The Choirboys

Last Sunday, my daughter Tanith presented me with a unique and unforgettable handmade card and a very welcome bottle of superior red wine for Father’s Day, while my son Jack bought me a book that had long been missing from my collection, because I had lent my last copy to someone a few years ago and I had never got it back. The book was The Choirboys by the American author Joseph Wambaugh and while its contents were long ago indelibly branded on my memory, it was nonetheless shocking and thrilling to delve once more into the pages of this supreme masterpiece and to be reminded of the tragic and uproarious stories that made such a lasting impression on me when I first encountered them at some point in the late 1970s, not long after the book had first been published.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Choirboys, the title refers to ten policemen who would regularly meet up in a park in the city of Los Angeles after their shifts had finished, to indulge in wild parties that they euphemistically termed ‘choir practise’. They held these ribald celebrations as a means of winding down after the shocking scenes they regularly encountered during the course of their shifts, and also to find solace and understanding from their fellows. At this point, I had yet to read A Clockwork Orange, among others, but I was already familiar with other lurid written material such as The Siege of Trencher’s Farm and the works of Catullus, a Roman poet to whom I’d been introduced by my enlightened Latin teachers.

One of the recurring themes in The Choirboys was the way in which a policeman could commit an act so outrageous that it instantly earned him a macho nickname and which made him the sole topic of conversation throughout all the police stations in the city within twenty-four hours. This seemed to be an echo of events from centuries before in England, when Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club became notorious on account of the activities of its various members, and I’d read about this colourful institution within a few years of picking up my first copy of The Choirboys.

As I suggested in A Tale of Sound & Fury, an autobiographical work I penned a few years ago, I was grateful for the way in which these books opened my eyes to various ways in which I might enjoy myself when I was in my late teens and early twenties, while I always kept an eye out for other people of a broadly similar disposition. While I was leafing through my new copy of The Choirboys prior to reading it once again, I naturally thought of the five years I spent from 1988 to 1991 working as the Earl Marshall on what was then the world’s only touring mediaeval jousting tournament, as I do not remember a solitary day in all that time that could ever be described as boring or mundane.

While I was idly reminiscing about some of the more colourful characters I’ve met over the course of my time, I was also reminded of a former colleague and drinking partner from my time in London, who now seems to have happily taken up residence in the Philippines. Neither my son or daughter could reasonably be described as unworldly, I feel, but they were both stunned and absolutely appalled by just one brief memory of the aforementioned gentlemen, so I feel the nature of the fund of tales I’ve yet to tell bodes well for the next installment of my autobiography, something I’m more and more inclined to start work on.

And by one of those sad coincidences, I learned later that night of the passing of a man by the name of Martin Chandler from Usk, the village in south Wales where I was born and where I grew up. The first time I remember seeing or encountering him was when I was a child at some point in the late 1960s, when he was employed on a building site that produced what would become my family’s home, as well as other houses. Martin drove a dumper truck and he let me ride for a while beside him, something that would simply not happen in these days of micromanaged health and safety regulations. I thought that splashing through great pools of water and scrambling through banks of mud on this growling machine was the most exciting things imaginable and it’s something I’ve never forgotten, so for this reason alone I’m forever indebted to Martin.

As I grew older, I became more and more aware of Martin Chandler’s jaw-dropping social exploits and when I was a teenager, I would often drink alongside him in a few of Usk’s pubs, most notably the Royal Hotel. Some of the stories of what this man got up to after a few pints defy credulity for those who were never lucky enough to meet him, but as the innumerable posts on social media all make clear, he was one of the most colourful characters my home town has ever produced, and a legend in every sense of the word. One of these fine days, I shall have to try to write about my recollections of him in greater detail, because he was also an incredibly amusing and warm-hearted man, but for now, Martin, God bless you and it was a true privilege to have known you.

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In Grateful Memory of Kirsty Boden

I cannot meaningfully add to the expressions of sorrow we all feel for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks here in Britain, but there are nonetheless two people who were caught up in these outrages that I feel compelled to speak about.

The first is the as yet unnamed police officer who is currently in hospital recovering from his knife wounds, the man who rugby tackled one of the rampaging murderers on Saturday night in London. To my mind, it takes a rare degree of bravery to confront, let alone rugby tackle, someone who is not only brandishing a large blade, but who is also wearing a suicide vest, even if this garment later turned out to be a fake. I don’t know what to say other than I wish this man a full and speedy recovery, and that I stand in sheer awe of the courage he displayed when he chose to try to save the lives of others.

The second person I wish to speak about is Kirsty Boden, the young Australian lady in the photo at the top of this post who worked as a nurse in one of the nearby hospitals, so I feel I need to try to explain why her untimely death moved me so much. As I understand it from this BBC article, Kirsty worked in recovery, in theatres, so as I underwent major surgery in a London hospital last year, it follows that I am intensely and eternally grateful to all those like Kirsty who cared for me after my operation.

Furthermore, my wife is a nurse, as is my mother-in-law, an aunty, my younger sister and at least two cousins. I’ve had the rare pleasure of meeting and working with many Australian nurses over the years, while one of them is a godmother to my daughter, so I don’t need to read statements from others about the many fine qualities of these people to know for an absolute fact what wonderful human beings they all are.

Had I happened to meet Kirsty, by some chance, during the course of one of my visits to London, it follows that after everything I’ve just written, I would have deferred to her, I would haveĀ  treated her in a respectful fashion, I’d have readily told her of my automatic admiration for her, I’d have offered to buy her a drink and I’d have almost certainly asked her if I could have given her a hug, so in awe am I of Kirsty and all her colleagues in our NHS and elsewhere.

Goodbye and God bless you, Kirsty; thank you for everything you did for your fellow human beings and although we never met, it was a privilege to breathe the same air as you.

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Scipio and Leonardo

Last Saturday, I was browsing through some books on sale at a stall at Exeter’s Respect Festival, when a historical novel dealing with Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus leapt out at me. I had previously read a trilogy of books dealing with Hannibal by the same author, Ross Leckie, so I bought his novel about Scipio instantly, certain in the knowledge that I would thoroughly enjoy it.

It was so good that I buried myself in its pages for long hours on end, without watching television once. My sympathies have always been with Hannibal Barca, the unparalleled Carthaginian general of antiquity, but by simple virtue of the fact that this amazing man spent fourteen years in Italy, destroying every army sent against him, it stands to reason that I have a great deal of admiration for Scipio, the supremely cultured Roman who finally defeated Hannibal in Africa at the battle of Zama.

I could write about these matters for hours on end and long before now, I’ve done precisely that in the form of an essay on the wonderful site run by my friend Salim George Khalaf. All the same, the object of my short post is less to enthuse about the relative qualities of Scipio and Hannibal than it is to celebrate my good fortune, because when I eventually returned home on the Saturday in question, I discovered that my daughter Tanith had bought another book, pictured in the photo at the top of this post, that was a paperback version of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

My joy was unbounded when I saw this book, because as far back as the 1970s, I came to view Leonardo da Vinci as possibly the most gifted human being who has ever existed. There was a time, early on, when I thought that we admired Leonardo on account of his surviving sculptures, paintings and sketches, but this was before I became aware that this astonishing man had also committed a great many of his thoughts and observations to print, and that we are fortunate enough that they have survived, for us to wonder at.

So, having gone back in time to the late 3rd century BC to witness a titanic power struggle between Rome and Carthage, a military conflict that devastated northern Italy, I will now be immersing myself in the mind of a man who brought lasting renown to the same region by virtue of his unparalleled genius in so many fields of human endeavour.

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Manchester Attack

For weeks, I’ve been growing more and more angry and exasperated when I’ve been watching television, on account of all the lying, bickering politicians, reporters and supporters. Today, I’ve been hearing stories of little girls with plastic bags burned into their skin and hair, with nails blown into their faces by a bomb, along with most other horrors you’d care to imagine, so I’d give anything for this not to have happened and to be back instead to simply complaining about grown men and women slagging each other off.

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Theresa May, Fox Hunting and the Decline of Christianity

Last week, Theresa May revealed that she has always been in favour of fox hunting, then a few days ago, her party’s published manifesto included a commitment to allow Conservative members of Parliament a free vote on the issue, should the Tories win the forthcoming election. This decision caused outrage and revulsion in many quarters, but I can’t help seeing this apparently self-serving decision in a slightly different light, as I shall describe after I’ve briefly run through some of the more obvious conclusions that can be reasonably drawn from what we now know.

As others have pointed out, there is perhaps an unprecedented degree of hypocrisy at work here, but such a thing is hardly unusual or remarkable in our modern era, when the approval ratings for politics and for all politicians have never been lower. With this woeful track record in mind, it breaks new ground in sheer gall for the prime minister to rule out a second vote on Brexit or on another Scottish referendum on independence, especially when both these votes were so close, yet to allow another vote on whether or not to legalise fox hunting once more, when all the polls I’ve seen show that something in the region of 85% of British voters are firmly against blood sports.

Perhaps there was a time when I would have been outraged by these things, but now, I cannot help but be amused when I see that the Conservative party are vociferously accusing their bemused Labour counterparts of wanting to take Britain back to the 1970s. After all, in 2017, nothing says that you’re a modern, progressive party more than announcing to an incredulous world that you want to reintroduce the barbaric practise of setting a pack of dogs on a wild animal for the pleasure of a few onlookers, but as I’m not the one seeking re-election, I will assume that Conservative party strategists are confident they know what they’re doing and are not going to make fools of themselves.

There are many political issues worth exploring in far greater depth, but I am far more interested in one aspect of Theresa May’s enthusiasm for fox hunting that no one has yet described and delved into, at least not as far as I’m aware. The prime minister is famously the daughter of a vicar, so before I’m accused of unfairly singling out an aspect of her character or history, I would simply say that this matter was covered and indeed highlighted as a positive virtue on page 17 of Friday’s Daily Mail, a newspaper that has shown itself to be Theresa May’s single greatest champion among our media thus far.

If being the daughter of a vicar somehow brings Theresa May qualities that prove useful to her and to the country, then she deserves all the credit going, while any success she achieves in the political arena should reflect well on her faith. On the other hand, I surely cannot be the only person who has more than a passing interest in Christianity, primarily on account of the extensive research I did for my 2009 book, who finds the practise of setting dogs on wild animals for the pleasure of a few onlookers to be completely at odds with the teachings of the central figure in Christianity.

Christianity is in sharp decline in Britain and this 2016 article from the Spectator is as good a summary of the matter as any that I’ve seen recently. I am no analyst, but it seems to me that if Christians are now a minority in Britain, as the figures tell us, and if a small minority of something like 15 or 20% of the population are in favour of blood sports, then a leading Christian figure such as Theresa May is notably going against the tide of history by publicly aligning herself with a pastime that the overwhelming majority of people in Britain view with revulsion.

Most of the indications that I’ve seen suggest that Theresa May and her Conservative party will win at the next election, although I personally doubt that her backing of fox hunting will have made much difference either way if this proves to be the case. However, while the Conservative party may turn out to be in power for the next five years or so, hunting foxes with packs of dogs and with terriers for the depraved practise of digging out continues to wane in popularity, especially among young people.

Unless some kind of miracle occurs, it seems to me that Christianity in Britain is on the way out as well, so when the history of this apparently doomed religion comes to be written, then I strongly suspect that Theresa May will be judged to have played a significant part in the emptying of Britain’s churches and in failing to inspire a new generation to fill these houses of worship, an odd legacy indeed for a churchgoing vicar’s daughter.

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In Loving Memory of My Friend Tariq

Around six years ago, I had the spectacular good fortune of being introduced to Dr Tariq Idris, who was well-known at the time as a cosmetic dentist practising in London’s prestigious Harley Street. I met Tariq at a time when I’d been abandoned by the dental profession and I was in a very bad way, having been driven almost literally demented by the incessant pain I was suffering. As such, I had become extremely suspicious of and hostile to dentists, so I frankly doubted that our meeting would end well for either of us, despite the glowing recommendations I’d heard about Tariq , who had had a number of high-profile celebrities as his grateful clients over the years.

I immediately warmed to Tariq, but not just because of the supreme care he took in the course of his work. He was considerate and understanding to a fantastic degree with me, which is no small feat considering that I’ve got good reason to believe that I was quite possibly the most fearful and difficult patient he’d encountered. I was grateful beyond words to him for treating me like a human being, but we stayed in touch from the very first, not just because I was his patient, but because he was such a warm, likeable, amusing, considerate and well-informed man.

I am deliberately making this account brief, because I intend to write about Tariq at far greater length another time. For now, I was fascinated to learn that he applied the principles of the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci Sequence to his cosmetic dentistry, so there were many times when Tariq and myself talked long into the night about these matters. We discussed other things as well, such as our shared love of Pink Floyd and black dogs, but I cannot hope to do justice to the full breadth of Tariq’s learning and interests here, nor will I try.

I’m 57 years old and for as far back as I can remember, I’ve had an extremely robust sense of humour, something that’s occasionally got me into deep trouble, but Tariq was responsible for playing the funniest practical joke on me that anyone has ever managed, which is an astonishing achievement and the memory of it still makes me explode with laughter and grin like an idiot. I could continue for hours yet and one day I will, but for now, I’ll simply say that for all his many wonderful qualities, not least his warmth and kindness, I loved Tariq like a brother.

I last spoke with him just a few weeks ago and as ever, he was brimming over with curiosity and happiness as he enthused about life in general and about a forthcoming project in particular. He was planning to leave the country for a little while, so I imagined that I’d be hearing from him shortly after his return, but instead, I was appalled to receive a phone call from a mutual friend last Monday to tell me that Tariq was critically ill in intensive care in a hospital in the north of England; on Wednesday, his life support was turned off and on the Thursday, the following day, Tariq was buried in keeping with the tenets of his devoutly-held Muslim faith.

At my age, I’ve known what I suspect is at least my share of tragedies and bereavements, but Tariq’s loss is absolutely brutal, not just to me, but to his young family and to all his many other friends, as well as to all those who profited from his professional skills. For most of the time, I think of this man that I loved like a brother and I smile, because of the countless reasons I have to be happy that I knew him, but every now and again, my eyes well up, the hot tears flow unchecked and I simply cannot bloody well believe that he’s gone, so I find myself cursing a malignant fate that stole him from us at such a young age.

This isn’t what Tariq would want, so I’ve applied myself to trying to write the briefest of eulogies that will do his memory some remote semblance of justice and hopefully please anyone else who knew him, who happens to pass by this site.

“Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale”.
“And forever, Brother, hail and farewell”.
Catullus.

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The Fox’s Daylight Blessing

For several years, when I’ve sat outside my back door after dark, gazing up the length of my rambling garden into the long grass and the shadows around the distant outbuildings, I’ve often been visited by a fox, meetings I’ve recorded on this site at least once before. This creature has sometimes chosen to get to within three feet or so of where I’m resting in my chair, before sitting down in an unhurried fashion, wrapping its tail around its haunches and staring silently at me for a few blessed minutes, before eventually rising once again and slipping away into the “foothills of the night”.

After each magical visit, I’ve found myself slightly out of breath, possibly because I was subconsciously holding my breath for fear of making a noise, disturbing the creature and thereby breaking the spell. However, I’m more inclined to believe that being in the presence of one of Britain’s most iconic and demonised wild animals is akin to a religious experience, as far as I’m concerned, but I can only speak of how I feel after such encounters.

Earlier today, on May Day afternoon, I was preparing a meal in my kitchen when my son Jack softly called my attention to a previously unseen vision, that of a large fox quietly climbing the steps into my garden from just beneath the window where I was standing. This fantastic creature then stared through the window at us, seemingly without a care in the world, just three or four feet away.

I quietly urged Jack to get his mother and sister from the front room, so that they too could see and share this wonder for themselves. By the time everyone had crept back into the kitchen, our visitor had moved away and was leisurely inspecting some of the higher reaches of our garden, as you can see by the photos that my daughter Tanith took, at the top and bottom of this post.

It so happened that shortly before this creature appeared, in broad daylight, I had learned some dreadful news that brought me to tears, not about my own well-being, but concerning a terrible misfortune that has befallen one of my dearest friends; someone to whom I am furthermore indebted beyond description for their kindness to me, at a time when I needed it most.

The news was so shocking in its nature that I still find it hard to believe, so I was terribly upset earlier, shaking my head and trying to come to terms with the appalling details I’d just heard. Nothing could banish this sorrow, but the unexpected sight of this wonderful fox almost literally coming to visit me could not help but lighten my mood and prevent me from indulging my natural reaction, which was to bury my head in my hands and weep.

Now, I do not know if the fox I saw today is the same creature that’s sometimes visited me by night over the course of the past few years. Nor do I know if it was anything other than a cosmic coincidence that I should see a wild animal that was absolutely guaranteed to lift my spirits, at such close quarters, so shortly after I’d received the worst news I can remember in a long time. Short of letting himself in through the kitchen door, then jumping up on one of the kitchen surfaces, he or she couldn’t have been much closer to me, and I know that they could see me through the old glass from where they paused outside, by a rosemary bush that graces that corner of the garden.

All things considered, I think it’s stretching the bounds of coincidence beyond all credulity to consider that after nearly a decade of living here, a wild animal should appear no more than a few feet away from me in broad daylight, just after I’d been informed of some news that threatened to corrode the soul. I don’t pretend to know what exactly happened in those mystical few minutes earlier, but I choose to believe that some small part of creation was moved by my plight, and sent a beautiful creature as a sign, to console me. It’s possible – though some would say it’s certain – that I was fantastically lucky, nothing more, but either way you look at the matter, life can be indescribably beautiful.

Posted in Current Affairs, Magic & the Supernatural, Mourning | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments