Three songs for Ukraine

Events in Ukraine continue to dominate the news, and my thoughts inevitably drift to the anti-war movement and the peace songs of my youth. I am, at heart, a child of the 60s, and the anthems of those heady days still resonate with me. In those far off times we were convinced that the world could be a better place, if only those in power would listen to our pleas and give peace a chance.

We were, of course, hopelessly naïve in the belief that our message would be heard by those in a position to make the necessary changes. Fifty years on the world is a very different place, but as recent events demonstrate, not a lot better.

Photo Credit: by Miha Rekar on Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong, I believe absolutely that, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, gender or sexuality, the vast majority of human beings are fundamentally decent people. But not everyone, and when bad people get into positions of power, bad things can still happen. The evidence is all around us right now.

Much of the anti-war sentiment that prevailed as I grew up in the 60s and early 70s came from the conflict in far-off Vietnam, but for many Brits memories of WW2 were also raw. I remember my father telling me of the occasion when his unit came under intense aerial bombardment and one of his terrified buddies completely lost his mind, leapt onto the bonnet of his jeep, shook a furious fist at the attacking planes and screamed “Death, where is thy sting?” The poor guy found out soon enough.

And I recall, too, my mother’s horrific account of how the family house was destroyed in one of the first air-raids of the war, and of how she and her parents were forced to flee across London to her auntie’s home with all the possessions they had left in the world bundled up in a single tattered bedsheet.

In the circumstances it is no surprise that, when I first heard Edwin Star‘s rendition of War I immediately felt a connection with his words, including:

 War, I despise
'Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mother's eyes
When their sons go off to fight
And lose their lives
I said, war, huh (good God, y'all)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing...
War can't give life
It can only take it away

In fact, the song wasn’t written by Starr himself, but was penned instead for the Motown label by Norman Whitfield and Barret Strong. Although first recorded by The Temptations in March 1970, it was Edwin Starr’s powerful version three months later that took the anti-war movement by storm, reaching #1 for three weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, and #3 on the equivalent UK chart (see note #1 below).

Sadly, War’s lyrics seem just as relevant today as they did when I first heard them half a century ago.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought to mind other anti-war songs from the same era. Bob Dylan‘s Masters of War, for example, an angry attack on those who seek to profit from conflict without any concern for the suffering of those caught up in it (see note #2 below). Can you spot the connection with recent events in Ukraine? No? Then look harder!

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly...

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

And finally, my mind turns to John Lennon, who told the world in 1969 that we should Give Peace a Chance. A couple of nights ago we changed television channels a little early to watch the evening news, and caught some tail end coverage of a Rugby Union match. The game itself was over and the studio pundits were raking over the embers, as they always do. And in the background was John Lennon with his Plastic Ono Band, belting out his anthem for peace across the stadium’s sound system.

It can’t have been a coincidence: whoever chose to play that track at the end of that rugby match must have had Ukraine on his mind. And my overwhelming reaction was one of immense sadness, sadness that, nearly 50 years after Lennon laid the track down, we still feel the need to play it.

All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"
All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"

___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

Note #1: Other notable covers of War include recordings by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984: YouTube link here) and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1986: YouTube link here). YouTube also boasts compelling amateur footage of the Boss performing the song live alongside Edwin Starr: enjoy it here).

Note #2: Notable covers of Masters of War include a recording by The Flying Pickets (1984: YouTube link here) and this acoustic YouTube version by Ed Sheeran (c.2013).

Wardrobe woes

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, a three-door, five-drawer solid pine wardrobe in which to store my suits and shirts and socks and stuff. It was a big beast, to be sure, but we liked the look of it, and never gave much thought to how we’d get it up the stairs and into our bedroom. And anyway, it wasn’t really our problem: the guy at the furniture warehouse said they could deliver anywhere, and we took him at his word.

In the event it took a four man lift, and a lot of colourful cursing, before my new wardrobe made it to the top of the stairs and could be coaxed into its final resting place in a corner of the bedroom. And there it remained, unmoved and unmoveable, for more than a quarter of a century. Until we decided to redecorate.

Mrs P said in no uncertain terms that the time had come: the time for a new carpet, new curtains and a decent paint job. She looked at me meaningfully: painting is my territory, though I rather wish it weren’t. I said that I agreed – and I did agree, honest! – but in order to do a decent job we first needed to move the wardrobe. And that wardrobe was, as I explained, way too big for a man of my age, with my bad back, knackered knees and history of hernias, to contemplate moving.

The wardrobe-shaped elephant in the room

So there we left it for a year or two, the wardrobe-shaped elephant in the room. Until, one day about three weeks ago, Mrs P suddenly announced “I’ve had an idea!”

My heart sank. Don’t get me wrong, Mrs P’s a lovely lady (I married her, after all) but whenever she says “I’ve had an idea”, I know that my life’s about to get more complicated.

“And what idea is that?” I asked innocently, hoping fervently she’d already forgotten.

“Simple,” she replied brightly, “the bedroom desperately needs redecorating. If the only thing preventing it is that wardrobe, you’ll have to get rid of it and treat yourself to a new one.”

“Of course,” I responded in a flash, “but aren’t you forgetting something? Before we can buy a new wardrobe we’ll need to get rid of the one we’ve got now. And, as I may have mentioned previously, we can’t move the bloody thing!”

“No worries, we’ll offer it to a charity. They’ll collect the wardrobe. No problemo!

I had to admit, her idea sounded like a good one. Charities are always on the look out for quality items of furniture that they can sell, thereby raising much-needed cash to support their good causes. The wardrobe seemed like it was worth a bit, and local charities would surely be queuing up to take it away.

* * *

And so, just 24 hours later, we’re in the local offices of a big health charity, agreeing the deal. I whip out my mobile phone, and show the lady on duty a photo of the wardrobe.

“Ooh, how lovely,” she purrs, “we’d be pleased to take it off your hands.”

“And you’ll collect, of course? It’s a wee bit heavy and awkward to manoeuvre,” I caution, with a degree of understatement that verges on the criminal.

“Our guys will do their very best,” she responds, “but they have the right to refuse if they think it’s impossible or unsafe to proceed.”

“Oh, that’s OK, I’m sure they’ll manage just fine,” I lie. She smiles, plainly convinced by my reassurances. I just wish I felt the same.

* * *

A week later, the collection crew arrives. It’s a modest outfit, just two blokes and a van. “We’re doomed!”, I mutter to Mrs P as we usher them up to the bedroom.

They inspect the wardrobe from all sides. “Big, isn’t it?” one of them says unnecessarily, his voice trembling ever so slightly.

They then check the route they must take, the impossibly tight 180 degree turn needed to get the thing out of the bedroom and on to the landing, the limited vertical clearance of the stairwell, the narrowness and steepness of the stairs.

There is much scratching of heads and furrowing of brows. Finally they agree they’ll give it a go, and manage to drag the wardrobe a short distance away from the wall, unscrew the top half from the bottom and lift it off before waving the white flag.

“Sorry,” the head honcho says “can’t be done. I don’t know how the hell anyone managed to get it up here, but it ain’t going back down.”

And then they depart, leaving our hopes in tatters and the wardrobe, now in two halves, abandoned in the middle of the bedroom floor. So Mrs P and I have no option than to spend the rest of the afternoon dismantling the thing completely, taking it apart bit by bit and dragging the wreckage downstairs to dump in the garage. Even the individual pieces take a monumental effort to move, and we are left in awe of the crew that successfully delivered this monolithic piece of furniture all those years ago.

So the good news is that, after much heartache, we now have a new, wardrobe-shaped space in the bedroom. But the bad news is that I now have absolutely no excuse not to get on with the painting. Woe is me!

Folk song favourites: Wayfaring Stranger

My interest in folk music was inherited from my father. He was no great expert (and no great singer either!), but he knew just what he liked. Two of his favourite performers of folk and traditional songs were Joan Baez and Burl Ives. My last post touched briefly on a memorable track by Baez, so today I’ll say a few words about one of my favourite Burl Ives ballads.

The Wayfaring Stranger is a well-known American folk song, probably dating from the early 19th century. The lyrics were first set down in Joseph Bever’s Christian Songster, published in 1858. They tell the story of a man’s arduous journey through life, and his belief that his lot will improve after death when he will leave his troubles behind him and be reunited with his loved ones.

Folk song lyrics are like the Covid virus, constantly mutating, forever evading capture and control. So what follows isn’t a definitive version, but is nevertheless a reliable guide to The Wayfaring Stranger’s tone and major themes:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan*
I'm only going over home

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep
But golden fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed shall ever sleep

I'm going home to see my mother
And all my loved ones who've gone on
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

Beautiful, and deeply moving! One day – but not any time soon, I hope – a recording of The Wayfaring Stranger will be played at my funeral, as I embark upon my own final journey.

Burl Ives (1909-95) had a long association with this song. Having stormed out of his Illinois teacher training college in a fit of pique in 1929, Ives became an itinerant singer and musician who travelled across the US scratching a living by performing at small venues and doing odd jobs on the side.

Ives’s success and reputation grew, until in 1942 he was given his own radio show on CBS, playing traditional folk ballads. But the rootless, wandering lifestyle that characterised his early career obviously made a deep impression on the young man, and in memory of those times his show was titled The Wayfaring Stranger. Two years later he released a recording of the song on his album of the same name.

Countless artists have since recorded The Wayfaring Stranger, including Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ed Sheeran and Rhiannon Giddens, as well as Jack White, whose character Georgie sings it in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain. You can track down all of these covers on YouTube

Perhaps the most surprising interpretation I’ve come across was recorded by a bunch of Norwegians, the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra. Scandinavia is not a part of the world that anyone might reasonably expect to spawn a memorable version of a classic American folk ballad, but their recording proves beyond doubt that musical talent is blind to national boundaries.

While Hayde’s rendition balances perfectly Rebekka Nilsson’s plaintive vocals with some superbly atmospheric Appalachian instrumentation, Jos Slovick demonstrates that The Wayfaring Stranger works just as well when sung unaccompanied. His a cappella version, recorded for the 2019 movie 1917 is mournful, and gut-wrenchingly haunting. Definitely one of my favourites.

Great folk songs are capable of endless reinterpretation, each new version adding subtly different dimensions to the core narrative and melody. The Wayfaring Stranger is, in my mind anyway, one of the greatest of them all.

* note: “going over Jordan” = dying and going to heaven / paradise

My first cat

Next Saturday, (8 August), is International Cat Day. To mark the occasion, this post tells the story of a cat who first came into my life almost 60 years ago.

Mum and Dad twigged early on that I was crazy about animals, so when I was about eight years old we got a cat. It was a Siamese, and boasted an impressive pedigree. The neighbours thought we were getting above ourselves, way too big for our boots. Why couldn’t we make do with a tabby or a basic black-and-white job, just like everyone else down our street, they demanded peevishly.

In truth, however, the choice of a pedigree-toting Lilac Point Siamese had little to do with social pretentiousness. Rather, it was a simple matter of financial logic. “Our Mo,” as we called him, had a slightly mis-shaped (square-ish) head, meaning he would never win prizes on the show circuit. As a result we got him dirt cheap, and could therefore afford to eat for the rest of the week!

Our Mo, c1966

I can clearly remember my excitement, dashing off to school the next day to tell my class teacher, Miss Milbourne, about our new arrival. Miss Milbourne was a formidable battle-axe, at least 120 years old by my reckoning at the time, and built like a World War 2 American tank.

“Please miss, please miss,” I whined, “we’ve got a CAT!”

“Hrrmph,” Miss Milbourne grumbled moodily, “cats!” How is it that some people can invest so much contempt in a single word, a word just four measly letters long? The subject was never mentioned again.

Despite Miss Milbourne’s evident disapproval, I quickly came to worship Our Mo. There was so much to admire about him, including an uncanny ability to catch birds in mid-air and a visceral hatred of dustmen (aka “trash collectors” in North America).

Our Mo quickly learned how to open the living room door, leaping up to the lever handle and pulling it down with his paw to release the catch. After this it took him just a second or two to hook his paw around the edge of the door – which would now be slightly ajar – and ease it open. This neat trick enabled him to take himself off to bed whenever he felt like it.

When we first had him, Mum tried to persuade Our Mo that if he wanted to sleep on my bed it would have to be in a sturdy paper bag. I don’t think that lasted a week, and pretty soon he’d abandoned his paper bag and was lying wherever he chose. Often that would be in my bed, his head on the pillow facing mine, purring softly and twitching as he dreamt.

In his younger days Our Mo was a bit of a bruiser. He would regularly exact violent revenge on any other cat encroaching on his territory. One woman from across the road complained that we should teach our cat some manners, and do more to keep him under control. Even at my tender age, I recognised this was a preposterous suggestion. Cats will be cats.

Anyway, Mum and Dad didn’t like this woman much, and the fact that our cat was regularly able to give her cat a good pasting was a source of great vicarious pleasure. The only cat Our Mo ever tolerated in our garden was the next door neighbours’ elderly moggie, who was apparently given special visiting rights on the understanding that he knew who was boss.

Our Mo also terrorized the local wildlife, and as well as birds would regularly bring home mice and shrews. We’d have preferred him to leave nature alone, but like I say cats will be cats, however much we might wish they’d tone it down a bit.

One morning Our Mo laid a fully grown rat outside the back door and stood proudly beside the corpse, waiting for his hunting talents to be admired. Dad must have been at work because I can remember Mum getting very distressed. I was told to stay indoors, the cat was chased off with a flea in his ear (a bit of a change from where his fleas could normally be found!), and the next door neighbour was summoned and told to bring a shovel to dispose of our cat’s unwelcome trophy.

Once, and only once, Our Mo met his match. One day he came in from his adventures drooling at the mouth, sneezing violently and looking very sorry for himself. He was in a terrible state, and it was quickly decided he had to go to the vet.

This in itself was a bit of an ordeal. The vet’s surgery was several miles away and we had no car, so he had to be taken by bus. We didn’t have a pet carrying basket. I don’t know if they were even invented in those days, but if they were we wouldn’t have been able to afford one. So instead, Our Mo had to be taken in a zip-up shopping bag with just his head sticking out of the top.

Siamese cats have a loud, plaintive miaow at the best of times, but the stress and indignity of travelling by bus in a shopping bag with just your head poking out provoked a non-stop vocal protest that sounded for all the world as if he was being tortured. We couldn’t wait to get off the bus and away from the accusing eyes of our fellow passengers, who plainly believed an act of unspeakable animal cruelty was in progress.

The vet examined our cat thoroughly, thought for a bit and asked if we had toads in our neighbourhood. Mum gave me a stern look, and I had to admit that although there were none on the riverbank that backed on to our garden, one of my collection of pet toads – my second best specimen, known as Walter – had gone AWOL a few days previously.

The vet’s diagnosis was that our cat had encountered Walter in the garden and had tried to dispatch him with a swift bite to the neck. However, he explained, toads are blessed with special glands to help them cope with just this sort of emergency, glands that can release a noxious irritant producing a swift and massive allergic reaction in the attacker. Case solved. The cat was given a vitamin shot and instructed to rest. I was given a telling off and instructed to keep better control of my outdoor menagerie in future.

Talking of trips to the vet, Mum was a very proper lady who had certain standards, and one day she decided that Our Mo’s feet were unacceptably smelly. The wretched creature was dragged off to the surgery again, where the long-suffering vet had to sniff his paws. Poor man, seven years training to be a vet, and he ended up snorting a cat’s feet to earn a living!

To make us go away the vet advised that we dip Our Mo’s paws in TCP (a particularly stinky disinfectant) every night, which resulted in them stinking of TCP instead. Definitely a case of the cure being worse than the illness. The neighbours thought we were completely out to lunch, and in this instance you have to see their point.

Our Mo cat died when I had just turned 18. I have no brothers or sisters and was a bit of a loner, so when the cat’s kidneys failed and we had to have him put down it felt as if a great chasm had opened up in my life. I can remember the three of us – Mum, Dad and me – hugging each other and gently sobbing in the living room. He was truly one of the family, a real character, and we missed him dreadfully.

A few months later I went to university. I’ve always thought that it was probably a good thing that Our Mo had already passed on when I left. He would never have understood why I wasn’t at home any more, and would probably have pined. Mum and Dad knew he was irreplaceable. They never had another cat.

* * * * * * *

Follow these links to read about some other cats who’ve crossed my path over the years

  • Click here to read about Sid, one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever met, as dapper as a card sharp at the opera, who broke our hearts in 2014
  • Click here to read about Milky Bar, a cheeky chap who is the undisputed king of our Derbyshire suburban Serengeti
  • Click here to read about Malteser, an unmitigated rogue who visits us whenever he needs a snack

No pain, no gain: Reflections on getting the Covid vaccination

The vaccination centre is in a church hall, in a village three or four miles from Platypus Towers. I didn’t know the building even existed until the start of last week when I got the letter inviting me to log on to the internet to book my jab, but I’m pleased to make its acquaintance. Community venues are essential if vaccinations are to be rolled out in line with the government’s ambitious target, and although the place is modest and a little down-at-heel it’s more than adequate.

The operation is well organised by the NHS, with plenty of staff on hand to do what needs to be done, checking my temperature and personal details, giving guidance and reassurance, ushering me here and there as necessary, and finally administering the injection with cheerful good humour. Within 15 minutes I’m back outside in the fresh air, clutching an information leaflet advising on possible side effects of the vaccination.

PHOTO CREDIT: CDC via Unsplash

So far, so good. For the next few hours I get no reaction at all and almost forget that I’ve just had the jab. But by mid-evening I begin to feel feverish. Within an hour it seems like I have a bad dose of flu. My limbs ache and I’m shivering violently, and I’m so cold that I resort to putting on an outdoor fleece over my indoor clothes, with a hot water bottle tucked inside. I even wear my woolly hat while watching television, which Mrs P finds hilarious.

Finally I’ve had enough and stumble upstairs, collapsing into bed clutching the hot water bottle and still wearing my fleece and woolly hat. I’ve had worse nights, but not often. However by the next morning I’m feeling much better, and definitely a lot warmer. I can only assume that my reaction to the vaccine is proof positive that it’s doing what it’s meant to do, priming my immune system to fight off any Covid viruses that I might encounter in the future

* * *

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the side effects of the jab. It’s a small price to pay for the Covid protection that it will give me in the future. As the saying goes, no pain no gain.

And for god’s sake, we need to understand that things could be so much worse. It’s only around a year since Covid started making its presence felt in the UK, and yet already effective vaccines have been developed and more than 18 million Brits have received their first dose. That is truly extraordinary, and in the midst of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the pandemic we should recognise that if this virus had emerged, say, half a century ago, our ability to deal with it would have been so much less.

While I don’t for one moment wish to minimise the suffering and hardship the virus has caused – I too have lost a family member to this disease, and friends have also lost loved ones – I’m relieved that it’s hit now and not when I was a kid. Today scientists are better able to find ways of containing, if not eliminating, coronavirus, and doctors have more treatment options to help those who have already been infected by it. Meanwhile, internet and communications technology allows many of us to avoid contact with Covid altogether by working remotely, ordering stuff online to be safely delivered to our front doors, and staying in touch virtually with friends and family.

I also recognise that I’m privileged, a comfortably well-off citizen of a wealthy, sophisticated nation. The other morning the BBC radio news made the point that around 135 nations have yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine. Realistically, governments are going to look after their own citizens first – that’s what governments do – but having done that they have the chance to do a good thing, to do the right thing by ensuring that everyone, everywhere, has access to the vaccine, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, wealth or personal circumstances.

Even better, rich governments like ours could undertake such action as an absolute good, on the basis of an overriding moral imperative and without regard to any potential strategic advantage or economic benefit. I’m probably being a bit naïve here, but a man can dream!

Working together we can put Covid back in its box and maybe, in the process, start to build a better world. Now wouldn’t that be something, one truly positive outcome to emerge from the recent annus horribilis that has taken so many lives, and ruined so many more.

* * *

Postscript: Mrs P had to wait another four weeks for her first jab. Other than a bit of a sore arm she suffered absolutely no side effects at all. Huh!

Cat-astrophe avoided: Milky Bar gets his mojo back

It’s Christmas Eve afternoon. We’re sitting in the garden room, listening to music and watching the midwinter sun die slowly in the western sky. Overhead, gangs of starlings flock back to their roost, chattering noisily to one another as they pass. Then, to our right, a familiar clatter. It can mean only one thing: our good friend Milky Bar, the visiting cat who calls our garden home, has leapt onto the rickety fence that separates our property from Jim’s.

The injured party: Milky Bar

Yes, there he is. But something’s wrong. Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance. Today, however, he’s struggling, jerkily swaying to the left and then to the right, like a drunken tightrope walker in a tornado. Indignity – and possibly serious injury – seems just seconds away.

But when we look more closely we realise he’s already injured. Milky Bar’s standing on three legs, holding his right front paw clear of the fence. It looks badly swollen, and we can tell by his demeanour that he’s in a lot of pain.

Maybe he’s broken a bone in a freak accident? Perhaps he’s ripped out a claw fighting with a cat that dared invade his territory? Or has an infection set in, sending poison coursing through his frail little body? This look serious.

For several minutes Milky Bar maintains a precarious balance on the fence, before finally taking a leap of faith into our garden. As he lands a shockwave runs through his whole body, and he immediately snatches his damaged paw back into the air. He just stands there looking stunned and dishevelled, apparently unable to take another step. The boisterous, confident cat we know and love is gone, and he looks so fragile that a gentle puff of wind could topple him.

Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance

We discuss what to do. If we knew where he lives we’d go fetch one of his family, but Milky Bar’s domestic arrangements have always been a mystery to us. We agree that if he doesn’t move on after a few minutes we’ll bring him into the house, keep him warm and give him some food. We’ll even try to track down an emergency vet, though on Christmas Eve in the middle of a pandemic that could be tricky.

Finally, after an agonising wait for all parties, Milky Bar gathers himself and hobbles off slowly towards the area of the estate where we suspect his family lives. He looks so sad, so crushed, and we fear that we may never see him again.

* * *

We spend a restless night, haunted by the prospect of losing another “borrowed” cat. It happened once before when Sid disappeared suddenly and without trace, and we can’t bear the thought of history repeating itself.

To reward his bravery we offer Milky Bar some cold roast turkey, and he’s pleased to tuck in

Christmas Day dawns and we work our way through the familiar routine: opening presents, phoning family, whacking a turkey the size of a small ostrich into the oven. It’s business as usual, but our spirits are subdued as we worry about Milky Bar’s fate. We scan the garden every few minutes, but he’s nowhere to be seen. We fear the worst.

And then, when we’ve all but convinced ourselves that he’s not coming back, Milky Bar appears. He’s limping badly and his paw is still swollen, but at least he’s made it through the night and must be feeling a bit better to venture away from home. A couple of minutes later he leaves, but we reassure ourselves that he’s on the mend.

We don’t see him again for the next couple of days, and our anxieties start to return. In particular we worry that infection has taken hold, perhaps because his family were unable to find a vet to give him some urgently needed antibiotics during the festive holiday. But still we check the garden regularly, hoping for good news.

“Please don’t disturb me while I’m eating my lunch”

And finally, at last, our borrowed cat re-appears, cheekily peering up at us through the kitchen window. We can tell immediately that he’s feeling much better. The sparkle’s returned to his eyes, and he’s moving more freely.

To reward his courage we offer our brave little soldier some cold roast turkey, tossing it onto the patio in front of him. Milky Bar’s on it in a flash, tucking in greedily and looking cuter than ever. Clearly, this moggie’s got his mojo back.

Then, to round off a perfect day, Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also puts in an appearance. Never one to turn down food, he wolfs down some turkey too.

Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also wolfs down some turkey

Having filled their faces, the two cats swagger off in search of their next adventure. But hopefully this time Milky Bar will take a little more care. It’s been an anxious few days, and we could do without a repeat performance any time soon.

* * *

Postscript – do you want to know more about Milky Bar and Malteser? Follow the links below for earlier posts featuring the feline superstars

Time to look forward (The Show Must Go On)

What a bloody year it’s been. I expect you’ve noticed…the UK’s barmy Brexit brinksmanship, the excruciating US election, the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Australian bushfires, the climate-change deniers, the relentless rise of rampant populism, the worldwide economic meltdown. And then, of course, there’s Covid.

I could go on but you’re probably depressed enough already, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you get the point.

From a personal point of view it’s not been great either. It’s true we’ve avoided Covid, and I’m very grateful for that, but otherwise 2020 feels like The Lost Year. It’s the first time since Mrs P and I married over 35 years ago that we’ve spent every single night under our own roof. Planned breaks in various parts of the country had to be cancelled, and the best we’ve managed has been some local birdwatching and a few daytrips to places close to home.

Although phone calls and the internet helped us stay in touch, we’ve spent almost no time with family or friends since March. We managed to “attend” a few folk music gigs on YouTube and Zoom, but it ain’t like the real thing, is it? Worse still, we’ve not been to a restaurant for over nine months, and although we both enjoy cooking, we’re sick of it right now. A man can cook – and eat – too many curries, and this man has.

Time to look forward

And when, we wonder, will we ever be able to safely visit a coffee house again for a sweet, steaming mocha and an enormous slab of chocolate cake?

* * *

About ten days ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce tougher restrictions aimed at halting the spread of a new, more virulent strain of Covid-19. The festive plans of millions of Brits were ruined. At a stroke BoJo had come close to cancelling Christmas, and people were in shock.

Later that evening we settled down in front of the television to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing (for anyone reading this in North America, that’s the UK’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Eventual winner Bill Bailey danced his Showdance to The Show Must Go On, a classic number by Queen [click here for the poignant lyrics, and magical archive footage of Freddie Mercury leading the vocals] . Answering a question from host Claudia Winkelman directly after his dance, a panting Bill Bailey agreed that his routine was a “rallying call.” He said:

……the restrictions are going to be harder [following the Prime Minister’s announcement] and people are going to be isolated at Christmas…it’s not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this…the show must go on. It’s about being strong and getting through all of this.

Bill Bailey, speaking on BBC Strictly Come Dancing live broadcast on 19/12/2020 and subsequently reported by Digital Spy. Retrieved 24/12/2020

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s been a rotten year, but the show must go on. We must learn from what’s happened, but refuse to be crushed by the tragedy of it. Now is the time to consciously embrace positivity, to look forward with hope and expectation, to take comfort in the belief that – if we all pull together and do the right thing – 2021 can be better than the wretched year that’s about to end

The lyrics to Queen’s song include the following lines. The words were written nearly 30 years ago but have never been more relevant than they are today, as we prepare to step forward into the new year:

I’ll face it with a grin
I’m never giving in
On with the show

The show must go on.

Making friends with Malteser

Last week I wrote about Milky Bar, who for the past eleven weeks has happily defied the Covid-19 lockdown to hang out in our garden whenever the fancy takes him. Milky Bar is handsome, cheeky and full of his own importance, king of all he surveys, but somewhat aloof and distant. Social distancing comes easily to him.

We are also visited on occasions by a second cat, who we call Malteser. There’s a clear hierarchical relationship between them, and although Milky Bar tolerates Malteser, there’s no doubt who’s the boss. Malteser seems wary in the presence of His Majesty, and prefers to visit us when he’s elsewhere. He’s a nervous soul, not given to public demonstrations of affection. Until last week, that is…

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… It’s a warm, balmy day. Gazing out of the kitchen window I spot Malteser sitting next to the pond, tail waving gently as he watches flame-coloured fish idling in the shallows. A net protects them from unwanted attention, but Malteser’s not bothered. “Look but don’t touch” is the rule here, which suits him just fine on a sun-drenched afternoon.

I call for Mrs P and together we admire our visitor. After a couple of minutes, with the cat showing no signs of wanting to leave, Mrs P grabs her camera.

We open the door as quietly as we can, and Mrs P fires off a few shots. The shutter clicks and Malteser looks up, head cocked at a slight angle as he considers his options. Should I stay or should I go? he asks himself. I try to reassure him, speaking his name softly, telling him that we are his friends and mean him no harm.

Our eyes meet. The moment of truth. Mrs P and I hold our breath, trusting he will do right by us. We are the accused in the dock, awaiting a verdict, hoping for the best, yet fearing the worst.

And then, unexpectedly, Malteser stands and trots towards us. I fall to my knees, ready to greet him. He miaows, then presents his head and softly butts my hand. I rub his ears and fondle beneath his chin, and he responds with a purr. We two, cat and man, are together in heaven.

I break off, remembering that somewhere we have a small packet of cat treats, tiny triangles of biscuit, suspiciously brown and allegedly flavoured with chicken. They were originally bought for Milky Bar, who rejected them contemptuously as being unworthy of his attention. The treats have languished unloved at the back of a cupboard for nearly two years, but now, as I offer them to Malteser, I can see he’s less fastidious than his friend.

He tucks in greedily, taking treats direct from my fingers while giving me gentle love bites. After many months of social distancing, Malteser’s evidently concluded that we can be trusted. He’s thrown caution to the wind. Our relationship has moved to a new level, offering comfort and companionship to both parties.

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So, Milky Bar, you need to “up your game,” as the football pundits are wont to say. You have a serious rival for our affections…Malteser’s just a handful of strokes, a few purrs and a couple of cuddles away from being our new Best Friend Forever!

Defying the lockdown: the new adventures of Milky Bar

The UK media has been ablaze in recent days, ordinary folk – of whom I’m one – furious that people who should know better have apparently re-interpreted the lockdown rules to suit their own needs. Resentment at the cavalier behaviour of an individual in the Prime Minister’s inner circle, and the latter’s decision to condone that behaviour, are seen by many as proof positive that “there’s one rule for them, and another for us.”

For god’s sake, we deserve better than this.

But of course, there are those amongst us who have made no secret of the fact that it is their intention to defy the lockdown at every opportunity. Take Milky Bar, for example.

Milky Bar surveys his domain from the top of the garden wall

Milky Bar is a cat who lives on our estate, a cat who believes that our garden is in fact his garden, a place to hang out, booze and snooze whenever life gets on top of him – which is nearly always, it would appear. It’s also where he can hunt dragonflies, a distressing habit that I wrote about last year.

From the day that the UK’s lockdown was announced, Milky Bar has made it abundantly clear that as far as he’s concerned it’s business as usual. The Prime Minister limited citizens’ exercise outside the house to just 30 minutes per day, but in a brazen demonstration of contempt for those who claim the right to regulate our lives Milky Bar has opted to defy the lockdown. He continues to visit whenever he chooses and for as long as he pleases.

Sitting on the fence!

The perimeter of our garden is defined by a wooden fence on two sides and a brick wall on the third. Milky Bar’s arrival is invariably announced by an almighty clatter as he leaps up on to the wooden fence from Jim’s garden next door. From this vantage point he surveys his domain, checking out our garden for dragonflies, unwary birds or other opportunities for mischief.

He often drops by for a drink. We have two ponds, and he likes dipping his paw into the water, licking it dry, then repeating the sequence. Sometimes he does this for several minutes at a stretch. It’s not a very efficient way to drink, but it gives him – and us – ample satisfaction, as well as ensuring he has the cleanest paw in the neighbourhood.

Drinking from the birdbath

But there are times when he prefers his drinking water flavoured with birds rather than fish, on which occasions the birdbath comes into play. Standing up on his back legs, with his front paws on the edge of the bowl, he can drink contentedly while at the same time keeping a beady eye on the birdtable, just in case…

“I think this water’s off!”

One day, the local blackbird makes a near-fatal error of judgement. He can’t have missed Milky Bar, lapping water from the birdbath. Perhaps he’s calculated that the birdtable’s very high and no self-respecting cat would try climbing it. Whatever the reason, he decides to drop in to fill his face. Foolish blackbird!

As soon as the blackbird lands, Milky Bar’s on high alert. He immediately stops drinking and creeps stealthily towards his intended lunch. Suddenly he charges, launching himself at the birdtable, scaling it frantically like a furry Edmund Hillary.  Feathers fly, avian curses shatter the suburban calm, but happily no blood is spilled. 

On the birdtable … snacking on bird food

It’s unclear who’s more embarrassed by this episode, the blackbird or the cat. However, Milky Bar is not one to dwell on a momentary loss of dignity and having conquered the summit he quickly decides that he should be rewarded for his endeavours. Shrugging off his mistake, he proceeds to eat bird food instead of blackbird … he’s a very, very strange cat, but cute as hell.

Drinking from the watering can

It’s been hot and dry here for several weeks – last month was the UK’s sunniest ever May since records began – and watering the plants has become a nightly ritual. Unfortunately the hosepipe is knackered and the lockdown has prevented us replacing it, so we’ve had to resort to watering cans.

“I’m in heaven”

But one person’s misfortune is another’s pleasure, and Milky Bar has just discovered the exquisite joy of drinking direct from a watering can. Maybe the water, fresh from the tap, tastes even better than the fish- and bird-flavoured alternatives? Whatever, since we started leaving the watering cans full overnight he’s been in heaven.

Snoozing in the shade of the bushes

But of course, drinking, chasing birds and eating dragonflies are mere distractions. Milky Bar’s main reason to visit our garden is to snooze. He’s very good at snoozing. There are lots of places that are just right for forty winks, plenty of bushes offering shade from the midday sun while still giving good views of the birdtable…if he can be bothered with his feathered friends, that is.

Snoozing in the shadow of the sheets

He also enjoys laying out underneath the washing that we’ve hung out to dry, the sheets that waft in the breeze gently fanning him as he dreams of dragonflies. And recently he’s discovered that, behind the shed, I have an old dustbin (translated for my trans-Atlantic buddies, that’s a garbage can!) in which I store compost. Sleeping on top of the dustbin, hidden between the back of the shed and the fence, offers all the comfort and privacy that this idle cat covets.

Snoozing on the dustbin lid

So there we have it. The lockdown has brought misery to some, irritation to many, and inconvenience to just about everyone. But for a select few it’s simply an irrelevance. For those lucky souls life’s going on just as it always did…Milky Bar’s doing just fine.

Milky Bar’s doing just fine

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Postscript: Milky Bar, blogger extraordinary. New followers of this blog won’t be aware that around six months ago, when I was busy preparing for Christmas, Milky Bar stepped in to write my weekly post. He had a lot to say for himself in his Guest Blog, and took great pleasure in hurling insults at me. However, I’m a generous soul and have forgiven his youthful indiscretions. You can read what he had to say by clicking here.

Milky Bar the blogger … he’s got a lot to say for himself

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