TWO LANDSCAPES AND A DISMAL SCIENCE

Michael Bloor

(first pubished in Litro Online, 29th December 2018)

Back in Skye, after an absence of many years, Frank and I set off across the moor south of Glendale. It was good walking weather: one of those bright, cold, still days that the island often experiences in February. Aside from a group of shaggy cattle at the Glendale end of the track, the moor was utterly empty – mile after mile of dun-coloured heather and rashes, with only the odd-shaped hills of MacLeod’s Tables, to the east of us, breaking the monotony of the view. Then, after we crested a slight rise, we found our objective stretching suddenly away below us: the deserted crofting township of Lorgill. The green valley, delightful in contrast to the barren high moors that surrounded it on three sides, was watered by a swift Highland burn which ran down to a shingle beach and the sea. Dotted here and there along the glen were the remains of the houses of a vanished people, some of them mere ruckles of stones, others still preserving the outlines of dwellings with cornerstones and doorways.

The families of Lorgill were all evicted by Lord MacDonald on a single day in 1830 and shipped off to Nova Scotia. The laird’s factor then took over the valley for himself and grazed his sheep upon it. Thus it was, that another of the Brahan Seer’s strange prophecies came to pass: that the clans would be driven from their homes by an army of sheep.

Any frequent hill-walker in the Highlands and Islands will have had similar poignant encounters to that of Frank and myself at Lorgill. Such deserted communities are always affecting: monuments to man’s inhumanity, to the driving of people off the lands that their ancestors had worked for countless generations, all in the name of economic rationality (aka profit). But there was something that particularly snagged me about that valley. At the time, I believed that it was the sorrowing silence of the place: not even a raven’s croak disturbed Lorgill. But, still thinking about it later that evening, I guessed that it was because the visit to Lorgill had resonated with a very different walk that I had taken some thirty years ago – a walk that had stunned and disturbed me at the time, but which I had since almost forgotten…

June 1984. I had arranged to stay a couple of nights with my parents, on my way back up to Scotland from an academic conference in Brighton. My train had been delayed, the last bus had gone, and the taxi queue outside the station stretched out longer than regret. It was a warm night, so I slung my hold-all over my shoulder and set out to walk the familiar mile to my old home.

After a couple of streets of terraced houses, I entered an industrial district of the town populated by foundries, workshops, steel stockyards and small assembly plants. These streets were empty but, because the place was so familiar to me, I at first paid little attention. Then it struck me that the streets weren’t just empty: they were silent, save for the occasional crunch of broken glass under my feet. There was no noise from the workshops, no smells from the foundries, no bright lights in the assembly plants. These places used to operate three-shift systems, always busy, always noisy. Now they were desolate. Most had gone bust; a few, I later learned, still limped along on short-time working (no night-shifts). It was as if the Angel of Death had passed through my old home town.

As with the Highland Clearances, no dark angel was in fact responsible, but rather it was dismal economic policies. Seventeen per cent interest rates had made corporate overdrafts a crippling burden; a strong pound had killed manufacturing exports and drew in cheap foreign imports. Firms went to the wall, firms that had provided employment to my family and their friends and neighbours for a hundred years. Skilled jobs for pattern-makers, draughtsmen, machine-setters, and the like, disappeared and never came back. Apprenticeships in the engineering trades were a thing of the past. Walking through those midnight streets, I was walking through my vanishing past: Prospect Terrace had morphed into Desolation Row.

TAKING TEA WITH JOSEPH NEEDHAM

Michael Bloor

(first published in Litro Online, 20th January 2018)

Dr Noel Joseph Terrence Montgomery Needham CH, FRS, FBA (1900-95), Master of Caius College, Cambridge, was a pioneering biochemist, and also the author of a definitive, multi-volume history of Chinese science, which made him a hero in China. Additionally, he was a brilliant linguist who could speak, read and write Mandarin Chinese, the first director of the science section of UNESCO, a Christian socialist, accordion-player, enthusiastic nudist, Morris dancer, and steam railway enthusiast.

I am standing at the door of the Master’s Lodge, Caius College, Cambridge, on a spring day in 1967. As an officer of the university’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) group, I had written to the Master of the college to ask him to take part in a symposium the group were planning on chemical and biological warfare. Needham had written back inviting me to discuss the matter over afternoon tea. Picture a confident, ignorant, 19-year-old student – a grammar-school boy from an industrial town in the Midlands, a working-class kid unostentatiously revelling in living through the first-ever period in history when it was fashionable to be working-class. It was then less than a year since The Beatles had released Sergeant Pepper.

All that I knew about my host was that he had written a report on the alleged use of biological warfare by the Americans in the Korean War, a solitary fact supplied to me by a CND colleague. I was only six when the Korean War ended and not for nothing is it sometimes called ‘The Forgotten War.’ So there was some excuse for my complete ignorance: I was blithely unaware that Needham’s Korean report was a painful subject. The pain for Needham lay not in the recollection of the work of the investigating team, but in the recollection of the viciously hostile reception to the team’s report. The report came out at the height of the Cold War. The American government blacklisted Needham; at the (two-and-a-half-hour) press conference, the British Press shredded him; the propaganda arm of the British Foreign Office, the Information Research Department, orchestrated a disinformation campaign, briefing Tory MPs and selected journalists and BBC correspondents, and persuading two former Presidents of the Royal Society to write to The Times disowning the report; many of his Cambridge colleagues ostracised him. Needham was the 1950s equivalent of a paedophile-rapist-investment-banker.

I had no inkling of all this and Needham gave me no hint of it. He met me at the door (I discovered later that he refused to have any servants in the Master’s Lodge), a tall, smiling, silver-haired man, with big-rimmed glasses. Escorting me through to an enormous drawing room (large enough for an echo), his first question was: ‘What do you know about the Chinese tea ceremony, Michael?’ Beyond a wild surmise that tea-drinking was involved, I knew nothing. But I was about to be enlightened.

We discussed the symposium arrangements: he may have had a bloody nose over his report in the 1950s, but he was unbowed in the 1960s and very happy to take part. Mainly though, Needham’s conversation took the form of guidance through the tea ceremony. The pot and the cups were small, plain and seemingly ancient. He handed me a cup, with a small smile: ‘It is half-full because it is believed that friendship should fill the remainder of the cup. You must inhale the aroma first of all.’

I did so, though I have little sense of smell. Needham was adding more water to the pot: ‘Each cup has a different meaning, Michael…’

I began to wonder how many cups we were going to be drinking. As part and parcel of my general unpreparedness for this meeting, I had neglected to empty my bladder. Careless but not stupid, I intuited that to call for a comfort-break halfway through the proceedings would be unwelcome: I decided to sit it out.

‘… One cup signifies peace – that is the first cup. A second cup signifies enjoyment. The transition in meaning follows the transition in taste.’ I could hear more than the scholar’s voice: I also heard enthusiasm. But chiefly I was alarmed: alarmed by the multiplication of meanings and cups. We passed with glacial slowness to the ‘quiet’ cup and then onto ‘understanding.’ I began to admire more than Needham’s intellect: I started to envy him his iron bladder. Several geological epochs later, my ordeal and the tea ceremony came to an end, signified by swallowing the ‘truth’ cup. Dissembling enthusiastically about the subtle cup-to-cup transformations, I offhandedly asked to visit the lavatory. After showing me the way, Needham offered to give me a quick tour of the rambling Master’s Lodge. And herein lay another surprise.

We eventually arrived at a long portrait gallery of dead Masters, Caius College being an ancient foundation. On the whole, they were a pretty insipid, whey-faced crew. The exception was a portrait near the far end of the gallery – a looming, fierce, red-headed, full-bearded, middle-aged man, dressed like one of the Pilgrim Fathers – a solitary red flag amid a row of dirty white handkerchiefs. When we arrived at this portrait, Needham’s detached, tourist-guide manner changed: ‘This is my favourite predecessor, the Reverend William Dell.’

I was told that Dell, rector of a village in Bedfordshire, had been a leading preacher to the Parliamentary armies, a kind of seventeenth-century political commissar. In 1646, he both officiated at the wedding of Oliver Cromwell’s oldest daughter and preached the sermon at Westminster at the start of the new parliamentary session. Dell was an obvious candidate to keep the academic royalists in check during Cromwell’s Protectorate and was made Master of Caius in 1649. Needham rattled off for me William Dell’s projected university reforms: he threw the college open to the poor apprentices of the town; he wanted the undergraduates to study practical subjects like geography and maths, rather than theology and philosophy; he wanted them to spend half their time engaging in manual labour; and he proposed that universities should be established in every large town in the country. These plans all came to nothing with the Restoration of Charles II and Dell prudently resigned the Mastership in 1660. The Fellows of the college rejoiced to be shot of him. Several radical preachers were executed, but Dell was allowed to retire to his Bedfordshire rectory. Thirty antagonistic parishioners petitioned Parliament for his removal from the church, one of their complaints being that he had permitted a local tinker, John Bunyan, to preach the Christmas Day sermon. The petition was dismissed, but Dell was expelled from the church two years later, along with around a thousand other radical clergy, for opposing the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which re-imposed the authority of bishops in the Church of England.

University reform was a popular cause among my contemporaries and myself in 1960s, but in any case I would have warmed to the elderly Needham’s boyish enthusiasm, as he gestured and expounded beside the portrait of his bristling, liverish predecessor. It was plain to see that William Dell and Joseph Needham were cut from the same cloth. Had I known then about the ostracism of Needham by his university colleagues in the wake of the Korean War report, I might have drawn a still closer parallel between the two Masters.

Although Needham took part in the CND symposium, we never spoke again. In the years since, historical scholarship has not absolved Needham over the Korean War report. On the one hand, it is now admitted that the Americans did indeed have a biological weapons programme in the 1950s and it seems likely that they experimented with such weapons in Korea, probably with very limited success. However, on the other hand, the Soviet archive evidence shows that the Russians actively worked with the Chinese and Koreans to manufacture false evidence of US ‘germ’ warfare to show to Needham’s team of scientists. Perversely, Needham was right, but so were his critics: Needham was duped. Nevertheless, a blemish or two in a life of great achievement can make someone more attractively human.

I’m now about the same age as Joseph Needham was in 1967 and there’s something intriguing and a little embarrassing about my (very slight) connection with him, namely that he makes occasional appearances in my dreams. Why is it that some people appear in our dreams whom we knew only fleetingly and long ago? Perhaps because they possess some quality of integrity, of wholeness, that mutely attracts, like a dying butterfly on a windowsill. Joseph Needham had that quality for me.

A PICNIC IN THE ELYSIAN FIELDS

Michael Bloor

(first published in Litro Online, 10th June 2017)

William Morris (1834-96): ‘Hey Bute, pass over that platter of roast crackling, there’s a good fellow.’

John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, third Marquis of Bute (1847-1900): ‘As you wish, Morris. Your appetite for pig fat is inexhaustible. But I must tell you that, after 116 years, I find I tire of the smell of applesauce wafting on our gentle Elysian breezes.’

Morris: ‘You never appreciated the Past Life’s simple pleasures, Bute. What was the point of being the richest man in Europe if you didn’t indulge yourself as often as possible with roast pork and apple sauce? Give me that chestnut stuffing before it gets cold. The simple pleasures, Bute, don’t turn to sawdust in the mouth just because you own Cardiff docks.’

Bute: ‘Here you are, though it seems pretty tepid, old chap; do try and keep it out of your beard this time. As for extolling the simple pleasures, I’m afraid I find your Plain-Bluff-Man-of-the-People imposture a tad lacking: I know all about those Morris family Devon Consols dividends. Did those Devon copper miners of yours dine exclusively on roast pork?’

Morris (setting the stuffing regretfully aside): ‘No, it was mostly Devon pasties delivered to the mine-head by their long-suffering wives, I believe. But I take your point, Bute: you and I were both swaddled from birth in debentures and share certificates, but at least I kicked free of my swaddlings. You’re a good fellow, Bute, and I’ve enjoyed our occasional picnics, but I wonder that you never thought to use your mine royalties and your dock dues to topple a squalid, vicious, iniquitous, economic system that I know you despised as much as I did.’

Bute: ‘Mmm. This nectar’s not bad (can’t believe you really prefer that pint of mild). I too pursue a wandering, wondering thought. I wonder why a man who knew more than any other man of his day about the masters of medieval art, the tales of the troubadours, the great illuminated manuscripts, and the hymns in stone that are our gothic cathedrals… I wonder why that man would turn his back on such ineffable beauty to preach socialism from an old coal wagon beside the Manchester Ship Canal.’

Morris: ‘You left out the gritty Manchester March gale. But I believe my wonderment takes precedence over yours.’

Bute (after a pause and a sigh): ‘Very well. I will try to explain, as far as I’m able, and on the understanding that your own following explanation is more than a quip and a wave of the hand.

‘You will recall that I was an orphan, succeeding to the Marquessate when only six months old. My guardians were neglectful: I lacked warm human contact in my formative years. At Harrow and Oxford, I retreated into scholarship and religion: they are my staff and comfort still. I recognised that there were duties associated with my position and privileges; I tried to discharge them with care – I even served a term as Provost of Cardiff. But they were mere duties: I found no satisfaction in them, no relief in discharging them. My houses, my paintings, my religious observances – they were the balm for my soul. I knew the times were out of joint, I saw the vileness and the cruelty, but I lacked the strength and single-mindedness to scrub the world clean. My wealth did not bring me joy, but it bought me a retreat.’

Morris: ‘I understand, old fella. You looked up at Capitalism’s mighty keep and ramparts and felt unequal to the struggle – many a man has felt the same. No blame can attach to that. And no-one who has seen the luminous beauty of the chapel you created at Mount Stuart could say that your life lacked achievement.’

Bute: ‘Such generous judgements are typical of you, Morris. Perhaps you are too generous. Was it your generosity of spirit that led you to turn aside from poetry in favour of political speeches on street-corners?’

Morris: ‘You over-state my case, Bute. (Shall we start on the apple tart now?) I never gave up writing: indeed, I remember I started writing The Roots of the Mountains on a train journey to speak at a socialist meeting in Aberdeen.’

Bute: ‘True, you never gave up writing, but you could have written more, old friend. I did enjoy ‘The Roots of the Mountains’. Look at that chappie, Tolkien, he wrote huge tomes about elves and got some adolescents all excited, but really the best you could say about him was that he might have nudged a few readers to go on to your Roots of the Mountains, or your House of the Wolfings.’

Morris: ‘You’re over-stating again. But it’s true that my political activities left me less time for writing and pattern-making. And it’s also true that the doctrinal disputes and political chicanery that characterised the new socialist movement left me heart-sick. Like you, I felt I was born out of my due time and would have been happier in a century where artists were craftsmen and craftsmen were artists, and where all creative life was an unselfconscious hymn to Heaven. But there came a time in my life when I felt that a creative life was a sham which ignored the viciousness of the society surrounding me; when I felt that in order for there to be any creative life in the future, I would have to sometimes lay my own creative life to one side and give of my best for the chance of a decent tomorrow.’

Bute: ‘The Chance of Change, eh Morris? But your gamble was lost: the change you sought never came to pass. New horrors now stalk the world. Men pile up bricks and call it Art, other men shatter bricks into dust and call it Peace. So you spent your strength in vain: isn’t that a thing to regret?’

Morris: ‘Regret? No, no. Do you know the story of Njal? [Bute: ‘Oh Lor’, not the sagas again.’] Njal was a far-seeing man: he knew his fate, he knew things would end badly. But right to the last, he struggled against that fate. Only when his sons were slain and he was trapped by his enemies in his burning house, only when there was nothing further he could do, only then did he surrender to his fate and compose himself for death. Those sagamen taught us the way to live. Choosing the right course should not be a matter of calculating the chances of success. Mmm, this apple pie…’

Bute: ‘It is pretty good, isn’t it? Better than I’d expected. Reminds me of something else, perhaps it’s the cloves…’

Morris: ‘Not the meal you had with the Bishop of Antioch. Not that again. I’ve heard you speak of that meal so many times that I assure you I have the menu by heart. But there’s something else I want to say about The Struggle: one man may struggle and find his own gamble lost. Very well. But others struggle also, in the past, in the present, and in the future. Other men may yet win their gamble. If that be the case, then I have not spent my strength in vain.’

Bute: ‘Well said, Morris (excepting your uncalled-for remarks about my meeting with the Bishop). But surely your own unsuccessful struggles made you merely an instigator, not a creator. Is that enough? Is that enough for the artist who wrought The Defence of Guinevere?’

Morris: ‘My hearing must be failing. Do you know, I thought I heard the third Marquis of Bute, the man who lavished his years and his treasure on building the perfect fairy-tale fortress, Castel Coch, in the beech woods of the Taff Valley, the man who – when his fabulous pile was complete – barely deigned to visit it, I thought I heard that man deprecate the instigation of the beautiful. Man, your whole life was a succession of instigations. You lost all interest in completions.’

Bute: ‘You don’t understand: Castel Coch was lovely, but there was no guest accommodation. Yet I concede you the point that there is much satisfaction to be had in taking part in the process, as much perhaps as in reaching the end.’

Morris: ‘That’s it, Bute, old man. That’s it. The cathedral of Chartres has burned to the ground. From all points of the compass, they come – princes, poets, and peasants – to rebuild the cathedral. We don’t know their names, we don’t know a single name of the builders of the greatest gothic building in all the wide world. And you and I, we just wish to be among their number, to be one of the anonymous builders of the great cathedral.

Bute: ‘I say, Morris. I do believe you lifted that business about Chartes cathedral from the Swedish Johnnie over there, Ingmar Bergman.’

Morris: ‘I say, Bute, I do believe you’re right. Good job there’s no copyright up here, eh? What do you say to some more pie? There’s quite enough left for second-helpings…’

Anton Chekhov and the Sakhalin Penal Colony

Michael Bloor

(first published in Hektoen International, March 3rd 2015)

In the nineteenth century the Czarist Government wanted to create an Arctic Australia by establishing a penal colony on Sakhalin Island, off the eastern coast of Siberia some five thousand miles from European Russia. There, convicts who had served out their sentences would be obliged to stay as settlers, albeit in a very different new home from that found in Australia’s Botany Bay. In 1890, to the amazement of his family and friends, Dr. Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) resolved to travel to the island to conduct what nowadays would be called a community medicine research project, for a MD thesis at the University of Moscow.

His motivation remains obscure. Middle-class Russians of Chekhov’s generation had an honourable tradition of civic responsibility, and the success of his plays and short stories had already earned him enough money to support his family and finance his journey. But Chekhov was already ill from tuberculosis and the ten-week journey to Sakhalin would be very arduous (there was as yet no Trans-Siberian Railway). The climate of the island was hardly salubrious; and it was said that Sakhalin had no climate, just bad weather. The survey work he undertook entailed travel to remote settlements and sometimes staying in very primitive accommodation. Sakhalin is an enigmatic episode in an enigmatic life.

The account he wrote of Sakhalin, published as a book because the censor banned its serialisation in a journal (Chekhov, 2013 [1895]), is quite unlike any of his other writings. In its barest outline, it is a community survey. Within three months he completed over ten thousand individual data cards (still extant in Moscow’s Lenin Library) on the convicts and exiled settlers whom he had interviewed, he transcribed and aggregated all the parish death records, visited all the island prisons, went underground into the coal-mine worked by four hundred prisoners, visited all the island medical facilities, worked briefly in the outpatient clinic, and gathered what anthropological information he could on the Gilyaks and the Aino—the remnant native populations of the island.

But his Sakhalin Island study is much more than a pioneer community medicine study. Chekhov’s masterly plays are performed more often than any other dramatist except Shakespeare; and his short stories—many of them on medical themes—have been translated and admired across the globe. The Sakhalin study is the work of a great writer who consciously chose to be a social scientist and investigative journalist—a writer whose gifts of description and empathetic understanding shine through the journalism and the science.

His descriptions of living conditions on the island have a stark elegance, as when he writes about the bugs and cockroaches in one house: “the walls and ceilings seemed to be covered in funeral crape, moving as if in a wind.” He had a dramatist’s ear for dialogue:

Why are your dog and your cockerel tied up?’ I would ask a householder.Here on Sakhalin everything’s chained up,’ he’d reply, ‘It’s that sort of place.’

His sardonic observations convey the life of the penal colony more pointedly than his statistics: one of the new settlements was named after a prisoner governor who had been assassinated by a prisoner because of his cruelty—Chekhov merely observed that the prisoner’s fellow-convicts managed to collect sixty roubles in small change as a thank-you gift to his murderer.

He was coruscating in his description of the penal medical services—the prison dispensary with no medicines, wounds bound with dirty rags, mentally ill patients housed along with syphilitic patients, the outpatient clinic in which he practiced with “no washbasin, no balls of cotton wool, no decent scissors, […] not even water of sufficient quantity,” and scalpels too blunt to lance a patient’s boil. “The local hospital system has fallen behind civilization by at least two hundred years.” But he also writes with great sensitivity and understanding of human suffering, for example when mentioning a convict who was formerly a priest:

I do not know why he had been sent to Sakhalin, and I did not ask him about it either; when a man who, not so very long ago, was called ‘Father’ and ‘the Reverend Gentleman,’ and whose hand was kissed by everyone, is standing to attention in front of you dressed in a pitiful threadbare coat, it’s not his offence you think about.”

As the critic and fellow short story writer V S Pritchett observed, such silences and reticences were characteristic of both Chekhov’s literary style and his personality: a gregarious man who was entirely self-sufficient.

These literary touches were evidently unappreciated by the examiners of his MD thesis; and he failed. But there was more than sufficient factual detail in Chekhov’s study to rouse the public conscience. He documented the overcrowding and the insanitary conditions of the various island prisons. Prisoner accommodation would comprise large common halls, with a long plank sleeping platform down the middle of the hall, where the prisoners slept cheek by jowl, the healthy beside the infected. No wonder that when Chekhov compiled mortality tables for the island he found that tuberculosis was “the most common and most dangerous element”—a finding that must have affected him deeply as a fellow-sufferer. The system of communal halls (with seventy to a hundred and seventy convicts per hall) meant that it was impossible to keep the cells clean and tidy, so they were covered in filth. Bugs and lice were everywhere. The latrines were poor, and in the Kosov prison there were no latrines at all, the prisoners being let out in batches to relieve themselves in the street.

He documented the abuses of the administration: the co-option of prisoners by officials to act as unpaid servants and of women prisoners as paramours. Chekhov, himself the grandson of a serf, described this as “serfdom.” The coal mine where many prisoners were set to work was owned by a private company contracted to pay the government for the convicts’ labour, but Chekhov discovered that no payments were ever made. Punishments were severe. In one prison, the most hardened criminals were kept chained to wheelbarrows. Chekhov, who never forgave or forgot the savage beatings of his own childhood, steeled himself to witness the punishment of a failed escapee, but could not stomach the sight of the full ninety lashes that were administered.

The administration of the settlements of the ex-convicts was also found wanting. Many of the chosen sites for settlement were unsuitable for cultivation because of poor soil or vulnerability to flooding. Too many settlers were sent to the settlements, resulting in demoralising overcrowding and epidemics. Basic sanitary precautions were not followed and settlers got their water from ditches. The children of both settlers and of convicts (families were allowed to accompany prisoners transported to the island) were a particular concern of Chekhov’s, as they were neglected by the administration. On his return to Europe, Chekhov organised the dispatch of thousands of books to the Sakhalin schools.

Chekhov’s book on Sakhalin was published in 1895 and immediately generated great public interest and newspaper comment. A government commission was dispatched to Sakhalin to investigate matters the following year. Any resulting ameliorations on the island would however have been short-lived. Chekhov died at the age of forty-four in 1904, a year before Japan seized the southern part of Sakhalin in the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese were soon importing tens of thousands of Koreans as forced labourers in Sakhalin’s coal mines, and somewhat later, across mainland Siberia and the northern wastes, Stalin created the gulags—a regime of penal colonies that made Chekhov’s Sakhalin look like a summer camp. Elsewhere, in 1895 (the same year as the publication of Chekhov’s book), Captain Dreyfus was convicted on a trumped-up charge of spying and sent to the Devil’s Island penal colony, which the French Government did not finally close this until 1953.

The Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that “an evil once recognised is halfway to its solution,” but she lived in a more optimistic age. Nevertheless, Chekhov’s only work of non-fiction is much more than an interesting early community medicine survey: it is a quiet, determined, and skilfully reported testimony to the need of human decency. Chekhov tried to be objective, but he never claimed to be detached.

References

  1. Chekhov, Anton (2013 [1895]) Sakhalin Island, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

BACK TROUBLE

MICHAEL BLOOR

(First published in Dodging the Rain, December 26, 2018)

Grandad moved in with us when I was seven, it must’ve been about 1958: Grandma Probert had died and his back injury made it difficult to look after himself. He and I used to hang out together when my mum was busy with my younger brother and sister. Grandad and Grandma were born and raised in the Gwendraeth Valley in South Wales. He’d been a miner – the Gwendraeth pits produced high-quality anthracite – but soon after his marriage he was injured in a fall. He had slipped and fallen badly on a slag heap, scavenging for coal during the 1926 General Strike. He then had to look for lighter work and eventually he and Grandma moved to Derby when he got a job in the Co-op Bakery (‘Our Product – The Peak Loaf’).

We were aware that his back often gave him pain, but he didn’t complain. Indeed, he once explained to me that he reckoned that his back injury had saved his life: “See young ’un, If I’d ’a carried on working down the pit, I probably wouldn’t ’a lasted very long – the pneumo would ’a got me, like it got nearly all my mates. That anthracite dust was a killer. In 1946, just after the war, they made pneumoconiosis an official industrial disease. But it was too late then for most of the boys in the Gwendraeth: their lungs was already shot. See, between the wars, the mine owners brought in mechanical cutters and mechanical conveyors. As soon as they came in, the dust levels in the pits rocketed up. The pneumo was bad everywhere in South Wales, but it was worst of all among the anthracite miners. See, those tiny bits of anthracite dust, they’re particularly hard – they cuts the insides of your lungs to ribbons.”

But Grandad’s most memorable story about his back, often told, was that of his paralysis and miraculous recovery. The first time I heard it was an afternoon in Trent Street Working Men’s Club. He’d settled me on a high stool at the bar with a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop. Him and Arthur Morton and a bloke called Cyril were playing dominos and discussing domestic furnishings, Cyril having just bought a new three-piece suite. Cyril had been enthusing about it at some length – the best damn’ thing he’d ever bought – when Grandad said suddenly:

“Now boys, did I ever tell you about when I was paralysed?”

“That would be your back injury, Evan?”

“I did have a back injury, it’s true, Arthur. But I was always able to get about. Always able to get about, that is, until one particular morning about twenty years ago… The alarm went off, as usual, at four o’clock to get me to the early shift at the bakery. Half sleep still, I tried to roll out of bed… And, damn’ me, I couldn’t move! I couldn’t get out of bed!”

“Well, you can imagine, I was in a panic. It had been a cold night, but I started to pour with sweat. I woke Myfanwy beside me. Told her I was paralysed, finished indeed. ‘Are you sure, Evan?’ she said and switched the bedside light on. To demonstrate, I made a great heaving effort. To no avail. No word of a lie, boys, I broke down: I started to sob.”

“There was a pause and then Myfanwy said, ‘Evan, there’s broken spring in the mattress hooked into your pyjama jacket.’”

“Well, boys, a new mattress was the best damn’ thing I ever bought.”

A Deed Undone

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, Issue No. 80, Winter 2018, pp.69-71)

Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ former home, lay down a dusty, winding, Oxfordshire lane. Andrew Mariner, on the strength of a brief spell as a boy scout in his teens, scorned the use of Satnav and had kept missing his way. But suddenly the manor loomed in front of him. Andrew revered Morris, that vigorous old Victorian poet, craftsman, scholar and pioneer-socialist. And Morris, in turn, had revered Kelmscott Manor – a quiet, solid, late-medieval structure of burnt-yellow Cotswolds stone. An invitation to take part in a poetry reading in nearby Oxford last night had provided the occasion for the visit.

The poetry reading had not gone well and Andrew, discomfited, had drunk too much white wine afterwards. Several young people had sneaked out as he read out extracts from his still-unfinished (and, truth-to-tell, aborted) long, narrative poem about Fortinbras’ peaceful reign in Denmark, following the death of Hamlet. Andrew had hoped that the visit to Morris’ house would lift his mood, if not his hang-over. As he turned the old Series-I Land Rover into the car park, he saw that space in the car park was at a premium. The old vehicle was not easily manoeuvrable (Andrew wryly estimated its turning circle to be a quarter of a mile), and he was glad that Felicity had decided to head back to her publishing job in London, rather than join him: she hated the Land Rover and was waging a subtle propaganda war in favour of Andrew buying a new car. When he eventually stepped out of the carpark he was sweating freely and feeling a little faint.

He stopped for a moment, steadying himself by resting one hand against the gable wall of the old house: ‘Sorry, John, got to rest up for a moment.’ Since his elder brother, John Mariner, had died suddenly nine months previously, Andrew had found himself talking to John in quiet moments – trundling along the motorway, or staring into the flaming hearth at the cottage in the evenings. John, a bachelor, had left Andrew a substantial sum of money, transforming him from a penurious poet into, in Andrew’s words, ‘a comfortable old fart’. But Andrew would have preferred John’s company to John’s money.

‘OK now, John. First things first: got to empty the bladder.’

The Gents was in a converted outhouse. At the urinal, he began to feel dizzy again. He lurched over to the wash-hand-basin to splash his face, but leaning over the basin made him worse: bright, coloured lights; the sound of the splashing taps distorted and resonant… He wheeled away to the door and the fresh air, and collapsed on the threshold.

Half a minute later, a pleasant, middle-aged woman was helping him to his feet and across the courtyard to another converted outhouse, now a gift shop.

‘It’s alright,’ giving his arm a welcoming squeeze, ‘I’m Dorothy, the first-aider. Come and have a wee sit down in the shop.’ Andrew noticed the Scots accent.

Behind the shop counter was a rush-bottomed wooden chair. Andrew wanted to say that Morris would have approved of the chair, but saying the words seemed effortful and the words themselves rather affected. He slumped in the chair and Dorothy knelt in front of him, staring into his face. She had large brown eyes.

‘You’re a’ wet.’

‘Been splashing my face,’ Andrew muttered.

‘Not to mention your shirt and your nice linen jacket.’ Dorothy smiled and Andrew smiled too.

‘Maybe overdid it a bit.’

‘Overdid it?? I’ve seen drier jackets on my dad’s boat after a Force-10 gale.’ She started to peel off his jacket.

‘Your father’s a fisherman?’

Was a fisherman. He sold the boat in the Eighties when the herring disappeared.’ She was putting her hand to his forehead and squinting into his eyes. ‘Why d’you think you keeled over? You’re not running a temperature. Never mind. You stay anchored to that chair for a minute and I’ll get you some hot, sweet tea from the café next door.’

A little later he was sipping hot tea and discussing Morris. He warmed to Dorothy’s brisk manner and friendly interest. He found himself telling her that it was Morris’ poetry that was his own chief enthusiasm.

‘Aye? Well, you’ll know the poem about resting that’s embroidered over his bed in the house here?’

He smiled and nodded. They chorused the closing lines, with Dorothy tapping out the beat on his knee with her forefinger.

‘So rest in that chair a while-y, I’ll just be helping Jean over there to serve a few customers.’

He rested and watched Dorothy: ‘Nothing more enjoyable than watching other people working, eh John? Though she seems to enjoy the work itself well enough. Women always seem to be more deft than men, but that Dorothy’s more deft than most. More vivid, almost. I know what you’re thinking: she’s certainly a damn sight more vivid than Felicity. OK, agreed. But being vivid isn’t Felicity’s thing. Felicity specialises in being languorous, which is quite attractive in its way… at first.’

A tweedy lady addressed him: ‘Excuse me: do you have six mugs in this willow pattern? There’s only a couple on display.’ Dorothy materialised at his side and pointed the tweedy customer to some boxed sets of mugs.

‘Sorry, I’m in the way a bit here. Feeling better now – maybe I’ll do what I came to do and look around the Manor House.’

Dorothy briefly laid a hand on his chest: ‘Well, your shirt’s drying quickly in this heat. Shall I hang onto the jacket til you’ve finished your tour?’

‘Would you mind… Dorothy? What time does the shop close? 5.00, same as the house? Can I reimburse you for the cup of tea?’

‘I didn’t pay for it – medical emergency’. Her eyes shone: ‘Well, you certainly look better – the colour’s back in your face. What would William Morris have advised?’

Andrew thought: ‘You know how he loved those old Icelandic sagas: the stoicism of the heroes struggling with Cruel Fate?’

‘Indeed. So, if you’re feeling suitably heroic, go forth and struggle. As the Great Man put it, Do the deed and abide it.’

With this ringing endorsement, Andrew strode out of the shop and into the lovely old house. Eventually, he found himself in the dormer attic, with its massive, bare roof-timbers. The Morrises had used it as a children’s playroom, but Morris himself had described its original purpose as a sleeping chamber for the manor’s ploughman and the herd boy – a relic of the days before the wealthy cut themselves off from intimacy with the poor. He mused about the creeping apartheid segregating the rich and the poor. His thoughts turned back to his own cottage in the Welsh borders: the tiny study (formerly the larder) where he’d poured onto paper those early love poems; the fifty yards of drystone wall he’d re-built around the garden, stone-by-stone; drunken Haydn Probert in the cottage next door trying and failing, uproariously, to make cider without a cider press; old Mrs Lewis, next-door-but-one, with her cats.

And now, 2 Quarry Cottages had a ‘For Sale’ sign beside it. Because Felicity had persuaded him that a house in the Surrey Hills was ‘far more suitable’. So handy for his poetry readings; the room designated for his study had wisteria growing about the window; the lawns would be perfect for literary parties; Robin and Annabel lived just round the corner; and the bedrooms… He remembered how she’d smiled and twirled her skirts in the master bedroom – ‘No more rumpty-pumpy on damp sheets, Sweetie-Pie.’

‘What an old goat I’ve been, John. And what a price I’ve paid. Paid with your money, John. If only my study-to-be might not be.’

He checked the time (five o’clock) and headed back down the stairs. He saw Dorothy standing in the sunlit courtyard with his jacket under her arm.

‘Done the deed?’ she smiled.

‘Half-done it, I think…’

She spoke quickly: ‘The jacket’s pretty dry now. You’ll need to iron it though.’ There was a pause. He took the jacket – a poet lost for words. She smiled again, turned and walked quickly over to a white-haired woman in the middle distance.

Andrew heard Dorothy say: ‘Can you drop me at the late-night chemist’s, Mary?’ And then they were gone.

Andrew’s Land Rover was the second-to-last car in the carpark. He knew he would be too ashamed to talk to John on the drive home.

WUNNERFUL RADIO SHERWOO-OOOD

BY MICHAEL BLOOR

(first published 17th December 2018 in Idle Ink)

“I don’t care who’s requested it. You’re not playing a song called, “Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain…” err…”

I try to be helpful: “It’s “Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain, a Life of Toil, and Inevitable Death”, boss.”

“Right. You’re NOT playing, on the public airwaves, a song called “Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain, a Life of Toil, and Inevitable Death”, by a group called Dog’s Breath and the Puppypoopers.”

“It’s not too bad, boss. Just your standard Heavy Metal…”

I was losing the argument. It was our weekly production meeting for Holiday Island Discs (named thus for copyright reasons) at Radio Sherwood, ‘the premier East Midlands commercial radio station.’ Anselm Petty, the producer, ran the meetings like King Herod running a crèche. A bit painful for me, as the whole format of the programme had been my idea.

Two years ago, I’d pitched a programme idea based on the self-evident truth that the only good reason why you’d ever want to be famous would be to get on Desert Island Discs (me – I not only constantly revise my choice of eight discs, I also work on and amend my gently humorous, self-deprecating introductions to each of my choices). My idea was that each week, we’d play a series of records selected by one of the patients at the local Macmillan Hospice: their chance to grab some limelight before they left the stage, and to look back on their lives and give thanks. I’d pre-record and edit my interviews with those patients who were well enough to speak at length. With other patients, I’d introduce the records myself, basing the introductions on interviews with the patient and the relatives. We always ended the programme with an appeal for funds for the hospice and, as a result, we’d raised forty eight thousand pounds in the last year.

When I’d first made the programme pitch, Deidre of the Sorrows (aka the station manager) said she was willing to trial it for three months, but she was damned if she’d allow anymore plays on the station of Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ So Anselm, the producer, was given a veto over the patients’ choices.

In my expert opinion, old Betty Boulton’s choices were just right for the programme (her picks even over-lapped with a couple of mine – “The Laughing Policeman” and The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”). They ranged perfectly over time and genres, and her introductions to each choice were delightful. The trouble lay with disc number seven, the demo disk made by her goth grandson and his mates. Anselm was appalled. It was true that some of the lyrics were rather colourful (though I had admire the rhyming of ‘anarchic’ and ‘free market’), but I reasoned that the section of the radio audience that might otherwise have taken offence wouldn’t actually be able to make out the lyrics over the cacophony of the backing.

I reasoned in vain, and ended up heading back to the hospice to ask Betty to choose a different seventh disc. Her son, Andy the digger driver (whom I’d met last time), was also visiting.

Betty favoured me with a big smile when I walked in: “Hello, dear, back again? I hope they’re going to bring you a cup of tea. You’ll find some fig rolls in that bedside cabinet – I remember you said they were your favourite. Are you here about something to do with the radio programme?”

“I’m afraid I am, Betty. Err… there’s a bit of a problem about Dog’s Breath’s demo. Um. We were wondering if you’d like to choose a replacement?”

Betty is the sweetest old soul you could wish to meet. But, to my surprise (and supported by Andy), she dug her heels in: “Oh I’m sorry, dear, but I couldn’t do that. You see, I’ve already told Dog’s Breath and the rest of the boys that their record would be played on the radio. I couldn’t let them down – they’d be so disappointed. And they’re such nice boys.” It seemed that the only reason she’d wanted to appear on the programme was to plug the Dog’s Breath record. And, if Dog’s Breath was going to be censored, she would be withdrawing in protest.

Andy backed her up: “Dead right, Mum. Radio Sherwood’s Holiday Island Discs could be The Big Breakthrough for Dog’s Breath. And what could be more appropriate for a programme from the hospice than a song about inevitable death?”

Neither Betty nor I could quite follow Andy that far, but he was too fired up to notice: “Who’s doing this censoring anyway? Surely, it’s your show?” (this last was addressed to me).

“It’s not really my show, Andy. I just present it. It’s the producer, Anselm Petty, who has the final say about the content.”

“Humpff! I know that creep. He’s moved in down Mickleover Lane. He’s just paid for half an acre of brick paving, where old Mrs Epps used to have her rose garden.”

Betty looked horrified: “No! Really! Jean Epps would be terribly upset. She looked after those roses like they were her children…” And so the conversation moved on.

I left soon after that, but I hung around in the hospice car park til Andy came out. I had a proposition for him. As I explained, his eyes first glinted and then he laughed out loud. “I’ll do it”, he said.

When I got back to the station, I went into Anselm’s office with the suggestion that we could perhaps still run the programme with seven discs instead of eight. I didn’t think Betty would agree to that, and in all probability, neither would Anselm. But my premise was that we should consider the possibility, because the other seven were absolutely perfect…

Number one, of course, was “The Laughing Policeman”, fondly remembered by Betty from the old Light Programme and “Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites.” Did Uncle Mac really say, live on the air: “That should keep the little bastards quiet for a couple of minutes, I’m off for a cup of tea”?

Number two was Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues”. The perfect pop song – Eddie, Eddie, you died too soon.

Number three was “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals. When Bob Dylan heard it, he switched to electric guitar. ’Nuff said.

Number four, The Watersons’ “The Derby Ram”. A bit dreary, but never neglect the local angle, as in “Derby man drowned at sea: Titanic sinks.”

Number five, Beethoven’s Pastoral. Keep the middle-brows happy – it’s only for ninety seconds.

Number six, The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man”. Betty must’ve been a cool chick in the Seventies. And, a nice controversial touch here, she chose the live version with Dickie Betts on lead guitar, instead of the studio version with Duane Allman (obit.).

Number seven, pass…

Number eight, for a real Church ending, a spot of Thomas Tallis’s choral masterpiece, “Spemin Alium”. Important to end on an uplifting note.

Just as Anselm was growling, “Why, why, WHY are you wasting my time with this?” his mobile rang. Surprised, he picked it up. It was his partner, Gary. Gary was yelling so loud, I could hear every word. Apparently, some mad bastard with a JCB was outside their house threatening to dig up their new brick paving and drop it all through the picture window, unless Anselm agreed to reinstate Dog’s Breath and the Puppypoopers.

I judged it better to withdraw.

Note on the Fridge Door

By Michael Bloor

(first published, DECEMBER 5, 2018, in THE DRABBLE)

In 1507, Father John Damian (aka Giovanni Damiano de Falcucci), alchemist to James IV of Scotland, announced that he had discovered the secret of flight. Festooned in hen feathers, he stood on the battlements of James’ Royal Castle on Stirling Rock, declared that he was bound for France, and launched himself into space.

He fell straight into the castle midden, breaking his thigh bone. A truly spectacular miscalculation, but the king forgave him.

So could you maybe follow Good King James’ example, and forgive my failure to stop before I’d hit the back-wall of the garage?

The Night I Ordered the Smoked Eel

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Nov 14, 2018)

It’s late, late at night and I’m sprawled on the couch watching a DVD of Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers.’

Somebody says, in a low drawl, ‘Must you keep picking your nose?’

I’m immediately alert: there’s no-one else in the room – there’s just me and Mungo the cat, either end of the couch. Nothing happens for a very long five seconds, then…

‘I said, must you keep picking your nose – it’s utterly disgusting.’

I stare at the cat. Mungo stares back, in that disconcerting, direct way that cats look at you: ‘Of course it’s me, you prat. Never heard of a talking cat?’

In the course of the evening, I’d drunk enough whisky to go with the flow: ‘Er, well, there’s that Saki short story about a talking cat called “Tobermory”…’

Mungo twitches his tail. I recall too late that poor Tobermory came to a sticky end. Mungo jumps off the couch, ‘OK, Sunshine. Just keep your digit away from your nasal cavities from now on, and we’ll say this conversation ever happened.’

‘Hang on, Mungo. Sorry about the Tobermory reference: I was in shock – never met a talking cat before.’

He gave his tail a final, lazy twist. ‘Bollocks. I talk to you all the time – you just never listen.’

I stare back. ‘All the time? So… when was the last time?’

‘Earlier this evening, when you were sat staring at a blank laptop screen.’

‘Don’t remind me – Must’ve sat there for over an hour. Dismissed one half-baked idea for a short story. Then totally failed to come up with another.’

‘Uh-huh. Hunched over your laptop, like a constipated tortoise.’

‘OK, OK, though I might borrow your “constipated tortoise” analogy. Err, what was it that you said to me back then, when I was staring at the laptop?’

Mungo starts licking his right-hand back paw. ‘Just said [slurp] I’ve an idea for a story, if you want one [slurp]…’

There’s a long pause. No pun intended.

‘So what was the idea?’

‘You really want [slurp] to know?’

‘Sure.’

‘OK. How about some of that “Tuna Surprise”?’

A few minutes later, in the kitchen: ‘So Mungo, the story idea?’

‘Mmm. Yeah. Hope you’re gonna buy some more of that “Tuna Surprise,” by the way. Right then: the story. You remember that Bergman DVD that you were watching before Christmas?’

‘Ingrid Bergman??’

‘No, you dope, Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director. You were watching Bergman’s “The Face.”’

‘Oh yeah. Gotcha: “The Face.”’

‘Well, dumbnuts, that’s a great plot. The MC can work miracles. But nineteenth century Sweden has got no use for a saint or a messiah – he finds he’s disturbing, unpopular. So, instead, he makes a hand-to-mouth living as a travelling magician. Occasionally, he deliberately messes up a trick, so there’s less danger that the audience are disturbed by the thought that they might be witnessing a miracle. You’ll recall that there’s more to it, but you get my drift.’

‘Hmm, I get your drift, Mungo. It’s a great plot. But if it’s already been done…’

Mungo twitches his tail and turns away. I hastily apologise, ‘Oops, sorry. A bit slow on the uptake after that whisky. Gotcha now: maybe make a few alterations…’

‘Exactly. Update it to the twenty-first century; switch it from a travelling magician to, say, a travelling psychic. That sort of thing. After all, somebody pointed out that there are only seven basic plots in the whole world, so a bit of recycling’s unavoidable.’

I sit quietly for a moment, absorbing this scintillating guidance. ‘Thanks pal, want another dish of tuna?’

Mungo heads for the catflap, ‘The tuna’s finished. No thanks necessary. Just make sure you buy some more of that tuna tomorrow. Either that or some smoked eel – I understand that you can order that online.’

Hereford Cathedral Library

Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk, September 2018)

The greatest treasure in the ancient library is the seven hundred year-old Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map in existence. The Earth is shown as a flat disk with Jerusalem at the dead centre; Britain is perched on the extreme periphery, as is the Garden of Eden. Hereford is duly marked.

Prebend Richard, the cartographer, had used gold and blue watercolours and black and red inks. Touchingly, the Red Sea is coloured red. Since it was called the Red Sea, Richard believed the sea was red. He took it to be the literal truth. An honest mistake, just like mine when you told me you loved me too.