Sunday, 31 May 2015

OVER THE HILL (AND FAR AWAY)...



One of the odd things I've noticed about myself as I get older is that my sense of distance is greater, and that places seem farther away from me than they once used to.  I don't mean visually, but geographically.  For example, the environs of my old neighbourhood once seemed, in my subconscious mind, to be so close that if I looked out of my window, there they would be for me to gaze upon as though I actually still lived there.

This feeling was no doubt made more acute by the fact that, when I first moved from my previous abode, I returned every weekday to attend the school across from my former home.  After school, once I'd had my tea, I would visit pals in the area and, truth to tell, I was along there so often that it probably never quite registered that I no longer lived there and was merely a visitor.

The distance between the two neighbourhoods seemed practically non-existent back then, and, to me, was no greater walk than the local shops at the end of my street.  It was the same with most locales I was familiar with - they seemed no farther away than the time it took me to think of them.  My house was like the TARDIS - outside its doors was any location I wanted to visit.  All I had to do was walk through them and I'd be there.

Nowadays my perceptions are strangely different.  My old neighbourhood seems as distant as MORDOR, and a lifetime away to reach.  What was once a brief walk now stretches before me like an arduous trek from which I may not return.  Whereas I never before felt far removed from any familiar childhood place, I now feel remote and isolated from them, and they seem to be as difficult to reach as the fabled BRIGADOON

I suppose that's as good a definition of 'over the hill' as it's possible to get.  Funny how I never before realized how literal a description of advancing years it actually is.  When you're over the hill, once-familiar 'places' on the other side are far more difficult to access - and it's an uphill struggle to even attempt the task.

******

"Ah, sweet boyhood, how eager are we as boys to be quit
of thee, with what regret do we look back on thee before our
man's race is half-way run!"

J. Meade Falkner.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

LETTER IN A SHOEBOX...



You know what it's like - things start to pile up and make the place look untidy.  If you're like me, you start stashing things away wherever you can find a space for them.  With yours truly, that space is usually an old shoebox, of which I have several.  Old letters (some unopened), bank statements, leaflets and the like.  I was going through one such repository of assorted items a little while back and discovered a letter from 1990 amongst the contents.  It was a nice 'thank you' letter from the woman who'd once lived in the very house in which I now reside, before swapping residences with us back in 1972. 

As related in an earlier post, we lived in her old house for eleven years before moving elsewhere, only to move back again just over four years later.  We'd been back only a few months when a friend  informed me that the field I'd played in as a boy (across the road from the house we'd vacated in 1972) was due to have amenity housing for pensioners built upon it, which, to me was very sad news indeed.  I always feel much the same when I hear of a childhood landmark about to bite the dust - there goes my past.

Anyway, one night I boldly chapped the door of my old abode and clued in Mrs. MAISIE MITCHELL (who remembered me from all those years before) about the upcoming fate of the field across the road.  Would it be all right to come along some day and capture it on film before it disappeared forever?  Mrs. Mitchell was agreeable to accommodating my over-developed sense of nostalgia, and, some months later, for the first time in sixteen years, I crossed the doorstep of my childhood home.  (Well, one of them.)


I got some good photos and made another couple of trips over the next few weeks, to grab a few more snaps of what I'd missed first time around (she'd kindly let me take some pictures all around the house) and, on the last occasion, to present her with a box of chocolates and a little ornament to thank her for her kind indulgence.  I also gave her a cassette tape of JIM REEVES and said I'd give her some other music the first chance I got.  Some time later, I duly posted them to her as I didn't want to wear out my welcome by turning up on her doorstep yet again like the proverbial bad penny.

Some weeks (if not months) later, on the 14th of June, 1990, I received a letter from Mrs. Mitchell, thanking me for the tapes and informing me that she'd now moved to another address.  (If I remember correctly, she told me in a subsequent conversation (either by 'phone or in person) that the tapes had been forwarded to her from the old address to which I'd sent them.)  She was only in her new flat for a few short years before she died, making the effort of moving seem more trouble than it was worth to my way of thinking, but obviously she had no way of knowing what the future held for her.  (Who does?)  Interestingly, her new home was quite close to ours, being only a few minutes away in the same neigh-bourhood.  It's a shame she never got to enjoy it for longer.

As I re-read her letter, it brought back memories of my old home and my visits back there.  (I returned in 1991 to shoot a video, by arrangement with the new tenants who'd swapped with Mrs. Mitchell only the year before.)  It struck me as being somehow oddly significant to be reading a letter from someone who'd once lived in this very house, addressed in her own hand to her previous residence - while probably being completely unaware of the profundity inherent in such a situation.  When I'd posted her the cassettes, I was only too well aware of how strange it seemed to be sending something to an address that was still all-too familiar to me - that still felt like 'my' address, not someone else's.  However, I realize that not many people think in quite the same way I do, which, on reflection, is probably a good thing.

Anyway, I cleared out quite a few things from that old shoebox, but I decided to hold on to Mrs. Mitchell's letter. It somehow seems right at home here.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

BEHOLD THE FAR HORIZONS - I WOULD IF I COULD...



You're looking at the view that could once be enjoyed from my bedroom window of the home I lived in from the mid-'60s until the early '70s.  The first picture was taken 16 years to the very day after my family had left the house, by arrangement with the then-current tenant with whom we'd exchanged residences so many years before.  Although not evident in the above pic, on a clear day one could see purple hills above the line of trees on the far horizon, but I captured them on film on a subsequent visit a few weeks later.


In the second scene, taken three years on (with the consent of new tenants), amenity housing for the elderly stands on the site of the field where the neigh-bourhood kids (and myself) once played in previous years.  A sign of the times I suppose, but I can't help lamenting the fact that our horizons are narrowing with every new building crammed into any space that once offered a welcome oasis of greenery amidst the concrete structures of our sprawling towns and cities.

Looks as if the living conditions of places like MEGA-CITY ONE might be a reality sooner than we thought.

Click to enlarge

******

And, just in case you're wondering, below is a close up of the view, taken a few weeks after the one at the top of the page.  See them thar hills.

 

The final photo is me three years later, with replacements of some of the toys I owned when I lived in the house.
    

Monday, 18 May 2015

'ERE NOW, I DON'T WANT NONE OF YOUR SAUCE!


Oo-er!  You saucy thing

I was foraging around in the back of one of my kitchen cupboards earlier tonight when I rediscovered this old sauce  bottle.  I can remember when we first got it, back in the late '60s or early '70s (or maybe I'm only recalling when I first noticed it, rather than when it was first purchased), and it was still in regular use up until a few years ago.

Regulars will be all too aware of how 'obsessed' I am with items and their associations, and this is a perfect example of my predilection for waxing lyrical and profound over the most trivial things.  One glance at this sauce bottle instantly transports me over 40 years into the past, and I'm once again sitting at our long-gone dining table - on the very chair (one of four, two surviving) that I'm perched on as I type this.

'My' old back garden in August 1988 -
over 16 years after we'd moved out

Through the window (replaced with double-glazing around 24 years ago) of my former home, I gaze upon my back garden, and I'm once more a callow youth, with no notion that I would ever live anywhere else but that house.  There is a  comfort that comes from the familiar, and long-owned objects (even a humble condiment container)  provide a gateway to earlier times that I experience with such clarity that it feels like the present rather than the past.

Is there something that you still possess from decades back which acts as a conduit to an earlier, fondly-recalled time in your life, before you got old and the shadows lengthened?  If so, I'm all ears (as Mister Spock would say) - and you know where the comments section is!

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

CITY IN THE SKY...



Returning from the shops a week or two back, I stopped at a bench on the outskirts of the park near my home.  As I sat gazing into the distance and enjoying the rest, I was struck by the formation of the clouds on the horizon, which seemed to me like some vast Olympian city of the gods hovering in the sky.  In my imagination I could see tall, robed figures, their noble brows adorned with laurel wreaths, strolling leisurely amongst immense, marbled columns, untroubled by the cares and woes that so often beset we mere mortals.

The park greenery lay before me like Jack Kirby's NEW GENESIS, while 'SUPERTOWN' floated serenely overhead.  Were they, in some benign and bemused way, studying we finite beings who live our lives in the blink of an eye compared to the eons-long span which gods are heir to?  Did they observe me looking longingly at their heavenly haven?  Did kindness touch their hearts for one brief moment and cause them to call to me, inviting me to stride the streets of their celestial city, there to spend my days in idyllic pursuits, free from the ravages of time?

Then a dog barked and, alas, the fragile spell was broken.  Returned to reality, I bent and retrieved the shopping bags which lay at my feet.  With one last lingering look at the city in the sky, I turned and slowly made my way up the hill to where, at journey's end, a far more humble home awaited me than the one which had so recently seemed to beckon.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

"BIFFO THE BEAR IS AN EASTER EGG WITH LEGS..."


Biffo the Bear - he's a good egg

One wintry, snow-clouded night in the late '70s (I think), myself and a friend were heading home after visiting a mutual acquaintance.  As we were passing a block of flats, a motion at one of the windows on the first floor caught our attention and we stopped to observe what was happening. A parent, in the act of putting his child to bed for the night, was writing on the condensation on the inside of the glass pane as the infant bounced excitedly up and down in the background.  (We could just see the top of the head, popping into view every few seconds.)

We stood transfixed, trying to decipher the reversed writing (accompanied by an oval-shaped figure) as, letter by letter, word by word, it took form before us - "Biffo... the... Bear... is... an... Easter... egg... with... legs!"  We fell about laughing at the silliness of the proposition, and, judging by the sound of muffled merriment emanating from within, the youngster was equally amused.  Then the snow and the wind caught us on the nape of our necks and propelled us, much cheered by our diversion, in the direction of home and the promise of our own warm beds awaiting us at journey's end.  (I was reminded at the time of a similar scene in The WIND In The WILLOWS.)

If memory serves, at the time of this incident my friend was home on leave from the Navy, having joined not long before.  (Or, if memory fails to serve, he joined not long after.)  We kept in touch by the occasional letter and it soon became almost a custom for each of us to finish our episodic epistles with the slogan "Biffo the Bear is an Easter egg with legs!"  I could neither read nor write the catchphrase without images of the night in question springing to mind, and having a hearty chuckle at the memory.  Naturally, I assumed that my friend viewed the occurrence through the same nostalgia-tinted spectacles as myself.  It was one of those shared moments that neither of us were likely to forget.

Or so I thought.  Imagine my surprise when, on a short visit back home with his new wife a year or two later, my friend enquired of me whence the slogan that we so freely bandied about between ourselves had originated.  "Don't you remember?" I asked, somewhat puzzled by his lack of recollection.  He didn't, so I gave him a recap of the events of that snow-swept night a Winter or two before.  He still couldn't remember, and explained that he only used the phrase because did, and because he found it funny.

Odd, isn't it?  Sometimes, moments (or things) that folk regard as having, in some indefinable way, bonded them together - whether it be with friends, brothers, sisters, or lovers - and which they imagine to be fondly-recalled points in their mutual histories and experiences, turn out to be entirely one-sided affairs, having far more significance to one of them than the other.

It reminds me of times when I'd hear my father recount to my mother an obviously cherished moment from their past, followed by the expectant words "Don't you remember, dear?" - only to be met by a blank stare, a bewildered shake of the head, and a disheartening "No!" I suddenly comprehend, with an insight and clarity that only time can bring, the disappointment etched on his face and no doubt in his heart.  (Such moments also happened in reverse, of course.)

I sometimes wonder how many friendships, relationships, or acquaintanceships survive only on the ghost of a memory of some past event that one of the parties involved has long-since forgotten - if, indeed, they ever remembered in the first place.  Kind of sad to consider, don't you think?

******

(Note to overseas readers:  BIFFO The BEAR was - and occasionally still is - a character in the famous U.K. comic, The BEANO - published weekly by D.C. THOMSON since 1938 and still going strong-ish.)

Sunday, 3 May 2015

LOOKING AT THE VIEW...



As we get older, it seems to me that colours appear less vivid, flavours and smells less potent, our surroundings less able to make an impression on our consciousness.  Maybe that's why, when we think back to childhood, summers seemed longer and brighter and bluer, and winters were whiter and crisper and colder.  (Though that last part may have been down to the absence of central heating when I was a boy.)

Our senses are keener when we're younger, and more susceptible to the 'moods' with which each season of the year enfolds us.  Also, because we're more optimistic, enthusiastic and eager to experience each brand-new day, we perceive everything around us in a particular way that is peculiar to the period of childhood and adolescence, but which does not continue with us on our journey through adulthood.

Sometimes I look at a comic or toy and get a flashback to an earlier time in my life - and for the briefest of moments re-experience a more colourful, sharper, keener, livelier, brighter and better world than the one I wake up to each day as a grown-up.  It's almost like, as children, we have a special enhancer fitted to our senses, through which every experience is routed to deliver optimum impact.  However, this enhancer has worn out by the time we reach the end our third decade, and the world never seems quite the same again.

That's why Christmas, Hallowe'en, Easter, etc., appear to be but pale shadows of their former selves as we get older.  In fact, it's only the dim and distant memory of how such times were to us as children which lends any faint hint of magic or enchantment to current celebrations.  Without the glow of past years to illuminate our present ones, Christmases and birthdays would mean little or nothing to those of a certain age.

I can remember, as a child, standing at the top of the hill on which my then-house was situated, and the horizon seemed an almost infinite distance away, the sky a vast expanse of drifting clouds against an azure backdrop a million miles high, and my surroundings were easily able to accommodate visions of fairytale kingdoms of the kind depicted in storybook illustrations.  (I remember when I first read The HOBBIT as a 10 or 11 year old - the remote mountain I could spy from my back garden was surely the same Lonely Mountain under which the wicked dragon SMAUG's stolen treasure resided.)

Whenever I stand at the top of that hill on a visit to my old neighbourhood today, the sky seems far lower and the once distant horizon only a stone's throw away, encompassed by boundaries which, if they existed in the days of my youth, I never noticed.  Metaphorically speaking, once you start seeing the frame as well as the picture within, you know that you've run out of pixie dust.

Unfortunately, you only get provided with one portion in life - and it's not enough to last the journey.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

MY CUP RUNNETH UNDER...



Funny the memories that spring, unbidden, into one's mind upon a sudden glimpse of a half-forgotten object that, over time, has merged chameleon-like with its surroundings and become practically invisible.  Until, that is, it metaphorically leaps from its accustomed place in an attempt to remind one of its existence, and draw an acknowledgement that its importance is yet secure after all this time.  Such a thing happened to me earlier, so let me now relate a shamelessly sentimental tale.

In my kitchen is a cup that isn't a cup, which I've had for around 18 years.  I'm so used to seeing it that I don't even see it anymore.  That's to say, it no longer registers on my conscious mind.  It is, quite literally, half a cup, as if it's been set upon by a laser and vertically spliced down the middle.  (Except it has a 'back' to its imaginary splice and isn't quite so bereft in the dimensional stakes as I might make it sound.)

It bears the legend "You asked for half a cup of tea" and functions as an actual cup for when one wants to elicit a smile from a visitor.  Not that I've ever used it for such an effect, but it has actually been used for that purpose on me.  It must be over 20 years ago now, that I was visiting an old schoolmate and neighbour, GEORGE COOPER, who lived in an area in which I once stayed over four decades ago.

I was in the habit of taking a stroll in my old environs on a Saturday morning, and would occasionally drop in to visit George and his father, who could always be relied upon to provide a cup of tea and sometimes even a sausage sandwich.  On this particular day, I replied to George's enquiry as to whether I would like a cuppa by saying:  "I wouldn't say no to half cup, thanks very much."

He'd probably been waiting years for someone to say that.  In due course, in he trotted with a plate of biccies and proffered a cup into my outstretched hand.  Yup, you guessed it, 'twas the half cup I've just been wittering on about in my customary long-winded fashion.  Cue my obligatory and poorly-feigned 'enthusiastic' chuckle at the jest.

A handful or so years later, Mr. Cooper Senior sadly passed away, necessitating in George having to eventually vacate the premises as one of his brothers owned the house and wanted to sell it.  On one of my last visits after his dad's demise, George gave me the cup as a memento of my Saturday morning drop-ins, which, alas, were now drawing to a close due to him having to move from his childhood home.

And so the cup that isn't a cup (but is half a cup) sits on a shelf in my kitchen, bringing with it memories of another house and another time, when I'd revisit one of the neighbourhoods of my youth and reminisce with George and his father about events from so very long ago.  And now that time of reminiscing has itself become a memory;  has passed into history and is now a period which I fondly recollect today.

I still sometimes go for a stroll in that old neighbourhood and have other friends living there who I can drop in on if I want to, and, indeed, sometimes I do.  However, whenever I'm back there, I always walk past George's house (which, to me, will always be George's house regardless of whoever lives there) and recall with fond affection the day I asked for half a cup of tea and was given precisely that.

And I'm surprised to find my chuckle at the event is now somehow a genuine one.

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