The Fascination of Books.

Whilst clearing my desk and throwing out a filing cabinet in pursuit of the fabled paperless office, I have come across some weird things on my hard disk as well.


From time to time I review books, usually for small specialist magazines.  I shall write later about book reviewing, but my approach is always to be kind, but never appear a fool.  Having said that, I have never reviewed a book which is stomach churningly bad, although I have read plenty.  Anyway, on my hard disk I have just found a review I wrote for The Friend, a small Quaker weekly journal, in 1997.  The title was From Queer to Eternity – Spirituality in the Lives of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People and its publication had be underwritten by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which is a Quaker body.  I usually pause before reviewing books connected with religion, because many religious people are quite plainly bonkers, and write one obscene letters (more of such letters at a later date).  However I thought spirituality would be relative safe, and wrote the review.


In fact I encountered little that was surprising in spiritual experience, which ranged from the mystical to some form of pantheism.  However, one aspect lay well outside my experience and I wrote:


There are problems with books based on anecdotal accounts: how typical are the accounts?  Most seemed to me to be representative, but one or two lay outside my experience, so I checked them out.  One was the account of a Sado Masochist funeral, where the mourners linked their nipple rings together with a single chain.  I rang around my S/M friends and asked whether they had come across this.  No, they said, but it sounded right and it sounded loving.

Examples like this may challenge Quakers who read the book, but that is precisely the point – spirituality is challenging, religion isn’t.


So far so good.  But I was intrigued.  I view people who dress in leather or rubber in rather the same way that I view Masons who put on funny garb.  Would I like to be served and ice cream by someone wearing a Masonic Apron?  No!  Would I like to be served an ice cream by someone wearing rubber underpants?  No!  Many years ago when I shopped at ASDA, a young man draped in chains used to check my goods out, and for no reason I felt quite queasy when I bought vegetables.  I discussed this funeral with other friends, and they were as perplexed as I: had the mourners linked their rings before going into the chapel, and shuffled in together, or linked rings when they were in there?  How had they left?  What was the effect on the mourners at the funerals before and after this one: it must be a bit frightening if you have taken time off from your bank job to say goodbye to granddad to find yourself mixed up with a lot of people who looked like scuba divers who have lost their way.


I shall never know, but such is the fascination of books.




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I had no idea such poverty existed



Owen Jones mentioned in a recent TV programme (10 06 2012), that when interviewing Hazel Blairs, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the last Labour Government, he asked why they had not done more about housing.  Her answer, it seems, was that given the background and lifestyle of Labour Ministers, they had no experience of privation and bad housing conditions, and were thus not really interested.


The background of those who rule us matters.  A story is told about William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, who as a great Whig aristocrat had a liberal background and attitude, supporting the abolition of slavery, reform of factory conditions, and the like.  However, on one occasion he went, with his steward and a load of silver, to Aspreys to buy new silver, and have existing silver renovated.  Whilst there, he spotted some circular silver rings.  Turning to his steward he asked,


‘Charles.  What are those?’


‘Those, my Lord Duke, are known as napkin rings’.


‘What is a napkin ring?’ asked the Duke.


‘My Lord Duke; when the middle classes rise in the morning, and take breakfast, they take a fresh napkin, and when they have finished, they take it and fold it, and roll it and place it through the ring, which often has their name inscribed on it.  They use it again for lunch, and high tea, and dinner, and if they take supper, for that as well.  It is then sent to be laundered’.


‘Do you mean’ said the Duke ‘that they use the same napkin throughout the day?’


‘Indeed, Lord Duke’.


‘Dear God’ said the Duke, ‘I had no idea such poverty existed’.


Don’t laugh, I have heard dafter statements in professional meetings.  I marvel at my political friends who have humanity overload, who message me from the Caribbean about genetic engineering, when my godson, who is unemployed and disabled, cannot afford the money to take his three children to a caravan on the South Coast for a week. He buys food and pays outstanding gas and electricity bills instead.


Of course so many people are, at present, having to make sacrifices.  There are those who have to cut out one holiday a year, and those who have to use the smaller of the family cars because of petrol prices.  There can be compensations though; Millie’s school breaks early so that holidays can be taken off peak, – the saved money offsets the school fees.


Off the radar are the increasing number of children going to school hungry in the morning and, because of this, playing up and not able to concentrate.  There are teachers who buy food for them out of their own pocket.  There is a government which intends to do nothing to introduce free school breakfasts.  But if you live in Islington you know nothing of hungry children.  And we are told that the number of such children is increasing, and that they are the children of working parents.  Such matters are a surprise to government ministers: one minister in the last Conservative government (and this one also) defined the homeless as ‘the people I step over when I leave the opera’.


So we are back to the 1950s, if not earlier.  I remember my mother, a midwife, taking sheets and blankets to patients in downtown Birkenhead.  She was from a poor family, she had started her nursing training in a workhouse hospital, she had a feel for what her patients were going through.  My mind trails off to remember statements about there being no such thing as community………………………..

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Orhan Pamuk – From Nobel Lecture 2006

A writer talks of things that everyone knows but does not know they know. To explore this knowledge, and to watch it grow, is a pleasurable thing; the reader is visiting a world at once familiar and miraculous. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end to hone his craft – to create a world – if he uses his secret wounds as his starting point, he is, whether he knows it or not, putting a great faith in humanity. My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre.

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Are they incontinent?


Who briefs Government Ministers, especially senior Ministers?


A number of years ago I got a phone call telling me that the Secretary of State for Education wanted to visit one of my units for students with severe learning difficulties.  Two days notice was given, which meant that all the students whose drug dosages had been messed up by the doctors could be kept out of sight.  On the Thursday morning the ministerial car arrived and out stepped Sir Keith Joseph and Edwina Currie.  I remember Sir Keith as being a charming, rather diffident man, and Edwina Currie rather differently.  Sir Keith was also noted for eccentricity (it was rumoured that he suffered from Asberger’s syndrome) so it was likely to be a jolly day.


The first class we visited was the cookery class.  The students were making bread.  Bread making is always a safe option on official visits as the students can bang away with the dough.  Sir Keith silently observed them for a few minutes and then turned to me and said ‘Tell me Mr Green, are they incontinent?’ to which my reply was ‘Not that I am aware of, Sir Keith’.


The next class was music.  The students hardly noticed us as they were banging away on tambourines, and triangles and xylophones and clashing cymbals.  The noise was deafening, but it didn’t trouble Sir Keith who asked me ‘Are they incontinent, Mr Green?’ and I replied ‘Not that I am aware of, Sir Keith’.


Next was Art and Craft.  Plenty of paint and clay.  Before the Secretary of State could utter I said ‘They’re not incontinent, Sir Keith’, and his reply was ‘Good, good’.


Next, physical activities, with plenty of arm and leg stretching, and hand clapping.  I counted down – three, two, one ‘No, Sir Keith’.  ‘Ah’ he said.


I had been walking round with the Head of Centre, and I handed him over to her entirely, as I could not bear the thought of showing him swimming exercises in the Exercise Pool.  I joined the Deputy Head and Edwina Currie who were in the cookery class, where dough pounding was still going on with much gusto.  ‘Good morning’ said the Minister of State for Health, and turning to one of the students who was Downs Syndrome ‘And what is your name?’  With difficulty he said ‘Peter’.  ‘Hello, Peter’ said the Minister of State for Health.  ‘What is your name?’  asked Peter.  ‘My name’ said the Minister of State for Health ‘is Mrs Currie’.  ‘You fucker’ I said, loud enough for the Deputy Head to hear, but not the Minister of State for Health, and I walked off and spent more time with the students, who were a great lot.


So departed Sir Keith, the Cabinet Member who wanted to close Liverpool down after the Toxteth riots, and whose misunderstood economic views are with us to this day, and Mrs Currie, the Minister of State for Health, who was to the egg industry what bombs had been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  A few days after they left I received a phone call from a very senior civil servant; the Minister of State for Health, had it seems, left her gloves at the unit.  Was it possible for them to be found?  I rang the unit: fortunately I remembered the gloves, black leather with a split finger.  I instructed that, should they be found, they were to be thrown into the waste bin.


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Sweet Hernia on the heights of Plasticine

I copy this because I very much like it as a poem.  In addition I list it to celebrate the demise of the Queen’s English Society.  We shall no longer be pestered by people who still grieve for the days when they collected car numbers and cigarette cards, and who have spent years telling us where to put an apostrophe.

Sweet Hernia on the heights of Plasticine

Sings to the nylon, songs of brassier.

I see the bloom of mayonnaise she holds

Coloured like roofs of far away Shampoo.

Its asthma sweetens earth, ah it enfolds

The alum lands from urine to cachou.

One last wild gusset and she’s lost to sight

As dusk the dandruff dims, and anthracite.

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Me and Dylan

I was born 27th October 1944

 Poem In October

 Verse 1

 It was my thirtieth year to heaven

Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood

And the mussel pooled and the heron

Priested shore

The morning becon

With water praying and call of seagull and rook

And the knock of the sailing boats on the net webbed wall

Myself set foot

That second

In the still sleeping town and set forth

Dylan Thomas


Dylan Thomas was born on the 27th October 1914, thirty years before me.  I have always been close to his poetry.  Many years later I got to know his daughter, Aeronwy, very slightly.  She could never make up her mind whether she was Aeronwy Thomas or Aeronwy Ellis, her married name.  It made phoning her a nightmare.  ‘May I speak to Aeronwy Thomas please’?  ‘There is no one of that name here.  I am Aeronwy Ellis’.  Or again ‘May I speak to Aeronwy Ellis’?  ‘There is no one of that name here.  I am Aeronwy Thomas’.  I noted from her obituaries that she drove everyone else up the wall with this performance.  Mercifully, someone eventually persuaded her to call herself Aeronwy Thomas Ellis.


Even more daunting was talking to her son, who was pure Sarf London (they lived in Surbiton).  ‘May I talk to your mother please?’  ‘Snotin’.  ‘When will she return’.  ‘Duno’.  I was talking to the grandson of one of our greatest poets and I needed a translator.


Still, the poem wasn’t a bad start to life.

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Qui tacet consentire

Judge to defence counsel ‘Has your client not heard the phrase ‘Qui tacet consentire’?’

Defence counsel ‘They speak of little else in Rochdale, my lord’.

If that seems a little out of the ordinary, a letter in The Guardian on Tuesday May 15th began ‘Mon Dieu, écoutes ses ses subjonctifs’.  Now we have tackled the French subjunctive, it’s time for the imperative.’  Indeed it is.

Before I go on to emphatics and split infinitives, which are both favourites of mine, I have to say in mitigation that the same edition of The Guardian had a headline which stated ‘TB diagnoses sparks alpaca health warning’ alpaca owners apparently being in denial over the risk.  One really does wonder what sort of people own alpacas these days!

But emphatics and split infinitives.  We were all brought up to know (weren’t we?) the difference between ‘I shall drown and nobody will save me’ and ‘I will drown and nobody shall save me’; the difference between life and death.  Equally, we were all used to the most famous split infinitive of the lot, ‘To boldly go…….’. a first rate emphatic in itself.  We were equally warned off other emphatics; ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ were two words never to be used.  Hence language defined itself in terms of social class; ‘Don’t you know?’ or ‘What, what?’ are acceptable, but ‘Init?’ (Is it not?) and ‘Avuntie?’ (Haven’t I), are not.  And before you, dear reader start to feel linguistically superior and socially virtuous, do think about what you call the object you piss into – a lavatory, a toilet, or a loo.

And do also think why you can appreciate the beauty, rhythm and construction of the English language.  When a mixed race girl with a heroin addicted father appeared on television asking if ‘East Angular’ was abroad, we laughed, forgetting that we were responsible for not providing her with a decent education.  She died very publicly, and with dignity to raise money to give her children the education she had never had.  And if you don’t know who I am referring to, read Owen Jones’ Chavs.

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