris. They used to be best mates. This has wrecked our family gatherings, and brought Maureen to despair so often. I distance myself from it, to keep the pain out.

Money. Oh fuck. Money. Since our 2003 crash, we have paid about £215,000 in rent. Always behind with the taxman, and juggling those payments with the need to enjoy life. Borrowing from Peter (friends and family) here and there to pay Paul (HMRC, landlord, debt management scheme etc) and subsidise Rory, who will be in further education until next summer.

The future. No house of our own, pensions mainly cashed in to stay alive. Six cats to feed and nurse through old age. The money from dad’s house may manifest one day, but cannot be relied upon. I don’t factor that into any equation, because it may be needed to pay for his future care.

Laying somewhere between the immediate triggers and the background stuff is work. My journalism remains far better than competent, but the enthusiasm has gone. It’s a chore, and I have long pulled away from the network of bankers, insurers and lawyers that fed my first two decades as a freelancer. I cannot maintain the pretence of being interested in what they have to say, which is ultimately about bottom lines on financial sheets. Yuk. But I get to work from home, and people still want my stuff. It’s technically good. That’s the trade-off.

How long can it continue? How long will our landlord be happy for us to stay here? These are massive imponderables.

Despite this hill of shite, we stay afloat, like swans that may look elegant but are kicking their legs like mad beneath the water. There are days of such happiness, and – here comes the cliché – many others are far worse off.

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Not sure that David Lynch would have wanted such an introduction.

I got into him a couple of years back, with ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’. Mesmerising TV. As imaginative as anything I’ve seen. I don’t know anybody else that liked it, apart from (now and again) Maureen, who sees and appreciates visual artistry better than me.

Detective series are ten a penny these days, and so have to have exceptional characters or stories to grab me by the knackers. This had both, including Lynch himself as the nearly deaf FBI agent Gordon Cole.

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Also a minor cameo role for David Bowie. And the masterful Kyle MacLachlan in two roles, painting the gulf between good and evil.

It ceased to matter who killed Laura Palmer. Because you got to see into other dimensions, to witness tulpas manifesting, to hear great rock music at the end of each episode, sometimes with old man Lynch himself singing. You got to think about life after death, the Bible, aliens, excellent apple pie, the stunning beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The fundamental decency of smalltown America, and the unending corruption of the CIA. Where else will you get all that?

If weird doesn’t interest you, Lynch can do normal. His film ‘The Straight Story’ has a bloke in his 70s taking a trip from Iowa to see his dying brother in Wisconsin. On a lawnmower. Ok, not quite normal. If you like beautiful women, as Lynch does, watch Mulholland Drive. Wow.

Most public figures leave me cold. They will not tell it like it is. Because I like his work though, I have listened and watched several interviews with David Lynch. The man is happy, consistent, relaxed, thoughtful, optimistic and imaginative. Maureen loves listening to him. Her bullshit detector is sound.

I had put his felicity down to little more than the determination to do what he loves, but then came across the following interview just over a month ago.

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If you can spare 38 minutes, it emerges that he has practiced transcendental meditation for 45 years. You might say – so what? When he talks about its effects, the impact, for me, was electrifying. The banishing of depression, and the daily unleashing of a human’s full potential. Ideas and inspirations flowing inwards.

Such is his love of TM, and the positive effects on his life, that he founded the David Lynch Foundation in 2005 as a way to help fund the teaching of the practice.

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I won’t bang on about it anymore, except to say that I intend to try it out this year.

Should we count our blessings, as the old saying goes? There is one that I have rediscovered in the past 90 minutes. That I can write myself happier. Everything feels better after a purge.

 

 

157. Men taking risks

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The Cheltenham National Hunt festival started today. Four days of the best jumps racehorses competing for huge prizes in front of a monster crowd in deepest Gloucestershire. Thousands of Irish men and women roaring home their fancies, as the early spring sunshine and rain alternately warm and drench their spirits.

Our lad Rory is working at the course as a steward, as it’s so close to his university digs.  Mainly stopping people taking their alcohol into the betting enclosures. I asked him what he would do if a six foot ten gypsy wanted to take his pint past the gate. “Smile hard and let him,” he replied.

I have only been the one time, in March 2000. As a corporate guest, for one of the insurance companies I write about. The track looked in great shape, set against the spectacular amphitheatre of the Cotswolds. But the experience was miserable. The crowds were a nightmare, shoulder to shoulder in many places and so many of them already pissed when I got there, at about 12. Drinking and punting is a highly flammable cocktail. A cup of coffee and a clear head works better.

Russell Brand said something perceptive when he spoke of his first visits to the terraces at Upton Park. That he saw how football gave men the chance to be legally naughty. Shouting, drinking, swearing, singing and, in the old days, and outside the law, fighting.  Racecourses have the same effect on many guys, with the big difference that you can be a little more active in your partisanship, through the betting. Less passive, potentially more destructive. Gloriously spent hours, on the good days.

It’s a shame that the guys I met in 2000 were uninspiring. Their business involved pinpointing and eliminating risk, and the conversation was too timid and polite for my liking. In the end, after lunch, I thanked my hosts, prized myself free and wandered off. Couldn’t be arsed to make an effort. Which was lazy of me. But I am super-inclined towards my own company when the talk lays flat and stagnant.

Of course, I had looked through the race-card on the train. But no horse stood out as a good bet.

That should have been that. I had evolved – and still generally maintain – a view that if you can find an edge, at decent odds, that is when to bet. Anything else is gambling, and the house/bookie will always win, over the long run.

Nonetheless, it was Cheltenham, I told myself. Scene of some very nice wins in the 1980s, especially Forgive N’ Forget in the 1985 Gold Cup. So I had three punts, and each one lost. Maybe fifteen quid each time. I left before the last race, to avoid the crowds. But that £45 was enough to make the walk back to the station a long, downbeat trek. Why had I wasted a day?

I popped into the station café for a cup of tea and who should be there, sitting morosely at a table, but Clement Freud. He of the hangdog look. A half-eaten cake sat before him. Our eyes met for a few seconds. “Yep, I’ve also done my dough, and feel miserable,” was my swift mind-read of Mr Freud. Retrospect says he might have been more preoccupied with his decades of paedophilia, but who knows. Freud was reputedly a big punter.

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Years down the line I decided to stop betting on jumps races. The Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup are fabulously exciting to watch, but why take the risk that your selection would fall, or unseat the jockey? Finding a winner is difficult enough without this extra unpredictability. Equally important was the terrible number of injuries sustained by horses in National Hunt racing, and more than a few of the jockeys.

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If you are betting on events that include that eventuality, I believe that you bear some responsibility, however small, for the outcomes. Flat racing was better from all angles.

Rory said a few minutes ago that he enjoyed the day, and spent much of it chatting with a policeman, which probably cut down the chances of an incident. Hope the next three days are equally pleasurable for him.

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156. Sixty two

62 not out today.

The birthday when the strength has tangibly started to wane. 60 was a hoot, 61 pretty good, and I felt fine eight days ago, white-shirted at a family birthday celebration.

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More sluggish this weekend though, lugging the suitcase upstairs at the hotel in Hampshire, and walking along the seafront in the heavy winds. A depletion of the power reserve that once was. Not major, but a little wink from mortality. Take it easier, geezer.

It had to come sooner or later. Badminton was abandoned about 4 years ago, when the knee ligaments  protested at all the twisting and turning. I gave up running long before that. Thankfully, I can still walk many miles, and cycle many more.

62 means more receptivity to an afternoon sleep, and the need for greater recovery time after diving into life’s greatest pleasure. My back doesn’t thank me for driving long distances. Work stamina is much reduced, but then hardly surprising given the 16-hour days I sometimes put in.

One consolation is the universality of ‘oldgithood’. Few escape its reversals. There may also be mitigation in keener observation, and its enjoyment. For the first time, I visited Hayling Island at the weekend. Down near Portsmouth. There was a sharp beauty to the sun on the water, and happy memories triggered by the sight of land (Isle of Wight) across the water.

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The older self, easily cold, sat in the car while his wife combed the beach.

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The younger, less attuned self would have neglected the yew trees planted in the grounds of the eponymous pub near the causeway. He would have thought nothing of how the guy who served us hot tea in the café out at the island’s westernmost tip said ‘of course’ several times when asked for things by customers.

The area reminded me of Canvey Island in Essex. Flat, and vulnerable to incoming tide. Amusement arcades fronting up seaside residences. This abandoned pub at Beachlands conjured up a heyday of better times.

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Everything seems straight to the point on Hayling. Mick’s shop below does what it says on the tin.

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So many businesses took this approach. ‘Chinese food’, ‘kennels’, and ‘newsagent’ were among the signs on display. If Mick has a business somewhere on the island selling excrement, its frontage will surely sport a simple ‘turds’ sign, on or above its windows. If he ventures into colonic irrigation, ‘enemas’ will be flagged at the establishment’s prow.

At Portsmouth, we walked the castle walls seen from past ferry trips. My eyes tripping at the joy of it all.

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Then we lunched in the pub that always looked so inviting from the ferry.

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On Sunday we visited Maureen’s nephew Mike, in Almodington. He took us to West Wittering beach, where we saw a kite surfer fly.

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The gales howled so ferociously that the kids pulled the bottom of their jackets over their heads, leaned into the wind, and were held up by its force. Eddies of fine sand blew across the beach like a Saharan storm.

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Before we set off for home, Mike gave me a pot that he carved himself from yew wood. A forever present.

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155. Trouble and bliss on the Essex border

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Living with Maureen in Ilford, on the border between Essex and London, was the transition point between boyfriend-girlfriend culture (meeting in the pub) and house-holding. We knew nobody in the area – but had traded that for cheaper renting prices than those asked in Brentwood.

We inhabited four rooms on the bottom floor of a house in Argyle Road, near Valentine’s Park, from early 1983. Discovering each other’s intimate habits for the first time. Domesticity seen through the filter of young, hopeful eyes.

I had to get used to being in a regular job. My first. Starting in an ‘easy’ Ladbrokes shop at Manor Park, full of unaggressive punters, before the tougher challenges of Green Street and Barking.

It was a delightfully insular time. Every evening I would wrap myself up in my new found horse racing and betting studies, taking notes, seeking patterns. I hold a memory of M blowing smoke rings around the lounge, as she watched telly. It was sentimental nonsense, but my favourite programme was Minder. Arthur Daley and Terry. Dodging the not-so-long arm of the law.

The essence of living together, for me, was bedtime. The bliss of falling asleep with our arms around each other, in a big bed with a double twin mattress. I wonder if I have ever enjoyed that very intimate form of companionship so much again. Sex was a bonus, still exciting, a beautiful addition to simple delight. Some Sundays we would sleep for so long after a night out that the light would be fading outside the curtains.

Going out had its range. Curries, eaten in Indian restaurants without cutlery. Cinema, drinks. Sometimes to parties in London. To Valentines Park on hot Sundays, reading and sunbathing. We disappeared to Surrey for Mike Beaver’s wedding, for which I bought my first suit. The reception was great, much laughter and dancing, followed by the hospitality of Mike’s parents.

All normal stuff for a couple in their mid-20s.

People visited us occasionally. Jonny Marks, Steve Lowndes, Big Dad, John Devane, and many of Maureen’s family and friends. Paul and Katie on the night when my insides exited through my trousers. My Ladbrokes mentor, John Schaper, and his girlfriend Sharon, came round for food. Afterwards we went to a Stratford club, drinking and dancing. My nearest brush with debauchery was a solo evening visit to Thamesmead. Steve was throwing a party. He was somehow conducting sexual liaisons with three different women, one of whom he married.

There were massive drinks opportunities with the Ladbrokes boys and girls, but I struggled to fit. So many were trying to bed each other. Managers and cashiers. Often married. Good luck to them. I was no moral judge, but could see destruction slipping its reins. I was ridiculously contented at home, and fiercely protective of that. Alcohol has a habit of stripping away discernment, weakening the head and heart.

One evening I attended a managers’ ‘drink-up’ after work in Manor Park. Time flew by, and pints went down until about 7.30, when it dawned that I had neglected to tell Maureen. I phoned from the bar, and she was in floods of tears. I legged it, and was welcomed by the most delicious spaghetti bolognaise, that she had kept warm for me.

We had a cracking holiday in Dorset. A Swanage B and B, then Mudeford, staying with Maureen’s sister Marilyn and husband Mike in a caravan. We fell off the bed one night, carousing so much, then praying that any awakened humans nearby would soon relocate the arms of Morpheus.

My anti-social credentials declared themselves a day or two later. Attending the wedding of Maureen’s cousin Janet Dubber, I sat under a bush while wedding photos were taken in stifling heat.

Later, Maureen quit her job at Elm Park, which she had once loved, due to discomfort with some of her co-workers. To this day, she regrets that decision. I probably didn’t help with my classic advice of: ‘If you don’t like something, and have made an effort to stick at it, then why not walk?’ This started a period of depression for M, who had huge chunks of time alone on her hands, with me working six days a week. I didn’t know how to help. Not a clue. Except: ‘I’ll be here for you. Whatever choices you make.’

Maureen decided to sell her car, to help keep the money pot topped up. She began to take on agency work, travelling to places such as Enfield and West London to earn a crust. And making enough of an impression at a nursery in Russell Square that she was asked to work full-time. She was brave. There were demons bubbling away.

And I still knew how to get in trouble. It never goes. Languishing in bed one Sunday morning, the phone rang. The transport police at British Rail. Informing me that I was booked to appear in court in Southend, as a result of not paying for my ticket on an evening trip to see a pal.

It was one of those things I had done on a near-automatic basis since teenage years, figuring that I would never get caught. I wasn’t the only one to notice a financial Achilles Heel in the layout of the big stations at Barking and Stratford. Both had platforms where underground and overground trains pulled up on either side. If you paid a small fee to get a ticket into the underground system, you could then travel to Southend on British Rail trains, jump out at the other end and offer a fare from a couple of stops back. Cunning stuff eh?

But this time the guard did not believe my concocted story. That I had sprinted into Leigh-on-Sea railway station, just in time for the train and lacking the time to buy a ticket. And travelled just a couple of stops down to Southend.

So I appeared in court for the third time in my life. Already on the CV were the offences of freewheeling down a pavement on a moped, Actual Bodily Harm, and sounding my ice cream chimes after 7.30 in a built-up area. I pleaded not guilty, but my solicitor provided some awful advice, not worth going into, and I deservedly got landed with a £90 fine for fare-dodging.

I managed to keep my job with Ladbrokes. I was honest about almost all of the events, and they must have liked me. Or I was being looked after by unknown forces.

Why have I consistently broken the law? Not just the list of official offences. The stolen beer barrels and the milk bottle through the window. Nicking 50 pence pieces from my dad’s money jar. It is too easy to default to blaming Eric, my dad. The corporal punishment to enforce his rules. Never being cuddled, not being loved enough etc etc. Yet my brother has been law-abiding all his life.

Maybe this is a clue. At the age of 12 I decided to smoke my first cigarette, in the bathroom. My parents had both smoked robustly and warned me that this was not behaviour to be emulated.

I would see about that. Locking the door, I stood in the bath, by the window, in order to let the smoke drift away. The taste was horrible, but the forbidden was exciting. I found myself erect.

Naughty boy.

 

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154. Ecstasy

I have just taken the one MDMA tab. At the same V festival where we first saw the Prodigy. Maureen’s niece had listened to me expressing a desire to try it out, and found a source.

It didn’t take long to work its magic. We were walking to one of the stages, and it hit me how much I was loving the company, about 8 or 9 of us. Several times I found myself thinking that there could be nothing more enjoyable than this late August afternoon. The sun was shining out such warmth, lightly playing across my head and back.

I’m anything but a fan of big crowds, but these 80,000 or so people were more gentle and caring than the usual mob. Every joke from our gang was a floating muse of delight, and every smile contained a deep wealth of love. I’m not knocking this, it felt bloody wonderful. These words are a poor shadow of the feelings.

Franz Ferdinand started playing.

‘Take Me Out’ was note-perfect, the singer melodically owning every cadence of each utterance. Our friend Andrea decided that walking to the loos was too much effort, and so we surrounded her, while she squatted on the ground. Our little group epitomised positivity, hilarity, caring, fellowship and any other aspect of concresence you can name.

There was no comedown, no descent into negativity or sadness. Just a gradual winding down, paralleled by the sun itself dipping in the sky.

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Given the offer, I would take it again. Quality experience, leaving a memory that I can access until dementia sets in fully.

A decade or so on, nature offers its own forms of ecstasy.  Watching my tulips unfold has been mesmeric during the last few days.

 

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