Tuesday 30 September 2008

chip off the old block

The Traveller was misbehaving, so I took the cylinder head off it and found a small but terminal crack. I've found a replacement in Dorset, and am borrowing a car to go and get it, and generally getting on with it. The whole job should cost me about £100, all in.

Someone who dwells out there in People Carrier Land commented acidly, on hearing the news, "I thought at the time that you should have got a modern car". Hey ho. Different strokes. I chose this car because it was cheap to operate (no road tax, fully comp insurance for £98 per year, cheap spares, I can do the maintenance myself) ...and fun, of course. And so far it's done 25,000 miles with me, mostly up and down motorways. Ideally I should like to be working towards being car-free. Having a car is a bit insane, in the great scheme of things.

There are folk who get affronted by people being "different". The stepmother was the same. When I 'came out', she seemed to think that it was done to annoy her... it doesn't occur to them that they are the different ones, from where I'm standing. Fortunately, I'm not alone. So hurrah for people who just happen to be another flavour than vanilla.

Though I do like vanilla. I have a pot of vanilla sugar in the kitchen. It has its place. On apple slices, porridge, melted into a pan for Tarte Tatin- I made a really good one of those last week...

OK, mildly funny story from yesterday.

I picked up a repeat prescription for oestradiol valerate from the surgery, and dropped it into Boots the Chemist.

I called in later to pick it up. The young pharmacist, whom I hadn't seen before (most of the staff there are old acquaintances and v friendly) anxiously ushered me to a quiet corner and said that the dosage on the prescription was unusual. "There's a reason for that," I said. He looked more closely at me, and said, "Ohhhhh.... I understand". We smiled and parted.

So hurrah. And slightly boo.

Monday 29 September 2008

incendiaries and sheep

...definitely the last picture for the Downs Wildlife book; this one accompanies my two-page romp through 350 million years of history, and is based upon Geraldine remembering having heard someone talking about the war years:

...More recently, troops were stationed here during both world wars, and the Second World War saw the erection of stone obstacles to prevent the landing of enemy aircraft, the tethering of barrage balloons, and the positioning of an anti-aircraft battery at the Dumps. With the arrival of American troops, the Downs were used as a vehicle assembly area in readiness for D Day, and wild flowers flourished between tanks in this temporary respite from mowing.

I asked my landlady, who lived in this very house during the war, if she could confirm that tanks were there; she wrote down her recollections of Bristol in the Blitz, and told me that an incendiary had come through my kitchen ceiling. I looked at the kitchen floor and imagined a German incendiary bomb sitting there fizzing but failing to go off. Gosh.

Sunday 28 September 2008


Here's a little story.

I was walking up on Dundry Hill with B, and we found an aeroplane in a nettle patch by some farm buildings. So I scrambled onto the wing and took some pics, and noted down the registration because I like to get the story of something if I can.

At home, I Googled the plane and found that it was reported as having gone into the sea of Clacton in 1976, killing the four people on board.

So I e-mailed the Civil Aviation Authority:

Sorry, I don’t quite know where to send this enquiry, so I’m sending it to you.
This morning I was walking on Dundry Hill in Somerset and saw an old aeroplane in a nettle patch near some farm buildings. I had a closer look and took some photos, because it looked interesting.
I later checked the plane’s registration on Google, and found that the plane with that
registration- G-BBIE – had apparently crashed into the sea off Clacton in 1976.
While there may well be an entirely innocent explanation for what I saw, I thought I ought to tell someone.

Yours sincerely,
Dru Marland

...and they replied

Good afternoon,
Thank you for your email and what proved to be an interesting and diverting enquiry. However, we don't really have any information as to why the aircraft might be there and can only surmise it was salvaged at some point.
Kind regards

Information Management

..as someone commented on my Flickr page, it's like reading a book with a page missing.


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....on the same walk, we got talking about feyness, as I had slightingly said of someone on the phone, "Fey people don't have a sense of humour".

Well, it was soundbitey...

B had overheard this and commented that seriously fey people usually have a really good sense of humour, actually. Which is also true.

I then observed that 'fey' originally had a different meaning to the present one; in anglo-saxon, fæ{asg}e meant 'marked for death'; they thought that there was something different and otherworldly about someone having that interesting condition.

...talking with another old friend last night about Duncan, I mentioned this, because Duncan had always seemed the opposite of it; however ill he was, he seemed marked for life. Which is why it's still such a shock, his dying like that.


Overheard next to the meat counter in Asda: two thirty-something women pushing their trolleys adjacently

"...straight up? You don't believe in God no more?"

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Duncan Larkin

Duncan died on Sunday. He'd been struggling with complications from the Hodgkin's disease that has been a part of his life for some years now; on Sunday, his heart failed while he was in hospital.

We shared a flat and friends and lives in Portsmouth long ago in our student and post-student days. I remember the Christmas Day when we were broke and had nothing to eat but pasta. Still, we had each other's company. Sometimes we went adventuring together. I remember a beautiful autumn day in a Kent orchard, the year when we 'did' the hops and apples, I was up at the top of an apple tree, admiring the vapour trails in the cloudless sky and the little grooves that earwigs make in the top of apples; from the adjacent tree, Duncan was singing "Johnny and Mary" in that slightly mournful, breathy way he had while singing. And walking the Welsh Marches and camping out on a hill looking over to the Skirrid. Oh, lots of things, and writing them down flags to you the moments I describe, but doesn't communicate that special thing about them that triggers such strong memories now. You had to be there, of course. Happily for me, I was.

Duncan lived and worked around Europe, I went off to sea. We lost and regained contact. We used to bat e-mails at each other in the early morning while I sat at my desk doing my drawings and he in turn sat at his desk, broadcasting to the Austrian nation.

He worked hard at understanding my change, despite his own preoccupations. Here is what he wrote to me three years ago, which is as much about Duncan as it is about me:

I used to think of you as rather the epitome of manhood at the tender age of 19 ish when we met. I never thought of you as macho, or mean, or pigheaded or selfish or an of the other characteristics oft associated with being a man, and heaven knows I'm laden enough with those, but, I really thought of you being how man should be, how I wanted to be. And how that?
Well, you were enterprising, inquisitive, knowledgeable yet modest in any ignorance...of which there seldom seemed to be much. You knew something about everything. I really wanted to be like you then. I hated the posing overbearingness of men, who always seemed locked into a perpetual oneupmanship. So senseless. It all seemed unnecessary to you and I liked that. It never once occurred to me that you were feeling like a woman inside, you realise that? I thought your abstractedness was a result of growing up literally apart from the rest of society. Not like me, stuck in Romford, Essex and then Maidenhead, on the very skirts of the seething city.
I guess I am working up to the plea of "Are you sure?"
I learnt from you and a couple of other lovely people since that it is really ok to be in touch with one's femininity. the feminine side, as the media seems to have rather trivialised lately and be flambuoyantly girly at times. Oh yes, i have enjoyed my prima donna moments at times. so, good old friend...i hope not to piss you off, but maybe am one of the only ones who is brave enought o ask you, are you sure the operation is going to make a woman of you? Do you really want to be a woman, is not possible that you could just be a person and not genderspecificĂź gosh i have done`something to my keyboard and it is not working properly...
have to stay i cap lock for some reason.

oh, well, i guess you have been living as a woman for three years and obviously seem to be "enjoying" it as far as i can tell...maybe it is just what you need..i really hope so old lass...just worrying sorry,

as for me, my blood is starting to fall according to this mornings test, but no worries, and the whole thing goes ahead next thurs as planned.

absolutely no voice left, as the cortizone really hit my vocal chords and the slight cough is worsened by the chemo..generally weakening, tiredness, and a bit fed up...as you may be able to tell..ggg ..

enjoy the bike making!



He came over to visit this summer, with Sonja, his partner. I enjoyed showing them around my little world, and seeing them being so good together, though Duncan was really unwell and it was hard work for both of them. I looked forward to seeing them again in Vienna.

Sonja called on Sunday with the news.

This is clumsy. Maybe the best goodbyes are said silently. Maybe there's no such thing as a best goodbye.

Here he is at the other end of the music process for a change

Sunday 7 September 2008

temps perdus

Wet and chilly. K and I splashed our way down to the Arnolfini yesterday afternoon to listen to Annie McGann read her poetry. She advised K to cover her ears for her reading of "All men are bastards, and so are the women", which got some spontaneous "been there" applause from the crowd. The Bristol Poetry Festival is in full swing; my contribution, at the Central Library on Thursday, was seventeen syllables long, and was appreciated at least for its brevity. It was the haiku I wrote for K's first day at school, written that morning.

There seems to be an air of nostalgia for the lost and now-drowned summer, here in the blogosphere. Unless, of course, I'm just projecting. Only ten days ago I was swimming in a warm(ish) sea in Devon. It seems very long ago now.

Here's a photo that really was taken a long time ago. In human years anyway.

This picture is by Mervyn Joseph Pius O'Gorman, and is a portrait of his daughter Christina. It was taken at Durdle Door, in 1913

Wednesday 3 September 2008


It's me. I've been trying to get a decent self-portrait to send to the Bristol Evening Post along with a bunch of illustrations from the Bristol Downs book. Guess it'll do; I tried smiling, and looked scary.

In her really rather good review of Becoming Drusilla in the Daily Telegraph, Diane Purkiss comments on this blog that I am "less juicily confessional than we might wish". I don't think that she's being entirely serious. But it did get me wondering, "what is the point of this blog?" And at least part of the point of it is to describe how things are for me, and how I see my little corner of the world.

So. Right now, the biggest thing in my life is my daughter's coming to live with me and starting secondary school in Bristol. I find it a bit difficult to talk about the last few years in this respect; while I was at least a weekend parent, I also missed out on a lot of the day-to-day shared experiences that go with family life. Never mind; K and I are now treading cautiously into a more shared future, and that is good.

Today was her first day at school. We were up early, getting ready and faffing around and worrying. And then we walked round there together. Other children were walking in groups, but K hasn't re-connected with any local friends yet so she walked with me, and was a bit self-conscious about being with a parent, and feeling very nervous. I told her about how I used to feel before I joined my ship; I was usually physically sick for the day beforehand. She'd had no appetite at breakfast. She thought it would be better when she'd actually got there. And she was right. We found her teacher and parted company, and I went home and felt rather overwhelmed for some reason or other, and tried to write things down and didn't succeed entirely.

But here's a haiku about it.

Rainy day, new school
-under two separate brollies
but still holding hands.

Monday 1 September 2008

back to the Valleys

I went over to Risca in South Wales, to see my old friend Gareth. We'd lost contact, and then he heard me on Radio 4 and got in touch again. The power of radio...

We went hunting for an iron foundry in Abercarn; there was a blast furnace operating there in 1576, apparently. The Gwyddon stream is dammed in the side valley, and once powered a water wheel which operated the furnace bellows. We scrambled down the steep bank of the stream, over rubble and domestic waste. There was a culvert on the side, but nothing much else. New flats had been built on the side, out of sight on this picture.

..and we looked at St Luke's church, which I'd not even realised was there until recently. It's just down the hill from the younger St Luke's Church, which was Anglican -I'd been there once on an Air Cadet church parade, and found it cavernous and rather arid in spirit. It was abandoned because of structural problems. The older and smaller St Luke's has been preserved thanks in large part to the efforts of Gareth's mother, Bronwen, who had once taught us English at the Grammar School. The church is shared by two groups of chapel types, one of them welsh-speaking.

So the whole thing could be a metaphor for something. Or just a nice story.

I like Welsh chapels. I got to sit in on some services, again thanks to the Air Cadets. I like the way everyone sings their own harmony, so there seem to be as many tunes as there are congregation, and it all hangs together beautifully. On the other hand, there was the time that a womens' choir at a service in Blackwood sang their own arrangement of "When I Survey The Wond'rous Cross" which reduced me to helpless laughter...

That's Gareth there on the left, discussing recent vandalism with the chap who lives next door to the church. There were empty vodka bottles in the porch, and some of the roof had been smashed.

We noted down the inscription on Abercarn's war memorial, for subsequent translation; Gareth is studying Welsh, but is not yet fluent. Gwell angau na chywilydd. "Death before dishonour", apparently. While I sort of approve of the principle in my own life, it feels rather bombastic for a memorial erected by the people who ordain such civic monuments and therefore ipso facto didn't die. Perhaps the sentiment is differently nuanced in Welsh.

We walked along a recently-restored section of the Crumlin Branch of the Mon and Brec Canal. We watched a young buzzard petulantly calling for its parents; a heron standing motionless; and a kingfisher, which darted ahead of us all the way along the towpath. I'd never seen a kingfisher in the Ebbw valley before. Times are changing.

Sitting outside the Darren pub and drinking Brains Dark for old times' sake, we talked about school days. A man at the next table overheard us and joined in; it turned out that he was at Newbridge Grammar School too, though a few years ahead of us. He's a florist in Risca now, and still knows some of the teachers. We compared our early ambitions. I gave an edited version of mine; I said that I wanted to see the world, and left out the desire to be a fighter pilot. Some people can get slightly angry and confused if I come up with some of the more conventionally 'male' aspects of my past, and this was an exercise in trying to make things easy for everyone. A little frustrating. Like last week in Devon, when we'd been discussing birds we'd seen on the cliffs. A man stated that a bird of prey under discussion (brown plumage, seen hovering) was a peregrine falcon. He backed it up by adding that his mate was the peregrine man. And he was so confident that everyone believed him. Peregrines are not brown and they don't hover, but my opinion didn't count, because.

Anyway, there at the Darren we sat until late, and had an unexpectedly sociable time.

I do miss that sort of thing; the friendliness of South Wales, and the way that everyone seems to know everyone else. Still, I felt like an outsider then, and I suppose I still do, in life as in South Wales.