The Intimacy Of Sash Windows

I bought my first house in 1985. It was a bland mid terrace in a still grimy part of South London. When I moved in, in a bitter January, the only room with a carpet was, incongruously, the small back bedroom that looked out over the garden.

Pretty much every penny I had went on buying the house so furniture was on the sparse side. No bed for starters, just some old cushions and a sleeping bag.

That first night was like being stuck on a horror movie set with wind whistling through cracks in the sash windows, yowling as if demons were chasing their prey. I lay awake in the moonless gloom and stared at the inky black glass and the impenetrable sky beyond and wondered if sleep would ever come.

The next day, I jammed paper into the spaces around the windows and taped old newspaper over the glazing which may have looked odd from the street but at least allowed me a chance to sleep a little until such time as I might afford curtains.

I had such grand plans – it was the decade of the dooey-uppey and I was a DIY zealot, as well as a novice. But you learn by your mistakes, right? By that measure I was getting a fantastic education.

That winter seemed to be the windiest on record. No sooner had I stilled the gremlins that shook every window to a midnight frenzy than the paper I had used had worked itself loose and my sleep was once more beaten into submission. They began to comment at work and then someone heard me talking about my rattling sash windows and told me how to fix them. He made it sound so easy.

I decided I wouldn’t take any chances that I’d misunderstood and took a book from the library that promised a detailed explanation (with pictures).

I won’t bore you with the details – that’s not the reason for this story. Suffice it to say I had to be brave, prising off the paint-encrusted beading around the frame and loosening the box which contained the weights. I chose a gorgeous late February day when the weather hinted at spring even if the tips of my fingers and the edges of my ears still echoed with the nip of winter.

It was as I was working on the middle (of three) windows in my bedroom that I found it. Caught by the rope that held the weight, it was a newspaper cutting, a small square the size of a classified ad that had been neatly clipped from some unidentified newspaper. It had that orangey yellow sepia tint that you see in old newspapers, like the ones my gran used to have under her carpets in the days before there was such thing as an underlay.

I loved those little trips down memory lane but this one was especially curious. On one side someone had ringed an advert for an auction of household goods, listing some items with the time and date and venue. It was a house sale, the house in question being my house. The owner must have died or something I supposed and someone was selling the contents in situ. The date mentioned was exactly fifty years before that February day.

On the other side were parts of two notices, cut in half by the person who’d cut out the auction details. The top notice made little sense, referring to some contact details – a George Arbuthnot and a PO box – but not the subject of the notice. The bottom notice was of a death with the funeral details, though those had been trimmed away apart from the date which again was exactly fifty years before. The deceased was one Mabel Constance Viziard Martindale who died intestate. The real oddity came from the fact that it was this half cut off notice that someone had underlined, in pencil and not the details of the auction. And that someone had used the pencil to scour though Mabel’s name albeit without apparently obliterating it, despite what looked like some considerable pressure used in the scouring.

Do you have those moments when the skin on the back of your neck prickles and you feel like you’re being watched?  I certainly felt pretty spooked. Taking my time – I don’t know why but rushing didn’t seem appropriate – I walked to the back bedroom. I had stored all sorts of bits there, while I waited to be able to afford cupboards and wardrobes. Under some crumpled work shirts I pulled out a cardboard box – my filing cabinet. Still taking my time I dug around for the letter from the lawyer who’d acted on the house purchase. It was from a  few weeks before, just before I exchanged contracts and contained some old deeds. I flicked through the pack until I found what I was looking for.

I stared at the page for a long while. I suppose I was hoping it might make more sense, or maybe it might somehow change. But the details remained precisely as I remembered them from when I read his letter through. The document I held was an old conveyance, also dated precisely fifty years ago. In it the executors of one Mabel Constance Viziard Arbuthnot neé Martindale, late of this house I now owned had conveyed the house to her husband, one Peter Harold Arbuthnot.

My head spun. On the same day exactly fifty years before the husband of the previous owner of this house had acquired the house and buried his wife (curiously being called by her maiden name in that notice) while, at the same time the contents were being auctioned off. Either that was extraordinarily poor timing and crass organisation or something more than a domestic tragedy was involved.

It was as I was about to replace the letter that I realised I had dropped the covering letter. I glanced at it. My solicitor was a chatty man, both in person and in writing. As I straightened the sheets of paper prior to dropping them in the filing box the paragraph at the bottom of the page caught my eye.

‘The funny thing is that this conveyance was never registered as it should have been and Mr Arbuthnot never completed his acquisition. A few months later (see document seven attached) Mr and Mrs Arbuthnot’s son Gregory took a similar conveyance from his mother’s executors and it is that conveyance that was registered.’

I sat on the ancient bit of carpet, staring out at the back garden wondering what had gone on those years ago. I must have been day-dreaming because I nearly had a heart attack when the front door bell went, bringing me back to the moment.

I laughed, dumping the papers and heading downstairs. I needed to get on anyway. At the very least I had to get the bedroom window back in place before it got dark or I was in for one cold and possibly, given the weather forecast, wet night.

Those Victorian terraced houses often have two long stained glass panels in the front door and this was no exception. I could see silhouetted against the sunny sky what looked like a man in some sort of hat with a brim and possibly a  woman, also wearing a hat but most likely one of those shapeless felt things beloved of my grandmother.

The man was smartly dressed in a suit though on closer inspection it looked fairly faded and the wide lapels spoke of a different age. The hat too, a brown felt trilby was like something my father had had in the 1950s. He had a round smooth face, one of those ageless faces that are difficult to place, though such hair (at his temples) that I could see suggested it was grey. The woman seemed determined to stand behind her man. I caught a glimpse of a red mid calf coat and sensible brown shoes but nothing else.

The man peered past me, staring intently inside the house then slowly brought his gaze back to me, smiling. He had placed his foot on the top step even though he stood on the next step down, making him seem at ease unlike his companion, whose hands – gloved – appeared to be smoothing her coat nervously.

‘Yes?’ I tried for polite, with a hint of firmness; I really wanted them gone and didn’t need to engage anyone in conversation right then.

The man smiled even more broadly and using my name, introduced himself with a small bow, like he was expected. ‘I got your name from the agents. My name is Greg Arbuthnot. I used to live here. I understand you’ve moved in.’

I managed a nod.

‘Splendid. I don’t suppose you’ve found my mother, have you?’


Posted in miscellany, short story | Tagged , | 28 Comments

And So It Ends

Well there I was, ready for A Quiet Night with Dog, Jules Holland and a surfeit of left over cheese.

Now this. NYE on the Embankment. Fireworks. Dancing. Oh well

Happy 2019 everyone.

Posted in miscellany | 33 Comments

Double Act/Double Take #StanandOllie #filmreview

Saturday morning pictures has gone the way of sweet cigarettes and plimsoles, consigned to a faux nostalgia that suggests they were better than what’s replaced them. The films shown were tired even then and hardly new. But in amongst the Perils of Pauline and black and white cartoons that to call them animated is like calling Mrs May’s dancing fluid, there were some gems: a Chaplin or Keaton perhaps or better still Laurel and Hardy.

Even so a biopic about a comeback tour of these two fine exponents of the slapstick, set in the 1950s wouldn’t normally have got me out from under some pet seeking a willing lap. But we’d seen a trailer, the pets were sulking for some reason and the Vet had ‘borrowed the house for a girlfriends’ get together that she has hosted most Christmases since they left school seven years ago. So when we noted Stan and Ollie was showing as a preview at out local, accompanied by the classic short film of them piano shifting up a never ending staircase, we thought, heck why not? Even if it’s rubbish…

The omens weren’t great, not really. This new cinema, for all its plushness and the fine amount of legroom lacks an essential feature, to whit ice cream. Furthermore, playing Stan Laurel was Steve Coogan. Now I, like many, were very taken with his portrayal of the investigative journalist opposite Dame Judy in Philomena but this was a comedy drama and I have about as many good things to say about his Alan Partridge as I do about child proof medicine bottles. Me, comedy and Coogan aren’t easy bedfellows.

So I took my seat with an inclination to expect my reaction at the end to be much the same as when I finish the washing up: vaguely satisfied it’s over.

How wrong could I be?

Ok, the original short, while clunky and simple and often telegraphed still induces laugh out loud moments. Made in 1937 it is easy to imagine its popularity then. So that, remastered and all, was going to be a success.

What about the main film?

Well, it got to me. In a good way. They main actors captured the characters with a compelling and satisfying mix of grit, pathos and love. The parts that reflect real life film were brilliant portrayals and the bits that are fictionalised had a depth and compelling narrative that I wasn’t expecting. And the director took us back to a black and white world of post war hope and austerity, with charlatans out to screw them over yet with staunch support from their wives and despite the heavy cloud of Ollie’s frail health they achieved what, at root they wanted – needed – which was to realise what got them going was their love of performing, and of each other.

I’ll watch out for more Coogan films. Just long as they don’t involve Alan Partridge….

PS. This was a preview; I don’t think this film is out until the new year. But if you get the chance…

Posted in Film, miscellany, review | Tagged , | 9 Comments

A Jacket And Nail Clippers

Not sure where I’m going with this.

Readers who’ve followed me for a while will know that every Christmas for the last few years I’ve spent some time volunteering at one of the Crisis For Christmas shelters that appear for a week over the festive season and provide a mix of food, advice, referrals, clothes, entertainment and a variety of services (doctor, dentist, podiatrist, physiotherapist, opticians, reiki, natural healing, various programmes such as AA, CA, NA and so on) to the still significant homeless and lonely population of London (as well as other cities). Sadly an operation started in 1968 with the avowed aim of ending homelessness has failed in that aim but it hasn’t ceased trying.

The Crisis team I’m part of take over a school – a Harris Academy for those who know what I mean – and it contains a range of splendid facilities. Every day from the 23rd to the 30th the doors are opened at 9 am to enable anyone who wants our services to have breakfast – a very full English plus cereal and copious toast, tea and coffee, followed by lunch – three courses including soup, and then dinner – another three courses – plus endless tea, coffee and biscuits. There’s an IT room, an area for prayer, film shows and sleep space, art, crafts and games, including a mixed ability range of karaoke. There’s a sports hall where table tennis and indoor football takes place. Clothes are sewn and clothes are provided too.

I’m a general volunteer. Everyone here is a volunteer.  This week so far I’ve helped man the front gate; organise the loop buses that go round and collect and drop people off, washed up using a shit-scary industrial dishwasher – 200 breakfasts in an hour or so: whew! I’ve manned doors that we keep closed because they lead to bits of the school we don’t use – guests are notorious for checking out every corner; I’ve cleaned toilets and showers and helped at the volunteer sign in desk when the afternoon shift appeared – every day there are two shifts of volunteers: 7.45 am to 4 pm and 3 pm to 10 pm (overnight accommodation is provided elsewhere).

Two days ago,  I was in clothing. My job was to take guests orders. We then have runners between we front of house and the clothing store where many busy bees are sorting all sorts of donations. About half an hour into my turn on the front desk a man turned up. He smiled then hung his head. he spoke very quietly as we tried to tease out his christian name for the order slip. It took a while to realise he’d come straight to us and was desperate to wash his hands – his hands were ingrained as often the long term rough sleeper’s hands are. Having shown him where he could go and offered to take him to the shower facilities – declined – he sat for a while studying his clean but red raw palms.

‘I’m Hristoff (I’ve changed his name for this piece). My jacket…’

He pinched his jacket in his fingers. The material was thin, originally quilted but now puffed in patches where the stitching had blown. Moisture oozed between his tips. Even though it hasn’t rained for a coupe of days it was sodden. We put ‘outdoor jacket, men’s, medium’ on the docket.

‘Do you need anything else?’

He shook his head. His English was fair but maybe he hadn’t understood.

‘Pants, socks? T shirt, shirt?’ I began a mime using my own clothes as a guide. I did it twice. Eventually he admitted yes, T shirt and pants and a jumper would be great.


He was adamant, no.

I’d glanced at his feet. His shoes seemed sound but I was pretty sure fresh socks would be welcome. My colleague asked him where he was from originally and teased it out of Hristoff. He smiled. ‘Won’t be a mo.’

We waited. A minute or so later he reappeared with a young woman volunteer and we explained what we were trying to find out. She spoke to Hristoff in his mother tongue. You could see him relax a little. We all three smiled a lot though Hristoff remained serious. Eventually, Hristoff admitted that, yes, socks would be delightful and the reason he was so reluctant to ask was the state of his feet. He hated his feet. His toenails hadn’t been clipped in weeks and they were filthy and smelly. He was deeply ashamed.

The senior volunteer – the senior vols organise a section and Sophia is a star – came over and took Hristoff with her to the podiatrist. The fellow national went along to explain. They booked him an appointment for later.

As it happened, I’d been moved around a couple of times so that, by 2 pm I was front of house at services looking after podiatry and physiotherapy. Hristoff appeared. He’d had a haircut – did I say we do hair, nails and pedicures? – and two meals. He carried a bag in which he had a new jacket (he said, when I asked – well we mimed – that he thought it too good and wasn’t sure if he should wear it). He went off with the podiatrist with that small half smile: still unsure, still embarrassed but getting what he needed. He held out his hand to shake mine and his smile widened. A little.

Today, my last day I crossed paths with Hristoff; back on toilet duty again, he was waiting for a friend. His friend beamed. Hristoff was serious again, but a different serious, a relaxed serious. His friend explained. Hristoff had made him come, for a shower some food and, best of all the dentist to treat a tooth. ‘First time pain free in ages,’ he confided. He let himself be lead off.

We haven’t found Hristoff or his friend accommodation; we haven’t resolved whatever are the problems they have that put them on the streets in the first place and tomorrow we won’t be able to provide them and many others with these services. It’s a sticking plaster on a deep open wound. I’m certain that for as long as I can, I’ll volunteer at Crisis and there will be a Crisis for me to volunteer at. And there will be plenty of Hristoffs and others in need of our little help.

But if meeting Hristoff reteaches me anything it’s that every little counts and you should never ever fall into stereotyping. Hristoff isn’t an addict as best one can guess. He may have mental health issues – I’m bloody sure I would in his situation. But at root he is just a bloke with a lot of problems and someone who, when offered even a little help, relaxed and grew just a little.

If you see someone sitting in a  shop door, head down, maybe begging, maybe not, think about Hristoff. For sure, at that precise moment you can do bugger all practical to help. Ok, you might bung him some money but, sure, you don’t have to. But care. A little for the plight of a fellow human. Smile, make eye contact, say hi, ask if they’re ok. If you’ve time stop and ask about their day. They really don’t bite. They’ve fallen through a crack which, believe me, we can all fall through and your time, that most precious commodity we treat with such contempt, is such an incredible gift. Give just a little and you never know what it might do, both to Hristoff but also to you.

Posted in Crisis at Christmas, homelessness, hope, London, miscellany, thought piece | Tagged , , | 39 Comments

Come Friendly Clouds, You Aren’t Fit For Humans Now #writephoto #flashfiction

Jonathan Isobar rubbed his eyes and sighed. This was ridiculous. How did they think he did his job? Magic?

His desk phone rang and he jabbed his finger on the speaker button. ‘What, Sprinkle?’

Sprinkle Mizzle’s chirpy voice, redolent of sunshine after a summer shower sashayed out of the speaker. ‘Cathy Stratonimbus is here for your two o’clock.’

‘Cathy?’ Jonathan scrambled for his desk diary. ‘I thought she’d been given a rain check.’

‘She says you confirmed it at the Typhoon and Tsunami last Thursday.’

Jonathan squeezed his eyes shut. That rang a vague bell.

Sprinkle continued, her voice suggesting a possible break in the sunshine later, ‘She’s brought some samples. They’re outside.’

He stood and swiftly covered the distance to the window. Two weather formations wandered aimlessly around the carpark, one scattering what looked like butterbeans on the cars while the other formed and reformed into uplifting phrases. ‘Christ, he’ll go berserk if he sees this.’

Hurrying to the reception, Jonathan paused only to pick up a sheet he’d printed before greeting Cathy and easing her into the meeting room.

Cathy was essentially fluffy . She tucked herself into a chair. ‘Well, darlink, wot you think?’

‘Charming. Not exactly apropos, but we…’

A small dark stormy smudge appeared across Cathy’s countenance. ‘Not apropos?’

Jonathan drew in a deep breath, trying hard to stabilise the barometric pressure in the small room. ‘We have had issued some, erm, new guidelines. All clouds must come from a certified source…’

‘So? These came in on the jet stream today.’

‘Yes, but where did they pass over? There are sanctions in place, you know? And what about the content? Is it certified one hundred percent water?’

‘Well, obviously,’ small shards of lightening flashed from Cathy’s temples scorching the upholstery on a taffeta antimacassar, ‘that is what we pride ourselves on. But you know how it goes, Jonathan,’ Cathy’s emollient tones flattened the increasingly fractious weather pattern, ‘a few bits and bobs will always sneak through the mix.’

He glanced at the windows. ‘And what about those novelty clouds? You know what it’s like, Cathy. people these days are reverting to traditional. They hanker for the old days. If we introduce something like that, well the climate change zealots will be up in arms and well, we won’t have a job.’

‘Pff, silly boy.’ She bathed him in balmy sunlight. ‘What’s wrong with the message system – cumulo-mindfulness? Everyone will look up and be inspired.’

‘I wish,’ said Jonathan sotto voce. ‘They’ll either think it’s a government conspiracy or shit themselves that an alien invasion has just begun. No, we just need snow in winter, frosts in spring, sunshine in summer and showers in the autumn. That’s the underlying message from on high. That and proof that the clouds are all vegan, organic, gluten free, fair trade, allergen exempted constructs that have adopted all appropriate protocols and health and safety practices…’

‘… health and safety? What about thunder? Lightening? The occasional hurricane?’

Jonathan screwed up his face. ‘Yes,’ he flipped over the sheet, ‘that’s the last bit here.’ He swallowed. ‘You’re going to have to guarantee a failsafe early warning  system.’

‘WHAT?’ Cathy’s face became a mass of low pressure contusions. ‘You mean…?’

‘Yes, we want to be able to guarantee the weather forecasts.’

Cathy stood and stormed towards the door. ‘I’ve heard some wacky things in my time retailing weather but if you think I’m going to be party to an arrangement that makes weather forecasting a respectable profession, you have another think coming.’

I came up with this piece in response to Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt below

Posted in #writephoto, flash fiction | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Walking With The Wind At My Back: Part Two

St Bees To Patterdale

The start of any long walk was full of apprehension. Will the body cope? Will my companions cope? Will my relationship with my companions cope? It rarely involved any sort of ‘will it be fun?’

I wasn’t being negative because I was sure the setting, the scenery would be fab. It was the peripheral stuff that could set things going in the wrong direction.

To get to the start of the walk, at St Bees Head meant a drive north collecting our designated drivers on the way. If that sounds arse about face, then, well, that was much a neat metaphor. You may already be thinking ‘cop out’ and, well, yes there’s a truth in this. But even though I was still in my thirties my walking companions, at least for the first week were well into their sixties and carrying their homes on their backs held little appeal. We hired a minibus, inveigled Stan (the van) and (Ferrying) Terry to be our support team and set off. Stan and Terry worked with the other member of our party, Ernie, an old friend of dad’s from way back. All of them had done a stint in the war or just after on His Majesty’s behalf and loved to tell those stories. Reminiscing was their default position and there was little in the landscape, the company, the settings, the politics of the day or pretty much anything that couldn’t trigger a memory and a story.

I think that’s why I went, those stories, which offset some of the trudgery that was entailed when in the mountainous areas of England.

So, St Bees. Basically it’s a cliff with a stony beach and a view, on a good day, of the Isle of Man. Nothing at all special, other than the place where we turned east, smiled at each other and waved the sea goodbye. The next time we’d see the sea would be on the other side of England.

Except you follow the coastal path for a bit before setting off inland. So much for romance.

Indeed the romance, such as it was, ended completely by ten o’clock. This was the longest walk we had done. I had done. I invested in two things. A new anorak with a breathable wick-away fabric that was state of the art and a thermos flask that was meant to survive the rigours of the walking we were to undertake.

Sucker. First, the anorak: while keeping out the occasional rain burst but it singularly failed when it really mattered on the North Yorkshire Moors, failing miserably to ‘wick away’ the sweat that thousands of feet of climbing induced.

the anorak – oh and trousers… they were better…

But that wasn’t the worst. That sodding flask leaked which I found out at about ten o’clock when I wondered why I felt saturated with sweat already and we hadn’t encountered our first real climb. More to the point Dad had shown no signs of perspiration and he was an Olympic standard sweater.

Factoid: my father generated heat like an unregulated isotope. He was fission in human form. His hands were a great example of this phenomenon. Never did he wear gloves for his fingers would heat within moments of setting off. Moreover, within thirty minutes of climbing his fingers would swell to the size and shape of fleshy bananas, rending him incapable of bending them easily and, incidentally getting out of many and varied tasks involving any sort of dexterity. Such as removing his wallet from his back pocket in any pub we encountered. .

So how could I be soaked and him not? Easy. Coffee, warm as fresh  sweat but with a better odour had soaked into my ironically named ‘sweat’ shirt. By this point Stan and Terry had left us: the daily routine adopted with Stan the previous year was for them to take us to our drop off spot, join us for maybe a mile and then let us go. They would then return to the van and spend the day seeking out the local sights before meeting us at lunch. In those days, pre mobiles the logistics of this required fairly careful planning but rarely were we more than thirty minutes early or late, so good was Ernie’s estimation of the effort needed to achieve our goals.

With only dad and Ernie to see my comeuppance I might have expected a modicum of sympathy. Sod it, did they? An early lesson in male banter: sympathy is for others. While I cussed and wrung out my shirt and top, they sat on a wall and drank their coffee making helpful suggestions about how good their’s was and why didn’t I have some of mine and, oh no, silly them, I couldn’t, could I? And maybe I should suck my clothes at least to get a flavour of how really special this coffee was.

Ha. Let them scoff. Revenge would be mine.

I suppose it was inevitable, after so much anticipation, that the initial mileage took us across fairly flat country, more reminiscent of the ubiquitous farms everywhere in England than the uniqueness of the Lakes. That first morning we climbed hardly at all. At one point we looked towards Whitehaven and were grateful to be in the countryside when Dad told us about some abortive sales trip there – he sold chemicals for a living – involving a light grey suit and some sort of wardrobe malfunction with his fly. Eventually we reached the grass mound called Dent which, at just over 1000 feet caught our breath and hinted at the effort to come as we eased our way further into the Lakes. We ended in Ennerdale, staying in Ennerdale Bridge at what I remember to be a rather good B&B. It was a good day, if slightly twee all told. Nothing rugged at all.

Boy did that end. The next morning there was a mist as we set off along side Ennerdale Water, a goodly lake that had a black calm typical of the Lakes. It was a mixed day weather wise, in that it went from cloudy to sunny and back, always hinting at rain that didn’t come. It was also oddly cold, this being earlyish May.

In the guidebook we were following – Alfred Wainwright’s A Coast To Coast Walk – the author identified an alternative route across the contours up to High Stile and beyond. He didn’t recommend it, (‘It is for supermen’) though I expressed a keenness. It was made clear I would be on my own if I wanted to be so foolhardy. And no one would wait for me either. Thanks. Another reason why walking with old geezers had its limitations.

So it was we climbed steadily alongside the lake and then the river Liza that led inexorably to Black Sail Hut and Great Gable our first real climb. To our left High Stile, the monumental High Crag and  Haystacks loomed over us. At 2650 feet High Stile seemed impossible and its sides appeared sheer from our position below. But as we made progress even that slope appeared a gentle gradient to the bowl and amphitheatre that awaited us at the youth hostel at Black Sail Hut. ‘Up there?’ dad asked at one point. Ernie and I, both of whom had maps said nothing, the silence speaking volumes.

The other purchase I had made prior to the walk was something I hesitated over. A Sony Walkman. This early version took cassette tapes and had induced a fair amount of scoffing from the older men – i.e. everyone else. But at the bottom of Great Gable which we had to climb to cross the Honister Pass and reach our bed for the night in Rosthwaite, we all knew what would happen. We would set off together. In 100 yards I would begin to pull ahead – I had thirty years youth on them leaving aside how fit I was back then. Ernie would pull away from Dad who had damaged a lung through smoking as a youngster and found climbs a challenge. He did them, always and he rarely stopped for breath. He was just slow. And hated being told he was.

So of course I never mentioned it. Hardly at all. Once of twice. Perhaps. Ha. As I said, revenge. It’s a bit shit sometimes, but then that’s blokes for you. Maybe girls, too.

I love climbing hills, getting into a rhythm and just going on. It’s still the same today. Like him I just want to get my breathing right and keep going. It’ll be a bummer when I can no longer do that.

We had 2200 to go, pretty much straight up. I would be at the top, at the youth hostel on the Honister Pass for a while so I set my machine running and plugged in a tape.

Alan Bennett’s monologues for women: Talking Heads. The first one I still remember, which was a separate play. A Woman of No Importance, performed by Patrica Routledge. It was utterly engrossing, so much so that I was still listening when first Ernie and then dad caught me up. I sat waiting for the play to finish before I followed them. Sitting on a rock with the route we had just come, back towards Ennerdale laid out below me, the beauty of the Lakes there, at last for me to see, I have to say I was deeply moved. I took my time, letting them get ahead. I couldn’t explain why it seemed to matter. I can’t now. But that personal experience, one on one listening to that play of such poignancy, was eye opening – ear opening, I suppose. It was my intro to books on tape. I’d not listened to books in the car – I didn’t drive much back then and mostly listened to news or music or sport. So here was a new way of consuming stories.

Nowadays I’d be lost without my phone and its back catalogue of books and podcasts. This year I’ve maybe enjoyed thirty books and twenty I’ve listened to. What a brilliant way to find out that little truth.

We stayed in Rosthwaite, our second night and the first of feeling exhausted and grateful for a warm comfy bed. We ate too much and they drank too much – I was teetotal by then – and we kept the conversation light and the night early. After all we’d all found Great Gable tough and it was a babe compared to our next day.


Before that we had to reach Grasmere and to get there we had a ridge walk. Wainwright was a man of strong opinions not all of which I agreed with. But on the joys of climbing high and then following a ridge as the land falls away either side is a true joy (assuming there’s no cross wind trying to buffet you to your doom). On the way there were nodules, crags, on which we stopped and took in the views. The day had started cool, cold actually and with high cloud but already the sun was breaking through and on each slope, none of which were that strenuous we all worked up a head of steam, as it were.

One beautiful ‘crag’ is Helm, also the Lion and the Lamb. Ernie and Dad sat on top while I snapped away. Their faces were wreathed in smiles. This was an utter joy for them, partly because they both knew, I think, that they’d probably never do this walk again. Such is achievement and a bucket list even if they didn’t call it that back then.

We dropped down into Grasmere for a brief stop and looked North, across towards the ridge of Seat Sandal and the Grisedale Pass, nestled between. We had to reach the pass before we would see Helvellyn and to get there we needed to climb alongside the perfectly named Great Tongue. This grassy bank is like a Giant’s tongue laid out on the hillside. And the path even though it is only a steady climb seems somewhat inexorably, especially on what was becoming a hot sunny May day.

Great Tongue (in shadow) with Grisedale Pass in the gap, top right

I remember waiting at the top, just before the path narrowed and skirted Seat Sandal to reach Grisedale Tarn, one of those strange high level lakes that sit, cold and still and full of foreboding. On the far side of the tarn, the path zigzagged up the slope. To our right another path fell away. Had we been short of time or the weather poor we could have taken that route to our resting stop for the night, via St Sunday Crag. But it was beautiful, we had plenty of time.

‘Helvellyn, boys?’ asked Ernie?

I looked at Dad and he grinned like he’d been offered his weight in chocolate. Another one of many ‘no need for words’ moments.

‘Off you go then, Geoff.’ They both stood, hands on hips watching me. They were still staring when I turned back having gone forward about twenty feet and up 200. When I caught then watching they both sighed a little and set off. We needed to reach the summit – all 3118 of it – and it would take then a little while.

The summit is pretty dull, actually, with good views to the east and Ullswater but otherwise the flattish top mitigates against breath taking vistas. There were still pockets of snow at the top and some young men in shorts and bare-chested sun bathing. A couple of screaming jets, training for some unimagined war screamed through the valley below the noise following the image of the plane in a  rip-roaring clash that felt like the mountain itself was expressing its ire at their intrusion.

We sat and drank coffee – from the still dodgy flask – and wished we were alone. You want peace, not exuberant youth on these occasions. And then, all too soon we needed to get going.

‘It’s pretty much downhill,’ Ernie assured us. ‘Easy.’

Striding Edge

Hmm. If you’ve been up Helvellyn you’ll know about Striding Edge, a ridge that is the way to Ullswater and our resting place in Patterdale. It is a fabulous water, occasionally terrifying as the path narrows. And no one in the right mind goes along it in high wind. The conditions were perfect; no need to worry….

Only to get onto to it you appear to have to jump down about six to ten feet with nothing between you and a 1000 foot fall if you get it wrong. It takes nerve, one of those moments when you have to talk to yourself, counsel yourself with the thought that many people have done this traverse with no apparent problem. But at the time, well, it seems to be quite something.

We made it; clearly or I wouldn’t be writing this and it was easy, if a little tiring on the knees. We walked together, exuberant, lapping up the fine weather and willing the end not to come.

Patterdale with Ullswater, one of the most beautiful of the Lakes is a truly gorgeous spot, with Alpine overtones. We stayed on the Youth hostel, dined in a pub

and slept the sleep of the preternaturally exhausted. We’d be leaving the Lakes tomorrow and that thought sat heavily in us. Could things get any better?

top of Helvellyn

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Verse Or Worse

I blame Robbie Cheadle. Something she wrote anyway. You couldn’t blame Robbie per se. Far too nice.

The thing is she started me thinking about poetry. My poetry. Writing prose is a joy but often writing poetry is hard. Really hard. I feel its constraints, the way it is so very easy to fall into cliché and cheesy repetition.

For those whoever been following this blog a while you will also know my dad wrote poetry and he, too, sweated blood over it. And never once did he express himself satisfied ‘just doggerel, boy’ he’d say if I praised him and there was little false modesty about his self deprecation.

So how is it I find myself contemplating publishing a book of poetry? That’s where Robbie comes in.


Just maybe.

But before I do, is there anyone out there who is prepared to be brutally honest with me and have a look at what I’ve pulled together and see if they think it has merit. I need real honesty here. I’d not mind it if I was told to put my ego away. Really. Part of me – the part that feels the pain of writing it, the part that echoes my old man – would probably be quite pleased.

I’d love you dearly. As a quid pro quo I’d happily read anything you wanted an honest opinion on. And two of my books of your choosing, in paperback and signed, are yours to receive in the post – wherever you are in the globe – I draw the line at aliens and creatures from any parallel universe – the post is notoriously fickle across the space-time continuum and there is the risk you might receive it before it has been written which will cause all sorts of copy-writhing issues.

So, anyone? A note in the comments of a mail via the contact me button and I’ll be made up, as they say – goodness is that a stupid expression? Made up into what?

Anyhoo, who’d like the gig? (groans….)



Wherever we place our faith, in God or nature or another’s face

Once verdant boughs now sad skinned wraiths begrudge permissive youth its place;

December’s death has gripped the land, once luscious leaves just left to rot

Brittle skeletal, hope’s becalmed in our lost Eden that God forgot.

We fight the urge to hurry past, desert cold Earth under pleated sky

 And turn away from its last gasp, all dry and seer where no cloud will cry.

Yet stop we must, hope’s always there in amongst this season’s dying

It draws us close, it makes us care as life prepares for a new year’s living.

Spring forecloses on Winter’s debt, enough to pay for Summer’s lease

Succour comes borne on a breath that turns the key for each year’s release.

Posted in poems, poetry, reading, review | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments