06 December 2015

Journals of an Artist

Keith Vaughan penned the final lines into his personal diary during the moments while he was dying from the overdose by which he took his own life.

I am transcribing the journals of this lesser known British artist and although I haven't yet reached the date of his suicide, I know it is coming.

Some years ago I joined the web site Zooniverse. The idea of browsing through photos triggered by motion sensitive cameras in the African savannah sounded appealing. Soon I was identifying a gnu from just a fleeting glimpse of fetlock! But I tired of that and moved on to images from deep space, helping with a project to differentiate between various types of distant galaxy. (No scientific experience necessary - just careful observation.)

Email reminders of my membership prompted me to look again at the site and I was surprised to see there are now dozens of research projects to choose from. For a while I dabbled in New York City property deeds, then the log books of Victorian whalers. Then I spied a listing for the personal letters and journals of artists held at The Tate Gallery in London.

There are thousands of scanned images of handwritten pages covering the early and mid twentieth century. In simple terms you read the writing and type what you read. The reality is more complicated. While a few lay down neat rows of copperplate script, many send their nib flying wildly over the page, scratching and looping as fast as their own thoughts. Deciphering handwriting is like a puzzle, and I like puzzles.

During my thirty years working in a bank I was exposed to a huge range of handwriting styles, both of customers and colleagues. I am also an avid family historian and I have researched thousands of handwritten census pages. All of this helps. When you see many pages in the same hand, trends start to show in the style and seemingly impenetrable scribbles unravel themselves. If not I return to it after transcribing the rest of the page and suddenly, with the benefit of context, the word leaps out at me.
After tackling the diaries of half a dozen artists I hit upon those of Keith Vaughan. He painted the male nude in numerous settings, progressing to an abstract style and always carrying a degree of shock. It didn't surprise me to learn that he lived a tortured life trying to make sense of his sexuality. His diaries are full of his deepest darkest thoughts yet at times they are humorous and poignant.
I freely admit I am reaching outside my comfort zone with his subject matter but have been drawn in by his candour. Not much is known about the man except through his diaries and, reading them, I feel something of a voyeur. In the 1940s he was an enthusiastic young painter but according to his private writing, grew jaded and clearly frustrated, living a difficult life in a less tolerant age. Artists are often gifted in more than one field so it is unsurprising that he writes very well and with a wide vocabulary.

In 1975 he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and his emotional reaction, and subsequent forced changes of lifestyle, make grim yet fascinating reading. I continue to transcribe several pages a day, voluntarily, and I am not sure whether I am doing it because I like the challenge of deciphering, or because I want to reach the end.

20 November 2015

losing the power to shock

Over the past few days I have read a range of news articles which, as recently as fifteen years ago, would have shocked me; seen images which ought to have sickened me, yet in 2015 they have become commonplace to the extent that I barely alter my facial expression as I click and browse.
Reporting of events such as 9/11 set a new standard in what was considered decent. Slow motion video of planes disappearing into tall buildings was played in endless loops. Jumping victims were seen and discussed and the expressions of ground-level witnesses examined. Since then, what 'goes' is frankly, anything.
I don't think perpetration is entirely worse nowadays but with Internet news media beamed into even the darkest recesses of the Earth's wilderness, everyone sees it and often within minutes of its occurrence.
To send a message with the correct degree of cruelty it seems shooting with a bullet is no longer sufficient. More monstrous actions are necessary. Beheading for example. The Daily Mail and others (tastefully?) pixelate the bleeding neck stumps and the detached heads but frankly the unedited images are only a click or two away, for the vaguely curious.
I know atrocities have been happening since the beginning of recorded time but never in my lifetime has the media's assessment of the public's appetite for the horrific been higher. Many aspects of life are becoming extreme: language and brutality for two. It might be argued that giving column space and cyberspace is fanning the flames.
I read about a woman who blew her own head off with a suicide vest; a taxi driver who pulled his own head off by attaching a rope from his neck to a lamp post and driving off fast; and about a teenage girl who was murdered and dismembered by her stepbrother, the head found in a grocery bag. The removal of a head is the ultimate insult and outrage to put it at its very mildest. It is the pinnacle of horrific acts which can be done to a human, yet I am no longer shocked.
There is an ugliness rampant in modern news and its reporting so perhaps it's no coincidence that we eventually suffer compassion fatigue. However there remains an odd phenomenon. Certain acts are so hideous, strike so directly at the heart of humanity that the world rises up with a single voice. I first saw this with the death of Lady Diana Spencer; an outpouring of grief such as had never before been seen. Days of wailing and sobbing in the streets and a funeral with the grandeur and solemnity normally reserved for Kings and Queens. Yet almost all the mourners never knew her personally. It was the death of an ideal which struck home and which triggered this gut level compassion. And it happened again recently in Paris.
So there is still a point at which that raw nerve is touched, it just seems deeper and harder to locate.
The Catholic generation before me would have had a combined heart attack at the mere utterance of the words priest and boys in the same sentence. Now, despite the ugly betrayal of innocence by organised religion, we tend to roll our eyes in a 'what can you do' way.
Since revealing and examining the sexual proclivities of religious types, the media and seemingly with a curious degree of reluctance, the police, have moved their attention to celebrities. Mostly has-been comedians and entertainers from the seventies and eighties. I was staggered when the first names were dropped several years ago. But now the list of household names who were once omnipresent on British TV screens is long, and I am no longer surprised by new announcements.
Mankind is capable of great leaps forward in thinking and endeavour but it appears that shock and reaction are the two behaviours that have evolved most rapidly in the 21st century.

22 October 2015

Marc Bolan & T. Rex

He was a passenger in a purple Mini 1275GT (registration FOX 661L) driven by Gloria Jones as they headed home from Mortons drinking club and restaurant in Berkeley Square. Jones lost control of the car: it struck a steel reinforced chain link fence post and came to rest against a sycamore tree after failing to negotiate a small humpback bridge near Gipsy Lane on Queens Ride, Barnes, South West London. Neither occupant was wearing a seat belt. Wikipedia.
It's fashionable to talk of the 27 club, a roll call of rock heroes whose lives were cut tragically and coincidentally short at that age. The list includes some big names and there are many more whose lived on the edge and managed only a year or two more. Marc Bolan's star shone brilliantly but briefly until 1977 when he was the passenger in that car, aged 29.
'Metal Guru' by T.Rex was the first single I bought. That was in 1972, already past his heyday. The song went to number one in the charts and kept Elton John's famous 'Rocket Man' off the top spot. It's typical of Marc Bolan's output after he abandoned his acoustic guitar, his rug and joss sticks in favour of a Gibson Les Paul and Marshall stack. Many say those muscular riffs and simple, repetitive lyrics, combined with feather boas, high-waisted flares and a huge head of black curls did as much to usher in the dawn of Glam Rock as Bowie's Ziggy.
Frankly, listening to his material these days, I find the two significant T Rex albums are full of the same song rewritten over and over again. That was his ultimate downfall. He openly claimed that his artistic endeavours had little to do with art. His sole aim was to achieve fame and adulation. That he did on a scale only previously seen with the Beatles. But a one-trick pony get's stale and teen girls grow up.

Marc Bolan's star waned while his drink and drugs consumption (and apparently an addiction to fast food) rose.
By 1977 his hour was long past; his fans had drifted away and he resembled a bloated caricature of his former waif-like self. However he had lost none of his self-belief, had assembled a new band and was in the process of hitching his cart to the new punk train. He had lost fifty pounds, and by all accounts was fitter and healthier than ever when fate intervened.
Looking back, I think he took as much from the music scene as he bequeathed to it. His legacy is good but not magnificent; his mark a bright flash rather than an all-illuminating dawn. With the benefit of forty years' hindsight the posturing, image and attitude look contrived but, it takes you back doesn't it!

12 October 2015


I created fire
I paddled the Amazon

I wrestled tigers
I built the Pyramids

I sailed the seas
I fought at Waterloo

I abolished slavery
I painted Mona Lisa

I tied the noose
I pulled the trigger

I wrote the book
I sang the song

I was Jack the Ripper
I killed Kennedy

I climbed Everest
I walked on the Moon

I lived, I laughed, I loved, I died


I will see you again, dear
I will return

I will colonise Mars
I will cure disease
I will build a time machine
We will live forever

love is life

love sounds like morning birdsong
love looks sunset pink
love feels as smooth as satin
love smells of summer roses
love tastes of strawberries and cream

love sounds breathless and urgent
love looks flushed and swollen
love feels hot and wet
love smells damp and sweaty
love tastes sharp and salty

love is fragile and ephemeral
love is elemental and immortal

30 September 2015

check your cheeks

I pride myself on presenting the best of me. That's not to say I spend hours in front of a mirror primping and plucking; I don't. But I take care over my appearance. However, someone might point to a time when I once let my standards slip.

Picture the scene; Susan and I are sitting at my table, replete after dining on a gorgeous curry, a dish we had prepared and cooked ourselves. We are relaxing, chatting about the ingredients, the hot spices, the wonderful colours, looking forward to a cosy evening on the sofa with a good movie. Our eyes meet and we exchange happy smiles of contentment.

But something's wrong. Susan is frowning. In an effort to recapture the mood I widen my smile, why I'm practically beaming. But this doesn't have the desired effect. Susan rocks back in her chair, laughing in little hitching gasps. "What's up," I query, a degree of confusion creeping over me, and indeed a little disappointment.

"Look in the mirror," cries Suzie. "Look in the darn mirror, Paul!"

Uncertainly I rise from the table and move to the bathroom. The mirror returns my look of bewilderment, but wait, there's something more. My mouth is surrounded by the sumptuous red juices of our wonderful curry! Indian spices are strong in colour, in flavour and it seems impervious to the discreet dabbings of a napkin. In horror, I run the hot tap and soak a facecloth. I lather a bar of soap and scrub and scour with gusto. At last the curry stains transfer from my face to the cloth.

I creep back to the dining table and crack a sheepish grin. "Is that better?" I enquire.

"Oh honey, the look on your face...   and the curry!" And once more Suzie dissolves in fits of hysterics.


Footnote: If you see us exchange a beaming smile, I mean a big, fat, clownish smile, you might guess we are secretly reliving that moment.

24 September 2015

fire in the sky 2



"… a narrow beam of light which retracted suddenly into the craft. Air Traffic Controllers and Military declined to comment, however local law enforcement say they are keeping an open mind. Now, in other news…"
Alan propped himself on one elbow and reached out to silence the radio. He fell back and stared at the ceiling. Waves of nausea pulsed in him and he groaned. Damned flu, he thought, that’s all I need. He nudged his sweat-soaked pillow onto the floor and remembered it was a weekday. I’m getting up to phone in sick soon, he decided.
Mid-morning street sounds came as if squeezed through a tube. Distant traffic and far off shouts lowered to a whisper. Sunlight filtered through the blinds. Fragments of a dream floated in his mind. Cold hands pressing him flat on a steel table… shrill voices screeching in his head… a ring of grey faces watching him… eyes, black and lifeless... the persistent whine of drilling… an explosion in the nape of his neck.
Hours later the sun had advanced and a chill breeze stirred the air. "Alan, pick up if you’re there… Alan…?" The answer-phone bleeped and fell silent. Sheba appeared at the door, tail aloft. She sprang onto the bed and crept slowly over the crumpled sheets. After sniffing a small bloodstain she turned two circles and settled down to wait.
"I need to explain. You-have-to-lis-ten," he was thumping the desk with his fist to emphasise each syllable. The headache had grown worse after dark and the lump in his neck burned like fire. The police officer didn’t answer but turned and called a colleague, “Jim, here a minute will you?”
Alan fingered his neck and a new image crashed into his head. The greys stretched a thin latex sheet over him and attached the corners beneath the table. A soft vibration and hum began as a suffocating vacuum was introduced. His screams were stifled under hot shrink-wrap.
Jim appeared at the desk and eyed him slowly from head to toe. "First things first sir, where are your clothes?"
Two hundred and fifty miles above in the upper atmosphere hung a vast flying V. Inside six grey beings were seated in a circle studying a 3D holographic presentation which hovered at their centre. DNA analysis, brainwaves and chemical structure were laid out with mathematical clarity for inspection. Each chart and report bore the name "Alan Henderson."

20 September 2015

the last gas station on earth

The Pontiac lurched over a pothole and Frank watched the fuel gauge lift then settle back on 'Empty'. "Fuck it," he breathed and thumped the steering wheel hard. They had passed a Texaco ten miles back and were now running on vapour.

"Look," cried Paula, "Gas ahead!" She launched her finger toward a run-down gas station and general store in the distance. Frank pulled onto the cracked cement beside an ancient rusty pump. Is this gas or paraffin, he wondered. His gaze took in the peeling paint, the ice machine and an ages-old Coca Cola sign hanging by one screw. "Stay here Paula." He shut the car door slowly and stepped past a deck chair, faded and stained with age. Through the window past the hand-written 'Open' sign he could make out an old timer, a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek.

A bell clanged dolefully as he pushed the door and somewhere out back a dog began barking, gruffly and ominously. The skeletal figure waved a thin hand and in a barely intelligible voice rattled, "If it's gas you want, go through and talk to Billy." A fly buzzed in Frank's ear and he slapped it away as he nodded, "Thanks."

Billy and three friends were sitting around a card table, grinning with menace. Behind them through a grime baked window, a rotting Plymouth Fury was visible in the back yard, sitting up on bricks. A huge German Shepherd sat in its shade, tongue out, panting. Frank thought of Paula sitting in the Pontiac holding the battery powered fan to her pretty face.

Suddenly Billy shrieked, "It's party time!" His pals stood up, chair legs scraping on the bare wood floor. Frank turned and saw his way blocked by the muzzle of a 12-bore shot gun in the hands of the old timer. As his eyes darted frantically for another exit he heard Paula shouting. The shout became a siren winding up to full scream. Then silence.

"You fucking bastards! What have you done?" The old-timer pushed the gun barrel closer and touched his temple. Frank screwed his eyes shut and a sharp metallic click rang out. He opened his eyes to see Paula sitting beside him in the passenger seat of the Pontiac, flicking her cigarette lighter and smiling. "Wake up hon', rest over. We need to drive on and get that gas now or we ain't never gonna make it to Huntsville!"

(Inspired by a 2005 stop at a remote gas station in Alabama)

30 August 2015

Photography in 2015

... 'cloudy - sunny - sun on beach' - the endearing exposure controls of plastic 'point and shoots' in my youth. Those days are long gone. Now you scroll through icons to choose from numerous pre-set exposures. I learned the principles of photography in my early teens; the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, and how in combination with focal length and film speed, their effects on exposure could be both subtle and striking. We are now in an age where electronics can manage all or as much of our photos as we like but the latest generation of cameras still allow the freedom and control familiar to traditionalists.
Recently I took apart my six year old Panasonic, confident that I could solve a problem with dust on the sensor. However things were so delicate in there that it all went pear-shaped. No one said the infra-red filter was as fragile as fine porcelain. Damn. I can't be without the versatility of a long-zoom compact. I have a Canon digital SLR but it's too big for convenience. After research and due diligence I settled on the Sony HX50V as a replacement.
Well, have things changed much in just a few years? Hell, yes! Weight and size-wise the Sony is on the outer edges of 'compact', but there is an incredible amount to pack in. This is nothing short of a mini computer which can take photos. Aside from the usual array of shooting modes, full auto, aperture priority, shutter priority etc there are some seriously smart innovations, notably the zoom.
This is billed as 30x optical and 60x digital but even that is understating things. Depending on your shooting resolution the zoom can extend to a barely credible 240x - sitting on my couch I could get one word on the spine of a CD fifteen feet away to fill the LCD screen. Not much is beyond range now. Naturally all images are geo-tagged with GPS data retrieved from crazy satellites orbiting my apartment.
Mounting the Sony on my tripod I will be able to focus on a single petal of the hummingbird feeder - and what's more I can control exposure remotely using a smart phone. In my case I downloaded the App to my iPod Touch. If desired, I can keep an eye on my subject, control zoom, then release the shutter (shake-free on potentially long zoom and slow shutter) from any point within Wi-Fi range.
When it's time to upload an SD card full of imagery there is no need to fish out that microscopic card only to have it snatched away in the wind; no need to select and untangle the correct cord. Now a quick skim through the camera's menu, a push of a button and images transfer wirelessly to my laptop using my familiar Photoshop importer.
But the 'selfie' wink or smile -activated feature? The thought makes me wince like I'm sucking a lemon!

27 July 2015

Night Shopping

My perfect time for grocery shopping is early morning, very early morning, preferably in darkness. Gliding into an empty parking lot, sauntering up and down empty aisles, perusing fully stocked shelves without distraction is heavenly.

But even at 6am I might not be the only shopper and if I spy someone I'll take a detour to avoid them. I mean, who wants to say "excuse me" to reach the salad dressing when you're the only two people in a vast store?

On the graveyard shift there is usually just one cashier open, her solitary light gleaming like a beacon in a long line of empty lanes. I march steadfastly past, aiming for the self-serve checkouts, (those admirable inventions which cancel the requirement to speak to a human). There I am master of the electronic interaction. I know the codes, the weighing options for the fruit and veg, the loyalty points system. They hold no fear, only pleasure for me.

Susan's ideal time for grocery shopping is Saturday afternoon, preferably before a public holiday. I've explained the folly of this plan numerous times and to her credit she does understand. However she arrives at my apartment hot and bothered, with tales of barging through crowds, elbowing old ladies out of the way and kicking old men's shins to get to the Brussels sprouts.

But she seems to thrive on the cut and thrust, the bobbing and weaving between slowpokes. No matter that Saturday afternoon means picking over the remnants of limp lettuce, soft tomatoes and brown bananas; discovering that the amazing flyer bargains are sold out, and having to park at the distant reaches of the parking lot where the crap from the old snow pile has congealed underfoot.

Susan likes to hurry round the store but it's so busy there aren't even any carts left. She is swinging a hand basket (which she likes to tell people to go to hell in), tsk-ing amid the crowds of buffoons who have no idea where they are going or what they are looking for.

Now there's an ample woman shuffling along in slippers which don't leave the ground, leaning on her cart for support. She's hogging the middle of the aisle, making passing tricky. (Why did you take that shortcut down the cookie aisle Susan? You know it makes you mumble obscenities.)

At long last her little basket holds the few forlorn items she could calmly and happily have bought in the wee small hours. Terrified of technology, she averts her gaze from the thinly populated self serve lanes and heads for the manned checkouts, heaving with shoppers and overflowing carts. I hear this time and again, "I always pick the wrong lane!" Well, observe the cashier. Avoid the plump male with sausage-like fingers; that way lies madness. He will be on the phone to his supervisor for help with half the items in your cart. At least go to a lane with a middle-aged female cashier who doesn't seem to be talking much to her customers. Watch those nimble fingers; gauge if she's a seamstress in her home life.

Even then Susan's problems might just be starting. The till roll runs out (see, you forgot to look for the tell-tale pink lines on the receipt roll during your lane assessment!) Someone tries to engage her in bland conversation, "Cool out today." She grunts a nothing reply and pretends to study her phone. Now the man ahead is suddenly smelly, the cart handle is teeming with germs, the cashier is reaching for the phone, a customer is patting his pockets searching for his wallet. It's hell on earth. I know. I've been there. Meantime the self-serve lanes are empty, serene and inviting.

Suzie puts herself through this nightmare and tells me how dreadful it was. She knows I hate the experience equally so when I nod sagely in agreement and gently remind her I do my shopping differently, she punches me in the arm with the strength of a prize-fighter. Ouch!

(Seriously, those cart-leaners, don't you want to poke 'em in the eye!)

13 June 2015

Paul 2.0

Thirty years in a clerical job, counting money in the early years, granting mortgages in middle years, and latterly doing weird things with spreadsheets. That lifestyle ensures you end up with nice soft hands, perfect for some things but not the kind of skin needed for outdoor work.

I'm driving a golf cart laden with painting supplies and tools; a far cry from shining a desk with pin-striped sleeves but I am enjoying the difference. The tourist resort of Cavendish is a forty-two kilometer drive north through rolling countryside. I see fields which only a few weeks ago were under feet of snow, now red and neatly ploughed. Distant glimpses of the sea over every hill crest then sweeping down to bridges across sparkling harbours. A very different commute from my British experiences fifteen years ago.

I spend my days lifting, carrying, mending and painting; digging, lopping, trimming and cutting; cleaning, building and dumping. I go home hot tired and sore. My jeans and t shirts are smothered in paint, I stink of paint thinner and bug spray, I have a hole in my palm where I jabbed a screwdriver; a dent in my nail where I folded a step ladder on it; and sunburned legs - yes calves like lobsters.

This is Paul 2.0 and although I ache in places where I didn't even know I had places, I am enjoying summer outdoors: howling winds that whip the paint right off your brush and into your face; cold rain that numbs your fingers, giving way to scorching sun that dries your eyes and burns your neck; mosquitoes which settle around you in a black cloud, zing in your ear and pierce your soft skin.

Susan calls me a rough, tough, cream puff. She's about right.

08 May 2015


For a short time many years ago, I was in the habit of noting down the contents of my dreams:

16 Oct 2004
I was lying in bed awake looking at the ceiling. Through a skylight I could see two people walking on the roof. One pressed his face close to the glass, grinned and opened the window. He thrust his head in and looked at me. He seemed to sense I was no threat and grinned again. I tried to call out but was struck dumb. I shook my wife but could not wake her. I tried to shout at her but I could do no more than mumble. I heard noise downstairs, so fearing burglary I got up and ventured down. A woman was lying on her side apparently asleep on the hall floor. I tried to ask her what she was doing and order her out of the house but no words would come. I went into the living room to check if anything was stolen and could hear the male intruder following behind me. I struggled to shout soundlessly for help. I woke abruptly to find my wife asking what on earth was wrong as I had been crying in my sleep.
16 Oct 2004 I was on stage with rock singer/songwriter Ian Hunter who was playing with a small band for a group of schoolchildren. He seemed unaware of my presence as if I was invisible. During a break I caught his attention. I apologised for boring him but told him I had been a fan since 1970 and how I loved his music and had seen him play with Mott the Hoople in the seventies and again several times in recent years with his own band.
17 Oct 2004 I was visiting a former work place. It appeared quite different to how I remembered yet I still seemed to know my way around. I recognized only a handful of faces. I felt very self-conscious and became aware that I was wearing no clothes. I felt that if I hurried along confidently no one would notice.

20 April 2015

The Naked Vacuum Cleaner

"On my way," she texted. "Shopping done!"
"I'll be ready," I replied. But ready for what, and by when?
Susan drives from O'Leary to Charlottetown for a few days every week, often stopping on the way for provisions at Sobeys in Summerside. 'On my way' signified to me the start of a sixty minute drive from the west of the island. Normally I am prepared way in advance but that day I was running late owing to an early morning excursion to Sport Chek, on the hunt for Under Armour compression shorts (long leg, 32 waist). But I digress.
I consulted my watch and sketched out a mental plan by which I would be sitting comfortably in my armchair awaiting Susan's arrival with time to spare, bathed, shaved, bathroom cleaned, laundry folded and stowed, and my modest abode vacuumed and scrubbed to the point where eating off the floor would be a serious contention; my preferred way of life.
While drawing a deep, hot bath, I shaved my cheeks till they glowed smooth and pink. I had stripped off and was about to clamber into the tub when a thought occurred... vacuuming can be sweaty work. Perhaps I should do that before bathing; such a sensible move. I strode to the storage room, bare feet slapping on the vinyl floor, and grabbed my vacuum cleaner (Kenmore, cylinder type, 1400 watts) and carried it to my bedroom. I would start there, shimmy to the hall, the second bedroom and thence to the living room; my faultless plan.
Here I will concede this was not my first foray into housework 'au naturel'. Perhaps it's that certain thrill, that frisson of excitement, dancing from room to room, wondering if it's safe to scurry past those huge patio windows. You get in the zone; the back and forth, the hum of the motor. In fairness and in my defence, it's easy to forget you're in your birthday suit.
I twirled out of my bedroom, tugging my trusty vac behind, long lissom limbs reaching and stretching into all nooks and crannies. Soft brush attachment in place, I sucked at ledges, shelves, skirting boards and radiators, leaping over the cylinder as nimbly as a young gazelle, in a world of my own.
As I pirouetted out of the bathroom, hose and nozzle in hand, and headed for the living room, I saw a person... a real, live, fully dressed person, looking at me with eyebrows arched high and jaw slack. I froze... my heart actually skipped several beats. While my mind processed the scene and its ramifications, my silent witness sank slowly to her knees. Then she bowed forward until her forehead reached the floor. Only then did she emit a sound, a stuttering squawk, half laugh, half wail...
As alarm took its vice-like grip on me, I leapt sideways in a single bound to the relative safety of bedroom two. "You're early, Susan," I ventured, studiously avoiding any mention of my state.
Her initial reply was a clucking sound which gradually resolved into peals of laughter. I sneaked a peek around the door frame and saw Susan lying on my floor literally quivering with mirth.
"You made good time from Summerside," I said.
Between ragged guffaws came the words, "I messaged you from Charlottetown, ten minutes away! Now I see what you meant by I'll be ready!"
We met under adventurous circumstances several months ago and became inseparable from day one so it's strange that I felt so cringingly embarrassed, but I did. Perhaps it was the simple business of being caught red-handed and bare-cheeked, quite unexpectedly. Well, put yourself in a similar position and imagine!
To her credit (and proof, though hardly needed, that she accepts every part of my character and personality), Susan didn't ask me why. Nor did she bat an eyelid while I blabbered on about having calculated that I still had an hour before her arrival, and had been side-tracked at the very point of leaping into the bath. There are no satisfactory excuses. No one behaves like I did, or if they do they don't get caught!

16 April 2015

Epigenetic Inheritance

Epigenetics, the newest science of all, lifts the lid on the old conundrum "nature or nurture". It turns out to be partly both. But we've always known that instinctively haven't we?
Several years ago scientists mapped the entire human genome, the rules for human physical and mental development. From that we learned that we inherit equal amounts of genes from each of our parents. No surprise then that we look and act a bit like mum and dad.
Epigenetics reveals that our destiny is not cast in stone. If we have the will we have the power to influence the extent to which inherited genes are triggered in our lifetime. Every thought, every mouthful, every step, changes gene expression and therefore our future. Genetics loads the gun but Epigenetics pulls the trigger.
1880 famine records in Sweden combined with birth and death records, showed that children and even grandchildren had longer life expectancy. The gene responsible for switching metabolism to 'survival mode' was activated, then bequeathed in genetic code to future generations.
Psychotherapists found that not only did Holocaust survivors come to them for counselling but almost all their children did too, even though those children were born long after the Holocaust. The gene for trauma had been activated and passed on.
Some organ transplant recipients report sudden changes in food preference, habits even hobbies. This adds weight to the notion that DNA molecules carry not only the building blocks of life itself... but how to live it too.

02 April 2015

Louis Theroux

Louis Theroux is still recognisable as the impish interviewer whose TV documentary career began in 1998, challenging his subjects with, at times, impudent lines of questioning, but his latest films are serious investigative journalism. 'Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity' is a sympathetic exploration of the personalities of inmates in an Ohio prison for the criminally insane. While always giving their heinous crimes appropriately minimal coverage, Louis nevertheless treats his subjects with respect and a degree of compassion.

He made his name examining the strange underbelly of North America, hunting down the weird, the fanatical and the marginalised. UFO spotters, wife-swappers, born again Christians and other whimsical subject matter provided the perfect foil for his slightly tongue-in-cheek approach. The hour-long films work so well because Louis playfully teases his subjects with questions that the discerning viewer will realise are poking fun, yet the interviewees are so devoted to their cause that they are blind to even oblique criticism.

He has a propensity to put himself in positions well outside his comfort zone, willing his audience to join him in his bizarre experiences: entering a lion's cage with a man who keeps big cats for pets; joining in on the set of a porn film; entering the scary realm of modern Nazis. His soft English accent and erudite language skills endear him to the Americans, somehow letting him get away with statements, and the cringe-worthy repetition of boyish questions, for which he would be crucified in his native land. "Can I look at your penis?" "No." "Please?" "No!"All this makes for fascinating viewing, especially to an Englishman.

His style is deceptively smooth. He is easy-going and charming and that allows him to get so close that he can deliver pointed questions. He still tackles fringe subjects but these days they are much more serious. Gone is the title 'Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends' and the almost goofy fun-poking. The frightening arenas of drug addiction, mental health and violent prisons demand challenging questions and the mature Louis steps right up to the mark and asks them.

05 March 2015

From the Roof of the World

Lace your fingers with mine, fall in step with me.
Love me, baby, in the way only you can.
Cradle my heart with your tender slender fingers.
Sing a soft lullaby as I drift away in your arms.

Old grey yesterdays, silent, dark and troubled
are piles of stone, layered in history's dust.
A summer breeze lifts, wafts a new virgin sheet
that lands upon our laps, awaits our words of love.

You and I are poised at the roof of the world.
Let's launch headlong into the majestic sky,
feel the wind beneath our wings and soar eagle-high,
giddy and expectant in thin translucent air.

Circle spirals slowly, lean in lazy loops;
fields a patchwork quilt, our safety net below.
By degrees we'll glide on our familiar path,
our rhythm sweet, our heading sure and tireless.

And when we land on deep, soft grass we'll roll and
laugh and sigh. Our lives in endless summer sun
stretching to the red hills of this enchanted Isle.
Be mine sweet child in time, be mine, forever mine.

13 February 2015

Bodies... and a dose of Alan Partridge

Mini-series such as Criminal Justice, Afterlife and Sea of Souls are quintessentially British. The dialogues involve idiom, regional dialects and slang, yet Susan, western PEI born and bred, has taken them in her stride. I've seen them all before and rate them highly. Occasionally I have paused to explain a peculiar expression, or a specific cultural reference but by and large these dramas, some gritty, some deep, speak to a wide audience. I've gambled and won!

The medical drama Bodies deals with cover-ups and whistle blowers in an Obstetrics and Gynecology Ward. Acting is top notch, the situations credible and the reality unflinching. Graphic scenes abound: sexual intimacy, childbirth and surgery feature in every episode. There is maternity, death, catastrophic error, eroticism and from the mouth of surgeon Tony Whitman (Keith Allen), sledgehammer wit and brutal sarcasm. Like all good TV it quits while it's ahead and leaves you wanting more.

In stark contrast and by way of an antidote I threw in Alan Partridge, Season 2 (which is where the wretched and cringe-worthy character really gets into his stride). The humour is biting, even ugly at times but well within the bounds of decency and always peppered with irony. I felt it would appeal to its new Canadian audience, and it did. I know the script by heart and we laughed like drains!

By way of a periodic cleanse of the palate we take in episodes of BBC property show Escape to the Country, a beautifully gentle series where city dwellers hope to adopt rural life. Needless to say we tear the house hunters and their foibles to shreds. It's a great way for a Canadian to see the beauty of rural UK from her armchair, pick out cultural differences in furnishing and decor, not to mention gasp at the lack of storage space, no basements, miniature fridges, and washing machines in the kitchen. Such fun, and a great way to enjoy snowbound storm days!

06 January 2015

our weekend suppers

A certain little lady drives for ninety minutes. This is just some of what she brings with her. To say we eat a supper of bread and cheese does no justice at all to this sumptuous feast: numerous exotic, flavoured cheeses; rosemary bread; dipping oils loaded with herbs and spices; crackers; bruschetta; antipasto tomato salad; a giant cheese cake; and milk chocolate.

As if all that were not enough, she bakes buttermilk biscuits (scones in the UK) which sit in bags in my freezer.

Early on dark and windy mornings she rises at 5am and trudges across my icy parking lot amid swirling snow flurries to face a ninety minute drive to work.

It's an incredible life.

03 January 2015


1975 was a year of exciting innovative TV. So does it still feel that way forty years later? I pulled out my box set of Poldark, a darkly romantic saga charting the ups and downs of 18th century Cornish gentry. Back in the day it was compulsive viewing but my anticipated nostalgia trip fell flat. Frankly, although the story is cute, the production values are ludicrously dated. It has the feel of a cheap theatre production, all stationary camera views and big projected voices! The lighting is absurd; since when did candlelight illuminate the tops of heads, still less follow people around! How did I not notice in 1975. Maybe we settled for less more easily. We certainly expected dramatic music and crashing waves in our opening credits!

The best modern programming has set the bar so high that older material doesn't compare at all well; the acting is pedestrian and somewhat lame. Sadly abandoning the dated period drama Poldark, I sought solace in its 1975 companion, the John Cleese penned Fawlty Towers and had much better luck. Not only is the comedy timeless, and a landmark example of British humour, loaded with sarcasm and irony, but the acting is plausible and realistic. While never crude, the humour is direct, and downright startling at times; something to savour and relish in these pathetic days of political correctness. I'd go further, much of my own (mostly hidden from view) comic persona is drawn from the biting sarcasm and eccentric reactions of "Basil Fawlty"!

Between these two widely divergent stalwarts of 70's TV, there is a curious connection: Robin Ellis appeared in both. Obviously he is forever known as the swashbuckling, handsome, lover and tin miner Ross Poldark, but perhaps few remember that he made a guest appearance in the first episode of Fawlty Towers, as the undercover Cockney cop on the trail of con-artist Lord Melbury.

Forty years has a habit of changing things. Robin Ellis, now 72, lives in France and writes cookery books; the gorgeous Angharad Rees (his screen wife Demelza Poldark) sadly died recently at 63. Sybil Fawlty (the marvellous Prunella Scales, aged 82), veteran nagger, and foil for Basil's acerbic humour, has Alzheimer's. John Cleese divorced his first wife and co-writer, American Connie Booth, and is currently entertaining wife number four.