Essay for Black History Month: Emmett Till, Bob Dylan and the folk singer’s sacred duty

In August 1955 Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. Two white men were tried for the crime but, despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, were acquitted by an all-white jury.

The following year one of the men, now protected by the rules of double jeopardy, confessed their guilt. Till’s murder and his killers’ acquittal are now seen as a pivotal moment in the development of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Bob Dylan described the outrage and his reaction to it in The Death of Emmett Till.

* * *

Although I spent a term studying American history as part of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge University, we never touched upon the Civil Rights Movement, let alone Emmett Till. But this was in the mid-1970s, so maybe historians had not yet fully processed the subject matter, transforming it from contemporary observation to historical scholarship?

Today, thankfully, things have moved on, and the Civil Rights Revolution is taught as part of an undergraduate paper on The History of the United States since 1865. However, my own formal education in American history ended with the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I owe my introduction to the life and death of Emmett Till to Bob Dylan.

Born in Duluth, Minnesota on 24 May 1941, Robert Allen Zimmerman attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While studying there he began performing folk and country songs at local cafés, initially taking the stage name “Bob Dillon.”

In 1960, Dylan dropped out of college and moved to New York, where he met ailing folksinger Woodie Guthrie and became a regular in the folk clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. He signed his first recording contract in 1961.

Dylan first performed The Death of Emmett Till in July 1962. It is not one of his most well known or highly regarded songs, and never appeared on any of his studio albums. However it began to circulate in various bootleg releases from the early 1960s. You can hear the song and read the lyrics in this YouTube presentation:

For me, part of folk’s appeal is that, skilfully executed, it paints vivid pictures of real lives and real issues. The anger, pain and emotion of folk songs brings to life the dirt-dry words of conventionally written history. The Death of Emmett Till may not be Dylan’s greatest composition, but it portrays graphically an injustice that should not be forgotten, and throws light on a dark corner of US history that some would prefer to remain hidden.

So, through his artistry and social conscience, Bob Dylan led me to a place that appeared not to be on Cambridge University’s radar in 1975. I don’t for a moment suppose or suggest that Dylan’s lyrics are in themselves a definitive history of Till’s murder, but in piquing my curiosity and leading me to ask the right questions they did their job.

The internet is loaded with accounts and analysis of Till’s murder and its aftermath, and I have consumed it greedily – but critically – in researching this post. The Wikipedia account is detailed and informative, but much more besides is readily available for anyone willing to look. The truth is out there…

Although it’s the best known of the songs about the Emmett Till murder, Dylan’s was not the first. An Essay on Bob Dylan by Jim Linderman reveals that this accolade belongs to A. C. Bilbrew, a long-time civil rights activist.

Bilbrew’s song is in two parts, each short enough to fit on one side of a 45 rpm vinyl single. It was released just months after Till’s death, sung by jazzman and entertainer Scatman Crothers, masquerading under the name of The Ramparts.

Sadly the song passed largely unnoticed “because [according to Jim Linderman] racist radio stations at the time wouldn’t play it.” However, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the generosity of YouTube, you can listen to Part 1 by clicking here. Part 1 describes events leading up to the murder, and Part 2 the crime itself and the subsequent – farcical – trial. Part 2 is available here.

Legendary folksinger Joan Baez, one time lover of Bob Dylan, has also recorded the A.C. Bilbrew song, combining the two parts into a single offering. You can listen to it by clicking below:

* * *

Three months after the unsuccessful trial of Till’s killers, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A tidal wave of protest followed. 

The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than a year, resulting eventually in a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Many years later Rosa Parks said “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn’t go back [to the section of the bus reserved for non-whites].”

Emmett Till has become a posthumous icon of the Civil Rights Movement. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center helps keep his story alive, both physically and digitally. Any readers of this post wishing to know more about Till’s murder are encouraged to visit the centre’s website, which avows that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.”

In a deliciously mischievous twist, the centre is based at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the young man’s killers were acquitted. Fair-minded people – and I include myself here – desperately want to believe that things are getting better, and the existence and deliberately ironic location of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center might suggest that they are.

However, events over the last few months, and in particular killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, must call into question how much progress has really been made.

It is not my place, as a white man living in the UK, to make judgments as to progress – or otherwise – towards racial justice in the US. I simply worry that things appear not to be what fair-minded people might wish them to be.

Nor do I suggest for one moment that this is specifically an American issue. There have been incidents in the UK over the last six months suggesting that racial injustice is alive and kicking here too.

However, one thing does seem abundantly clear: there is no room for complacency, in the US, the UK or, indeed, anywhere else.

And for me, there are three more lessons to be drawn from this brief foray into the story of Emmett Till:

  • History must not be hidden, and truths – even when they are deeply unsettling – must be told.
  • Great universities like Cambridge, my own alma mater, must be vigilant in ensuring that the history to which their students are exposed isn’t monochrome.
  • Folk singers must continue to fulfil their sacred duty: to protest, to rant, to rage and to roar about injustice, wherever they encounter it.

Bob Dylan ended The Death of Emmett Till with following words,

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

As the UK’s Black History Month 2020 draws to a close I’m pleased to record here my support for the line taken here by Dylan, and applaud him for standing tall in 1962, for adhering to the folk-singer’s sacred duty, and for saying what needed to be said.

Rest in Peace, Emmett Till.

Of canaries and donkeys – celebrating National Poetry Day

Last Thursday, 1 October, was National Poetry Day. In a belated celebration of the event, I thought I’d share with you the only two poems I’m able to recite from memory. The first on my list is the work of the American poet Ogden Nash (1902-71), described on the Poetry Association website as “the most widely known, appreciated, and imitated American creator of light verse.”

Canary Literacy

PHOTO CREDIT: “Canary Literacy” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The verse in question runs to only 13 words, and therefore is clearly no Paradise Lost! On the other hand it has just the degree of cheeky irreverence guaranteed to appeal to a schoolboy growing up in the 1960s. Which I guess is why my teacher Mr Williams introduced us to it, and why, over half a century later, it still trips off the tongue. The Canary was published in Nash’s 1931 collection Free Wheeling, and still makes me chuckle today…maybe it’s the birdwatcher in me?

The song of canaries
Never varies,
And when they’re moulting
They’re pretty revolting.

My second poem is a lot more serious. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936), universally referred to as G K Chesterton, was an English author, journalist, critic, philosopher and theologian.

Just why my headmaster chose to display a poster bearing the text of Chesterton’s poem The Donkey in the main corridor at my primary school will forever remain a mystery. Thankfully he did, and at a time when my brain was like a turbo-charged sponge, desperate to absorb new ideas and images, I consumed it greedily. Chesterton’s words have remained with me ever since. Here they are:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

If you are one of those people who prefers to listen to poetry, rather than to read if off the page, the link below will take you to a reading of The Donkey by Elric Hooper.

The Donkey celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As I am not, either by upbringing or instinct, even remotely religious, it may seem strange that this poem has stuck to me like glue for more than half a century. But the words have another, more profound meaning which resonated with me then and still does today.

In the first three verses Chesterton’s subject speaks to us directly of the contempt in which he is held by the world, contempt for his origins, his appearance and his lowly status. The donkey appears to us as a pathetic, self-loathing creature, lacking in confidence and eaten up by the ignorant and hateful way that others perceive him.

And yet…in the final verse we learn that he has a noble past, a back-story of which he is justly proud. The donkey has witnessed and been part of an extraordinary, world-changing event. He, no less than any of those who decry and despise him, is worthy of our respect, admiration and love.

File:Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, a fresco in the Lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Pietro Lorenzetti / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

And I guess that’s the philosophy by which I have lived my own life. The opinions held by others about our origins, outward appearance and social status are a mere distraction, an irrelevance, perhaps even a lie. We must look beneath the surface to perceive a deeper truth.

All lives have value, and all are worth living. We should never feel the need to apologise for what we are, and what we are not.

Instead of feeling imprisoned by other people’s perceptions of us, surely our focus should be on how each of us can best play the cards we have been dealt in order to help make the world a better place for ourselves, for our fellows and for all living things.

PHOTO CREDIT: Laraine Davis via Pexels

Each of us, guided by a spirit of tolerance and compassion, has the potential to do good. And each of us has the right, as well as the innate capability, to live a happy, fulfilling life untroubled by the negative opinions of those who would wish us ill.

Even donkeys can be beautiful.

Hair today, gone tomorrow: bouncing back from lockdown

First the good news: after a wait of over five months, Mrs P has at last had a proper haircut. My wonderful missus likes to wear her hair short, in a simple elfin style. The closure of hair salons during lockdown therefore made her miserable, as her locks edged inexorably towards her shoulders. A state of emergency was duly declared, and the Platypus Man was called upon to wield a pair of scissors. I think it’s safe to say I have not found a new career.

photo of saloon interior view

PHOTO CREDIT: Guilherme Petri via Unsplash

The government finally allowed hair salons in England to re-open on 4 July, but when she contacted her hairdresser Mrs P was dismayed to learn that other members of the sisterhood had beaten her to it. It seems that women-folk right across our neighbourhood had been suffering similar torments, but they’d been quicker off the mark in booking appointments. Five anguished weeks followed before, at last, hairdresser Sue was able to fit her in.

Returning from her appointment, Mrs P bounced into the house like a new woman. The measures the salon had put in place to protect clients and customers from coronavirus had been thorough but not onerous, enabling my good lady to relax while Sue got down to business.

And down to business Sue did indeed get, snipping, clipping and primping merrily until order was restored to my wife’s rampant mane. Both literally and figuratively, a weight has been lifted from her shoulders: Mrs P’s got her mojo back. She looks great.

But now for the bad news: my good lady has declared that I too must have a haircut. I generally avoid male barbers like the plague, being pathologically incapable of holding up my end in random banal conversations about soccer, cars or superhero movies. Instead, I let Sue sort out my hair as and when necessary. However, it’s been more than six months since I last sat in her chair of shame, and I’m enjoying a new sense of freedom.

man in blue and white shirt wearing black framed eyeglasses

PHOTO CREDIT: Mostafa Meraji via Unsplash

You see, male pattern baldness is embedded in my genes, and has been making its presence known for two or three decades. I’ve not got much hair left now, and I cherish every last strand that has remained faithful to me.

Moreover, I’m a child of the sixties and look back lovingly to my hippy past. OK, I wasn’t a real hippy, but I admired their hedonistic lifestyle and carefree attitude to the cultural norms of their parents. To celebrate their values, in my university years I allowed my hair to grow until it brushed my shoulders, long, thick and luxuriant.

Ah, those were the days!

It’s occurred to me in recent months that the haircutting hiatus initiated by Covid-19 offers the ideal opportunity for a new beginning. Or perhaps more accurately, the chance to relive my glory years.

I therefore boldly suggested to Mrs P that lockdown is just the beginning, that now is the perfect moment for me to grow what’s left of my hair down to my shoulders again, and maybe even to have a ponytail. Her reply was short and to the point: it’s not going to happen, and if I don’t get it cut voluntarily she’ll do it herself when I’m asleep.

Huh!

So we’ve agreed on a compromise. Mrs P’s booked her next appointment with Sue for early November, and one for me 30 minutes later. Could be worse, I guess: at least I’ll have a couple more months to enjoy my rediscovered hirsute-ness.

And with any luck we’ll be in lockdown again by November, and hair salons will be closed until spring 2021. That should give me plenty of time to explore my inner hippy. Peace, man!

green peas peace sign

IMAGE CREDIT: Stoica Ionela via Unsplash

Liebster Award (part 2)

Last week’s post featured my replies to eleven questions posed by New Zealander Liz Cowburn of the Exploring Colour blog, who had nominated me for a Liebster Award. This week I complete the Liebster process by revealing 11 things about me which readers may – or may not – find vaguely interesting or amusing, before moving on to ask 11 questions of my own and nominating a few bloggers to answer them.

11 things about me

1. I was born and raised in west London, under the Heathrow Airport flightpath. I left London at the age of 18 to go to Cambridge University, and never lived there again. I don’t miss it at all, but when I go back and mix with the locals my London accent returns within minutes!

2. In my childhood our garden backed on to a small river – well, more of a stream really – and my happiest days were spent on the riverbank, chasing butterflies, searching for slow-worms and wielding my fishing net in pursuit of sticklebacks. My love of nature and wildlife was born right there. More than any other place on Earth, that riverbank and what I found there made me what I am today.

Red Admiral – one of my favourite childhood butterflies

3. At the age of 11 I won a scholarship to one of London’s top schools, an hour’s journey by bus and tube train from my suburban home. It was a Direct Grant Grammar School. These don’t exist any more, but back in the day they were a noble attempt to promote social mobility and greater equality. Most parents had to pay to send their children to these A-list academic establishments, but a few places were reserved, free-of-charge, for children of the “deserving poor.” I was fortunate to win one of those free places, and the quality of education I received as a result was brilliant. It was life changing.

The experience of being a child from a family with a modest income surrounded by youngsters from much wealthier backgrounds helped shape my political outlook. At the time several contemporaries suggested that a career in politics beckoned, but luckily I grew up!

4. Early on I had ambitions to be a veterinary surgeon, but at secondary school it became clear that I wasn’t good enough at science to achieve this. However I also discovered an interest in, and talent for, the study of history. I carried that interest through to my university studies, where I also got into archaeology. History remains one of my passions.

5. During my mid and late teens I became a fervent supporter of Brentford F.C., a local soccer club playing in the (then) Fourth Division of the English Football League. My new best pal Pete introduced me to dubious pleasures of league soccer, and having quickly caught the bug I probably didn’t miss more than half a dozen home matches over a period of six or seven years. To be honest, as well as being the least fashionable team in London, Brentford were rubbish most of the time. Supporting them therefore taught me important life lessons, particularly with regard to managing my expectations and coping with disappointment!

white and blue soccer ball on ground inside goal

IMAGE CREDIT: Brandi Ibrao via Unsplash

6 On leaving university I spent 6 months in Bristol training to be an accountant. However the experience of spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing was profoundly depressing, so I gave it up and opted instead for a career in public service.

7. I have lived in the county of Derbyshire, in the East Midlands of England, for over 40 years. Derbyshire has several claims to fame, including the UK’s first National Park (the Peak District), the world’s first industrial cotton mills established along the Derwent Valley in the late 18th century, several notable stately homes including Chatsworth, Kedleston, Haddon and Sudbury Halls, and the production of world-class ceramics at the Royal Crown Derby factory.

Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, built between 1660 and 1680

8. In Prague a few years ago I found myself falsely accused of smuggling Albanians into the Czech Republic! We were wandering in some sort of wooded parkland on a hill overlooking the city centre and, it seems, innocently blundered into an area frequented by ne’er-do-wells. Suddenly two plain-clothed officers leapt out from behind a bush and confronted me, saying that since I was in this place I must be smuggling Albanians, or failing that drugs or foreign currency, into their Mother Country.

When I protested my innocence the goons said only “Is OK, is control, is control, is OK.” I did not find this reassuring. However, having subjected me to a thorough body search and found no illicit drugs, illegal currency or unwelcome Albanians secreted about my person they let me go with a cheery wave. Bizarre, but true.

9. Mrs P and I have visited all 50 states of the USA. The “project” took around 18 years, but could have been completed a lot sooner had we not returned time and again to the wonderful Yellowstone National Park.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

10. Over the last few years I have rediscovered my love of folk music, particularly English and Celtic traditional folk. The best folk music is earthy and authentic, echoing a simpler world with fewer frivolous distractions (you know what I mean, stuff like Facebook, the X-Factor and endless selfies,) and more connected with nature, the land and the seasons.

When I was studying history I came across The World We Have Lost, a book by Peter Laslett about English social history before the Industrial Revolution. For me, much of English folk music is a reminder of the lost world that Laslett writes about. This song, sung by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith about the rhythm of the seasons in an agrarian landscape, is a case in point:

I have no musical talent whatsoever, but wish more than ever that I could sing in tune or maybe knock out a few notes on a fiddle, guitar or mandolin, so that I could be more than just a passive consumer of the folk music genre.

11. My favourite bird is the humble oystercatcher. Although I’ve watched birds on 6 continents and seen many rare and beautiful species, the oystercatcher gets my vote because it’s a bit of a Jack-the-Lad: loud, feisty and unapologetically full of itself, always strutting around to show off its good looks and screaming abuse at anyone or anything encroaching on its turf. In human form these characteristics would be a nightmare, but in a bird they’re strangely endearing … to me, anyway.

Eurasian Oystercatcher, an avian Jack-the-Lad

11 Questions for my nominees

  1. Why do you write your blog?
  2. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
  3. What do you usually eat for breakfast? And what would be your dream breakfast, prepared free-of-charge by a top chef?
  4. Dogs or cats?
  5. Which four historical figures (2m, 2f) would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
  6. Where is your favourite place to visit?
  7. How important is Nature in your life, and how do you get close to it?
  8. If you were reincarnated, what animal or bird would you like to be?
  9. Do you have a favourite book, one that you return to time and again? Why is so special to you?
  10. Your house is burning down. All the other people and their pets have got out safely but you only have time to save one personal possession. What will you save?
  11. We all know about the terrible impact of Covid-19 on individuals and communities, but is there an upside? Has the crisis had any positive impact on you and your life?
Newfoundland, Dark Tickle, 2017 (7)

Dogs or cats?

My nominations for a Liebster Award

This has been difficult. Some of the blogs I would have nominated have declared themselves award-free, while others have recently been so-honoured (Liz, Ann, Mike, this means you!) So my list comprises a few blogs that have kept me entertained, diverted or informed during the Covid-19 lockdown. If you’re not listed here but fancy having a go, please do so with my best wishes.

If, however, you appear on the list but don’t want to take part that’s OK too. There’s no obligation whatsoever, and I won’t be offended. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and had fun doing it, but I know it won’t suit everyone. The choice is yours.

My nominations, in no particular order, are

  1. National Parks with T
  2. Living in Nature
  3. Still Normal
  4. Butterflies to Dragsters
  5. Back Yard Biology
  6. Anyone else who wants a go!

A reminder of the rules for nominees

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions given to you
  3. Share 11 facts about yourself
  4. Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
  5. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  6. Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post

Variable Oystercatcher, a Jack-the-Lad seen in New Zealand, November 2019

Liebster Award for blogging (part 1)

This blog celebrates its first birthday at the end of May so it felt timely that a couple of weeks ago a fellow blogger, New Zealander Liz Cowburn from the Exploring Colour blog, nominated me for a Liebster Award. Our paths first crossed digitally late last year when she began reading and commenting on my earlier blog about a road trip around New Zealand. I was flattered by her interest, and I’m reet chuffed today that she feels my blogging is worthy of recognition. Thank you, Liz.

Memories of New Zealand: Mount Ngauruhoe

Given the title of her blog, it’s no surprise that Liz writes about colour, both in nature and in the human world. Her photos, and those of husband Nigel, complement her words perfectly. Through those words and pictures Liz presents a fascinating – and sometimes quirky – glimpse of life in New Zealand. She also touches on lots more interesting stuff, from the impact of last year’s Australian bushfires and Covid-19 on her homeland, to Irish pubs and the poetry of Rabbie Burns! If you haven’t already done so, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Liz’s excellent blog.

What’s a Liebster Blogger award?

So just what is the Liebster Award? Another of Liz’s nominees, Ann Mackay, summarised it perfectly, and rather than reinvent the wheel I’ll simply quote below what she has to say. Ann’s blog Inspired by Nature – Creative Explorations in Photography, Art and Writing, reflects her passion for gardening and the flowers she grows, and is definitely worth visiting.

Now you may be wondering just what the ‘Liebster’ (German for ‘favourite’ or ‘dearest’) Award is. It’s a means to allow readers to discover new blogs and by the recipients nominating more blogs, lots of bloggers have a chance to be found. (A sort of bloggers-helping-other-bloggers chain letter!)

SOURCE: Ann Mackay, Camassias: And Some Blog Love (1)

So, what do nominees have to do?

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions given to you
  3. Share 11 facts about yourself
  4. Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
  5. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  6. Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post

Having explained what I’m up to I’ll dedicate the rest of this post to tackling Liz’s questions. Then, next week, I’ll move on to the “Big Reveal,” when I will declare 11 facts about the Platypus Man to an expectant blogosphere, before nominating a few folk to answer some cunning questions of my own devising!

Liz’s questions and my replies

1. What connection (if any) do you feel that you have with New Zealand? 🙂

Prior to our trip there in 2019 my knowledge of New Zealand was fairly limited, and could best be summarised thus: “a country that is a bloody long way from anywhere else, very good at rugby but not so clever at cricket, a home to flightless birds facing extinction and lots of sheep.”

Our visit opened my eyes, and allowed me to glimpse briefly a place far more interesting and beautiful than I had imagined. What a great country, what lovely people, albeit people whose vowel sounds – to English ears anyway – are seriously weird! In various ways NZ feels quite British, much more so than Oz or Canada, but the elements of Māori culture give it a unique Pacific spin. Definitely one of my favourite places.

The Māori church at Putiki, in the suburbs of Wanganui, North Island, New Zealand

2. What place in this world do you most love?

The Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, are remote, beautiful and scattered with relics and reminders of their Neolithic and Viking past. There are more sheep than people, and more birds than sheep, which makes it my kind of place! Without family commitments I think Mrs P and I would have made a life there, but instead we must make do with visits every couple of years. We were due to go again in September, but we’ve had to cancel due to Covid-19. Next year, maybe?

3. Your favourite colour(s) are what? –and what do you associate with the colour?

I guess these days I would single out the colour of autumn. You know what I mean, that distinctive but elusive golden amber hue suffused with shadowy hints of blood, rust and decay, that subtle tone which is a beautiful but poignant reminder of time’s passing. All things must pass.

The colours of autumn: Maine, USA, September 2012

4. What connection do you feel/experience with Nature?

Nature – wildlife, countryside, open spaces – makes life worth living. I’ve always been into it, but I find my interest grows with the passing of the years. All 5 of my blogs have focused heavily on aspects of nature. For example, I’ve enjoyed writing about close encounters with devils in Tasmania and whales in Newfoundland, with grizzlies in Yellowstone and penguins in New Zealand. We are part of Nature, not separate from it, and my life is made infinitely richer by time spent alongside creatures great and small.

Spotted shortly after midnight, a wild Tasmanian Devil dining on wallaby roadkill, November 2016

5. Your favourite ‘active’ recreational activity …?

I played cricket in my teenage years, but retired due to gross incompetence. These days “active recreation” equates to a gentle stroll around a nature reserve or bird sanctuary, binoculars and video camera slung from my neck. My bad back, knackered knees and passion for chocolate cake prohibit strenuous physical activity … well, anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

6. Your favourite ‘quiet’ hobby/interest?

Mrs P and I started taking a serious interest in birds during a visit to Scotland in the early 1990s, when we carelessly mistook buzzards for golden eagles! Since then our passion for birdwatching, and for watching other wildlife too, has just grown and grown. This shared activity is fundamental to who we are, individually and as a couple.

Puffin: Orkney, 2011

7. Is there something you enjoy ‘having a go at’ regardless of skill?

I was going to answer “no” on the basis that life’s too short to waste time on stuff one is bad at. But on reflection, I do enjoy singing in the bath, and Mrs P will tell you in no uncertain terms that I am the most tone-deaf person who ever walked on god’s green earth.

8. What was (or is) your favourite children’s book?

My parents told me that when I was young I used to love Alice in Wonderland. I still appreciate it now, not least because it contains one of my all time favourite literary quotes. I’ve had cause to trot out these wise words at various stressful moments over the years, for example when our rental car broke down on a remote gravel road in an out-of-the-way corner of a sparsely populated island off the coast of Tasmania, and we couldn’t get a signal on our cell phone! Lewis Carrol’s insight goes like this:

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad,” [said the Cheshire Cat]

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

More recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an extraordinary work of literature. The movie and television adaptations completely fail to do justice to an outstanding piece of imaginative writing which, although notionally aimed at the teenage market, transcends all attempts at categorisation.

Other children’s volumes that grace the groaning bookshelves at Platypus Towers include Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame), Holes (Louis Sachar), The Machine Gunners (Robert Westall), The Milkman’s on His Way (David Rees), the Tripods trilogy (John Christopher), Goodnight Mr Tom (Michelle Margorian), The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (Gene Kemp) and Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman). The best writing for children is brilliant, and should never be dismissed as “childish” or “just for kids.” Some of the greatest writers out there are writing books aimed, in the first instance at least, at a young audience.

9. Your current or past ‘occupation’ ie. work / study / keeping busy is …what?

Before retiring at the end of March 2018 I spent the best part of 40 years working in the UK public library sector, the last 15 running a city library service serving a quarter of a million people. I made this career choice because I knew that libraries can change lives. My father left school at a young age and did menial jobs throughout his life, yet thanks to the local library he was one of the wisest, best educated people I’ve ever known. Libraries made him, and in a slightly different way they’ve made me too.

Library at the National Trust’s Lyme Park country estate, Cheshire, UK

10. What’s your favourite creative activity.. what do you have a passion for?

I enjoy cooking, particularly experimenting with Indian, Chinese and Thai-inspired dishes. I also relish writing, pulling together stuff that interests or amuses me, rather than the endless boring reports that my employers had me churning out for decades. I do it for my own amusement, and blogging is my outlet. If other people enjoy reading it that’s great, but the whole point is that I enjoy writing it!

11. Is there something you can share about a challenge you face, or have faced?

Interesting question. Like anyone of my age I’ve had my fair share of setbacks and heartache, but nothing out of the ordinary. I guess I’ve been very lucky. I found university challenging, not academically but in terms of my self-confidence and sense of belonging. If I had my time again I’d cope better and make more of the opportunity that uni offered me. I blogged about my experience of Cambridge University last year.

Kings College, Cambridge, viewed from “the backs”, August 2019

When Covid-19 gets personal

Every evening we watch the 10pm news on the BBC, pinned to our armchairs by the latest tidal wave of torment. The rising death toll, the shattered lives, the financial crisis, the lost jobs, the missed targets, the missing PPE. It keeps on coming, misery piled upon misery. But it’s so horrible that it somehow seems unreal, resembling a dark soap opera with a scarcely believable plot and actors who appear to be making it up as they go along.

Of course we’re not totally immune to the impact of the pandemic. Mrs P – who is particularly vulnerable due to her asthma – hasn’t left our property for six weeks, while I venture out only on Wednesdays to shop for us and her parents. The queues at the supermarket are getting me down, the shortage of flour has been frustrating, and wearing a mask makes my glasses steam up and leaves me stumbling around blindly. I’m always pleased to get back to the safety and calm of Platypus Towers.

However, these are minor irritations. Life goes on, and so do we. We are healthy, comfortable and keeping busy with all-manner of in-house projects and activities. Covid-19 is undoubtedly a curse, but it felt like we were just playing bit parts, walk-on roles in a disaster movie that’s being acted out all around us.

But then Covid-19 got personal.

Pat, my second cousin, who – with her son, Mark – is my only living blood-relative, phoned from London on Sunday morning with shock news. She and her husband, and Mark and his wife, have all been sick with Covid-19. Worst still, her father Tommy – my “uncle” Tom – also caught the virus, but it got the better of him.

Dad passed away yesterday morning, Pat explains sadly.

Tommy had seemed indestructible. We all knew that he couldn’t go on forever, but it wasn’t meant to end like this. It feels like he, and we, have been cheated by that wretched virus.

He would have been 100 years old next month, and to celebrate the milestone Mark was in the process of arranging a family party. Covid-19 has turned that dream, and a million others across the world, to ashes.

Although we weren’t exceptionally close, I have many fond memories of Tommy. His was the first car I ever rode in – my parents didn’t drive – and when I was small it was a special treat to escape London for a while on a Sunday afternoon drive into the countryside with Tommy and his wife Ivy.

Years later, when I was at university, he used his position with the Post Office to get me on the list for a job at the local sorting office in the run up to Christmas, giving me a welcome opportunity to earn some much needed beer money! These, and countless other kindnesses, whirl around in my mind as I write this. He was a good man.

*

Excellent although they are, the BBC news broadcasts can never get across the full horror of this virus. It seems to me that only when Covid-19 gets personal does it fully make the transition from disaster movie to a real-life, real-time tragedy.

Mrs P and I last saw Tommy in August, at Mark’s wedding. He was in good health, albeit a touch grumpy. But at his age a certain irascibility is inevitable and forgiveable, and also rather endearing. Sure as hell Pat, Mark and the rest of us would give anything to witness his grumpiness again.

Rest in Peace, Tommy.

Cambridge: my old stamping ground

Last month we were in Cambridge, my old stamping ground, for my godson’s wedding.  In the mid-70s I spent three years studying there at one of the University’s many colleges.  It was such an intense period, life lived at one hundred miles an hour. But they seem like another lifetime, my Cambridge days.  I rarely think about them now. 

Jesus College

Trudging the streets again, over 30 years since my last visit to the city, the memories come flooding back.  Here’s the room in which I lived in my freshman year, anxious, ill at ease, a stranger in a strange land. And there’s the stinking drainage ditch into which I fell one drunken night, establishing a reputation with my peer group that I could never quite shake off. 

This here is the spot where Phil streaked one Rag Week, pedalling his bicycle furiously along King’s Parade, wearing only a big grin and a policeman’s helmet, cheered on by dozens of adoring college cronies.  And over there is the library where I spent most of my days, studying feverishly in a desperate attempt to prove to myself that, despite my humble origins, I was as good as the rest of them.

Gonville and Caius College chapel

You see, I never felt I truly belonged.  Cambridge University was – and is – one of the world’s outstanding places of higher education.  The standards are so high, the demands so rigorous.

At the time it seemed impossible that I, just an ordinary working-class lad from west London, deserved my place.  Meanwhile the privately educated students from rich families who made up the bulk of my peer group seemed to sail through it, their boisterous belief in themselves undermining my own, oh-so-fragile, self-confidence.

Gargoyles, Gonville and Caius College

I know now that I got it all wrong. 

For the most part, the self-confidence of my fellow students was bluff.  Underneath it all most of them were unsure of themselves too, making it up as they went along, hoping they wouldn’t get found out, wouldn’t be revealed as frauds unworthy of their places at this great cathedral of learning. 

St John’s College

And my doubts were, in any case, unfounded.  By the time I graduated it was plain that I was clever enough.  While not quite the sharpest spine on the Cambridge University hedgehog, neither was I a dullard.  Without doubt I deserved to be there. I just wish I’d known it when I first arrived, instead of beating myself up every day.

My three years at Cambridge University were an extraordinary period in an otherwise ordinary life.  Visiting the place again has awakened painful memories, stirred some unwelcome thoughts of what was and what might have been. 

Bridge of Sighs, St John’s College

But time has moved on and so, thankfully, have I.

Once, when dreams floated like butterflies on the breeze and stardust lay thick upon the ground, a sweet, sensitive and naïve lad who shared my name and birthday went to Cambridge University to study.  He stayed three years, got educated a bit, got drunk a lot, got lost for a while, then found himself again. 

That lad’s dead now, and I should let him rest in peace.

I’m pleased I went back to visit Cambridge, my old stamping ground.  I won’t ever go back again.

The best man I ever knew

Flock of Birds Flying over Bare Tree Overlooking Sunset

PHOTO CREDIT: Flock of Birds Flying over Bare Tree Overlooking Sunset. From Pixabay via Pexels

The news came in a short, handwritten letter from his mother: Pete and his family had been involved in a terrible accident.  Their car had caught fire following a crash in London; his wife and baby son had died at the scene.  He could have got clear with only minor injuries, but went back into the inferno in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to save Livy and Simon. 

In a critical condition, Pete was admitted to a hospital burns unit where he clung to life for a few weeks.  But in the end the fight was just too much for him, or maybe he knew somehow that Livy and Simon were gone, and that life without them would be pointless? 

When I learned that he was dead I felt that part of me had also died.  Pete was more alive than any person I’d ever met, and it seemed impossible that he’d passed over.

We’d met in our first week at secondary school, and we were like chalk and cheese.  Our backgrounds were so different, his parents comfortably middle class, mine ordinary working class.  He was a confident, outgoing Christian, I an awkward, reserved atheist.  His politics were naturally Tory, mine instinctively socialist.  His brain was wired for maths and science, while I favoured the arts and humanities.  He burned the candle at both ends, I saved my candles in case the lights went out one day.

It seemed inconceivable that two boys who were so different could become friends, and yet within days we were inseparable.  Was it because of our differences that we became so close?  Did each of us offer the other a new perspective on life, a chance to broaden our horizons and to gently challenge our own values and beliefs, but without undermining our own self-esteem and sense of self-worth?

Thomas J Watson Jr, an American businessman, is famously quoted as saying this about friendship:

‘Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.’

I can relate to this.  I know I am a more complete person for having known Pete, despite disagreeing with him on lots of things.  I like to think that he, were he still alive, would say the same about me. 

But I didn’t become his friend to ‘lever myself up,’ which suggests a degree of calculation that is totally alien to me.  I became his friend because despite – or perhaps because of – our many differences, he intrigued me, and the more I got to know him the more I realised that what separated us was less important than what we shared: kindness, generosity, good humour, thoughtfulness, loyalty and mutual support. 

The accident happened thirty years ago this summer, when Pete was just 33 years old.  His full name was Charles Peter Johnston Morris, and he was the best man I ever knew.