PC 258 Playing by or with myself

Tuesday morning: I am back in my usual seat in the Hope Café, ears pinned for the odd snippet, listening for more vignettes of others’ lives, for the demands of the empty-headed aspiring writer are constant! It is raining outside; inside the umbrella stand is stuffed, its tray almost full, and there’s a smell of damp clothing and hair. The latter is particularly pleasant – not!

The regulars are here, plus those for whom the “Why don’t we get out of the rain and grab a cup of coffee?” is irresistible. In the far corner, sitting by himself and enjoying the contents of a pot of tea, a grey-haired chap is head down into a book, his lips gently and unconsciously forming the words. I recognise the cover, the latest by the American author John Grisham entitled ‘Sooley’. Grisham has written 36 novels, mainly involving lawyers and court cases; they are always well-crafted and gripping stories – you can tell I’m a fan as is, I assume, the man this morning.

Having read Sooley, the story of a gifted basketball-playing teenager from South Sudan who makes it to the United States in search of a better life, I realise only two aspects of the story have stayed with me. One is that keeping up-to-date with the geopolitical news of South Sudan and its northern neighbour Sudan, both countries riven by tribal conflicts, dashed hopes and refugee crises one after the other, is difficult. The other, light years away from the reality back home, is Sooley playing by himself in the American school gym, shooting baskets hour after hour after hour. The dedication required of individuals who want to ‘make it’ is admirable; but playing by yourself is also lonely. Oh! The third thing, sorry I only said ‘two’, is that I know nothing about the art of playing basketball and actually don’t want to! 

Funny thing one’s mind. Noticing Grisham’s book cover has got me thinking about all sorts of things, particularly about being alone, playing by yourself, maybe playing with yourself. Sooley is not unusual. Swimmers swim up and down their pool, length after length, two hours before breakfast, alone with their thoughts. Trumpet players lock themselves into a sound-proofed rehearsal room, practising their scales and embouchure. Alone!

The other day Celina and I tried out ‘bouldering’ in the local centre in Portslade. Not quite climbing with ropes, you use handholds to climb up an artificial wall. We went together, but climbed solo. Focused on the task, on the unfamiliar, directing your body to reach here, hold there, up and up! You can play virtually any sport by yourself apart from, by definition, team games; those who try to play by themselves within a team don’t succeed! (Note 1)

From a personality point of view, humans can be divided into those who are generally extroverted and those who are generally introverted. Those who define as extroverted engage with people and things around them; they use the interaction with others as a way of recharging their emotional and physical batteries. Interestingly Western cultures tend to sanction and encourage this outgoing gregarious nature. The flip side are the introverts who find mixing and being with others energetically draining. They much prefer the inner world of concepts and ideas and love their own company.

Practising most activities requires a focus, the coming together of all of one’s abilities and skills, to perform something. My daily challenge of Killer Sudoku is not shared by Celina; when we practise our hot yoga, we share and enjoy the tangible emotional vibes and spirituality of the other attendees, but the focus is firmly on one’s own efforts, the battles with the body and mind and the heat!

My grandchildren seem to enjoy Mindcraft; playing by themselves …… woe betide someone who interrupts at some crucial moment. And that’s true of so much of what we do, painting, writing, talking, acting, designing, curing, cooking whatever; the focus to bring together the skills ….. to do.

Our experiences of ‘lockdown’ are varied and illuminating. A number of people re-found that the art of sewing, painting, and other activities can be very rewarding, (See PC 205 and the Lego Porsche) whilst the interaction with those in the same household more challenging than normal! Playing with themselves was better than playing with others!

Humans can play by themselves and with themselves and this thread reminded me of my large, loveable, black Labrador Tom. Tom used to have wild dreams and some wet ones; it was embarrassing when he sat outside a shop waiting for me, spraying the pavement!! Tom’s facial expression never changed much and it was hard to know whether he was aware of what he was doing! The human experience maybe can be summed up by the drill sergeant opening the door to the National Service squaddies’ barrack room at 0600, screaming: “You ‘orrible lot! Time to get up! Hands off cocks, on socks!” (Note 2)

I notice a number of others are plugged in …… and I plug in my earphones to listen to a podcast! The Times magazine last Saturday covered the phenomenal success of one called ‘Call Her Daddy’ by 27 year old Alex Cooper. Podcasts are a god-send for those who travel, listening to new ideas, old concepts, history, careers, life stories; you will find something of interest. Cooper’s, the fifth most popular ones (Note 3), covers sex, with chats and advice about ghosting, threesomes and masturbation. Two other contributors, Emily Ratajkowski and Heidi Montag, cover issues like body image and orgasms. Asked by the interviewee for her very best sex tip: “I would say the confidence you have in the bedroom should be the same confidence you find within yourself when you’re masturbating.”

Masturbation? Hands up who hasn’t indulged in a little self-help relief and if not why not? Just playing …….

Realising the time, I stuff everything into my Kipling, settle up with Susie and head out into the rain.

Richard 26th November 2021


PS In The Times’ ‘Last Word’ last week: “The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.” Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author. Following this, someone wrote in to the Letters page, saying that her mother firmly believed she was the only person that she could get any sense out of!

Note 1 “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM”

Note 2 National Service in the UK lasted from 1949 to 1960. All 17-21 year old males had to serve 18 months (increased in 1950 to 2 years); women were not included.

Note 3 The first four in the very American-centric list are The Joe Regan Experience, TED Talks Daily, The Daily (an American-focused news digest) and The Michelle Obama Podcast.

PC 257 Alcohol and the British Issue

In the last few months there have been more and more articles in the press about alcohol and its misuse here in the UK. I admit I don’t read ‘Wine & Beer Digest’ which probably extolls the virtues of alcohol so perhaps I am getting an unconscious biased view? (Note 1)

But …. there is no doubt in my mind something needs to be done to change the way we British use and treat alcohol and the sooner the better. To highlight the statistics:  “Half the cases that our paramedics in the ambulance service respond to are alcohol-related.” FIFTY per cent! (Note 2) “It’s estimated that heavy drinkers” however those are defined (?) “cost the NHS some £3.5 billion a year.” David Aaronovitch, writing in The Times, suggested that “drink kills nearly twice as many British people as drugs (Note 3) and yet we still delude ourselves it’s a harmless part of our culture.” Additionally rising drink-drive deaths are prompting calls for new alcohol limit.

I declared I wouldn’t drink alcohol whilst at school, but before I left that dream lay on the straw-covered floor of the local pub, a victim of peer pressure!! Alcohol became a regular part of normal life.

Historically we Brits have drunk a lot, socially divided between those who drank wine and its derivatives and those who could only afford ale or beer. Then wine became more widely available and it was no longer considered only a celebratory drink. Statistics show wine consumption had a tenfold increase 1960-1990.

We have a reputation for drinking alcohol in a certain way. Whilst we can admire the French for the way they can drink small amounts, a large section of our society can’t see any point in drinking alcohol, without an aim of getting completely hammered/drunk/trolleyed/unconscious/irresponsible. So embedded in the national psyche is this view that any form of celebration must be accompanied by alcohol – as if you can’t have fun without some stimulant.

The association of sports and alcohol is hard to fathom, given the health needs required for the former. “Congratulations Steve on winning the village/town/city/league football title.” says the BBC sports commentator and then asks: “What are you planning to do this evening, have a few?”Yer of course! Probably get hammered.” (A few drinks yes, but hammered, senseless?) And the fans are no better. Does anyone think it acceptable that Leicester Square in London, after the Football World Cup final, was trashed by drunken individuals in a demonstration of mindless hooliganism?

And when it comes to ‘going out’ in the evening, it seems that the advent of drinking ‘shots’ has become standard; the quickest way to lose it!

Alcohol and drugs featured in a piece of television drama this month. Students got ‘off-their-faces’ in an after-course party and one ended up strangled with a scarf and her body dumped in a river. Two individuals were charged with her death; one pleaded guilty to disposing of her body, the other simply stated over and over again she couldn’t remember, ‘I have no recollection’. The jury acquitted her – we thought she was guilty – but alcohol and drugs had killed someone.  

Fortunately the millennial generation don’t want to have a headache or a hangover and are demanding lower alcohol or non-alcohol drinks. “Typically I would have been wasted. Not drinking I didn’t do anything I’d regret and I’m glad I get to remember it all.” Chrissy Teigen on Instagram.

Looking for an alternative to alcoholic drinks one turns to ‘00’ beers and wine. The latter is, I sincerely believe, not there yet although with 0.5% ABV a glass of red wine provides a slither of fond memory. Funny how some countries are picking up of this but for instance in Singapore the Marina Bay Sands hotel thought the alternative to an alcoholic drink to have with a meal was something sweet – this is just nonsense. Remonstrating with the barman in The Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath someone had to go scurrying off to the local 9/11. (See PC 164).

From books I have read this year:

From ‘This Charming Man’ by Marian Keyes: “Bridie stared, clearly wondering what kind of peculiar religion forbade alcohol. To be Catholic, it’s practically obligatory to have drink problem.”

From ‘Everything I Know About Love’ by Dolly Alderton: “I always saw alcohol as the transportation to experience, but as I went through my twenties I understood it had the same power to stunt experience as it did to exacerbate it.”

Sales of Lyre’s non-alcoholic drinks have been exponential

I admit it’s possible that, because I do not drink alcohol any more, I am overly sensitive to its portrayal in our society. Recently a couple of good dramas on television suggested that every time an individual arrived home, irrespective of the time of day, they reached into the ‘fridge for a beer or bottle of white wine, or picked up a glass from the ‘drinks tray’ (Who has these anymore?). A staged play we saw three years ago had the same directions: ‘When you arrive on set, either from stage-left or from stage-right, head for the drinks trolley.’ Is the director simply reflecting modern life or his own?

Maybe Generation Z and the Millennial Generation’s approach to alcohol, more restrained and less habitual, will by the osmosis process permeate up through the generations. Do I personally miss alcohol? Absolutely not, although some others would wish I did.

Richard 19th November 2021


PS This PC has simply focused on the British obsession with alcohol. The other issue for every society in the C21st is the growing use of drugs, whether recreational or habitual. For some this seems OK but for others it leads to destruction. Just today a headline caught my eye: “US overdose deaths pass 100,000 a year in epidemic of opioid use.”

Note 1 The Times articles that may be of interest:

‘Rising drink-drive deaths prompt call for new limit’ Paton               27/08/21

‘It’s a smart move to quit booze, Boris.’ Robert Crampton             16/08/2021

‘Welcome to half-drinking; not on the wagon, not off.’ Gunn            15/08/21

‘Our addiction to alcohol isn’t a bit of fun.’ David Aaronovitch               10/08/2021

‘Drunk Nation; why do British people drink so much?’ Josh Glancy 25/07/2021

Note 2 The knock-on effect of this is that those in need of an ambulance in an emergency for non-alcohol related health issues have to wait longer for one to arrive and then longer to be seen in the A&E Department.

Note 3 In 2020 this amounted to 7400 individuals.

PC 256 Words – English and Foreign

I have to admit that my record of learning a foreign language is extremely poor and I have started many times, on and off, over the years! It’s one of the advantages of advancing years, being able to accept oneself as oneself, not someone a youthful version might have envisaged! At school we were taught the rudiments of French as well as English, the latter being divided into language and literature.

Dauntsey’s School and Mercer’s Company’s coat of arms and Latin motto

I almost forgot that we also had to learn Latin, the language of the Greeks and the Romans. We made fun of it; God you needed to as it was to me as dry as desiccated leaves. Why is that I can remember the names of two Latin masters, Mr Moss at Glencot, and Dauntsey’s David Burgess but nothing they tried to teach me? For those of you young enough to have missed the edification provided by a Latin lesson, the only amusement was the learning of Dog Latin. This refers to the creation of a phrase in imitation Latin, often by ‘translating English words into Latin by conjugating or declining them as if they were Latin words’; that’s clear, isn’t it? Well, it would be if you knew what conjugating and declining meant!

The most famous of Dog Latin is the spoof of this verse:

Caesar adsum jam forte; Brutus aderat; Caesar sic in omnibus; Brutus sic in at.

The actual translation of the original verse is confusing! But we understood:

Caesar (h)ad some jam for tea; Brutus (h)ad a rat; Caesar sick in omnibus;

Brutus sick in hat.

Ubique quo fas et gloria ducunt’ , the Latin for ‘Everywhere where faith and glory lead’, was the motto of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. My uncle Bill Bailey used to pull my leg as, when advancing on Caen in July 1944, his battalion of Somerset Light Infantry suffered many casualties from ‘friendly fire’, highlighting the word ‘Ubique’ (everywhere) in our motto. It was probably better than ‘drop shorts’!  (Note 1)

Another motto echoing down the decades of English history is ‘Honi soit que mal e pense’ – a maxim in the Anglo-Norman language, a dialect of Old Norman French spoken by the medieval ruling class in England. It means ‘shamed be whoever thinks ill of it.’ One apocryphal story as to its origins concerned King Edward lll. Dancing at a ball in Calais to celebrate his victory in the 1346 Battle of Crecy, his daughter-in-law’s garter slipped down her leg, much to the amusement of the other guests and courtiers. He added to the ‘honi soit ….’ phrase by suggesting ‘whoever is laughing at this (the garter) today will later be proud to wear it’. (Note 2) The words appear today in heraldry and within the coats of arms of royalty.

So Latin aside, I tried to pass ‘O’ Level French; eventually I did but more by luck than knowledge. Next came German as, posted to a regiment in the British Army of The Rhine, it seemed the ‘right’ thing to do. Living in our English barracks with our English social life and little contact with the local population, it was easy not to bother. What I did learn is obviously very well embedded as often it’s a very basic German word that comes to my mind before a Brazilian Portuguese one for instance! Years later I completed two terms of evening classes at the Adult Education School in Clapham South in colloquial Italian. Only two!!

The City of Granada, home to the Alhambra

And then, after a long weekend in the wonderful Spanish city of Granada in the dying months of my marriage, I imagined spending six months there in some garret learning Spanish. It was a plan ……. but then I met Celina and for Spanish read Brazilian Portuguese!!

English must be very confusing to those who do not have it as their mother tongue. We have all seen the attempts by non-native English speakers to translate a brochure for instance, and it makes me smile. The other day I saw on the menu of the Intercontinental Hotel’s Terrace Bar in Estoril in Portugal ‘….. steak with Jack Potato.’ Commonly called Spud I suppose?

The Indian Bikram Choudury who put together his now famous sequence of 26 Hatha Yoga postures, to be practised in a room heated to 40° C, was not one for the purity of English. All his teachers went through a gruelling 9 week training course, during which they had to learn the exact words of ‘The Dialogue’, written by ……. Mr Choudury! The class teacher does not demonstrate the postures, relying on those students in the front row to show how a posture is done; listening to the oft-repeated dialogue will give you the instructions and guidance. But the dialogue is littered with appalling English and grammar. The two that really makes me inwardly scream are ‘more back’ when of course it should be ‘further back’ and ‘more straight’ when it should be ‘straighter’. It seems his default was to add ‘more’ to anything!

We hear words and try and make an attempt at spelling them. I was hopeless as a child and not much better now. Spellcheck doesn’t help as sometimes it’s the context which defines the letter combination. If you heard: “The Gobi dessert is a plaice of extreme whether. I red that their, in summer, the temperature reaches 45°C butt in winter it can drop down to -40°C!” you would understand it perfectly. Reading it and you would give the writer no marks for spelling. (Note 2)

In English we have strait and straight; course and coarse; draught and draft; desert (dry and sandy) and dessert (hopefully wet and creamy!); current and currant; there and their and they’re; weather and whether; are and our; bail and bale; plane and plain; read and red; lead and led and lead; made and maid; poor, paw, pore and pour; soul and sole; mine and mine; two and to and too ….. for instance.

Our knowledge of other languages, however scant, colours the understanding we have of our history. Understanding our history gives our lives today deeper meaning.

Richard 12th November 2021


PS In a recent episode of the BBC’s wonderfully informative ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ the actress Judi Dench discovered her C17th Danish heritage and her ancestors’ links to Shakespeare and the Danish king.

Note 1 ‘Drop short’ referred to the fact that sometimes the artillery shells, designed to fall on enemy positions, fell (dropped) short of their target, on our own troops.

Note 2 The Order of the Garter, established in 1348 by the then king, is the most senior order of knighthood in the British honours system, outranked only by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.

Some of the current members of the Order of The Garter.

Note 3 The lack of rainfall is caused by the Tibetan Plateau blocking precipitation from the Indian Ocean.

PC 255 Collections (3)

I love the novels of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’s author, Louise de Bernierès. In the completely absorbing ‘Birds Without Wings’, one particular passage has stayed with me as a great example of imagination and creativity; I hope you agree? The blurb on the back of this book says:

Set against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks, ‘Birds Without Wings’ traces the fortunes of one small community in south-west Anatolia (in what is now Turkey) – a town in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully for centuries.

One of the main characters is Rustem Bey who, for various reasons, has brought back a girl from Istanbul, a girl he hopes will become his wife/lover. He’s a patient man but it’s six months before Leyla suggests that ‘tonight’s the night’ – and sends Rustem Bey out for the day while she prepares a feast in their house.

Rustem Bey arrives back at his house.

She held out her hand, took his, placed it to her heart, kissed it and then touched it to her forehead. “My beauty, if I have any ……………… it’s for you.” She said. “Come, I have something to show you.” Rustem Bey allowed himself to be led by the sleeve. When they reached the door to the inner courtyard, Leyla said: ‘close you eyes’. A few steps later: “Open them.”

Rustem Bey beheld something so marvellous, so unwonted, that he fell speechless. He put one hand to his forehead and laughed out loud with delight. Finally he asked: “What have you done? Have I come to paradise?”

The inner courtyard was a sea of glimmering, moving golden-yellow lights. There was no pattern to it. Some of the flames were momentarily still and others were travelling, meandering slowly among the lemon trees, the pots of pelargonium, oregano, mint and rose. It was as if the stars had been captured from heaven and been set in motion there in that small square of the lower world.

Rustem Bey stepped forward and bent down to look. Each light was the flame of a candle and each candle was borne upon the back of a tortoise that the village children had spent all day collecting from the surrounding mountains.

Isn’t that f**king gorgeous?

And here’s another feast of visualisation: “The torchlight was dancing off the beech trees, a cohort of ghosts.” An extract from Paula Hawkins’ book ‘Into the Water’. Paula wrote about Beech trees and I imagine silver birch trees, standing in the gloom! Good word – cohort!

The American poet Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963) is best known for her confessional poetry and her tumultuous marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes. She suffered from depression for most of her life and committed suicide at the young age of 30. I am not a lover of poetry but think she summed up the dilemma some of us feel, about whom we are or who we would like to be: “I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.”

The Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series are great detective stories, based on cold cases resurrected by Carl Morck and his assistant Assad. How about this for an invitation to imagine: “…… and in the meadow, the grass whispered of spring.”, from his book Redemption?

After two months in Portugal this summer, the following has a certain personal ring, although I failed to note who wrote it: “I’m sprawled in a chair on the sandy beach, languid and dreamy, made as loose-limbed as a mermaid by the long summer’s release.”

Yoga thoughts and sayings are numerous but this basic one is where it all starts, so you can make of it what you wish:  “Om So hum: I am that that what I am.”

I have quoted Philip Roth before. Here’s his observation about the elderly: “The old have been stamped by their time.” – Ed – some sadly more than others!

Climbing a tall building, or a mountain, or going up in a glider or aeroplane can give one a perspective unavailable from ground level, for “a horizon is nothing save the limit of your sight.” And then William Faulkner said “You can’t swim for new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” For some this is the ‘letting go moment’ of any activity. Seeking guidance on how to approach one’s life you can drown in the oceans of advice to be found in philosophical writings or even in abundant psychobabble. The advice that will work for you will be the one that you understand and can own. Someone wrote: “Life is not as we are taught, a matter of seeking answers, but rather learning which are the questions we should ask.”

We should, as children innocently do, ask questions. At the back end of a Yin yoga class the other Sunday, I was struck by a reading of the last section of  Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Lee Child, co-writing with his brother Andrew about the hero Jack Reacher in their collaboration ‘One Shot’, writes: “His life was like that, a mosaic of fragments. Details and contexts would fade and be inaccurately recalled, but the feelings and experiences would weave over time into a tapestry equally full of good times and bad.”

So write something yourself and do as Clive James said he did in his ‘Unforgettable Memories’:  “All I do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.” (See PC 247 Collections (1))

Richard 5th November 2021