childhood

Six Books for a Desert Island #5

I’ve let this slide, haven’t I? I set up a series for six books and left it at four. It does get more difficult choosing the last two. Don’t wait up for the final choice, it may be a while coming.

Three Men In A Boat, (to say nothing of the dog) (Jerome K. Jerome)

I don’t go in for funny books much. They always disappoint. I didn’t like Catch-22, for instance (currently enjoying the light again thanks to George Clooney); the only bit I found worthwhile in it is the sad bit towards the end. I don’t think books are the right vehicle for a good laugh.

But I did laugh at this. The belly-aching, tears streaming kind which robs me of all chances of sleep (yes, I mostly read in bed, always). Jerome’s account of their collective failure to get inside a pineapple tin for dessert is likely the funniest thing I’ve read.

It’s quaint as well; over a hundred years old when I picked it up first; I was about 20ish. In short, it’s a river trip up the Thames by the author and two of his close friends, Harris and George, and a dog named Montmorency. They hire a camping skiff, basically a long rowing boat which doubles as a tent. They are inept but competitive in nature; they right the world with their opinions and regale us with anecdotes. It’s a seminal work.

It’s a pity how comedy diminishes with repetition but it can’t be helped, unless perhaps in sharing the feeling with others. They would have had to have enjoyed it too, of course.

Other good choices,

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This is sometimes considered to be “a trilogy in five parts”, this title being the first of five books on the galactic adventures of hapless human, Arthur Dent, after he escapes Earth shortly before its demolition to make way for an intergalactic bypass. It’s a brilliant concept but, for me, the humour wanes with each novel in turn. A trilogy would’ve been better. Still, the best comic sci-fi ever written.

The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans (and Ronald Searle)

Nigel Molesworth, of the prep school St. Custard’s. An English schoolboy’s survival guide, basically. Bad speling and brill cartoon illustrations by Ronald Searle. I first read these as individual books beginning with Down With Skool, and then How To Be Topp, Whizz For Atomms, and Back In The Jug Agane. I was probably ten or eleven but the complete works is available for adults!

A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

I’ve blogged about this one before.

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Forgotten Memories #writephoto

a flash-fiction piece

Just a wall, we wouldn’t have noticed it, but a door, that’s something else. Remember how it drew our thoughts to imagining what could be on the other side?

Not that we would have bothered with a boring old door when there was that wall to climb. Besides, doors have locks, and a lock needs a key, and we didn’t have one of those between us. Which was a good job, really, because, I said, who wanted a key to unlock a door in a wall when you can climb over it instead? Not us.

It was apples on the other side, if you must know. Not that we went a bundle on apples; especially not those kind as they were sour green cookers. Remember, we made the little one eat a whole half of a big ‘un until he said he felt sick and threatened to tell his mum? He would have as well. We gave him nine pence and a button – that’s all we could muster between us – to keep him quiet. I don’t know if he ever told on us; we didn’t hear anything bad.

Not being able to eat the fruit, we had a battle instead, dividing ourselves into two tribes, standing apart and hurling great, green apples at each other. It was a laugh. Until Graham caught one in the gob; made his lip bleed; bright red all down his yellow shirt. And he cried.

He ran blubbing to the door and, somehow, he had it open, just like that, and was off home. The door hadn’t been locked at all, all that time. Fancy that? Still, it was a good job we hadn’t tried it first because, as I say, who wanted to walk through a silly old door when there was a perfectly good wall to climb?


written for Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo #writephoto prompt – “Forgotten”.

(The image incidentally brought to mind HG Well’s short story, “The Door In The Wall”. It’s good; it’s part of a short story collection of his and I recommend it.)

Six Books for a Desert Island #3

I’m a bit of a nature boy at heart even though my knowledge might not be as deep as I’d like. As a little kid living in the boring suburbs, I treasured knowing the whereabouts of ponds. These were mainly artificial: created as obstacles on a golf course, or for coarse fishing clubs, or a rare dew pond made by a farmer long ago on the few remaining fields not yet swallowed up by the advance of metro-land. We would go pond dipping and bring home our zoological bounty in jam jars. One Christmas, I asked and got an optical microscope to see the tiniest of the pond’s inhabitants in a droplet of water: amoeba, daphnia, hydra, and the cyclops.

Later, I could have become a botanist. Exploring woods as a teen, I found a fascination in their prehistoric flora. The strange sights of various ferns, and mosses which, up close, looked like swathes of forests on a reduced scale.

Insects, birds and wild animals, all found their way into my heart too, a joy to see and study.

A Kestrel for a Knave (Barry Hines).

This was a set book on the English Literature syllabus at school. It was a rare good choice, I think: modern, accessible and appealing. The way literature was studied at school was to sample passages rather than begin at the beginning and read it through as the author intended. So, once I left school and chose to read for pleasure, this was one of the novels I picked out to read properly.

It’s also a “kitchen sink” story, a contemporary social commentary of working class life. The protagonist, Billy Casper, is poor, practically friendless, and in an unsupportive family. He has acquired a disdain for formal education, an unnecessarily harsh and systemically failing system. He takes solace in acquiring a fledgling kestrel which he sets out to train. He succeeds, with the help of a book on falconry he steals, and this comes to the attention of a kindly teacher who is the only person to take an interest in Billy’s life. It’s a great story and, like all good fiction, carries much truth.

Excellent alternative reads, all non-fiction;

The Peregrine by JA Baker.

Beautifully written accounts of bird observations in an estuary in the east of England, on an author’s search to discover falcons in the wild.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

More hawk training. A goshawk this time, a bird notoriously difficult to master.

A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson.

Not birds but bumblebees. A fascinating and entertaining read nevertheless. For a scientist, Goulson is a very accessible writer without too much dumbing down. Bumblebees, probably the most essential creature of the lot.

We Grow Accustomed To The Darkness

a writing prompt challenge

In the school where I go to learn yoga, the men’s changing room is just off the entrance hall. It’s a small room, not much more than six feet by eight. There is a low bench along the wall on which to put your clothes and the arrangement of its sparse furniture has been the same for more than fifteen years.

I arrive early: to bag a good spot and get into the right frame of mind for the session. I’m usually the first in and, entering the changing room, there is enough light spilling in from the bright hall to see by so I won’t turn on the light. How much do you need to see to remove one’s trousers and top, fold them and place them on the bench which has always been there? An act most could do with their eyes closed, and besides, it all takes no more than ten seconds.

If another student comes in while I’m changing, usually his hand goes automatically to the light switch; he may give me an odd look and may question me about getting changed in the dark. But the question surely is; why do something habitually, without any thought?


When I was a boy scout, one of my favourite exercises was the night hike. There were six patrols in our group, about five to six boys in each, and we’d be driven in a minibus and several volunteers’ cars to six different places in the countryside. Having been deposited in the strange gloom, the patrol leader was handed a map and compass, shown where we were on the map and a destination to arrive at before dawn.

I don’t remember it ever being frightening. When you’re the youngest, you look up to the older members, even though the oldest is only sixteen, four years older than yourself. When you are the oldest, you are their patrol leader. If you’re the mindful sort, you feel the responsibility for the others, especially the new boy, but you’ve been there before, and several times. Not the same place, exactly, nor the same destination sought but the nighttime, in very unfamiliar surroundings, can appear as a homogeneity: the habit we form of seeing it instinctively. It’s not a place you want to give in to.

When the grownups leave, it’s better we face our situation squarely and piece together the clues that eventually reveal themselves, as we grow accustomed to the darkness.


written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge writing prompt #81 – “as we grow accustomed to the darkness”

Reena’s prompt this week is also provided by the poem, “We Grow Accustomed To The Dark” by Emily Dickinson, in this animation by Hannah Jacobs

image: “Full moon over Greece” by Jason Blackeye via Unsplash.com

Looking Back: The Hour Glass

The longer he lived, the more his life took on the metaphor of an hour glass, its sand slipping away, quickening, now greater below than above. Unlike the glass, there’s no way of resetting life.

He saw his moments, those grains, as equal, not one larger than another. The highs and lows, the same now: irrelevant. Somewhere beneath the pile lay his childhood, a happy time only he knew. He imagined that when the last grain had dropped, the family would pack it away amongst his other miscellanies. Until a time when it’s rediscovered and its meaning completely forgotten.

(99 words)


Written for the Carrot Ranch Literary Community Flash Fiction Challenge Prompt.

“In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a character who looks back. It can be a metaphorical reflection or a glance in the rear-view mirror. Who is looking back, and why? Go where the prompt leads.”

An hour glass can be considered in different ways. Someone may see it as a metaphor for life, another may see it objectively, a device to measure an hour by utilising gravity, some may see it as just an anachronistic curiosity.

Similarly it could be said for a fictional story, I suppose. An element of autobiography, an observation of another’s view, a simple play around with a common trope. Perhaps all of these and more.

There isn’t a glass large enough to hold all the grains of our imagination. Still, once it’s gone, it’s gone. Write it all down.

A Personal History of Time in Four Objects

Early on, I had a bedside alarm clock: a round, wind-up thing with hands of luminous pale green painted on by poor factory workers, and who might have succumbed to disease and died before their time for their efforts. It seems a high cost to allow strangers to see the time without needing to turn on a light.

Someone then gave me a travel alarm clock. I had yet to travel and had no prior thoughts of doing so being, as I was, not quite ten years old. It seemed an odd contraption: the square body of a wind-up clock attached to the lid of a hinged box by another hinge, so that the three hinged parts could fold in and enclose the clock part. Opened out, it formed a triangle with the base of the box being the base of the clock. The alarm, I remember, wasn’t that loud. Perhaps it’s quieter where people with travel clocks go.

I bought myself a radio alarm clock. Some mornings it would wake me with the sounds of the show before the Breakfast Show; other times I’d be woken by static. The tuning was unreliable and the threat of it malfunctioning on important days kept me awake at night. Then the cat took it upon himself to chew the aerial off. It was just a length of wire hanging down and it must have aroused the cat’s curiosity and so he bit it off gradually by degrees. He never touched the mains cable which also hung down with it. Curiosity didn’t kill that cat, not that time anyway.

The personal tablet is the Swiss Army Knife of the age: if you need something doing, someone has probably devised an app to do it. For it, the alarm clock is a cinch. You can be woken by any number of pleasant or hideous ringtones, or you can choose your favourite song, but be mindful that this can become like Bill Murray’s morning in Groundhog Day; it’s probably better to select “random” from a given playlist. Or you can have the radio. You can have the radio broadcast out of Toronto, Timor or Timbuktu. Be aware that it’s likely not to be first thing in the morning there.


inspired by the brilliant History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (BBC)

Radio Days

I’ve been watching a BBC iPlayer programme about Reggae and David Rodigan. Rodigan is the white, Oxfordshire born guy who “looks like a dentist” and has dedicated his long career to promoting Reggae music in the UK and, it appears, all over the world. He is much respected in Jamaica too.

I remember Rodigan on the radio during the 80s. He would be on the car radio, broadcasting out of Capital FM, a new commercial station for London. It brings back good memories of driving through the city in my first car, streets tinged with the orange glow of low pressure sodium lights, and maybe some reflecting drizzle, and the radio, with Rodigan, emitting this swell of warm, exotic, heavy rhythms and beats interspersed with reverberating, and sometimes intriguingly incomprehensible, soundbites and jingles. And Dub and “Version-Excursion”.

I had heard Jamaican music before this. My uncle’s fabulous collection of records included The Wailers’ Catch A Fire at about its time of release. There was, very occasionally, ska and reggae records in the pop charts earlier too. One memory I have is from Junior School, sitting near the front of a coach for an educational trip and being kept waiting for some reason. The coach driver turned on the radio and the first song we heard was Desmond Dekker and The Aces, Israelites, and my friend and I tried to sing along. Yes, it was a bit get up in the morning wantin’ my breakfast; me ears are alight; and you’re too beefhead, but I remember it well.

But Rodigan made me want to buy the records: Johnny Osbourne, Pablo Gadd, Barrington Levy, Burning Spear, and Black Uhuru are a few names who come to mind and, of course, Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown.

It pains me sometimes that I don’t listen to enough music now. In my youth, I’d immerse myself in music and into my 40s, I’d still be listening almost daily, and my very first blog venture was musically themed. Reggae is just one of the genres I loved to hear. I’m going to try listening to more music again. New year’s resolutions!


Reggae Fever: David Rodigan (BBC)

Portrait of the artist as a boy

Thinking about expression and expressive arts.

All art can be expressive but I could think of only three which fundamentally require external evaluation; singing, poetry and cooking. Others can be done in secret, away from the public eye, simply for one’s own enjoyment. Fun is 97% of the reason for doing it, bearing in mind I haven’t had the need to make a living by doing it, being an amateur, by definition doing it for love and just that.

It has to be said, I have no ambition for my creativity.

“What are you trying to achieve?”, asked a tutor. Though specifically about one piece of work, it made me think about all of it.

“To enjoy myself”, I would reply now.

What do we remember of creativity when we were kids? We worked freely, expressively, without much self-consciousness. Or ambition. Was it us who asked the teacher to pin our piece up on the wall, or ask our folks to put it on the fridge door? I don’t remember that at all. We worked, it was fun, and when it was done, it was done. Success or failure, if we considered those, they were just passing moments; irrelevant to the great plan. Though I doubt there was ever a great plan.

Growing up, we are told there is external value to all that we do. Often that the achievement must be monetary. I have been told I ought to frame some of my pictures, exhibit them and offer them for sale. But that work is extra work and it is not art work, so I haven’t much enthusiasm for it; no love at all.

I am an amateur. From the Latin, amator, meaning lover, and amare, meaning to love. When you look up the word amateur now, it means unpaid, unprofessional or ineptly done. It’s as if the world doesn’t appreciate love as motivation now, only money.

In pursuit of happiness

I see there’s a trend for saying happiness isn’t something that can be pursued or sought. You have to let go of that idea and somehow happiness will happen, all by itself.

That sounds too much like waiting at any arbitrary bus stop and expecting a bus to arrive eventually bearing the destination, Never-Neverland.

I think maybe the problem is Happiness is not really understood and no one actually knows how to achieve it and there are always those who, for esteem or money, or possibly both, will persuade you into buying their magic roadmap. Like the old Irish joke about tourists asking a local man for directions, he always tells them, “Well now, I wouldn’t advise you to be setting off from here”.

So what is Happiness, assuming it actually exists, assuming it’s one thing, and common to all sensibilities?

I wonder, hypothetically of coirse, whether God is happy. Not He of the Abrahamic faiths for sure, at least not most of the time judging by the holy books. Curmudgeonly, disappointed and dissatisfied, it paints a likely portrait of the archetypal Perfectionist creator (see earlier post). Not a happy being, perhaps.

But if He is Happy, could it be down to His omniscience? How can we ever know that? But at the opposite end of the spectrum, we believe in the happiness of childhood, the age of innocence and naivety. Ignorance is bliss, we hear.

Consider Thomas Gray’s poem, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. Apparently, Gray was never happier than when he was at school, though ironically a place he was sent to to learn stuff. Here’s the end lines where he gives us the famous phrase,

To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan—
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more;—where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.

Who knows? Philosophy is folly or a consolation, or salvation, in an inescapable process of loss of innocence; it’s not easy unknowing the things we know by the process of simply living in a complicated societal world. So should you give up? Not on your nelly, I think.


Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College

The Why?

Anyone who has been around little children will probably know that sometime between the ages of two and three, they get a handle on that potent single word enquiry “why?”. A typical conversation may go something like,

“Why did you make the dog get down from the sofa?”

“Because someone might want to sit there.”

“Why?”

“Because they might be tired standing up.”

“Why?”

“Because they might have been standing up for a very long time.”

“Why?”

“Maybe they had to go shopping.”

“Why?”

“To buy you spaghetti hoops, and banana yoghurt and gingerbread men!”

(A pause; a quantum of hope, but then,)

“Why?”


Then there comes a time when “Why?” mercifully goes away. Maybe they learn how infuriating ad infinitum questioning can be, how socially unacceptable it is, or maybe they just move on, accepting some things are what they are, just because. Or they think they’ve worked things out by themselves, with the little knowledge they’ve acquired. And so, onwards into adulthood, we accept the way things are before questioning “why?”.


When was the last time you felt like asking a whole string of “why?”s?

I suppose the thing that holds us back is the thought that others will think us crazy; it’s not done to question conventions or conventional “wisdoms”. Some things are done simply because they are and we are loath to upset this basic order of life. We’re safe in our boxes, clearly labelled and all pointing the right way. And woe betide any childish person who comes along asking “why?”.


Photos by Markus Spiske and Louis Blythe on Unsplash.