Husband or Stick?

Wednesday. Man goes into the doctor’s surgery. He was clearing his roof space on Sunday, that’s hot work on a summer day, if you didn’t know it: the tiles heat up from the sun and heat from in the house rises and is trapped inside the space – and there was the accumulated reminders of a quarter century in that space. Some vague attempt at putting down floorboards, though some of the boards are the doors of old-fashioned wardrobes laid across the rafters (or are they joists?).

Children’s toys, children’s schoolwork, so poignant in looking back at it, a vivarium, spilled gravel from a fish tank, computer monitors, mouse bait, baby clothes, a home-made, crooked flower press, rolls of carpet, and boxes of books.

The moving was done swiftly, he still is not sure how the job was managed so efficiently and half suspects that some of the stuff he dragged in car loads up to the tip should not have been dumped, maybe something of sentimental value (he did dig out a couple of photos and certificates and a magazine he had photos printed in).

But at some point he breathed in too much of the fibre glass insulation (ironic because the space is being cleared so that more insulation can be added) or dust or just got a chill and for the past three nights he has struggled to breathe (and so sleep). He did the man thing, knowing that he would be better the day after, so did not rush to make the appointment with the doctor. Now he’s there, wishing he had done this earlier. There is a small shadow in his mind that the coughing is caused by the onset (or worse) of lung cancer and this truly scares him and he is still trying to decide whether it would be best not to know, best to cancel the appointment and let his body fight the thing without medical interference.

But the receptionist is welcoming, both professional and caring and he feels reassured. There are a few words of greeting, then she asks him to fill in a questionnaire about the service offered… something they do every year, she says, again with a patient-friendly smile, and she pushes a Biro towards him. He puts his dark green anorak (it is raining today) on the back of a chair and goes to get a magazine to use as a “desk” to fill in the questionnaire, noticing that, although this is July the magazines are mostly Christmas TV listing magazines or have paintings of churches on the front covers.

An older lady, walking with the help of a stout walking stick has come in while he’s noticing this, had the banter with the receptionist and sits down.

“Thought I had pinched your chair for a moment,” she starts; strong voice and a twinkle in her speech.

The man smiles back. This is not the normal way to speak to someone you have not met before perhaps, but they are both in the doctor’s waiting room so the usual “how are you?” route seems blatantly ridiculous.

“No,” he replies, “but if you had I would have let you have it. My mother taught me never to argue with a lady,” he pauses, “and certainly not one who has a big stick!”

It is real contact; no waste of small talk and both are intelligent enough to recognise it – and the similar spirit each has, which is a little bit about sense of humour and a little bit about resilience.

She smiles warmly, a beat passes and a baby somewhere in the distance outside begins to cry, then stops. An immunisation?

“My husband would have said the same,” she observes “…they have their uses.”

“What?” he asks, “husbands or sticks?”

Another pause.

“Sticks!” she says, meeting his eyes with a full face-lighting grin., then, “been married for forty six years,” she adds, “can’t think why I had to stop to think about it!”

Tipping Point

While falling less than gracefully, breakfast over brain down the stairs I remembered a fact from sometime in a former life: stairs are the most dangerous place in the home.

The speed of thought eh? Normal routine operations, memories, reflection, inspiration, the words of a song I could not remember until I started not to think about it (how does that work?) I am sure that these things are going on simultaneously; that the fantastically effective machinery of the human brain sorts them, arranges them, prioritises them and shuffling them, as appropriate, from conscious to sub-conscious, active to emergency, necessary (so worthwhile) not necessary (so discard) without us ever being aware of what is happening. Some thoughts stored, memorised, others rehearsed and shelved.

Looking back, retrospect is only given to those who survive, it seems so many things were running round my head at the same time I was toppling: instructions on how to programme the satnav I have borrowed, how I might next try to defeat the “unholy skeleton guards” in the role playing game I have free time on (nothing has worked so far, including triple socketed heroic swords with fancy names!), how I lost my balance … and … absolutely nothing about which muscles to load, flex, relax in order to fall on my feet, like a cat on speed, or to soften the inevitable impact!

At what stage in such an incident do we realise we cannot recover to a normal standing pose? What processes are involved? Muscle memory? Recent experience? Instinct? Something else? There should always be the “something else category, it allows more thought at a later time, even dare I suggest it: research? At what stage, we probably lose balance more times than we realise, shoe-lace trips or uneven paths but recover with little more than an embarrassed smile and small loss of dignity because our bodies simply take over, making the necessary connections and physical adjustments (I must remember to thank my body more often – the time machine that carries me from today into tomorrow is a super design after all).

And, with my voyeuristic love of motorbikes and the super camera work now on televised Moto GP I have seen riders hurled from bikes at speeds approaching two hundred miles an hour, slide along wet tracks – and even as they are hurtling through space or across tarmac, grass or gravel – relax and align themselves to be able to convert the tumble into a run, to get the bike upright, remount and re-join the race. Incredible! Incredible fitness, incredible bravery and the ability to react to a near catastrophic fall. I have, incidentally, heard it said that the best way to survive a crash or a fall is to relax: drunks apparently (or apocryphally) get injured less than sober people (don’t try this at home kids!)

But I simply do not remember making the decision: I am not in control – I am falling. Certainly I do not remember any ninja-style moves to minimise damage. But afterwards, with the rue internal smile that recognises luck the thoughts and questions poured in. Little analysis: we have to stop leaving paper for shredding on the stairs and in future forget the magic armour capabilities and concentrate where you are putting your feet sums that part up.

A week later I was upstairs, actually making an impression on the demon villains (maybe it was buying Shuringiana’s Cloak of Starred Protection from a pedlar?) when I heard a thump from the stairway. Without even pressing pause (leaving my avatar to fend for his muscular, never falling self) I went to see… My wife had fallen over some paper left on the stairs.

We have to stop leaving paper for shredding …

Urban Cowboy and the Bats.

Enough sunshine, dry skies and warm air today to empty the water out of the fire-pit rip up some old cardboard tea bag boxes and light up. “Dingly Dell”, home of so many evenings out under the stars last year, is less of a dell now: I clambered about in the various laburnum and plum trees cutting out the branches that were rubbing against the seven foot fence between our garden and the one next door – quite a quantity – and potential fuel for the fire of course.

And what a super tree for climbers this laburnum was and is, foothold friendly crooks and horizontal branches just the right distance apart – no wonder the girls went up there with reading books while they were still at home, because higher up there are also great natural sitting posts.

Fire burning I think about whether this is some attempt to bring cowboy life into a modest back garden, like something from a Bev Doolittle picture, then smile at my own thoughts; not really likely, even if I have a good imagination – it cannot stretch that far. It takes less than six seconds to walk from the fire through the backdoor… I timed myself on the way in, carrying an empty beer glass, for accuracy.

But sitting down by the fire watching the horizontal rays of a too-long absent sun is relaxing, the crackle and spit of wood and the different perfumes that come from burning timber having a positive effect on me after a day at work. A pair of plump promiscuous woodpigeons are completely (and I mean totally!) unfazed by the fire, courting first on the fence-line and then in the pear tree. And a fantastic sight, blink and you missed it, visit from a lesser spotted woodpecker. Black, white and vivid red, it zoomed in from the direction of the Star Field (public amenity land behind the local “Star” pub. So the tree planting and maturing hedgerows there are proving of benefit to wildlife (“visionaries plant the seeds of trees”). We last saw one of these small but brightly coloured birds two years ago in the winter, feeding on a “nut log” hanging from the Beauty of Bath apple tree – good to see it again, a great reminder and true herald of mature woodland.

Somewhere in a garden, behind  the neighbouring line of houses there is a lonely dog, for some weeks now we have heard it’s wolf-like howling and it is doing it again tonight – a real sad, lament type sound eager for company or reassurance perhaps.

Later still, but the skies are still light a pair of bats circler in the new spaces where branches spread before my, ladder, bow saw and I let in the light. It cannot have been a good year for bats so far, with so much rain and low temperatures. Perhaps these bats are using the bat box I put up on the back wall of the house – impossible to tell, but graceful, curving flights must be making some dents in the flying minibeasts population.

Good night cowboys and girls, wherever you might be – sleep well

England’s Poppies

Driving along the grey motorway for an afternoon’s work on the edge of a city, ironically in a dull silver car; the sky is covered in pasty grey blisters of cloud. It’s leaking rain which may be transparent but appears edge-of-silver grey, like dull damp ash in teardrop form. The world is reduced to monochrome photo effects, nothing as definite as black; walls of bridges, central reservation, even the GPS screen switches to grey shades as the female voice, the only cheer in my world for a few miles, insists “keep right.”

I am concentrating on driving: no radio, preparing to switch lanes in heavy traffic if the lady in the box gives me enough warning – traffic is unexpectedly heavy given that this is lunch time. But behind the concentration I realise that this is motorway/city driving unrelieved by grass verges or roadside trees and in a split decimal point of a second I realise what a focus the rain has brought to this part of the world. In some fast-backward scan some part of my brain rewinds film of journeys – and the predominant image is of poppies.

They have been reaching up and blooming for many weeks now, much earlier than I can ever remember them before. Of course I always associate poppies with November 11th as a symbol of remembrance and in ripening cornfields in late July and early August. The original species have been joined and augmented by big, multi-petalled garden hybrids and spectacular large petalled varieties are flooding into verges, running up hillsides, crowding crop fields and hedgerows and starring –intentionally or not in gardens. Big Hollywood lipstick reds with black centres rising up towards the sky (if not the visible sun!). Tall poppy syndrome indeed!

The thought makes me smile. And in this rain soaked summer they are everywhere, on the road down to my mom’s house, in the allotment plot, in the large cereal fields we drive past on the way to visit both of our daughters, painting the waste grounds before the builders bulldozers move inexorably in and over, like prehistoric Harryhausen models. The long, long rains have been extremely good for the grass which is responding to the lengthening hours of diffuse daylight (even though it lacks the bite of summer warmth that is holding growth of other plants back) and this super- green background, a green I have truly only ever seen in England, is showing the poppy blooms off to super effect. The poppies may have to be the only “silver lining” in the clouds this year as weather forecasts have the wet weather with us for some time.

By the time I leave the motorway queues and turn onto the car-park I am once again relaxed.



In the presence of a boyhood hero I am impressed by the charm, gentle, self-effacing humour and undeniably sharp wit. I have read the book, “Greavesie” and found it fascinating, filled with detail and, in some places, particularly when dealing with alcoholism blindingly honest and filled with character, but to hear the man speak …

It’s the Garrick Theatre in Lichfield, we have what are becoming our regular seats (booked early, Friends Discount and mid auditorium, slightly above the level of the stage where vision and sound are optimum).  The lights, red, blue and red dim after the obligatory “mobile phones off” public address, there is a short introduction and the man himself walks on.

He’s on his feet then for the next hour and twenty minutes, going through a routine, jokes and cheeky jibes with a smattering of coarse, but harmless rough language. It’s laddish rather than offensive and seems so natural it escapes notice after a while and delivered with a roguish rapidity that is fascinating in a tone that at first seems overly slow, but is soon professionally paced; enabling thought to keep up with the monologue. It is the same show, but freshly delivered, slightly different anecdotes and the additions and omissions are irrelevant. The references are topical: the European Championships, Piers Morgan and the style one-on-one conversational. He quickly establishes a rapport with the –mainly male, audience that is a credit to his nature and the breadth of what he is talking about.

This is Jimmy Greaves, the former Tottenham (spurs) and England forward, famed for his second to none (in England) goal scoring record (three goals, apparently for every four professional games he played (at the highest levels)) in the last of his “theatre tour” shows. As boy I remember Spurs making all of the headlines, some years earlier they had completed the League and F.A. Cup double: a remarkable feat, were famous for playing open, stylish football and signed the man who became the goal scoring legend I watched last night. The photographs of him in various games, invariably scoring a goal, or getting congratulated after one (at least one in some cases), was it Brylcreem that kept the hair in place (?), the sharp features, confidence looking at the or past the camera, the crowd – always in tones of back-page black and white.

He talked knowledgably, intelligently, articulately and artfully about a game for which he obviously has great passion, which made him famous while almost certainly leading to his addiction to alcohol, the characters from his own heyday and some anecdotes from matches or life in general. There was a twenty minute interval and he is back on stage: some more talk, then in conversation with members of the audience, showing speed of thought and wit that would have been at home in the dressing room and gets genuine applause here.

But my abiding feeling is that he was fine with the fame, but never gave himself the credit for his achievements, shrugging it off ( he said it himself in response to a question during the show) as something completely natural, “a gift”, something he trained at, but did not need to work hard to maintain, something simply instinctive. How different in comparison many of today’s “stars” seem, with agents and hyperbole and media attention – perhaps it is a s well that the Greaves career was ending as these trends came into place: the fascination with celebrity as opposed to achievement.

However as he himself confessed, while struggling at the end of a glorious career he was given a second chance by Midlands TV and this was a an area he had to work at, from which perhaps his knowledge of current media comes, the endless easily summoned store of jokes and his apparent attachment to this region. I remember the “Saint and Greavesie” shows for their humour, banter and the expansion into other sporting areas (the ride on the back of Barry Sheene’s motorbike at seriously high speed around some race circuit for example). But there is something else engaging about listening to someone this at home with their lives recounting stories and memories that I find reassuring; but I find that while I enjoyed it very much I cannot define it – and maybe that is exactly the point.

I was in the presence of a legend, not disappointed but enlightened by the assurance he showed and the light he brought to the theatre.

Thanks Jim.

Tides and Pebbles

Moon-on-moon insanity,

Double diamond intensity;

The reflection and the shadow.


He’s working hard on something,

Everyone’s certain of that,

Feeling that stream of consciousness

Steamhead pressure,

But nobody understands what …

It’s hard to follow,

To join in,

Impossible to get excited.

Frustration is free,

So easily-said,

Who-are-you? free …

… and a hundred and forty

Makes our ears,

Our noses bleed!

We write letters that

Will never be sent,

Drink each other’s fears

And poisonous tears.

Somehow, silver tape and fireworks

Hold us together,

Push us on towards 

Salvation’s beach:

Love, anger and

The tides and pebbles of

Unconditional love.

P.L. Higgs