142. Van Gogh in Essex

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A mad idea, I know.

But somehow, when Maureen and I first moved to Great Waltham, we conjured up the idea that Vincent Van Gogh once lived in our village. It’s not very far to Holland from here, and he was open to travel.

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More than anything, it was the lie of the land that amplified our twinkling thought. The undulating nature of many surrounding fields, and the sweep of burnished gold that meets the eye as summer progresses. The stark, gaunt landscapes of the winter. Also, the unpolluted skies at night, when the stars shine so clearly. We reckoned he would have felt at home here, whichever side of his character manifested.

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We used to sit on the patio of an evening chuckling quietly at the notion that Vincent once lived in our house. That he had probably left some old paintings laying around. Shall we open another bottle of wine? Perhaps we could start guided tours. We might be the only two people in the world to find this amusing.

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As things stand, I console myself that there is a fine artist here, right by my side. Working in a range of mediums, splashing joy and colour around our domestic environment.

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140. Arab love

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The kindest group of strangers I have ever met was in Qatar.

It was my first solo journalist jaunt overseas, in late 1997, to write a country report on the small Arab state. The trip was almost over, and had included an interview with the then-chairman of OPEC, who was also Qatar’s Minister of Oil and Gas, Abdullah al-Attiyah. I was ushered in, and there he sat in his vest, with his feet on the table. After that, everything was possible and we got on well.

I also interviewed Abdulbasit Ahmad al-Shaibei, an Islamic banker who doubled up as a local radio host. Lovely bloke, who went out of his way to answer all of my questions. No surprise that he is now the head honcho at Qatar International Islamic Bank.

Abdul invited me to meet his friends and family in Doha that evening. Nervously, I said yes. Better than sitting in a hotel room but wasn’t sure how much we would have in common. The taxi driver raved about the greatness of Tony Blair on the way. The diminished heat of the evening was tolerable. Adbul answered the door and took me into a beautiful, fragrant garden.

His friends were mainly engineers who worked for Qatar Petroleum. They switched to English the minute that I arrived. They were keen to hear my (very limited) views on politics, and how it was to live in Europe. No alcohol was offered or drunk, but these guys were very Western in their outlook. In fact there was a round of joke-telling, quite crude, that made me feel at ease. After an hour, I was sitting at the middle of a table, ducking in and out of various conversations, tucking into a machboos dish of rice and meat, eyeing the salads and pickles. Feeling very much at home. Yet I didn’t know anybody.

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Later, over coffee, it became clear that there was a tremendous respect for Britain. Its culture and civilising influences, and the ethos of fair play. And particularly the Labour government under Blair, which was seen as a beacon of hope for a better world.

There was one sour note. Britain’s military ties to the United States. I listened to complete disgust that we had participated in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq. There was no anti-western ideology at work, none of them were fans of Saddam Hussein, but they were deeply enraged and saddened at the slaughter of Iraqi civilians, and the ‘shock and awe’ news pictures broadcast from the US bombers. In particular at the so-called ‘Turkey shoot’, when tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians retreating from Kuwait along the Basra Highway, having ceased hostilities, were indiscriminately bombed off the face of the earth.

I was quiet and listened. There was no ambiguity in their words. They described cold-blooded war crimes, carried out against their Arab and Muslim brothers by President Bush and his US military strategists.

One of them said, gently: “I love your country. But if Britain continues to associate with the US it will lose all of the goodwill it has built up in this region. Among the ordinary people. The governments will smile and buy your weapons, but the people will know better.”

Fast forward, to 2003. Blair and Bush holding hands, before illegally reducing Iraq to rubble. Onto 2011, when the Western-backed ousting of Gaddafi sent the once-prosperous sovereign state of Libya spinning into dysfunctionality. Refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. Slavery auctions returning in some parts. Onto Syria, where the arrogance of the West is so unbridled that our newscasters have regularly mouthed the notion of subjecting a secular, democratic society to ‘regime change’, as if this were as natural and just as handing out a speeding fine.

The guy in Qatar said, very simply: “To intervene in another country’s affairs needs the certainty of moral authority. If you sell weapons, and kill innocent people, that disappears.”

I wonder what this friendly stranger would have made of British Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, who has just made the case that Brexit is an opportunity to “strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.”

What sort of a human being trumpets his country’s ‘lethality’?

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Williamson also reckons that defence will be “pivotal in reinforcing Britain’s role as an outward-looking nation” after Brexit. Probably wrong, but I had this idea that defence is to repel attacks. Has Williamson heard of an oxymoron? Is he one?

Maybe, because he wants to send Royal Navy vessels through the South China Sea to “give other nations confidence” as well as show Britain was “standing up for our values”.

You can tell he has thought long and hard about these plans. He insisted that Brexit has “brought us to a great moment in our history”, when we must be ready to deploy “hard power” against those who “flout international law”.

Now I get you Gav. We are going to invade our own country. Why didn’t you just say that?

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139. Chocolate hash brownies

 

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I felt mentally and physically depleted last night, unable to stop yawning as I drove Josie home from a family dinner. On the road back, the notion of stopping all work activity for a few days had the upper hand. A beautiful impossibility. In your dreams boy.

I lack the stamina of yore. Some of the loud conversations around the dinner table were sonic attacks on my ageing ears. Then Chris and Lauren struggled to connect our Netflix while Maureen and I sat like dinosaur-like, unable to comprehend many of the technicalities. Luddites, surrounded by nimble young minds.

One legacy of the visit was tupperware containing a stash of chocolate hash brownies. Back home, Maureen and I made a cup of tea and got the brownies out. We have tried them before, but the chef had informed me that these were high in CBD, with all of its proven medical benefits, and very low on the intoxicating THC element.

Good taste, plenty of rich chocolate to camouflage the marijuana flavour.

I sat and watched TV mindlessly. Feeling whacked, old and fragile. No desire to converse. But within about ten minutes some of that had faded. Everything felt easier, kinder, better. The edge removed from the exhaustion.

We had been warned that sleep would be deep. I’m normally a ‘two piss a night’ man, but it was just the one. Awoke about 7 a.m. after an otherwise solid eight hours, with that joyful feeling of a profound sleep that is more elusive as the years slip by. Maureen also reported a better than usual kip.

As you see, there are provisions for another two nights. Neither of us enjoy smoking weed, so I reckon we’ll be looking at how to make them ourselves.

 

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138. Shergar

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At 6 a.m on the morning of June 3, 1981, I rolled out of the factory gates onto the Ongar Road, in Brentwood. I was making vacuum flasks for a living at the Thermos plant, pictured above. Standing on a production line through the night, making the time pass by telling every joke and story I could ever remember. Listening keenly to every story and joke told back, to flesh out my repertoire.

Good times, in retrospect. Even when the conversation ran out, I was self-sufficient, quietly glad to be alive. Rummaging through my memories, writing letters in my head, fervently anticipating the next tryst with Maureen.

One morning I was met by my house mates, who had stayed awake through the night on magic mushrooms. But most mornings I would walk back towards the shared house in Rose Valley with Dave, who caught a train back to Gidea Park, and Ron, who lived past the train station up in Warley.

We would stop at the paper shop. Dave bought the Daily Mirror, and Ron the Sun. I bought……the Guardian and the Daily Mail. Solidly right-wing and left-wing newspapers, with about as much in common as Stalin and Gandhi.

Politics had nothing to do with it. My parents had taken the Mail, and I had followed the horse racing tipsters, getting acquainted with how they thought. But the best and most interesting tipster of all, Richard Baerlin, wrote for the Guardian. So I bought both.

Interestingly, the number two racing writer at the Guardian was David Hadert, whose daughter Julie was one of Maureen’s best friends.

Richard Baerlein had been a racing correspondent for 44 years when he saw Shergar make his debut at Sandown in April 1981 and win by 10 lengths. He saw that bookies were offering 8-1 on Shergar to win the Derby, and contended in print that “now is the time to bet like men”.

On June 3, I got home, made a cup of tea and poured the milk on my Weetabix. The house was quiet. I opened both sets of racing pages. The odds on Shergar had fallen to even money, or 1 to 1. Baerlin made no bones about his view: the horse couldn’t lose unless its jockey fell off, which was highly unlikely in a flat race. He backed this up with some startling collateral form and clock-based logic. He was quite adamant: no other horse could win this race.

My aim with betting was to increasingly work things out for myself. But others knew much more, and sometimes you had to pay heed. The gut feeling was that it was time to test my nerve. I earned £70 a week, with £30 of that going for rent. Saved a tenner and used the other thirty for food and entertainment. The most I had ever bet was £10, which was an exceptional amount.

Set the alarm for two o’clock. Awoke with some excitement. Quick shower and up to the bank to take out fifty quid from the savings. Sunny afternoon. A small independent bookie just around the corner took my bet, at even money.

The TV in my room was crap. Sound but no picture, unless you counted the Jackson Pollock-like fuzz that wobbled across the screen. So I listened, heart in my mouth, as the race unfolded, and then with growing joy as Shergar hit the lead, going easily, three furlongs out. One furlong out, the commentator shouted that “you would need a telescope to see the rest, he is at least 15 lengths clear!”

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Another headline the next day summed it up: “Shergar first, the rest nowhere!”

I won £47 after deducting the betting tax on my £50 bet. Richard Baerlein did so well out of Shergar’s victory that he named his house after him.

Shergar did OK for the next two years, standing at stud in Ireland. Then he was kidnapped, and never seen again. Equally famous for his disappearance as his phenomenal racing ability.

Great memory. And back in mid-1981, another building block in my slowly growing conviction that horse racing, carefully handled, could reel in wheelbarrows of money, happiness and independence.

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137. The Belgian jobbie

I work as a freelance financial and energy journalist.

The last four years have brought a spring bonus, which I call The Belgian Job. Not a huge deal, no Michael Caine, but a bit of extra dosh, and a trip to Brussels on Eurostar once a year.

Last week it recommenced. I started telephone interviews that I work up into profiles of Belgian exporting companies. I like the Belgians. They have a good splash of British irony and self-deprecation in the humour. Less arrogant than the French.

Last year I took Maureen to Brussels, and we managed to get 24 hours together seeing parts of the city. Not a proper holiday break, but she loved it, especially the food and the spectacular murals.

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And joint memories of a beer to die for, Le Fruit Defendu.

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If I go alone, I like to get out at the Gare Midi railway station and then walk up through the Muslim quarter to Grand Place.

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Then meander north-east through the city, via the Royal Park, to the Palais de Bruxelles. Imagine the corruption within those walls over past centuries.

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And across to the business district, where I meet with the insurance company that provides the work.

The first time I tried this I got caught short. The whole shenanigan of getting up early in the UK and having to get to London, grab something for breakfast and sit next to a stranger on the train plays havoc with my bowel movements. I’m usually as regular as clockwork, but the forced agenda brings blockage.

With Grand Place looming in my sights, and no idea where I might find a loo, I was experiencing that nagging pressure that portends a major explosion. Wasn’t sure about the coffee shop facilities, but knew that the sole location where I could take a dump with certainty would be a bar. I found one, and ordered lager with some peanuts. So that I could legitimately ask: “Ou sont les toilettes?”

It was a decent lager. Not the delicious high-alcohol Trappist fare but refreshing and fruitier than I expected. Two thirds through, I could wait no longer. The smallest room was upstairs. The spiral staircase seemed never-ending, and I prayed that the traps would be unoccupied. The plural turned out to be wildly optimistic, as it was just one room with a lock.

And it was locked. Before panic set in, the door opened and a big bloke walked out. There was a film of sweat on his brow. It could have been a three-eyed maniac with a sack of children slung over each shoulder for all I cared. Time was God. I almost fell into the room, locked the door, and knew that only a swift undoing could prevent my undoing. Got my cheeks on the seat just as my world fell out. It kept falling out. Jeez. I was so glad that the Belgian jobbie flushed down.

Washed my hands, finished the beer and set off. It felt great to walk in the fresh air again. I sat in the Royal Park for a while, loving the sunshine, the joggers and the birds singing.

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20 minutes before my meeting, I started off again, but with growing feelings of tiredness. The beer was kicking in.

The interview lasted about one and a half hours, in a warm room. By the end I couldn’t stop yawning, which must have looked rude. I explained that I had stopped for a lunchtime beer, and saw the four guys smiling quietly. You Brits and your alcohol, eh?

But they kept employing me, and I go back on March 1st. No beer stops planned this time but I will never forget the toilet at the top.

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Funny the things we remember.

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136. Nick Cave

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I love the music, words and voice of Nick Cave. The bloke is different class, and, for me, connected deeply into whatever it is that makes our world go round. Old Testament prophet meets 21st century libidinous poet.

Most people have heard ‘Red Right Hand’, the Peaky Blinders soundtrack. Try ‘Into My Arms’, the sweetest love song, that opens with the words: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” Nobody else could pull that off.

You could do worse than listen to ‘O Children’, Nick’s take on the terror and agony of judgement day. Or a peek at the video of his Glastonbury performance of ‘Stagger Lee, where performer and fan get beautifully mixed up.

For the unhinging, magisterial power of sex, Ray Winstone gets it right in the video of ‘Jubilee Street’. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve82BbCk2fc).

‘To Be By Your Side’ is my funeral song. The long journey of the geese in the video, thousands of miles, to find the light. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0v9vd4JEeo). That touched something deep.

Nick lost his son, Arthur, in 2015. He responded three years later to a fan’s letter asking if he and his wife felt that Arthur was communicating in some way.

Dear Cynthia,

This is a very beautiful question and I am grateful that you have asked it. It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

With love, Nick.

 

The gift of grief. Cave the ferryman, rowing us towards the world of spirit.