Thursday, 29 January 2009

Why all these words?

What is it that lets some creeping idea under the wire and into my mind, waking me sharp from dream, five in the morning, demanding that I embroider it into words? Why am I compelled to pull that slippery thing out from my head and make it solid, forcing it tumbled onto the page to be some few sentences? What makes me think that they, strung together with hesitant rearrangement, could ever make worth reading? Who’s interested in my thoughts, my experience, my point of view - my slant - and do I really have anything worthy of a say?

I hope so. I can’t stop you see.

The more I write, the more I seem to want to write. I don’t know why exactly. It isn’t painful; it isn’t a hunger that needs to be fed. It isn’t desperate; it’s just there, consistent and waiting for me to pick up the pen and set it free. When I’m doing it I’m happy and when I’m not doing it – well, I’m waiting to be happy. I smile as I write, I sometimes laugh out loud, occasionally my eyes moisten – but only when I write of things long lost.

I love the taste of taking a whim, tuning and honing, moulding and sharpening, until it stands tall on the page a fully-fledged read. I enjoy the craft, the journey, every twist and turn of the road, never quite sure of where it is going or when the journey has ended – a clichĂ©, and an adventure, my adventure.

I want to be read - but at the end, if nobody reads me, I’ll write for myself – read it over and over, change after minor change, and then read it again and smile, or laugh, or cry.

Why do I write this stuff? Because I have to, and I can.

I’m smiling now. It feels good.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Virtual painting

This is fun - check these out and send me yours.
Just leave the link as a comment.

1. Hills and sea

2. Strange trees

3. Vincent

Out of India...

I’m in the air flying away from India and towards the UK. It was an early start – up at five and a scarily fast ride to the airport in the dark. The roads were the quietest I’d seen them, people were only just beginning to move around after the night. But even at that hour, with so few people around, the images kept hitting me thick and fast - and heavy as the trucks that stood idle by the roadside. We travel along the road underneath the huge concrete pillars that will carry the twenty mile long elevated expressway to the airport. This road, suspended seventy feet in the air, isn’t going to have slip roads, so once you are on it there will be no way off until you arrive at the airport – I wonder how they are going to deal with breakdowns and emergencies?

Image - Flash – Image – Flash - etching into my memory.

I see groups of turbaned men crouching around small fires, taking off the chill before dawn – Flash - on the flat roof of a concrete house a man goes through some sort of exercise routine, lifting his arm and then his leg, bringing them together behind him to clutch his foot – Flash - two boys shoo a herd of goats along an alleyway, heading for the dry, yellow fields that I can make out in the light of the rising sun – Flash – an old woman in a red sari walks slowly along the side of the road, a pottery pitcher balanced carefully on her head - full of water from the well? – Flash – In a garden a woman and a boy beat dust from a yellow and red carpet, suspended on a fraying rope that stretches between two tall palm trees.

Flash - I can’t sleep anyway – I never can on planes – and I’m not in the mood for a movie yet, so I’m writing, trying to get these flashes down before I forget them (will I ever forget them?). This writing thing is becoming a habit. I write whenever I have a little time, wherever I can snatch a few minutes – late at night, early in the morning, lunch, airports, trains, even in the car when I’m waiting for Holly to finish at the stables. And I find myself scribbling down a thought or a line on scraps of paper to use later, sometimes I even wake myself up and get out of bed to write something down. But today I’m writing on the plane as India becomes the distance.

I think about all the things that have happened to me while I’ve been in India. I can still almost feel the small, stubby fingered, hand tugging on my shirt, smell the exhaust fumes and the hot streets, see the tumbling colours, and hear the toots from the put-puts. I’m wearing my flip-flops, the same ones I was wearing when I climbed to the top of Golconda. I smile and rub the place on my arm where the leper girl touched me – nothing yet – thank goodness. I’ve written about all of that – is there anything left to write? Haven’t I said it all already? No, there are a few things left that are worth recording.

I have been amazed by the incredible warmth and friendliness of the people I’ve met. The people at our offices, the staff working in the hotels and restaurants, our driver, the fort guide, even the people who approached me at the market. I’m not so naive as to not recognise that they were doing a job, or wanted something from me, and were getting paid for it – but there was genuine warmth in their eyes, recognition that that I was a person – I hope I gave it back.

The security - it is so tight in India since the attacks last year. Each time we drove up to our hotel our car was checked inside and underneath, and before being allowed into the hotel we had to have our bags scanned, empty our pockets, walk through a scanner, and be frisked. It was all very friendly, but it underlines how things have changed since I was last here five years ago. We went through the same security checks at the office - and at the airport we had to go through security checks as we entered the airport, into departures, and again immediately before we boarded our flight. India has always been high on admin - why use one stamp when five are available - but this security thing is new.

Flying down to Bangalore on an internal flight with Kingfisher airlines - “India’s only five star airline” - was a refreshing experience. I guess its like flying used to be, only without the alcohol (no alcohol on internal flights by law) - and so different from US, Flybe, or even BA - it is so wonderfully Indian. The aircraft livery, furnishings and stationary are a manly red and black and it sets the tone for the “Kingfisher experience” – yes they really call it that! Even the American pilot who welcomes us on our flight to Hyderabad calls it the “Kingfisher experience”, it’s a little disconcerting that he doesn’t realise that we are already in Hyderabad and are actually flying to Bangalore – but hey!

The hostesses, and yes they really do call them hostesses, are all under twenty-five, and seem to want to be (and may become) Bollywood film starlets. Their red uniforms – bolero jackets, silver buttons, short pencil skirts, red shoes with heels, and crisp white blouses – are outrageously tight. They have red painted nails, lustrous, long, dark hair, and are well (although subtlety) made-up. Their smiles dazzle as they flick their hair back, flutter their eyelashes, and serve curried scrambled egg for breakfast.

This could be as close to heaven as it gets, but its not an airline for the politically correct.

At the start of the slightly soft-porn safety video, billionaire owner – Dr. Vijay Mallya (he has a Peter Strinfellowish look, long grey swept back hair, cream linen suit, and sparkling eyes) – tells me that he personally picks all of his employees – I can understand why. He made his money out of Kingfisher beer and seems to have brought the same marketing strategy to his airline – and he’s attracting a similar customer group – mainly men.

(If you want to see exactly what I mean -

Bangalore airport used to be an experience in itself. It was tiny, grubby, and incredibly busy. There were never enough plastic chairs to sit on, nowhere to eat, duty free was a tiny booth set into a wall – and for twenty Rupees you could bribe the toilet attendant to let you smoke it the cracked tiled, smelly toilets. The new airport is just the opposite and the twin of Hyderabad.

Bangalore is a busy city, at least as busy as Hyderabad. We had an appointment across town to open a kitchen at a school for underprivileged children. The traffic was horrendous and we were late. The school is run by Indian Roman Catholic nuns who served us tea from thermos flasks made from milk, not water - I hate milk, but drank some anyway. They told us about their work and thanked us for our help and support. They were very serene and immaculate in pressed peach coloured saris. I felt a complete fraud, I didn’t even know about this until a few hours before. I had nothing to do with it – I hoped God wouldn’t mark me down with the sin of being glorified undeservedly (God if you are reading this I really didn’t expect it).

After tea we went outside. A small band of children, smart in white, red, and green uniforms, played and sang a song of welcome – they were all pretty much in tune. A small boy at the front of the band, held and thumped a baton in white-gloved hands, calling out orders as they marched, and we followed, to the new building. The kitchen was a single-storey breeze block affair, not much to look at, apart from the brightly painted outside walls that had been illustrated by some of our very talented Indian employees who were there, smiling and looking proud - they had a right to be - and a right to be there – It made me feel even more of a sham.

We gathered on the veranda of the kitchen. Speeches were made, songs were sung, ribbons were cut, photographs were taken and then a young, brown robed, Catholic Monk said prayers before sprinkling the building with holy water by way of a blessing. Some of it splashed onto my face and - despite the expectations of my colleagues - it didn’t burn. A small boy bought me a rose, he looked up to me and smiled and I reached down and shook his hand. He smiled again and nodded - and suddenly I felt that I should be there, and that I wasn’t a fraud at all.

It had cost a few thousand pounds to build this kitchen, before this was built the nuns had to cook outside in a corner – I had no idea how they managed when it rained. They showed us around the two roomed building, smiling proudly, and set a light under a pan of milk – boiling it until it overflowed the pan – a traditional ceremony of good fortune for new buildings.

As I made my way back to the car surrounded by waving, smiling children I felt honoured to have been given the opportunity to be there and meet these people - honoured, fortunate and lucky, not fraudulent at all – despite the milk tea, the prayers and the holy water.

So - trip over. Goodbye India. I hope I get to come back.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Step out of the word

I’d been out of the bubble and I’d seen Golconda and the market at Charminar (if you haven’t read about these then they are in the posts below). Both had been completely different experiences, both had shown me a different side to India. I’ve written about the unfinished stories and the poetry. I’ve tried to describe the magic, the uncertainty, mystery, and chance. The fantasy of India - well my fantasy of India. But what about the rest? The reality of the day-to-day. What about the everyday India? Its easy to get caught up in the rush and only see the contrasts - the poverty and wealth, the cleanliness and squalor, the education and the ignorance. What about the India of the call centre operator out with his family on a Saturday night? What type of India is that?

Back in the bubble we drive some more. Wherever I look I see images that wouldn’t look out of place as full page photographs in the National Geographic. So those photographers aren’t that talented at all, with subject matter like this and a photo opportunity every three yards or so, how could they go wrong?

I’m still a bit disorientated, breathless - after all its not everyday that you meet a dwarf and touch a leper. I hope that nobody notices. We are driving away from the Charminar, back to the new city. We stop off at a pharmacy – our Indian host has a sore throat – perhaps he could buy me some tablets that would make me forget the images and experiences whirling in my head. India is giving me a headache, I need to calm down - do I? Don’t I like this headache?

We are driving to Lumbini Park. The traffic has eased a little and our progress is good. Out of the window I can see a stretch of water – it’s the Hussain Sagar Lake - our host tells us and the park is named after the birthplace of Siddarth, the latter day Buddha - we are going to take a boat out to look at the statue of the Buddha in the centre of the lake. He tells us that four people were killed when the statue sank at it was moved to the island where it stands. I wait for him to talk about the terrorist attack that killed forty-four people while they were watching the laser show in the park in 2007, but he doesn’t mention it.

We wander through the park. It is quite a nice park with a musical fountain and a water cascade, it isn’t Alton Towers, it is all very simple. The water cascade is a small man-made waterfall that you can walk behind, Indian families queue excitedly to walk behind the twenty yard run of splashing water, they laugh and scream as they cross, the women hold their saris off the concrete walkway to stop them getting splashed by the water. The musical fountain isn’t working and the laser show is later. Behind me young Indian men pay sixty Rupees to have a bowling machine bowl two overs worth of cricket balls at them. I stop for a minute to watch. The young man in the nets misses his first ball, the crowd laughs –he scowls and hits all the other balls.

We walk onto the jetty to get on the boat that will take us out to the statue. The water is completely flat and stinks, it looks stagnant and dull, and I wonder if there are any fish in it, and if so what sort of fish they are – grey ones probably. There are a number of boats waiting to take passengers out to the island, some are quite large, one even has coloured lights and dancers. To save time we are going by speedboat, a small blue and white four seater that looks like it has been around for a long time and is used a lot. We all choose a life jacket. Mine is a little small and only one of the clasps will fasten – I really have to lose some weight. We get into the boat. It rocks from side to side as we step into it. To balance the boat I get to sit in the drivers seat, the wheel has been disabled and our boatman uses the tiller on the outboard motor to steer.

The boatman starts the engine and we are off. Its dark as soon as we get ten yards away from the lights on the shore. We are moving at a reasonable pace and the wind is on my face. it seems to blow away the smell of the decaying water. The lights from the city reflect in the water, the sky is full of stars. If it wasn’t for the noise of the outboard it would be peaceful. We are approaching the island fast, the Buddha gets bigger with each passing second, it’s huge – how on earth did they get it out of the water when it sank? It occurs to me that I am travelling across a deep lake, in the dark, in a slightly dodgy boat with no lights, wearing a life jacket that doesn’t quite fasten – I wonder if it invalidates my insurance?

We are close to the island. The statue looks blue in the floodlights, it can’t be made from concrete – can it? There are people on the island but we don’t stop, we turn sharply to go around the far side of the brightly lit island and turn towards the shore. We land safely.

Back on dry land I think about the boat trip, it was fun, nothing spectacular, but definitely fun. No thrills, no spills, nothing to make you scream, or cry, or throw up. No whizzing, whirling, upside down, inside out sensation. There’s none of that at Lumbini Park, perhaps there is none of that anywhere in India. The families walking around aren’t looking for the thrills of a theme park, they don’t need the adrenalin rush of a roller coaster – they were just families out together to have some fun and take the refreshing evening air.

And it was refreshing - despite the smell from the lake - refreshing in more ways than one.

It’s what Cheshire cats do…continued (3)

In the last episode we suspected that Misty had squeezed herself through the hole that led to the sub-cellar beneath the kitchen floor; which was bad news, because there was no way into that cellar apart from through the floor or through the walls.

When our late Victorian townhouse was built the builders used some of the cellar rooms in some of the houses as ‘rubble tips’. As you go further along our road you find that the houses have four and sometimes five cellar rooms, but our house has only three and a large passage. Some years ago we converted these rooms into a laundry room, a bathroom, and a large room that we used to use as Gaynor’s office, but at the moment has no designated use. (There is a long, upsetting, and costly story about our cellar conversion that I may go into in more detail at some point, but not now). Anyway, we also have two sub-cellars that are half full of rubble and have no access. It was into the one below the kitchen, behind our cellar laundry room, that we feared Misty had dropped.

What were we to do? If she was down there we couldn’t leave her, she’d die and it would be a long, horrible, and then smelly (for us) death.

The floor was out of the question. Back in the twenties it was fashionable to cover floorboards with a thick layer of an asphalt-like material and then to paint and polish it. At some point a previous Charleston dancing owner had done this and then we’d subsequently re-floored the kitchen on top of it. This made the floor about two inches thick and it would be really hard (and costly) to make a hole through that. So it would have to be the walls.

I went outside into the back garden. Fortunately the floor of our kitchen is about two feet higher than ground level and there are (or should I say were) two large, intricately sculpted, Victorian airbricks that allowed air movement and gave the cellars ventilation. There was nothing for it. I fetched a lump hammer and a chisel and smashed the irreplaceable and century-old airbricks to dust and rubble so that I could shine a torch into the cellar from the outside. The destruction of such beautifully ornate, glazed red-brick, masterpieces broke my heart but it had to be done; there could be a life at stake, a very small one, but a life just the same.

I shone the torch into the darkness and dust of the rubble heaped cellar. There was nothing in the far right hand corner, nothing along the back wall, nothing in the far left hand corner, nothing in the middle, and…I couldn’t angle the torch to see what was immediately below, the wall was too thick, there was a complete wall and two corners that I couldn’t see and Misty could be there, only inches below me, hurt or even worse.

Oh well, in for a penny as they say. I went back into the house, down to the cellar, then into our newly refurbished and freshly painted laundry room.

Firstly I removed all of the cupboards from the tiled plasterboard wall that the sub-cellar sat behind, then with an electric saw, I cut two eighteen inch square holes in the plasterboard; one in each corner of the laundry room exposing the solid brick wall behind. I couldn’t make the holes in the plasterboard any larger because of the mess of electric cables and water pipes that I had luckily missed with the power saw when I cut through the plasterboard. Finally I took my lump hammer and smashed two largish holes into the brickwork, this allowed me to shine a torch into the sub-cellar. I shone the torch into the darkness and the dust of the rubble heaped cellar again this time illuminating the other wall. There was nothing in the far right hand corner, nothing along the outside wall, nothing in the far left hand corner, and still nothing in the middle. There was no sign of Misty; just broken bricks, lots of dust, and some spiders.

We shone the torch around for an hour or so and checked at least a further three times throughout the evening, but there was neither sight nor sound of Misty. Perhaps she wasn’t in the cellar at all.

Eventually we went to bed, but we didn’t sleep very well.

Next morning I got up early and went downstairs. I hoped to open the kitchen door and see Misty scampering around on the red quarry tile flooring, but she wasn’t. I went outside and shone the torch through the holes where the beautiful airbricks used to be, but the torch beam only shone on bricks and dust. I went into the laundry room and shone the torch through the holes where the cupboards used to hang, but there was no sign of a dark grey kitten with little white socks and a fluffy white chest.

Eventually it was time for me to leave for work and I had to give up. Gaynor was at college that morning and when she came home that afternoon Misty still hadn’t turned up, so he repeated the process that I’d gone through that morning with the torch. Again there was neither site nor sound of our kitten. We were losing hope fast.

Driving home that evening I reached a decision. The kitchen units would have to come out! What if Misty had climbed up the back of the units and was stuck on a pipe or cable? There was enough room between the units and the wall for her to scramble up and get stuck. I’d take a methodical approach; first remove the fridge-freezer from its housing and check behind it. Then remove the work services along with the porcelain butler’s sink. And finally, and only if I had to, I’d take out the entire length of kitchen units; despite the damage it would do and the money it would cost to put it right. We had to eliminate every possible hiding place.

I told Gaynor what I was planning. She wasn’t happy but understood. As a last and final check of the cellars, and before starting the necessary destruction of our eighteen month old and quite expensive, kitchen I decided that I would flood the sub-cellar with light just to be absolutely and completely sure that Misty wasn’t down there alive or dead. I drove to B and Q and bought the biggest, brightest torches I could find and with Gaynor positioned outside, and Holly and me inside, I began to count. One…two…three! We switched on our torches simultaneously, flooding the pitch black two-and-a-half feet high cellar space with light. I thought I could make out a motionless grey lump behind a large brick. Could that be Misty? If it was she wasn’t moving. I called to Gaynor, asking her if she could see it, she couldn’t, and then suddenly and in a flash, Misty darted across the cellar floor immediately in front of the hole I was shining the torch through. She was only in the light for a second or two before she disappeared into the recess of the chimney and the darkness again; but I’d seen her and she was alive.

“We’ve found her! Did you see her?” I called to Gaynor. She hadn’t, it’d all happened so quickly. Holly hadn’t caught a glimpse of her either; but I knew I hadn’t imagined it. We’d found her at last.

It was all over pretty quickly after that. The hole in the laundry room wall was far too small for either Gaynor or me to climb through, but Holly, very gamely, said that she’d do it. The hole was high up in the wall and there was a bit of a drop down to the dirty, rubble-strewn floor behind it, Holly, who is thin but tall, managed to contort her body through the hole and into the cellar without hurting herself too much. She was wearing gloves and old clothes but it can’t have been pleasant avoiding the cobwebs and spiders and not always succeeding. Fortunately Holly found Misty and almost immediately and picking her up gently, made here way back to the hole passing Misty through to me, and safety.

Misty was fine, a bit dirty, but apart from that fine. She didn’t seem scared or at all fazed by her adventure, in fact she was purring like a…well, like a cat. Holly squeezed herself back through the hole out of the darkness of the cellar and we all went up to the kitchen to feed Misty milk and kitten food and celebrate with a glass of wine (Coke for Holly).

And that was that.

I sealed up the hole by the dishwasher again, this time very, very securely. I temporarily blocked the airbrick holes with old slates (they are still temporarily blocked, nor have I fixed the plasterboard or re-hung the cupboards in the laundry room yet), and we decided to keep Misty in the large cellar room with the door closed at night until she was too large to squeeze through the hole under dishwasher door again (this only took three weeks, she’s going to be a big cat).

I guess with the plumber’s bill, what it’ll cost to replace the airbricks (with plain old airbricks and not ornate Victorian ones), and making good the damage to the laundry room, that this episode in Misty’s still very short life has cost us around three hundred pounds, and that’s if I do the repair work myself.

If she continues at this rate and lives as long as Tia (our previous cat), then we’re probably looking at thousands of pounds worth of damage over the years. Is she worth it?

I’ll let you know. Yes, I’ll certainly let you know.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Made it...


Sunday, 25 January 2009

Step out of the bubble...(2)

Across town in the bubble, Saturday night, on the edge of darkness – total bloody chaos!

Over-laden scooters, rusting tut-tuts, smelly trucks, crowded buses, people dodging, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk. I look up at the people in the ramshackle, dented, yellow bus next to us. A man hangs his head out of the window clutching a rag to his mouth – toothache? Another man a little further down reaches over the passenger sitting next to him, leans out of the open window, and allows fluid that looks like blood to dribble from his mouth and onto the road. I look away and decide that I won’t write about that. Toot, toot, a scooter carrying three teenage boys, squeezes between us and the bus, they only just make the gap and dart in front of us, toot, toot.

We are surrounded. The road is six wide and thousands deep with bikes, cars, buses, too many tut-tuts to count, and the occasional cart. It slows, stops, slows and then stops again. We remain stopped – there’s an intersection ahead, four streams of traffic from four different directions converge as one, some wanting to go left, some right, some straight ahead, and others who seem to want to go in all of those directions and a few more if the can find them…and nobody has right of way!

We crawl our way to the front, our driver skilfully manoeuvring our vehicle between lanes and around other obstructing vehicles with a precision that a Swiss watchmaker would envy. To our left there’s a crunch. We look out of the portholes - a scooter carrying two young men has gone into the back of a tut-tut. In an instant everyone is out – driver, passengers, riders, passers-by – they all stand around waving their arms and pointing at…each other, the vehicles, the road, the stars – yes that’s it, blame it on the stars, it’s all their fault, they should have foreseen this and stopped it happening. Surprisingly this is the first collision we've seen whilst we have been here – perhaps the Indians are great drivers, not merely good ones.

We reach the head of the intersection. Traffic pours towards us from all directions and I begin to understand what it feels like to be approaching the top of a waterfall in a barrel. Our driver spots a gap. He takes it. Toot. We go over the edge and struggle not to flow with the water, toot, toot, the current takes us to the left, but we want a right, our driver pulls on the tiller and we begin to move over, toot, toot, toot, in front of us we barely miss a tut-tut caught up in a strong current and being pulled directly across our bows, tooooooot, I think she’s going to hit - but she swirls away in a flurry of spray. Our driver negotiates the rapids between a lorry and a car…look out! – toot, toooot, another tut-tut is coming our way, “Thar she blows!”, our driver hits the brakes, tooooooooooot, the tut-tut flashes past, another gap in the waves, and our driver gives it full steam, toot, toot, toot, toot, we fly out across the torrent , tooot, barely missing still another tut-tut, toot, toot, and reach the relative calm of the tributary we were trying to reach. Phew!

It’s calmer here. Still busy, but calmer. We know there will be other rapids to negotiate and more waterfalls to deal with – at one point we have to manage a roundabout where some vehicles decide to go to the right, and others to the left, like a large directionless whirlpool – but we are making progress, slow progress, but progress nevertheless – our destination, the Old City of Hyderabad and the legendary Charminar.

It is getting darker and the traffic is getting heavier, time to get off of the main roads and onto the back-roads.

Our driver swings a right and suddenly we are travelling back it time. The roads become narrower, the potholes bigger, the buildings crumblier, the electricity dimmer, the air thicker, and most importantly the traffic thinner. Out of the window I can see that we are passing buildings that must be hundreds of years old, shops mainly, no glass, no doors, open, brightly lit, walk right in places selling fruit, fish, meat, pots, pans, cloth, dreams, life, love – and who knows what else. I look out at a shop where live chickens and ducks hang from the eaves in wicker cages, to one side goats are tethered to a rail, and in a large glass tank big black catfish swim – I hope that its a pet shop but somehow I doubt it. Above this shop, behind a rickety wooden balcony, perches another shop “J. Krishna – skin disorders and V.D. specialist” the sign reads – I wonder what Mr Krishna’s speciality is – treatment?

We turn left onto a dust surfaced road. On both sides I can see even more open fronted single story shops, each joined to the other, and each selling the SAME thing - motor scooters - hundreds of new and used motor scooters – shop after shop of them. Another left and we are in a road where every shop sells tyres, a right - granite and marble tables, a left – saris, another right – lamps, another right – vegetables, and so it goes on – how can this work? How can you ever decide which shop to buy from? They are all selling the same thing – so what is it? Price? Reputation? Recommendation? Credit terms? No, not credit terms, I doubt that these guys do credit.

Back onto the main road, and in the distance I see a huge arched square structure with a minaret at each corner. Its glowing with light. We have arrived at the Charminar.

Legend has it that the building honours a promise that its builder, Mahammad Quli Qutb Shah, made to Allah. He supposedly prayed for the end of a plague and vowed to build a masjid on the site that he was praying. The plague must have ended and Mahammad built the Charminar. I don’t know if it’s a masjid or not because I don’t know what a masjid is, but whatever the Charmina is its very beautiful and is at least a hundred and seventy feet tall – so Mahammad kept his promise in my view.

Our driver pulls up right by it and we get out to take a look - and immediately I am surrounded by India.

Our trip to Golconda had only been a taster - I was out of the bubble, and I'm not prepared for the force that hits me as I stand in the market at Charminar. I'm not just in India – I am ENGULFED by it - at this moment, for an instant, I feel part of it - and all around me are the most incredible buildings – minarets, arched widows, ornate carvings – all hundreds of years old, all crumbling into decay. In front of me in the distance I can see what I guess is a huge Mosque, the minarets tall and spindly are bathed in light. I look around the crowded streets – I can’t see any other Europeans no matter how far I look, no Japanese, Americans, Australians, or blonds come to that – what did they tell jokes about, I wonder?

The crowd around me is a sea of buying, selling, looking, bartering, tasting, touching. I get the feeling that everything that could happen - and some things that couldn’t - are happening somewhere very close to me. I can tell that I am in a Muslim area – the dark brown eyes of Muslim women are everywhere - their bodies totally enclosed by black Burkhas. The glimpse of eyes add to the exotic feel of the place, the eyes are beautiful – I think I’d better stop looking before someone notices me. We wander around, the place is so cinematic that I won't even blink if Peter Lorre wanders past me wearing a white suit and smoking a Camel cigarette. We’ve been told to walk purposefully and not hesitate when the traffic comes towards us – with my heart in my mouth I boldly step in front of a stream of tut-tuts, scooters, and cars and purposefully cross the road. They all miss me, only some have to swerve, and at one point a car brushes my hand - I make it to the other side of the road and enter a narrow street.

I am in a magical place. The street shines with colour, it sparkles and glows from the reflected light of a thousand glass gemstones, every shop for as far as my eye can see sell bangles – thousands upon thousands of bangles. The shopkeepers beckon me – I want to go to them, barter with them, buy some coloured bangles from them. But I don't - instead I throw myself back into the road and purposefully stride to another street selling slippers and shoes. There are shoes of every colour, sandals made from every type of leather and plastic known to man, maybe even some unknown to man. I longingly gaze at the fantastic sequined slippers, all curly toes like ones worn in Panto by Aladdin. I want some, I need some - But I'm too wary of bartering to stop and buy some.

Back, purposefully, into the traffic, across the road to the fruit vendors. There are all kinds of fruits here. I recognise some, but not others. The smell is heady with pungent fruity aromas, water glistens on dampened fruit, piles of dates lay on magic carpets just waiting to rise and take flight, the noise of the crowd is deafening. Something tugs my shirt. I look down - a small dwarf girl looks back, imploring me with her eyes to give her money. I shake my head. She tugs again. A boy carrying bangles comes up to me and asks me if I'm American. I shake my head. German? The dwarf girl tugs my shirt. English? A woman with a baby in her arms rushes across to me and puts her hand on my arm. Two of her fingers are missing. I shudder. Is she a leper? The boy is repeating English, English, English? The dwarf girl tugs hard at my shirt. The leper woman holds out her baby and implores me to give her money.

I am in India up to my neck.

I break free of the spell and purposefully walk away.

Later, safely back in the bubble I wonder what would have happened if I’d bought some bangles from the boy, or given some money to the dwarf girl or the leper woman. Would that have been the cue for dozens of others to have rushed me selling or asking me for money – what other wonders might I have seen? Now that the feeling of “unsettlement” has disappeared, I almost feel a sense of loss for not having embraced them.

India had approached me – and I’d turned my back.

To get a feel for the Charminar and the surrounding market go here:

Step out of the bubble…1.

It needs to be a good day - last day, Saturday, no office day.

Inside the bubble we drive out of Hyderabad northwards, our destination Golconda Fort. As we drive away from the city it soon becomes obvious that I’ve entered yet another level of existence. I seem to move from world to world so easily around here. One moment I’m in a busy city street surrounded by offices and professional people in pressed white shirts and bright silk saris, and the next I’ve gone back in time seeing things that haven’t changed for fifty, two hundred, maybe even five hundred years. In this time – zone the narrow streets are lined with workshops; blacksmiths, copper smiths, carpenters, mechanics - all working out of tiny roadside kiosks alongside metal merchants, tea houses, butchers, and who know what other ancient trades? For the first time the majority of women I see are dressed from head to foot in loose black robes, rather than brightly coloured saris or jeans and T-shirts. I’ve seen Muslim women in the city but not in these numbers, we must be in a Muslim area.

We approach the outer wall of the fort - forty feet high and made from irregularly shaped, but precision mason-matched granite blocks. Some of them are covered in intricate carvings, but even without these embellishments the wall is impressive. As we pass through the narrow gates of the outer wall someone has painted in red paint ‘no urine you here please’ directly onto the stonework, and I think that taking a pee here would be too perilous anyway - the road is so narrow and the tut-tuts, wagons, and buses pass so close to the deep red stonework that I think you’d have to be really desperate to risk it. Good job I’m not bursting.

We scrape through the gate and high on the hill in front of us I see the fort. It looks massive and it’s still a mile or so away – even at this distance it looks like a long, hot, steep climb to the top and (groan), I’m wearing flip- flops.

I wait by the entrance to the fort as a guide is engaged. It’s already hot and it's not much past ten. As I stand here, surrounded by postcard sellers and kiosks advertising that they are officially able to sell me Coca-Cola, I realise that this is the first time since I arrived that I’ve been out of the bubble - other than walk to or from an office or hotel.

I am out of the bubble and standing in India!

The guide leads us through the Fort’s huge wood and iron gates and into the inner wall. In front of me are hundreds and hundreds of steps, winding their way upwards to the palace on the summit at the top (can summits not be at the top?). I prepare myself for my worst nightmare - exercise. We are standing in a high, open-sided stone building. The roof is vaulted and looks a little like an inverted egg carton, the guide is explaining about the building, waving his arms around to emphasise the dialogue. He smells of stale sweat and strong tobacco and I’ve no idea what he is going on about, he talks too quickly and I move back from him, his words drop in and out of my weakening hearing.

He points at me and tells me to stand on a large, square slab of stone directly under the centre-point of the ceiling. He tells me to clap. I clap. My clap is loud. It reverberates around the ceiling repeating itself in an ever-diminishing echo.

CLAP! CLAP, Clap, clap, clap, p, p, p, p, p.

He tells me to move away from the slab and clap again. I move away and clap again.

Clap – no echo.

The inner building was designed as a warning post. Unbelievably the ceiling is so perfectly designed acoustically that it magnifies the clap and throws it upwards and outwards. Apparently it can be heard in the palace above us and was used as a signal to warn that enemies were on their way. It was used for other things as well but I have no idea what these other things are, as I only understand what the guide is telling me because I’ve just done it rather than heard it. I make a mental note to get a hearing check – I won’t actually have one though…my hearing is fine.

We begin to climb the steps. They go up an awfully long way and I can’t see any benches along the way – on well, here goes.

The first climb is easy. After a couple of hundred steps the guides stops and points down to a massive stone water tank that’s been cut into the stone. It looks to be about half the size of a football field and at least a hundred feet deep. There’s a layer of rank water at the bottom and dozens of plastic bottles float, not moving, on the surface. The guide tells us that this is the first tank and that further along our climb there will be others. The point of these tanks was to move water from ground level, through a series of tanks and clay pipes, to the palace above. The guide begins to explain how this was done – his voice drifts in and out of range and I realise that I will never know how gravity was defied and water made to run uphill. I think of my own ideas – a system of scoops and pulleys driven by donkeys, a massive wood and leather Archimedes screw, buckets. We move on and begin to climb the steps again. I stop thinking about elephants squirting water with their trunks, through a series of huge bronze tubs, and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other as we climb another few hundred steps.

We stop off at a number of points of interest on our journey upwards; more water tanks, a grain store that was to become a prison for some evil Wazir whole cheated the ruler, a garden or two. I’m sweating and gasping for breath. Above me – only another two or three hundred steps away – I can see the palace. I’m thirsty, there are drinking water stops along the way, but the metal spouts sticking out of the rusty water tanks are consumed with flies and…well, just and.

I’m almost there. The guide and my colleagues are already admiring the view. I still have another fifty or so steps to go, I pretend that I’m busy taking pictures to give myself a chance to stop wheezing before joining them, I wonder what my breathing would be like if I still smoked. I stop thinking about cigarettes as it’s making me want one, and after ten minutes or so of not taking photographs, I no longer sound like a pig with asthma and join them.

The views are amazing and if it was not for the smog haze we would have been able to see for miles. Even so, the views are good and I can see the outer wall in the distance. There are three walls in all and looking at them I realise that the Hill Fort of Golconda must have been unbreachable, a fact that the guide confirms by telling us that the Fort has never fallen to anyone in it’s six or seven (I didn’t catch it exactly) hundred year history – not even to the English.

After a while it is time to begin our descent - but before we do we stop off at the lookout point and our guide signals to his friend below. Far down in the egg box I can just see his friend walk to where the central slab must be. He raises his arms and claps.

CLAP! CLAP, Clap, clap, clap, p, p, p, p, p.

It works! We easily hear the signal from far below – the enemy is upon us!

Out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of emerald green. I look to see what it is and there in a tree is a largish green bird with a long blue-green lyre tail and a very long pointed beak. It’s beautiful. I think about asking our guide what sort of bird it is, then change my mind and decide to Google it later – after all there’s nothing wrong with my eyesight, well nothing that a pair of strong reading glasses can’t deal with, I probably won't catch what the guide says.

And then it’s the steps again, a different set, and going down, but still steps and – Oh my God – they are so steep! I clutch the wall and try to look nonchalant as I carefully put both my feet on one step, then another, and gingerly work my way down them.

At some point along the way we stop off at the Harem - another large stone building where the ruler kept his many wives - we sit for a while laughing about eunuchs and trying to guess how often the king rotated them – his wives not the eunuchs – and then it’s back to the long climb down.

I survive the climb without the need to attach crampons to my flip-flops and we reach ground level. We stand in another huge vaulted building and the guide starts telling a story about some guard who did something or other and was either beheaded or maybe he was made king - I’m not really sure, because all I could hear was the sound of thousands of bats in the alcoves to either side of where we were standing. I hate bats.

We walk through the galleries and at one of them the guide tells me to stand in a corner and talk to the wall. He tells my colleague to stand in the opposite corner and talk to the wall also. I have experience at talking to walls (well at least metaphorically) so I find this to be a piece of cake. The acoustics in this gallery allow sound to travel around the walls so that two people in opposite corners can hold a conversation – so much more sensible than standing in the centre of the room and talking face-to-face – as it happens we don’t have much to say to each other anyway and end up discussing the weather.

We walk out of the galleries and into the light - and that’s it. The tour is done. We pay the guide, walk back to the entrance, and wait for the bubble to pick us up.

Hill fort – tick - what next?

Broken kites and borrowed kisses


Spoken slowly it’s the sound of a place Sheherazade might whisper in a tale woven from air, as she tries to story herself away from death. It sounds exotic – but simply because it is - and I’ve fallen a little in love with it over the last few days.

At first it assaults your senses with colour and smell and sound, but once you begin to flow with it, begin to see the beauty, it changes and so do you - maybe it decides to allow you to. Construction, rubble and dust are everywhere, the traffic is a relentless river of honking metal acid etching it’s mark on the marble, stone, and concrete - there is poverty, squalor and crime on every corner and every pathway between the palms and washing strewn crumbling colour-washed buildings…but take a look beyond and beneath – what then? Just take a closer look – look hard, open your eyes, work your senses, free your heart and look.

Up to telephone wires where broken kites flutter in warm breeze, free from string and holder, caught by time, attempting freedom with each forlorn flutter. Gaze high at hawks as they swirl, round and around, convection tides taking them up and up towards the hot yellow sun; their purposeful eyes intent on purple shadowed ground, to swoop the instant that prey makes one single fatal error.

Look out around, at the spin and whirl of shade and hue, so many colours that surround and engulf – deep pink, light green, yellow gold, blue, purple, turquoise, orange, and orange, and orange – join with the swirl until it blurs and becomes a singular brightness. Richness such as that is rare - and for this instant yours - to keep so close and memoried.

Feel deep the eyes of the many people as they pass you by - see smiles, catch frowns, glimpse questions. Skin dark, and light, and pale, and proud – and all a beautiful brown caught up in the colour of the day, silk and cotton and gauze, then catch the kiss of the laughing girl as she glances in a fleet, your way and past, with kiss that does not belong with you – but enjoy it all the more for being there at all.

Deep smell the heat and dust and richly taste the tang of aromatic leaves, waft smokes of cooking meats, breath up at hanging fruit, and underneath the scents of rotting and decay, of drains, and dung, and maybe sometimes death. Breathe it happy as if it were your last and do it with content – it would be a good smell to depart on if leaving were an order.

Then listen to the noise of night, a never-ending city sung cacophony - car horns, drums, shout and whistle, call and cries, whispers and sighs - and early the faithful being called to prayer.

There is mystery and poetry, poetry everywhere, this city is a poem and I could be happy here. Fulfilled and fight to fall in love, imprisoned, live, and maybe even die, to paint, and write, and dream. I could be anything and anyone in Hyderabad.

As I mentioned - I’ve fallen in love a little, and I’d almost forgotten the taste.

But I’m not to stay, I only have tomorrow; it must be a good day, made remembered and vivid to my mind – recorded.

Tonight I think I saw the coming India in a new hotel with tasteful furnishings, and mirrored bars, no poetry at all, and not a trace of past in sight. A new and antiseptic India, the India that will be here when the construction is done and the dust and rubble and smell of shit have all been cleared away leaving only imitation America, Europe, Japan, and other colourless elsewhere’s – and that isn’t it.

In that place I wasn’t in Hy-der-a-bad.

I was nowhere again.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

India from my bubble...

I’m sitting in an oasis of tranquillity and peace – Hyderabad airport waiting for an internal flight to Bangalore. Bangalore is across and down a little I think - I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it's not up. The air-conditioned airport is new - glass, marble and steel. Piped Indian muzak plays in between flight announcements and breakfast pizza is available.

I have been to India a couple of times before, mainly Bangalore, and inevitably spend most of the time in air conditioned offices and hotels. It’s very difficult to get an idea of what India is like from inside either, so the only impression I get of the variety and apparent confusion that seems to be India is from inside a safe and secure bubble - the air conditioned car that drives me to and from the office/airport. It ain't a lot - but it's something.

If you haven’t been to India it’s hard to imagine that a thirty-minute car ride could cram your head full with images of a world, and glimpses of lives, that are so far away from what is usual - at least usual for me.

You see so much and at the same time so little.

The short drive becomes a glimpse of tiny bites of stories as you pass by, stories that might lead nowhere or take you somewhere you may or may not want to go. What is that old woman with the knife going to do with that small goat? Why is that that tiny child crying and pointing at that dog, and what is it carrying in it’s mouth - a doll? Why is that tall man in the red shirt hammering on that door? That girl talking to the young man - is she laughing or crying? And why is he holding a red Dahlia flower?

Short stories seem to be all around you as you pass by in your car - you might be entering them as they start, stumble in at the middle, or intrude as they come to a close - but at whatever point you pick up story all you get to read is a single sentence and it leaves you wondering what the paragraph says, and how the story will finish.

Sometimes as we drive along I wonder what would happen if I were to become a part of one of these stories? What if I were to take that side street on the left by that grimy scooter repair booth and follow that woman walking away from the main highway towards the temple in the distance - the one with all of the white smoke around it? Where might I end up if I were to follow those men pushing that rusty bike? Is one of them carrying a machete?

Sentences are all around me waiting for the next sentence to continue the story. Should I jump out of the car and become the next few words? How might my life change if I grab my guts and get out of the car and insert myself in one of the stories being played outside of the bubble? I look and wonder and know that today I’ll make do with what I can glimpse of India from inside the car - the limited view that the bubble allows me.

Everywhere is buildings - buildings that look long abandoned but could simply be waiting to be finished and buildings that could be waiting to be finished but could be long abandoned. All of them, no matter what state they are in, look to be covered in graffiti, every available inch of concrete seems covered in words. Look closer - it isn't vandal generated graffiti after all, it’s advertising. Everyone seems to be advertising something – their shop, their chickens, mangoes, themselves – words spring up and teem all around you and you have little choice but to read them. There are stories written on walls, on boards, on roofs, everywhere. Large red words surround you, shouting at you to look at them, read them - and when you do read them, they are in English - on closer inspection you can see that they are all painted by hand, with paint, not mass produced and printed. Even the Coca-Cola logo is hand-painted! How many sign writers live here?

The crumbling buildings seem to fall towards you as you drive past them, there’s no order in them – they just crop up. It’s impossible to tell where one store starts and a house finishes, they are piled high on top of each other, three or four high, like a pile of children’s building blocks waiting to tumble over, and everywhere is dust and rubble.

Motorcycles and put-puts (three wheeled open taxis fuelled by gas canisters under the driver’s seat – little more than a bomb on wheels) flash in front, behind, honking, hooting, aiming at the gap and going for it, squeezing through, one, two, three, whole families of passengers on a single scooter. Car drivers weave to avoid them, blasting their horns to signal that they are there. Road signs and the right side of the road are ignored as the scooters mount the broken, potholed pavements to get through the traffic. If there is a highway code here nobody seems to have read it. Intricately painted lorries covered with streamers and flags thunder alongside, loads overhanging their sides by several feet - you stain your neck to see how high the load is as it wobbles past.

All sorts of people are everywhere, walking, standing, waving, hiding, in groups, alone, squatting, laughing, crying, peeing by the side of the road, talking, gesticulating - their variety is infinite.

And the dust and Rubble is everywhere and everywhere is a building site and everywhere is activity.

Packs of dogs appear out of side alleys, shanties of tin shacks and tents - where small children play in the dirt - sit next to pink concrete apartment buildings or light blue villas with names like ‘Splendide’ and ‘Dream Valley’’. The apartments look fine but seem to have been built on bombsites and swamps. There are thousands of empty oil drums around and it smells warm. Jacaranda trees flame with flower, women carry metal urns on poles slung over bony shoulders, old turbaned weather-brown skinned men walk barefoot kicking stones in the dusty road, star-painted cows graze in the landscaped gardens of cool grey glass office blocks, flocks of goats mess in side alleys, old women sit by the road selling fruit, or pastries, or spiced meat cooked on open braziers, groups of children play noisily with cans and sticks in starched green school uniforms or sit quietly alone in rags on the dusty kerb staring into who-knows-where.

So much colour and noise. Sensory overload. After a while your eyes hurt with seeing, so you close them and wonder again what would happen if you were to get out of the car and take a walk – would you ever find your way back? Would you even want to?

I made it to the airport without opening the bubble and stepping out into the landscape. I’m safe in this glass and steel lounge and outside India is still waiting for me to become a story.

Maybe another time I will - and let it eat me.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Some stuff and some nonsense...

George: I wish I had a million dollars... Hot dog!

We all have stuff. If we didn’t then we’d all be the same and in my experience none of us are ever exactly the same. This is good. I think that most people would agree that it is the differences about us that make us interesting and unique.

It’s stuff that makes me not a widget and even though I can be hard work at times I don’t think I’m repeatable. “Thank God” some of you are probably muttering.

As part of the stuff that makes ‘me’ me is the fact that I am more than a little superstitious. I salute single Magpies, run away from black cats, and throw an awful lot of salt over my shoulder - you probably thought it was dandruff, well it isn’t!

My wife on the other hand thinks that superstition is nonsense and she’d no more turn around three times on seeing a full moon than fly to it.

Anyway I think it’s best to hedge your bets where superstition is concerned; you never know what may be watching and waiting for you make that tiny mistake that lets bad luck in.

The Spilling of Salt

Part 1. In which some salt gets spilled

Mark Harrington was not a superstitious man, so when he knocked over the salt one Friday morning at breakfast he wasn’t bothered unduly. Neither did he know or care that this particular Friday was the thirteenth, and he cared and knew even less about Frigg or Freya - so how was he to understand that spilling the salt had annoyed them. The notion that any Friday was a bad day to spill salt on - and that the thirteenth was the worst Friday of all, simply never entered head. He just swept the salt up in his hand and threw it carelessly into the kitchen bin rather than taking the trouble to throw a little of it over his left shoulder with his right hand. If he had then he may well have prevented the events that took place after the salt spilling, but as I have already mentioned, Mark was not a superstitious man. He didn’t understand that this small event was a warning from his Guardian Angel that bad luck was on the way, any more that he knew that by ignoring it he’d opened the door for evil to enter his life.

Not all evil is big and there are never enough demons and devils to go around on Friday the thirteenth. So Mark was lucky – in a very unlucky way - that the only creature not fully tied up that day was a rather small Imp. It is likely that if it hadn’t been Friday the thirteenth Mark would have had much bigger problems on his hands - but Bael, Zoper, Byleth, Astoroth, Sanac, Oze and the rest of the many that were ‘Legion’ were tied up creating havoc and catastrophe all over the world and far to busy to bother with 13 Lilac Avenue, Siddington. Even so, any evil - even an evil as small and unimportant that it went both unnamed and unrecognised in the confusion of Hell - can cause a deal of trouble for the unwary. If Mark could have looked into the future and seen what was in store for him then he may well have rummaged through the kitchen bin for a grain or two of salt in order to save his bacon, but unfortunately the only future vision that Mark possessed was a plan to pay off his mortgage and retire on a reasonable pension.

The bacon was sizzling in the frying pan on the electric cooker when the Imp materialised out of thin air on Mark’s left shoulder. Mark felt it dig its claws in hard but assumed that he must have strained his shoulder mowing the lawn the previous week. He gave it a rub - which annoyed the Imp. Imps don’t like to be petted; and in a rage it flew across the kitchen, picked up the pan and threw it high into the air. It landed with a clatter on the tiled kitchen floor and the bacon was sent tumbling, coming to a greasy stop by the refrigerator. Mark was a little taken aback but - ever the rational sceptic - he simply assumed that he hadn’t put the pan on the stove properly and that it’d toppled off on its own accord. So nonchalantly, he picked up the pan, wiped the grease from the floor, dusted down the bacon and made himself a bacon sandwich.

Of course if Mark had been living only a hundred years ago then he wouldn’t have taken the flying bacon so lightly. Back then he’d have rushed from the house screaming at the top of his voice; “an Imp, an Imp! Send for a priest! I’m possessed by an Imp!” But in these more enlightened times people don’t behave like that any more and the term ‘Imp’ is hardly ever used. Scientists, ghost-hunters, and even the clergy prefer to call them by a more respectable and acceptable title these days - they call them poltergeists. This doesn’t make them any less nasty or vindictive though, an Imp is an Imp no matter how you dress it up and an Imp’s job, its passion and raison d’ĂȘtre, is to make mankind’s life a misery - that and to steal souls for the Master.

Now, Master is a relative term. Any demon can become Master. It all depends on which of them is at the top of the ‘catching’ league at the time; but the Imp desperately wanted to be the Master one day.

Soul stealing is not an easy business, and the more souls you steal the bigger you grow, which probably explains why the Imp/poltergeist was such a small specimen. This is how it works - it’s a very simple principle: the more souls a demon manages to steal the bigger on the demonic scale the demon gets. So far the Imp had two credits to his name and he needed another eight to become a mini-demon, eighteen for a semi-demon, twenty-eight to become a demi-demon, ninety-eight for a full demon, a full five hundred for a mega-demon and an ultimate thousand souls for a terra-demon. Once you made terra-demon you had to fight it out with the other TD’s for absolute supremacy – and the Imp had a very, very, long way to go, so getting hold of Mark Harrington’s soul was very important to him.

Despite popular belief the only way to steal a soul is to make the owner so enraged that they do something completely out of character. It isn’t about sinning. It isn’t as easy or as simple as that - otherwise getting to TD status would be a piece of cake. After all everyone sins and merely committing a sin, however heinous, just isn’t enough to make you automatically lose your soul and get yourself dragged off along the fiery road to Hell. God makes sure of that. It’s what forgiveness is all about. In order to lose your soul it has to be stolen and the only entities that can steal souls are Demons and Imps (and the occasional woman) - so it’s no use them making a murderer commit another murder because that doesn’t work - that is totally in character. No result. On the other hand getting said murderer to give up murder and become a monk will definitely work. That is totally out of character. Result. There’s no point in encouraging your murderer to massacre a gaggle of old ladies on the bowling-green, because he’d probably have done that anyway - better to get him to make them all a cup of tea and serve them up pink and white fairy cakes in the interval. That will work.

The key to stealing a soul is to simply get the soul-owner to do something that they wouldn’t normally do - make that happen and the soul is yours.

The first rule of soul stealing is observation. It is lesson one in ‘Six Key Steps to Becoming a Demon, a Beginners Guide’ by B. L. Sebub - in which he explains that you have to get to know your victim, understand their psyche, and look for - and take note of - their little foibles. If you’re really lucky you’ll stumble upon the odd perversion or two (isn’t all perversion odd?), or you’ll find their weaknesses. All you have to do is create the right situation and exploit it to the limit – and then you pounce!

The Imp observed Mark closely as instructed. But unfortunately for it Mark Harrison didn’t appear to have any weaknesses - or strengths for that matter. He really was Mr. Average. If Mark had been a book then the book’s author would have owned a dictionary where words like risk, excitement, unpredictability, spontaneity, chance and superstition had all been removed and replaced with rationality, prudence, caution and evidence in larger and bolder type. People didn’t think Mark boring, because people didn’t think about Mark at all - he hardly registered on their radar, not even as a very small rain cloud drifting across a vast blue sky.

Mark was grey.

‘Still a grey soul is better than no soul’, thought the Imp as it jumped back on to Mark’s shoulder and settled down to watch and wait for the right opportunity.

The journey to the office was uneventful. Mark had the correct money ready for the bus driver and carefully held the ticket in his hand during the short journey to work - depositing the used ticket in the bin provided on arrival at his stop. At the office he removed his coat – almost knocking the Imp to the floor - hung it on the hanger provided and commenced his working day promptly at nine. At eleven fifteen he took the designated ten-minute break (exactly ten minutes) during which time he drank a sugarless cup of tea and ate a plain digestive biscuit. At one, Mark stopped for lunch and walked to the park where he sat on a bench and ate a processed cheese sandwich and a small apple - he ate this completely including the core and pips. At one-thirty he returned to work, placed his neatly folded sandwich bag back in his briefcase (for re-use) and worked diligently and carefully until three. At three he took the designated ten-minute break during which time he drank another sugarless cup of tea and ate a rich tea biscuit. He then worked solidly and methodically until five. At five Mark tidied his desk to the required “clean desk policy” standard, put on his coat, walked to the bus stop and caught his bus home with correct change, carefully held ticket and subsequent disposal in provided bin at his stop on the junction of Swaningdale Road and Lilac Avenue.

What a day! Safely and uneventfully home Mark cooked his dinner (an individual steak pie, boiled potatoes and tinned processed peas), then washed, dried and put away the dishes. He worked on his plastic model kit of Henry VIII and his six wives until three minutes to nine, switching on the television at nine o’clock precisely to watch the news. As soon as the newsreader had wished Mark “a very good night” he switched off the set, boiled a small amount of water in the kettle, and made and drank a mug of very sweet instant hot chocolate. After this - and only after putting his model of Henry VIII and his wives back in the sideboard where he kept them - he washed, dried, and hung his mug on the mug-tree by the kettle. Finally, after checking that the doors and windows were locked, the downstairs lights were switched off, and that all electrical appliances had their plugs fully removed from the sockets, he went upstairs to the bathroom and ran a shallow bath to make ready for bed. He washed himself from head to toe, got out of the bath and removed the plug - carefully coiling the silver chain around the black rubber sphere- then he dried himself, rinsed out the bath, folded the towels, hung them on the bath rail, and cleaned his teeth - side to side and up and down - for four minutes exactly.

In his bedroom Mark undressed, folded/hung/put for wash his clothes and replaced them with pyjamas, buttoning all of the buttons on the striped pyjama jacket. He got into bed and read a few pages from “Model Makers Monthly” - a very interesting article comparing the properties and adhesive qualities of ten different brands of adhesive – at ten-twenty he set his alarm clock for three minutes to seven, switched off the bedside lamp, and went to sleep.

The Imp wasn’t impressed by Mark’s performance. It could see right through it. Any man who was as methodical and ordered as Mark must have something big and darkly deep-rooted to hide - and if Mark were hiding something then he would have a good (and probably disgusting) reason for hiding it. People who hid things could usually be “catched”.

Getting “catched” is not the same thing at all as getting caught, there’s a difference. Getting caught is a physical thing - but when someone is ‘”catched” it’s both a physical and a philosophical thing. The catcher gets “the all" of them - body and soul. It’s a bit like cricket with the demon acting as the wicket keeper. The bowler bowls, the batsman tries for the ball, clips it and gets caught out by the wicket keeper. Only in this game the catcher gets to keep the ball, the bat, the batsman, and the batsman’s soul. It was just a question of watching and waiting for Mark to miss the ball, make a slip, and give away the nature of whatever nasty little game he was playing.

The Imp could wait - slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.

After three days of carefully observing Mark’s lifestyle the Imp was beginning to get bored and a little worried. The only daily difference that Mark conceded to his routine was the substitution of sausages, a lamb chop, and finally – on Monday - some pig’s liver for dinner. Even the weekend hadn’t been that different to his working days. Mark food shopped on Saturday morning, did housework on Saturday afternoon, listened to “The Archers” then pottered in the garden Sunday morning, and went for a brisk walk in the park on the afternoon. Over and above these small digressions Mark’s daily routine was exactly the same.

The Imp was getting frustrated. Nobody could be this boring! Everybody had something to hide! All you had to do was observe them for long enough and you’d begin to see how best to tempt them - how to get them out of character. Observation was the key - the book said so! All it had to do was keep looking and wait for a chance to make the catch to come along. So it waited and watched, and watched and waited – four days (salmon steak), five days (chicken), six days (individual shepherds pie), seven (pork steak) - then on the eighth day…steak pie again. The Imp began to realise that Mark really was as orderly, habitual, methodical, and downright flat and boring as he appeared to be - and nothing was going to change that.

It was time to make things happen!

'Making things happen’ in Demonic terms is not quite as open-ended as it sounds. There’s a well laid down code of Demonly conduct that has to be adhered to stringently if a soul is to be successfully ‘”catched”.

‘Successful Soul Catching Every Time!’ by Louis Cipher is a ‘must read’ for any aspiring Terra-Demon. It lays down these rules of conduct: 1. No trickery. 2. No cheating. 3. No lie telling. And 4. No pushing. All of which are pretty hard for a Demon to stick to - after all trickery, cheating, lie telling, and pushing are the very things that Demon’s do best. However, ‘rules is rules’, and they have to be followed - even if you are a lying, cheating, tricky, cloven-hoofed, triple-horned son of snake who isn’t beyond giving a nun a bit of a push if it helps to get things moving.

There’s also the ‘seriousness of activity’ clause; this basically states that each “to be catched” individual must commit an act (or acts) that is proven (beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt) that he/she has acted in a manner outside of his/her normal behavioural pattern. The seriousness of the act(s) is cumulative and should add up to no less than three ‘tuts’ - a ‘tut’ being a measure of abnormal individual behaviour

Given thes rules I'm fairly sure that our tea and fairy cake wielding murderer at the bowling club would easily get a score of three ‘tuts’ for being nice to the old ladies rather than hacking them to pieces with a meat cleaver. Tut, tut, tut…without a doubt - as would a vicar if he were to massacre his congregation - both would be acting outside of their normal behavioural pattern. But Mark Harrington was no murderer, he wasn’t even a vicar; so anything out of character that he might manage was likely to be only a very slight deviation from his straight-line norm and it was very unlikely that a single event would merit three ‘tuts’.

After consideration the Imp decided that in Mark’s case it would probably be best to go for three separate events and aim to score only a single ‘tut’ for each one. The problem was that the Imp had no clue as to what would entice Mr. M. Harrison to do something so unusual and out of character as to prove (beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt) that he had acted in a manner outside of his normal behavioural pattern. After all, he was so teeth-grindingly normal.

But then - with a flash of Imp-spiration - he remembered the salt!

More to follow later…

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Pictures within the picture

Starfish at Hell's Mouth

In a recent post I mentioned an oil painting I did some time ago. This is it.

It's called 'Starfish at Hell's Mouth'. A lot of people seem to like it but (as you already know) I'm not happy with it - although there are some 'bits' of it I really like, which is the way with most of my paintings.

Anyway, this weekend I decided to take another look at the painting, which is quite large, and see if I could pick out some of the 'bits' I like, as a learning exercise ready for my painting to come. I found that I like a lot of areas in the picture; it's just the painting as a whole that doesn't work for me.

As a complete painting it's too rigid and too much of a 'painting' - but I really like some of the little paintings contained within, they really work for me.

Here's what I mean.

This is the 'starfish' (it's bottom right of the main picture). It isn't the starfish I like, but the colour and texture of the beach - I'm happy with the range of hues and the subtle contrasts. This is about actual size so should give you some idea of the scale of the painting.

This is that patch of sky in the centre of the picture. I like the vertical brushstrokes, and think I've caught the feel of movement I was looking for. I particularly like that small white brushstroke on the left and those horizontal reflections that sit on the sea line.

These are the waves on the left of the picture. I like the way I've done the spray and the reflections in the wash on the beach.

This is the sky in the top left. I like most of the sky in the painting, but I really like the deep crimson of the oncoming storm at the corner. I also like the snatched white brushing that I've used across the sky, along with the orange contrast of the land against the deeper dark azure blue sky on the right. I'm pleased with the clouds in this picture - although you would never quite see them in a real sky, perhaps that is why I like them.

These are the waves on the right of the picture, and perhaps my favourite piece of this painting, the piece I like the best. I love the depth and turmoil in those waves. I think I've caught the mist of the spray nicely, and the swell of the wash ripples in the foreground work well.

If this tiny portion were the whole picture, I'd be happy.

Perhaps I'll cut it out and re-frame it. What do you think?

Friday, 16 January 2009

What Cheshire cats do...

Continued (2)

So getting herself stuck behind the radiator hadn’t asphyxiated Misty after all. In fact she hadn’t even been behind the radiator. We’d found her and she was safe, and everyone was happy, especially a certain whistling plumber. The gap beneath the dishwasher was now completely blocked with cardboard and parcel tape, and she wouldn’t be able to get beneath the units again. The kitchen was also virtually free of any hiding place for a kitten to hide and all was well; so when I came down the next morning I fully expected to see Misty fast asleep in her cosy basket cuddled up to her fluffy yellow mouse with the bell inside.

I opened the kitchen door carefully and, closing it quietly behind me, went over to her basket. I looked inside…she wasn’t there! “No Misty! Don’t panic!” I told myself. “She’ll just be hiding in the kitchen somewhere”. I did a quick whiz around the kitchen; looking in all the likely hiding places. “DON’T PANIC!” I repeated, beginning to panic. “She had to be in here somewhere”. As headless as the chicken that most of us become in times of extreme stress, I dashed around looking behind cookbooks, chairs, inside pots, cupboards, mixer-bowls, I even poked the stick down behind the radiator…Clear. Thank God, I didn’t want to have to call out another musically gifted plumber. After five more minutes of frantic, fruitless and cold-sweating search, I eventually noticed the cardboard beneath the dishwasher; it was turned down at one corner and the tape was in tatters. In a flash everything became as clear as Vodka, Misty had decided that she liked it behind the kickboard so much that she’d managed to force her way past my obviously not-so-well constructed security wall and crept back into the dark safety of the space beneath the units. I could only wonder at what she’d be able to achieve with a vaulting horse, shovel, and trousers with string-drawn flaps in the pockets!

This time I carefully (after all wine is very precious stuff) removed the kickboard beneath the sink and looked in. Immediately I could see two shining yellow eyes staring back at me. There was Misty pressed right up to the back wall, half-hiding behind the sink’s waste pipe. I reached in to get her, but somehow she moved even further back. I stretched. I could almost reach her, almost but not quite. I’d have to find something to help me prize her out from behind the pipe, so I stood up and fetched the stick.

I positioned myself prone on the cold kitchen floor, stick in hand, and poised to grab Misty when the gentle poke from my not-so-gentle stick caused her to run out from behind the pipe. I looked at the pipe expecting to see Misty still hiding behind it. She wasn’t there! “DON’T PANIC…she’s simply moved further along the run of units”. I told myself. I began removing more kickboard; this was a fifteen foot run so there were quite a few to remove and soon I had a reasonable pile of best quality beech laminated kickboard stacked by the side of me. I peered into the gloom of the ‘world beneath the kitchen units’…Oh no…I couldn’t see her! I checked along the lengthy run of units, I checked again, and again, but I still couldn’t see her.

Just as a very bad word left my mouth Gaynor arrived in the kitchen disturbed by the clatter of my removing pieces of her kitchen, along with numerous shouted profanities; the spring clips holding the kickboards in place didn’t always ‘spring’ as easily as they should have. I explained what had happened telling her that Misty had been there one moment and gone the next, and I sarcastically suggested that “the damned kitten” would have been more aptly named ‘Houdini’ as she seemed to be an etraordinarily good escapologist.

Gaynor listened, sighed, shook her head and went to get a torch.

Twenty minutes of hopefully shining the torch around, and pointlessly searching every possible hiding place (again) we both agreed that Misty had vanished (again). So we opened another tin of red salmon and placed it and Misty’s litter tray in front of the sink, deciding that there was nothing to do but wait for her to appear again; after all Houdini had usually reappeared after disappearing. Gaynor wasn’t in college that day, so agreed to stay in the kitchen, listen for her, and wait for Misty to come out; after all with all the kickboards off the slightest noise or smallest movement would alert her to Misty’s presence.

Having done as much as we could, at least for now, I went off to work leaving Gaynor waiting patiently in the kitchen, ears alert and waiting for the faintest scratch or meow.

At ten I rang home for a progress report…no Misty. At eleven I rang again for another progress report…still no Misty. There was no Misty at twelve, and no Misty at one, she hadn’t showed up by two, or three, or four, or five, and by the time I arrived home at around six there was still no sign of her. We began to wonder if there had even ever been a Misty, perhaps we had imagined her; maybe she was just a dream. No, she had been real, and I proved her existence to us both by bringing up Misty’s photo on my phone. She was so small. She was so cute. Where could she have gone?

I decided to check beneath the units again.

I lay down on the floor and shone the torch at the waste pipe. Uh oh…was that what I thought it was? I reached into the dark space, stretching my arm as far as it could go until I could reach the pipe. There was a small hole in the floor where the waste pipe was fitted and it wasn’t a very tight fit. Maybe a very small and determined kitten could squeeze through that hole…the hole that led to the sub-cellar beneath the kitchen floor!

To be continued…

Thursday, 15 January 2009


By now you’ve probably guessed that my blog doesn’t have much of a theme - well, apart from me that is.

When I decided to start it (and if you were in at the start you may remember) I was just so blown away by being ‘out there’ that I just wrote, and that’s how it’s continued. So I guess that you could say that my blog is pretty random, although there are some themes developing that may, or may not, develop further as time goes on.

In many ways it’s just a conversation with myself. A way for me to get my thoughts down, tell some stuff, try new things, show old things; and I have to say I’m really enjoying doing it. I think I’d do it even if nobody were reading it; although I appreciate your interest and thanks to those of you who have commented.

Gaynor says that I’m becoming obsessed, and she may be right. But if it is an obsession then it won’t last for long, my obsessions rarely do, so I might as well enjoy it as much as I can whilst it’s here.

Now about this ‘Random’ thing…

My understanding of random is pretty close to this definition: - Lacking any definite plan or purpose; governed by or depending on chance; “a random choice”; “bombs fell at random”; “random movements”.

I like the three examples given in that definition particularly “bombs fell at random” and “random movements” (which I read as “random moments” on first reading; of which I have-a-plenty). To me random describes something that happens unexpectedly, that wasn’t planned; a chance thing.

Now my daughter Holly uses the word all of the time at the minute, she starts sentences with it, she ends sentences with it, and she has started to use it in ways that I neither understand nor expect. She uses this word so often and in such diverse ways that it annoys me sometimes, which is silly, after all it’s just a word and language is continually developing: what about gay (happy), gay (homosexual), and now gay (lame or rubbish), or sly which used to mean clever and now usually means devious and underhand.

She’ll say things like – “and then this Random walks up to her and says”…

Or use it as a criticism of something I’ve done or said – “Random!” with that ‘ooo-err-errrm’ intonation in the pronunciation.

Or even as a compliment – “Cool. That’s really Random”. Or at least I think it’s a compliment.

In fact she seems to be able to use “Random” in any way she feels like, and make it mean anything she wants; what’s weird is that all her friends understand what she is saying when she does it, and even weirder is that, despite trying not to I am also beginning to understand what she is saying when she uses it.

It’s interesting and I may at some point write something here where I use words in a way that they aren’t meant to be used and see how that works. You’ll probably agree that it can’t be much harder to understand that some of the stuff I normally write.
Anyway, as I said earlier - I’m having fun on the journey and I hope that you’re having some fun to. Wow! Random! Totally so Random! You Random Randoms. Random!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


So here I am in Edinburgh. I travelled by train from Manchester. Usually I fly, but today I set out at 7.45 and arrived a few minutes ago - a longish walk, a metro ride, two trains, then another longish uphill walk. Just a load of steps to go down now.

Still I'm here at last and the train ride along the coast had some great scenery. I've just taken this perfect Japanese tourist picture; Edinburgh castle AND a red post-box, all it needs is the smiling, bowing tourist.

After I've sent this with my MDA I'm going to walk down Sally steps and check into my hotel. I really need a cup of tea.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

It's in the trees...

Night of the Demon: what a great film. It's based on a story by M.R. James entitled 'Casting the Runes' and Kate Bush used the sound clip 'it's in the trees' as the opening line to the track 'The Hounds of Love' on the album of the same name.

These trees are in a wood in the Forest of Dean that we took a look around today. I learnt a lot about trees and a lot about forest management.

So now I'm almost as big a fan of trees as I am Bush (so sorry).

Monday, 12 January 2009

Elvis is in the building

Last Thursday, January 8th, would have been Elvis Presley’s seventy-fourth birthday. Elvis died on August 16, 1977 in his bathroom upstairs at Graceland. I’ve been to Graceland and you aren’t allowed upstairs. After being found on the bathroom floor he was rushed to hospital where they pronounced him dead. The coroner recorded his cause of death as cardiac arrhythmia, which means that the heart was beating irregularly, and in Elvis’s case finally stopped. While strictly true the attending physicians kept quiet about the fact that what had apparently caused Elvis' heart to beat so irregularly, and then stop, was an overdose of prescription drugs which included Morphine, Codeine, Demorol and Valium.

Elvis is in the building

When I awoke they were sitting there quietly in the corner of my hotel room. I was pretty sure that they hadn’t been there the night before when, at around midnight, I’d left the bar and my pharmaceutical convention colleagues to continue drinking, and gone up to bed. At least I didn’t remember them being there, but then I was pretty drunk. As I stared at them I wondered if they’d been watching me as I slept, watching and waiting for me to wake so that they could dare me to wear them. I knew it was silly, but as I moved towards them I was sure that I could feel them staring and smiling.

How did they get here? Where had they come from? Had someone crept into my room in the middle of the night and put them there? They must have; after all shoes don’t walk by themselves. Perhaps that big guy on the desk was playing a joke on me; I thought I saw him give me a funny look when I’d checked in.

I crouched to inspect the shoes. They were suede, pastel blue, elasticated at the sides and with sharp toes. Not my shoes, not even my type of shoes. Elvis shoes, Elvis blue suede shoes. Yeah, it had to be the guy on the desk or one of the other hotel employees, they were having a hoot at my expense; very funny. Perhaps everyone in Memphis had a warped sense of humour?

Pressing down on my knees with my hands I stood up and looked down at them. They were nice shoes and they looked about my size. I was tempted to try them on just to see what my feet looked like in them. It was very tempting, and I wondered how they would feel on my feet as I continued to watch the shoes watch me back. Well, its one for the money, what harm could it do? Two for the show, after all they were in my room. Three to get ready, someone must have put them there. Now go, cat, go. Perhaps they put them here because they wanted me to try them on? On the other hand, perhaps not and this was some sort of trick. Or maybe it was a message and the message was that I could do anything that I wanted to do, but uh-uh, Honey, lay off of my shoes.

Maybe if I tried them on the big guy on the desk would know that I’d done it, rush in, knock me down, step on my face, and then go back to the lobby and slander my name all over the place for trying on his shoes. Yes that was it. They were his shoes and this was a test. He didn’t want me to step into his blue suede shoes and he’d put them in my room to test me. He didn’t care what I did so long as I lay off of his blue suede shoes and if I were to try them on; well I’d better be prepared for the consequences. No sweat, I was ready. Do your worst big guy…and stop right there! This was crazy! None of this made any sense. Why would anyone want to test me with a pair shoes? They might burn my house or steal my car, even drink my liquor from an old fruit jar; but testing me with a pair of blue shoes? It just didn’t add up.

I reached down and slipped on the right shoe, it felt good against my naked foot; I slipped on the other one, a perfect fit. These shoes didn’t belong to the guy behind the desk. These shoes didn’t belong to anyone who worked in the hotel, these shoes belonged to me, they were mine.

Picking up my samples case, dressed only in my blue suede shoes, I walked across the flat brown carpet to the bathroom. I knew what to do next.