That Easter holiday when I was nine,
I filled the days of lakeland drizzle
with the contents of the hotelâs bookcase.
I remember one page from a Great War
history. Only the uniform
denoted humanity. What could have
been a face was a smear in sepia
mud. Wars and the aftermath of wars
shaped childhood. In brief sun, we visited
Wordsworthâs schoolroom with its harsh, scrawled desks.
I was fussed to a snapshot. And there I am
scowling at the brightnessâŠ
‘The body is…an extraordinary laboratory of possibility.’
One sunny September Saturday I left
the Welcome Collection’s airy reading room,
stopped at the Picasso mural then took
the wide circular staircase past floors of
exemplary, aesthetic exhibits
of grave clothes, dentist drills, tranquillisers,
body parts, through the cafĂ© and bookshop
into Euston Road’s fumy hugger-mugger.
I heard the siren first, behind me, saw
the traffic, past Euston towards St Pancras,
begin to slow as one of Great Ormond Street’s
acute care ambulances barrelled
down the outside lane then suddenly swerved
through an emergency services gap
in the central barrier and drove towards
the three lanes of oncoming vehicles
paused at the lights where the ambulance
would turn right – and I paused, amidst London’s
extravagant roar, moved by all this
for such a little life.
It has begun to rain so the park is off.
In the theatre foyer we learn that though
the magician has sold out there will be
a brass band concert in the main house.
We consult the little one. Yes, she would
like to hear them. We choose the cheapest seats –
the unraked stalls – and are solitary,
in the middle, three rows from the front.
Judging by the piano, the double bass
and the layout of the black music desks
it is a big not a brass band – reeds
and rhythm to the right, brass to the left.
The players take their places casually
though in black trousers and crimson shirts.
The band leader enters in a white jacket
and black bow tie. He is stooped and shuffles
slightly. He sits at the centre facing us.
‘3, 4,’ he calls with the authority
of his prime and his right hand counts it out.
The first chord, on the unfettered air
from the full brass and reeds, transports me…
Between the numbers, the leader conjures
– with his easy charm, his corny jokes,
his gentle name dropping – Glenn Miller,
Duke Ellington, Joe Loss, Count Basie,
Caroll Gibbons, the Dorsey Brothers…
She watched the first three or four pieces –
decided there was nothing to see
other than someone occasionally
standing up to play – and chilled out, her head
on Grandma’s lap, her feet on mine, waving
her right hand on, surely, the down beat. ‘My
heart is full of rhythm….’
‘And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine…’
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, Marcel Proust
The day the season’s second Atlantic storm
was due there was I – after a sausage
and bacon bap with brown sauce and an Earl Grey
in the heritage station’s draughty cafĂ© –
celebrating my 74th birthday
with my small family in a British Rail
standard compartment on the Santa Special.
We journeyed from Llangollen to Lapland
(aka Carrog) with mince pies, miniature Baileys
for the adults and juice for our granddaughter,
who gave me a cartoon sestych entitled
‘My Grandpa is amazing – he does…’.
She appeared with me in each frame as I
talked, shopped, word processed, cooked, travelled and read.
We passed pastel shaded December fields,
empty copses filled with russet leaves,
and bleak hawthorn hedge rows festooned with a wild
clematis – Travellers’ Joy or Old Man’s Beard.
Someone, despite the notices, had left
a window open in the corridor,
so, as we went through the long Berwyn Tunnel,
it yellowed with billowing sooty smoke
that seeped under the compartment’s door.
It was a madeleine moment: crossing
sulphurous bridges, waiting on ill-lit
platforms amongst gouts of steam and fog,
shuddering reflections in carriage windows.
As we climbed, we left the river – by turns
meandering through meadows then white water –
to still slowly gouge the valley bed,
and we had a visit from Santa himself,
with Elves, bearing gifts. Our granddaughter
was appropriately shy and polite
though she is calculatedly and/or
patronisingly agnostic about
F.C. – and reasonably sure God is
imaginary and certain there is
no such thing anywhere in the universe
as zero gravity. I am certain
I still believed when I was nearly 7.
The world seemed an obscurantist place.
At Lapland, we queued to pose with Santa
et al for a photo op on a sledge.
It began to drizzle. In the waiting room
a coal fire was burning in the grate.
My grand daughter hugged me. I felt gravely
light of heart and head, warmly welcome
in the universe – and thought suddenly
of a world garlanded with Old Man’s Beard.