Monday, November 24, 2014

When the lights come on at four ...

Prevented from my customary roaming by a vile cough and an unaccustomed sense of responsibility, I find myself thinking about what happens as I get older. For let's face it, older I am - and it's over nine years since I retired from teaching and I frequently wonder at the person that did all that teaching and extra-curricular work as well as the things I still like to do.

It's not that I'm particularly decrepit, in the normal way of things, no matter how lousy I may feel right now. I can still hike in the mountains all day and survive to enjoy a bibulous meal in the evening - for that's what we do on these walking holidays we've become fond of. I can still enjoy singing in the various ensembles I'm involved in, and though I'm well aware of the need to keep my voice in good working order by proper production and by careful practice, in many ways I sing better than I ever did. My sight-reading hasn't faltered, either of music or of the written word (when I haven't prepared a reading in church, f'rinstance.) So what has changed?

The energy levels, that's sure. Not necessarily the energy that sustains the long hikes, but the energy that allows you to cope with keeping several balls in the air at once - or even to contemplate so doing.   And it's not as if I sit fretting about the things left undone - I often find myself saying ( a Psalmist moment coming on) Tush! I'll do it tomorrow ... Take today. I know I have the excuse of a bug, but I seem to have spent the afternoon until now dozing and doing two Sudokus on paper (I usually do them online. There's more scope for changing your mind). It was partly the wonder at this incredible waste of time that led to this post. But I know that the same person who did this was perfectly capable of letting, say, a free period in school slide past in trivia - chatting to a colleague, perhaps, or pottering on a page of the school magazine which the pupil editors could perfectly well have done without me. So in a way, this retired malarkey simply allows me to be the person I always was. Only thing is, I'm more aware now that the reckoning will come, not in the form of a line manager wondering when my marking is going to be done but in the shape of ... well, death, not to put too fine a point on it.

However, I've discovered that it's a mistake to try to line up meaningful activities to tick off as part of these apparently declining years. The mental energy just isn't there. Mental energy, note - not physical. That's less abundant too, of course, though normally, I'd have decent exercise in a day - usually a walk that most people would think long and strenuous. This takes hours out of my life. Is it time wasted? I take photos and share them online, enjoying the photos from friends and family and total strangers that are there when I do so. Time wasted? I spent an age making a card for a grandson with a photo of him in action, but I suspect society would approve of that bit. And they might think it was all right to get round to scanning some extraordinary photos I found in a drawer, of my grandparents at the beginning of last century. (I must do that ...)

But here's a thing. Is it significant that I'm choosing to write this as darkness falls? Ever since I was young, I've known this was a time of day for feeling melancholy in - not necessarily the hour, but the fading of light and the end of the day's possibilities. It comes second only to the grim hour before dawn when you waken and consider Last Things - take a look at Philip Larkin's Aubade for an example of this. There is no denying the fact that it's better to be busy or preoccupied than to moon over the horrors of ageing, though clearly Larkin in this poem feared death more. (He was pretty miserable about ageing as well - read The Old Fools.)

When I was a teenager, stressed under the burdens of homework and my hockey-bag, I used to sit on the bus and look with a degree of envy at some buddy who might have been the age I am now but who would have been dressed in a way I still consider elderly. I would be thinking of all the worries she didn't have - presumably she had a husband, a house, no homework, no exams, no monthly agonies from an erratic menstrual cycle, no tendency to have her gut heave the moment a plateful of food was placed in front of her.

I think I'm not going to comment on that. It's too obvious where the flaws lie. But talking about these moments on the 10 bus to Broomhill has brought these journeys home amazingly close. Life, as I've commented before, is at once timeless and brief, and I keep coming face to face with someone I used to be. I've always been aware of this, I think - these poems I've been referring to were a regular feature in my teaching, and these teenaged pupils loved studying them despite - or maybe because of - the gloom. But ahead of us all - who knows what lies there?

A question to end, brought on by the season of remembrance: Is it any easier to die in a sudden burst of shellfire than slowly, in bed? Among companions who may or may not survive, or alone? I suspect you're always alone inside your head at the end - but wonder.

Ah -  Give me your arm, old Toad; help me down Cemetery Road...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

November - a poem for the season of remembrance


The month of remembering -
the lines of men in the stubble fields
the hideous scramble over a muddy
parapet, the cringing death in the
eye’s blink - this month recalls
wars past and wars still trailing
death and mutilation in their wake.
But not just that.
This month of remembering 
lines up before our wavering prayers
the souls of Saints, the souls
of our beloved dead, guttering
like candles in the fitful 
illumination of our faith.
The tears come, yes - 
but do we weep for them, or do we
shrink at the sudden blinding glimpse
of our too frail mortality?
We who live trudge on to where
our companion dead are waiting
among the red flowers at the years’ end
in that land to which we go.

©C.M.M. 11/14

This owes its conclusion to a fraction of an idea from R.S.Thomas, whose words tend to haunt my subconscious and of whom I will always be in awe.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Normandy Landing

From heroic effort to the pathos
of the broken dead, a child’s toy
abandoned in the road, is only
a single step into randomness.
Why this one, who leapt so fearless
in the surf, why was he
destroyed and swallowed in the 
red tide, he and not the next
who followed and prevailed?
These men at once machine and 
vulnerable flesh cut off
from life and love and being young
now lie in rows too numberless for thought -
no randomness allowed in this, the 
garden of the lost. No laughter now, 
no language to describe
the lives that made them friend or foe, 
but the differentiated dead
are still beneath the plaque or cross
of those who held and those who came
and we now walk these quiet parks
and think upon the unlived years.
I am the child you never had, 
my son, and weep a mother’s tears.

© C.M.M

I wrote this in the garden of the Chatêau de Molay after our visit to Omaha Beach. The hideous futility of training, travelling halfway across the world from some deep Western state of America to die the moment the landing craft dropped its ramp - all that made a deep impression, as did the serried ranks of graves on the cliffs above the shore.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Normandy Fahrt: A smug French moment at Pegasus Bridge

I've fallen lamentably behind with my posts on the Normandy trip last month. Blame my life. It  took over the moment I was home. But there are one or two things still to be shared, and then there's a poem, of which more anon. The photo on the left is of Pegasus Bridge, which film buffs should remember from The Longest Day - Sorry I'm late, old chap ... Think nothing of it, old chap - something like that anyway. This is the view across the bridge to the cafe and the building adjoining it, both as they were in the film, and, more importantly, in 1944. The cafe is run by a woman who was a small child at the time, whose parents owned the same cafe. Sadly, Mr B and I didn't realise this till later - but out of our choice to visit the other cafe, facing it across the road, came a most enjoyable moment of sheer ... smugness. Incidentally, the bridge is not the original one; it now stands in the grounds of the museum looking just like this one only - I think - slightly narrower.

But to our morning coffee moment. Hastening across the bridge from the museum as if the entire German army was on our heels, we met our Glorious Leader. We saw, behind him, several of our compadres sitting at a table outside the cafe in the photo. I wouldn't come in here if you're looking for coffee, he announced. The woman's as cheerful as Basil Fawlty. Such was my need of coffee I loitered no longer, but headed into the other establishment, empty except for a taciturn man in an orange t-shirt. A fag - surely a Gauloise? - dangled artistically from a corner of his lower lip. I smiled beguilingly.  Bonjour, Monsieur...Is it possible - in faultless French, I may add - to have coffee? And, perhaps, un petit quelque chose a emporter - un sandwich, peut-être?

Downturned mouth, shrug ... peut-être, Madame. Je vais demander. I kept smiling, and I kept speaking French. The coffee arrived, and we sat in the sun and watched a boat going under Pegasus Bridge and noticed how about 20 of our friends were stranded on the far side by this operation. Gauloise reappeared. Jambon et beurre? ... Parfait, monsieur. Merci. And as our friends straggled in, also searching for coffee and something to eat later, our half-baguettes appeared, stuffed with the most luscious ham, rich with butter, neatly parcelled in brown paper bags with a paper napkin round them. I bought some risqué postcards, explaining that they were for the loo wall of my Norman daughter-in-law. He gave me a deal on half a dozen, explaining that actually he didn't know the price of these ones. We parted with great bonhomie, the best of friends. Not a word of English had been spoken. Hence the smugness. The sandwiches, incidentally, were as good as they looked, and even the golden crusts weren't a challenge to my fragile teeth.

It must be hard living in this kind of tourist mecca. Ok, the business is considerably brisker than in other French backwaters, but there's a niggle in my mind about this constant memorial activity, in a countryside that was ravaged by war and is now picked over by the descendants of those who ravaged it (for there were German tourists too, in several of the sites we visited. Naturally.) The Basil Fawlty woman has become a tourist attraction in her own right - but how hard to keep pleasant when you're setting for lunch and a gaggle of coffee-and-sandwich types appears just before l'heure de dejeuner.

Our day continued with a visit to Merville Battery (where we had the experience of being in a gun turret during the invasion) and ended in Caen, where some of us had an adventure with a sparrow hawk, a terrified pigeon (in our bedroom, natch), and another pigeon devoured before our eyes in the garden of the Kyriad Hotel. We took our tea nonetheless, an upturned rubbish bin serving as a coffee table. We were seasoned campaigners, and were not about to let a bit of random slaughter get between us and our refreshment.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Normandy Fahrt Day 3: Omaha Beach

We spent our third day in France reliving the American experience on Omaha Beach. I felt I knew most of what happened there from endless re-runs of The Longest Day (shot on location: we saw photos of local involvement in the filming) and the more recent Saving Private Ryan, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of the cemetery that takes up the whole area on the cliffs where the German defences were sited above the main beach. There is something about the starkness of the white crosses rising straight out of the cropped grass, crosses that had name, rank and company as well as home state and date of death, that depersonalised the loss for me - no emblems, no age given for the dead, no flowerbeds around the graves. Instead, I was forcibly aware of the anonymity of these ranks - look at the lines, which flow straight in every direction - and the dedication that ensures that every single grave has this cropped grass round the foot of the cross (or Star of David: you can see one to the right of centre in the photo). There were clumps of heather round the pine trees grouped occasionally around the site, a multi-faith chapel that was too over-run by visitors to give me any sense of anything, and a Garden of the Missing where a 22-foot statue ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’ looks west over the headstones - over 9,000 graves,  among which are the stones of 45 sets of brothers, and 1,557 missing in action.

But even more than among the graves, it was down on the beach that I felt the hopelessness of the  task faced by these young men from halfway across the world as the ramps of their landing craft fell forward and they saw what they had to climb, under withering fire, if the invasion was to succeed.
 The photo on the left shows Mr B and friend on the sand where so many died just as they left the sea, and beyond them, the trees standing distinct on the skyline show where the guns overlooked the whole area, while other fortifications were, I think, among the dunes where the vegetation starts. The photo below shows the same section of beach from what is now the viewpoint; it would have been a  viewpoint with a rather different purpose in 1944. The area to be covered is now traversed by a neat path that you can see disappearing in the middle of this photo, but even with its steps and easy gradient it took us a
good 15 minutes to climb back up. The area in between is now covered in shrubs that I imagine have been planted to deter wandering in this site, which is entirely given over as a memorial.

After a break for lunch had turned into a truly French affair (because some of us went looking for a crêperie and ordered galettes complètes and while this is fast food for one it isn't for 14), we visited another sobering site above the Pointe du Hoc, where the American Rangers had to climb the cliffs to reach the huge guns which actually for the most part faced inland because the Germans didn't think anyone would make that climb. The whole area was pitted with the holes from the shellfire from the Allied ships, and we were able to go inside the concrete gun emplacements and see the view made famous by a scene in The Longest Day when a German officer first saw the invasion on the horizon.  We went from there to another iconic site, where an American paratrooper famously caught on the roof of the church in Ste Mere Eglise and hung there for hours pretending to be dead to avoid being shot. A museum stands on the site where on the fateful night a house was on fire, and - somewhat bizarrely - we could see from the town square the torn parachute and (model) paratrooper still hanging from the church roof.

That evening, like the previous one, was spent in raucous entertainment. The young staff of the Chateau flocked, like little moths, to the door of the room where this mob of ancients acted Allo Allo in execrable French accents and sang wartime favourites and French songs at the top of their still-unbelievably-loud voices to the accompaniment of a small keyboard pounded to great effect by Mr B.

As I've said on previous occasions, you really had to be there ...


Friday, September 26, 2014

Radio 4 discusses Maths - a poem of bewilderment

Radio 4 discusses Maths

There’s a magic number
called e, that has the 
power to solve the world’s
problems, to be practical in ways
we never dreamed, and I
think of pi and other
imponderables, and I feel my brain
reeling, eyes fluttering, under
the onslaught. It was ever
thus, x years ago, when I sat, 
uniformed but uninformed
at a wooden desk scarred quite
fascinatingly by the past.
Are there any numbers out there
that cannot be written as a 
fraction? That’s it. I break, 
fractured by fractions
and irrational numbers.

© C.M.M. 09/14

I wrote the above yesterday, on the proverbial back of an envelope, while listening to Radio 4's Melvyn Bragg discussion on the radio. I stopped eating my toast while a horribly familiar sensation from my distant schooldays crept over me. My brain had gone into free fall  and my tenuous grasp on the discussion had snapped. However, I was happy that normal activity was still intact: the poem just flowed out and I've only changed one line since. 

I am grateful to my friend Frank for sending me the mathematical statement that provides me with an illustration when all else would have been as meaningless as ... e.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Referendum Question - a poem for the aftermath

Referendum Question

Would there have been tears

when the old Union died,
a bitter mourning for the loss
of joyous hope denied?
Or is this death forever theirs
who dare to look beyond the past?
The autumn sun is lower now,
the wind blows cool, the petals drop; 
the hills lie purple as the pheasants’ cry
foretells their death before the guns,
and far from here contending claims
engulf the promises held out
to save a tryst whose love was spent.
The question asks the aftermath:
would there, would there have been tears?

© C.M.M 09/14