Month: August 2013


Well it is back to the gates! These were taken today and yesterday.

The first two yesterday afternoon in Smallthorne, Stoke-on-Trent on a breezy cooler day.



The other two in Cobridge at 8.45 this morning. It was breezy, sunny cool in the wind quite hot in the sun.



The two old gates are on an outbuilding of the Vicarage. Cobridge Church and the Vicarage are built of a yellowy brick which has absorbed the industrial dirt for well over a century. Cobridge is an interesting part of Stoke-on-Trent. It includes some of the finest houses in the area as it is where the wealthy pottery and business owners moved from Burslem and Hanley. It is featured in Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy and some of the houses he describes can still be seen, though in an often decrepit state. In the past 60-70 years it has become one of the areas which are cheaper to live in and any new community usually moves there first.

Two statues

Scanned at

The first of  today’s photographs is from the same trip to Paris in 1982 that my blog of couple a days ago dealt with. I visited Versailles, as it was still very early April and the statues outside were wrapped up in black plastic, which made them not only look like mini Christo’s but far more interesting than what was underneath. There are more somewhere, some of the most interesting where the win has blown the black plastic aside and an arm or head is poking out, one day I will find them. I have to say I found Versailles one of the least interesting historical places I have been. It was vast wealth blatantly on show, I can imagine many of the Gulf States cities are like this.


The second is from yesterday and my visit to Llysfaen in North Wales where I spent many holidays in the 1960’s. I had hardly noticed the graveyard before and whilst walking past noticed a small white statue attached to a gravestone, looking quite unreal. The light was just finding it in the gloom under the thick canopy of trees, and I enhanced the effect with some fill in flash. It was a breezy, warm day clouds building and breaking up.

Underpainting 5


Chapter 5 of my novel Underpainting, the other chapters you can find at the link above. In this chapter I do one of the things every book and workshop tells you not to do early on in a novel, but for anyone reading through to the end will see it as a catalyst.


“Will King Billy be all right Mari?” Lizzie asked yet again.

Marianne and Peter often went to Bill and Angela’s. Peter called it the zoo. Lizzie would be practising the guitar, kids and animals flying around, a baby half dressed, books and magazines piled on chairs, toys and half eaten food left in every nook and cranny, and yet Angela still found time to make pots, loads of them, and sold them by the crate load.

Marianne shook her head slowly. She and Lizzie had got Anne and Diana to bed. Charles was running round his room lost in some intergalactic war. Philip sat in his room unable to cope with it all. Marianne and Lizzie were sitting at a piled up scrubbed pine table in the kitchen drinking coffee.

“I don’t see why not. He’s not that old, he’s what forty nine?”

“Sixty two”, interjected Lizzie.

“…you know I think sometimes he still thinks he’s a student, too much to drink, late nights…” Marianne stopped, realising this wasn’t really what she should be saying to Bill’s daughter, but she knew Lizzie knew it anyway, at seventeen she was older than Marianne in many ways. Lizzie wasn’t really listening, just staring at the clock that had shown ten past eight since Marianne could remember.

“Was it my fault?”

“Yours Lizzie?” Marianne sounded surprised, “…no …no of course not it’s nothing to do with you, men that age, it happens…”

“We had a big row yesterday”, and from the hundreds of ‘chats’ with young women at the college, Marianne could tell that Lizzie needed to talk. ‘I hope it’s not something I have to keep secret from Angela again’, she thought.

“You see” and Lizzie’s voice got quicker and quicker, “I don’t want to go to college, I… I know it’s all great there… and I’d love to go and work with you… and of course Jasmine and Karl are going… but I think there’s more. King Billy and I rowed about it for hours yesterday he didn’t see that I want to try things NOW…. he said wait, get the education then go… but I don’t want that, I can go to college any time can’t I Mari? I want to go and do something. But this. This has spoilt it all. Queen B will blame me, she always does, I’ll have to go now as it’ll all be my fault”, Lizzie stopped and looked at Marianne for a reaction.

All Marianne could think about was where on earth did Angela and Bill get this stupid thing of King Billy and Queen B.

“Are you sure…” Marianne stopped herself and realised that what she was about to say was what her mother said to her. Lizzie started again before Marianne could finish…

“…The band. We’ve got gigs and we sound so good… Ali and Laszlo, we’re a team, its so tight now… they want to have a go at it, perhaps go down to London… we can do it and do it by ourselves, just listen…” She stood up. “…wait there”, and ran upstairs.

Marianne sat looking at, but not reading, the back page of the local paper.

“Oh God” she thought “why me and why now?” and could hardly keep her eyes open.

Lizzie ran back into the kitchen and put a cassette in a machine hidden under a pile of children’s clothes on an almost invisible pine Welsh dresser. A loud distorted noise filled the kitchen, a sort of punk thrash with quite haunting but totally unintelligible chanting over the top. Lizzie looked at Marianne expectedly.

‘What the hell do you say’ thought Marianne, ‘one or both of them will hate me’.

Bill tried to sit forward in bed and a buzzer went off which then repeated and repeated as he tried but failed to move.

“Fuck…” he said but no sound came out and another higher pitched buzzer went off.

Bill was connected like a puppet to a machine and had no power over what went in and what came out of him. He needed a drink.

He could see a clock through a glass panel. Seven-thirty, but he wasn’t sure if it was morning or evening

The last thing that he thought was real, was the discussion he was initiating in the Lecture Theatre.

He tried to turn on the red hot pillows and tried to speak the words he’d led in on, nothing came out but his brain heard a quote from Ruskin – ‘… Giotto, like all the great painters of the period, was merely a travelling decorator of walls, at so much a day…’

It was at that moment he thought ‘..the floor came up to meet me’, Bill liked that quote, it was apt for so many occasions he tried to laugh and a third buzzer bleeped and kept bleeping. But that’s what it was like he thought, he saw the ground come up then all was dreams and bumps and…

His head was sore otherwise he felt nothing, his legs floated in the air and felt bigger than the room. Bill tried to put his hand to his forehead, which must have been where he landed. A different buzzer went off even louder and suddenly a nurse was standing by the bed, looking about the same age as Lizzie.

“Please William, try not to move… the machines are very sensitive”. He thought she had a hint of a Scottish accent and Bill wanted to ask where she was from, but couldn’t.

She adjusted one of the sticky pads on his chest, made sure all the pipes were clear of him and left. The ward was a working not a sleeping place, he knew he must be in intensive care or something, but didn’t feel ill. There was the distant clatter of trolleys, phones softly ringing, and a hum of people talking. Without moving his body he could see two windows, one busy with staff and a glow of monitors. The other looking high over the glistening city, from the silent movie of a distant road, he felt it must be evening.

Bill turned his head to the left and saw in bright white sunlight Saint Francis catching birds and pulling their wings off, Lizzie in a nurses uniform bandaging them up, and Angela hanging out huge sails of white washing on some trees.

Bill’s forward fall in the Lecture Theatre had shocked the students to rigidity for a couple of seconds. They thought for a moment it was one of his tricks, part of the show. Deep dark blood was pouring from his mouth. Rachel had been first to realise things were wrong, she leapt from her seat and made sure Bill was comfortable and not moved, she gently wiped away blood from his mouth. Another student rang the college emergency number. Soon the oft practiced well-oiled cogs were set into motion, as Bill’s existence slipped into other people’s hands.

The porter’s especially loved clearing a way through the sculpture department for the ambulance crew. The excitement lasted through to the afternoon tea break; then became a part of communal memory. Within a couple of hours the administration found three temporary part-time lecturers to fill in.

Angela was phoned immediately, she was leaving to pick up Charles and Anne from school, Diana was already strapped into the back of the car. She rang Marianne and arranged that she pick them up and look after them for an hour or so.

When Angela arrived at the hospital there was nothing to do. She saw Bill for about one minute before he was whisked off. She thought it had only been a fall, not this. He was unconscious, making an animal like gurgling in his breathing. The doctor told her things could be better but not to worry. Diana was demolishing the waiting room and the doctor advised that it would be better to go home and make sure her children were OK, he looked pointedly at Diana who was at the time underneath a seat pulling out dirty paper tissues. Angela felt like hitting him or was it Bill she felt like hitting?

By the time Angela arrived home Lizzie and Marianne had fed Charles and Anne. Angela tried to help get Diana fed, but realised she couldn’t concentrate and wasn’t needed anyway. Marianne sat her down, gave her a huge glass of brandy which almost made her sick, then sent her back to the hospital. She explained that Peter should be there by now, so she wouldn’t be alone.

A weasely barman called time and rang a huge ships bell, as Bill struggled through a mass of men in black coats and grey suits, his glass was empty and held out in front of him, but the bar got further and further away and more men came between. An angel swooped out of a Botticelli above the bar and swept him up in her strong arms above the heads of all the drinkers, higher than the clouds to the tiny side bar in a pub in the mountains. A barmaid pulled foaming pints of deep amber beer.

Bill heard Peter say, “OK, I’ll have one, thanks”, and opened his eyes, focussing on Peter drinking a cup of tea from a blue grey cup. The noise of the hospital flooded back as a trolley rattled along a distant corridor.

“How was Henry?”

Peter jumped, his tea slopped in the saucer.

Bill’s voice was weak, but in this humming silence, clear.

“God Bill, I thought you were asleep…. OK, but how are you?”

“Don’t know Pete, I really don’t know”

Bill saw a tall black figure, wearing a long cloak. He turned and ran towards the garden at his grandmother’s white stone cottage, deep in the lush green Ayrshire hills, the sun felt warm and a breeze blew. He was helping his mother and Angela peg out thick white and gold flags with the Lamb of God intricately embroidered in the middle. Blood was spurting from the wounds and soiling the flags however hard they rubbed they became a deeper and deeper red.

Peter stood when he saw the priest at the door.

He didn’t really know what to do. He was not sure if Bill would want him or not.

He knew Bill wouldn’t.

“Hello I’m Peter Marten, a friend of Bill’s, look…”

But before Peter could finish the priest smiled and said in a soft West Country voice, “Oh so you’re Peter, yes Bill’s told me a lot about you… I’m glad you’re here… you mean a lot to him you know. Angela’s in the waiting room…” and he guided Peter towards the door.

He’d never thought of Bill as religious, but then he knew there were things Bill didn’t know about him. He watched as the priest placed a highly ornamented silver chalice next to the plastic water jug, knelt down on one knee by the bed and prayed.

Peter left and went to Angela in the Waiting Room who was sitting staring at nothing. Peter joined her on the orange seats.

“Oh Peter, I’m glad you’re here. Marianne’s looking after the royals, she said you’d be here, I know they only let one person in at a time, I’ll go in soon.”

Angela looked tired and a lot older than Peter usually thought of her.

“He woke up… asked after you” Peter knew he didn’t sound convincing, but how could he say he asked after Henry of all people. Angela seemed pleased.

Peter went to a coffee machine.

“Want one?”

Angela shook her head.

He sat down next to her. The shadows of a TV danced on the walls in an empty room next to them.

“Do you know a priest is with Bill?”

“Oh yes, Father Brown, I rang him, I knew Bill would want him to be here”

Peter couldn’t help but smile at “Father Brown”.

“He doesn’t go to Mass. I don’t think he’s a believer but they get together to argue, they both enjoy the fight and Father Brown is an expert on malt whiskies. He used to play rugby for Cornwall and you know Bill played at school and I think at University…” Angela’s voice tailed off and she stared silently at the ward door.

“I’ve known Bill for twenty years he never said…”

“Bill must have told you? His dad was a chauffeur, a Protestant from Glasgow and his mother a Catholic, from the country. She was so nice, so gentle and so proud of Lizzie. They met when she was in service. His dad died well before I knew him…”

Peter knew all this but just let Angela talk, it broke the silence and stared blankly at the posters on the wall imploring people to give their blood and kidneys. Peter thought of the meal he’d eaten a lifetime ago with Henry, and realised he was very hungry.

A doctor came in and spoke quietly to Angela.

She nodded and he walked away.

“I don’t think they hold much hope for him Peter… What on earth are we going to do without him? What’ll we do?”

She broke down and cried.

Peter put his arms round her, and as he stood comforting Angela he couldn’t think of Bill or Angela. He was quite numb and knew he should be part of this, but wasn’t. All he could think of was a huge painting with frames in rubbed out gold and tenement blocks dissected into sections each a mass of life and death.

At 2.25am Bill Watson died without gaining consciousness again.

Paris morning April 1982


These photographs were taken when I went for an early morning walk in a chilly Paris in the first week of April 1982, from slides I have had digitised. It is the best time to see a city and wherever I go I try to get out early, as streets are cleaned, light is interesting, places are setting up, things are being cleaned and delivered. There are more which I think are stronger in a box which I cannot find anywhere, like one of Sophia Loren falling over while filming an advert! But for now these will have to do. 





They were taken using an Olympus OM1n using Zuiko 28mm, 100mm and standard 50mm lenses, on Agfachrome 200ASA  film. Some work was done in Lightroom and Photoshop especially on the man cleaning the window.



Of bees and teazles


Extreme obsessive behaviour is actually quite easy to write about, but is fairly rare in people. However, most of us have some sort of minor obsession, and those are harder to write about, as maybe we don’t see it in ourselves. If behavioural they can become a source of tension in a relationship and are useful as a tool for a story’s development. For instance many years ago there was someone I knew at a pub who used to say as he left a group of people – ‘Don’t have sex without me’. Worth a titter the first time, after the hundredth it lost even any humour and was someone to be veered away from.

I’m sure I have some equally annoying habits, one co-worker once complained to me that I always moved around the office very slowly, something I hadn’t noticed in myself. But, when I mentioned to her about one of her annoying habits, which was fairly innocuous and for the life of me I can’t remember what it was now, she hit the roof and complained to the Management Committee!

This blog came about from a feature on a radio programme I was listening to in the bath. Someone chose Blue by Joni Mitchell as a song to hand down to future generations. I have never understood how people can like Joni Mitchell, the songs, the voice, turn me off. And yet, I had a very good friend who had everything she’d recorded and played me a new recording of her with an orchestra, which seemed even worse. It was awkward, I didn’t want to be rude as she had got a bottle of wine out and I think expected me to equally appreciate the music.

My now estranged wife had an almost obsessive appreciation of Elvis Costello, she bought everything including music by members of The Attractions. I already liked EC when we met, but maybe every day, I suppose it could have been much worse, Abba for instance. We went to one of the best concerts I ever saw, EC and The Attractions in Liverpool, amazing night, but then a few weeks later we were in Cardiff to see him, then Birmingham. A bit later Wolverhampton, then Manchester, then Hammersmith, then Leeds and other places I forget. Nice to see various cities! (By the way EC was not the reason for the estrangement!)

So am I that perfect? Well far from.

I have been a Port Vale fan since about 1960 and for quite a few seasons not only had a season ticket for home games but travelled to most of the away games. I still listen to all the games and go to games when I can afford. I get very annoyed when something gets in the way of my listening to games.

When I watch films I usually see them through a comparative viewpoint to those made by Francois Truffaut and regularly watch his films; I have read nearly everything Gunter Grass has written; and so it goes on through the music of Ravel, books of Iris Murdoch, films by Jiri Menzel, music by Bob Dylan, paintings by Ben Nicholson and so on and so on. When I like someone I want to read, listen to, see, as much of their work as I can consume.

The thing about these minor obsessions is that we find it hard to understand how others don’t equally appreciate them. I cannot understand how someone living in Stoke-on-Trent can support Stoke City and not Port Vale, it just feels wrong! Or, how many people think Gunter Grass is hard to read, he is not easy but the joy and breadth of his writing is wonderful, or so I think!

I was very kindly given a book for Christmas a few years ago, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. The giver explained that it was a friend of hers’ favourite, so as we had been friends for 40 years and quite often gone to exhibitions and films together where we often agreed on what we saw, I was very hopeful. Although very sharply written, I found it awful, it was meant to be humorous, I couldn’t see any there. Very awkward situation again! It won the Man Booker Prize but then so did my least favourite Iris Murdoch novel The Sea, The Sea. A matter of taste, Jacobson is an excellent writer and I have heard a lot of things on the radio, but this was awful, in my opinion. And those last three words is where the thing lies.

Our characters need opinions and not just our own, they have to live apart from ourselves. However hard it is, we need to people our stories with characters who maybe sexist, racist, right wing, left wing, or just couldn’t give a toss! These minor obsessions are useful to develop and round out a character, create awkward and conflicting situations, so it is worth first exploring what our own are to develop those in our fictional friends. It is perhaps the post Freudian viewpoint on the arts where everything we write or create is just an extension of ourselves, yes this is vital, but we also have to get inside the heads of others.


Today’s photographs are some I took on Saturday at the bottom of the nearby park, of bees and teazles, at the point just before they dry out in autumn, it was a sunny, mild afternoon.

Underpainting 4


Chapter 4 of my novel Underpainting highlighting the tension of life before mobiles were an everyday object. If you want to read Chapters 1-3 click the link above.


Peter sat in a crowded carriage on the nine eighteen train to Euston. He was penned in by a Swedish student who appeared to be carrying most of Sweden in his backpack, and two salesmen who from their conversation and regular phone calls he thought must be in electronics of some sort. Peter looked at the crossword in his paper, he’d done one clue, which he thought was wrong, and had a pain across his forehead due to being out with Bill the night before; then when he got home suffered three hours of Marianne in torment over her Mother. He couldn’t believe that he’d promised to give a talk on water-colour painting, but it had calmed her down and by 3a.m. they’d eventually got to sleep.

He felt uncomfortable.

“Damn” said Peter quite loudly, as he realised he’d forgotten to phone Clare, which stopped a seemingly endless conversation one of the salesmen was having down his phone.

He went to the buffet car, ordered a tea and a sickly carrot cake, and decided to eat it standing at the small shelf bar covered with coffee and tea rings.

He looked at the few coins he’d got as change from the five pound note and thought how shocked his mother would be. He took a sip of the scalding tasteless tea and watched the familiar landscape go by. The canal basin was coming up so less than an hour to go.

He knew Henry wouldn’t have put up with this. He’d have gone first class, been served breakfast, he wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Peter could afford to, but something about the words ‘first class’ rankled him. ‘Inverted snobbery’ he thought, ‘I’d have been more relaxed, but I’d have felt guilty’.

He remembered the time he invited his mother to go and see his paintings in London; he’d sent her the money for a train ticket; she’d come by bus and brought enough sandwiches to last her for the day.

He’d planned to take her to a restaurant where Henry had taken him, but they ended up eating bacon and egg sandwiches on a seat outside the Festival Hall overlooking the Thames, and had to admit that they tasted better than what Bumbles, or whatever it was called, would have offered.

“…Don’t want to be spending London prices on food you can make yourself…” she’d said.

Peter knew he was like his mother, however hard he tried not to be. He felt ill at ease travelling round in taxis, couldn’t think of spending fortunes on clothes, was careful with his money, the legacy of being brought up with just enough to get by.

He still couldn’t believe that people paid thousands of pounds for his work, which meant he was now reasonably well off and all from his own efforts. That pleased him.

His father had said that art was a dead end, for ‘nancy boys’, technical drawing was the key, there would always jobs for draughtsmen. He looked out as the train sped past the Ovaltine factory.

Peter’s father had worked shifts in a steel works for 38 years, a small cog in a huge continuous production. His finger nails never got clean and he smoked heavily to annul the smell of the coke. He’d dreamt that a son of his would be one of those who didn’t have to go to work until 8.30, who sat in their own canteen, didn’t get dirty, could wear a white shirt and a suit. He said it’s what he’d gone through the war for, what he never had himself.

But from the age of six Peter knew what he wanted, to be an artist, but to be on the safe side he always said he’d be an art teacher. Through the hell of a secondary modern school where unambitious staff told him to look for a job in an art shop, he retained his dream. He had to hide his ambition for fear of the bullies, and kept secret from his dad the times his mother took him to see pictures in the town’s pitiful art gallery.

Then like a new awakening Peter went to art school, 15 years old, with the smell of the oil paint, pastels and gouache blasted his senses, his longing to move on.

Wembley Stadium shot by in the distance and Peter made his way back to his seat.

Osborne’s sat in the middle of Covent Garden like something left over from another age. The shop window had a few old brushes placed in a pot, dusty corners and a board painted a peculiar mix of olive and emerald green. Either side were the shops of the new Covent Garden. To the right a designer jeweller, with small beautifully coloured earrings tastefully set on simple glass shelves. No prices. To the left was a shop selling Japanese household goods at exorbitant prices, ‘Probably where Henry buys his toilet rolls’ Peter thought, and went in to Osborne’s.

He handed over his list and spent time chatting about the new spatulas they’d had specially made, he added six to the order, though he never really used them. He asked about water-colours. The assistant produced from under the dark counter a beautifully polished wooden box, filled with a whole spectrum of individually wrapped cakes of paint set in white china pans. The box cost £495; Peter took a sharp intake of breath and bought it. He left with it wrapped in brown paper under his arm. The oil paints, brushes, spatulas and canvas would be delivered.

Doodles was bright and sparse, white walls without any decoration, the tables – dark wood with gleaming white linen, the chairs – plain, the floor – scrubbed wood. It felt like a dressed up butchers shop. Peter was early and sat drinking a long glass of orange juice. Henry was due at one o’clock but as always he’d be late. Everyone at the tables was smart. The effect reminded him of the Degas painting of the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans. He felt out of place; the only male without a tie, without a suit.

Henry was 10 minutes late.

Henry looked exactly what he was, someone who could make deals, be assured when ordering food and without guilt when taking his percentage from the sale of your work. He was certainly younger than Peter, but he couldn’t tell how much.

“How good to see you Peter… I see you’ve been to Osborne’s” looking at the brown paper package.

“Water-colour paints”

“A new departure?”

“Not really….  a whim”


Henry sat down and immediately picked up the long narrow menu, he already knew what to order but it was habit.

“Have you chosen?”

Peter had looked at the menu. It was mainly offal, expensively packaged, a bit like school dinners with a posh sauce.

“No… any suggestions?”

“I’m having the brains with shallots in a mascarpone sauce, and some of these”

Henry pointed at one of the items which Peter didn’t really fancy.

“I’ll have the lamb chops”

Henry ordered lunch and a suitable Chilean wine.

“I’ve been sorting some things out for you Peter. We’ve almost finalised that show in Tokyo. You and two others from the Gallery, The Contemporary English Landscape, follow up on those sales we had after the Academy. Also, Felix Blucher of Euro Contemporary Dance contacted me, saw your painting in the Tate and wants a large backdrop for a new production, opening in Sadler’s Wells. Looks a good opportunity if you want it?”

“I’ve never worked for theatre… never thought of it”

“It would get great exposure for you”

“My work, you know, it’s about places… what’s the subject?”

They’d had an argument last time they met after Henry had said that some large company wanted to buy some pieces to fit in with their décor, and could Peter do them. Peter did not want that sort of work and threatened to break off with the Gallery if they thought he did. Henry was able to calm him.

“It’s commissioned, something about unemployment… sounds grim but could be good… they’ve got good sponsors, software company”.

“I’ll think about it, when do they need to know?” Peter asked.

“I’ll ring you, set up a meeting. You know it really would be better if you were down here, so many good contacts… but I know I can’t persuade you”

They’d had this discussion before. Henry couldn’t understand why Peter wouldn’t move to London, leave the college, do more painting. Peter always explained how much he believed in teaching, the stimulus the students gave him, about how they couldn’t afford a studio and certainly not a house                                                                                                                                             in London. What he always failed to say but both he and Henry knew, was that being at the University was a safety net, he knew where he was. Peter was also unsure whether he could sustain more than two paintings a year.

The food came and they gossiped about people they knew, about exhibitions, about the Gallery, about where some of Peter’s pictures now hung.

When they’d finished eating Peter knew he better tell Henry about Frank Butter.

“Henry, I have a confession. I’ve been doing a commission that I sorted out myself, of course I’ll make sure you get your commission, I know about the contract”

Henry looked quite surprised.

“Who is it for?”

“Frank Butter”

“I didn’t know he collected”

“I don’t think he does”

Henry wrote a note in a little leather note pad with a deep azure blue Mont Blanc Mozart pen he always carried. Presents from his partner.

“Do you want us to deal with anything? How on earth did you get him… he really is a bit of an outsider”

“Oh you know…” Peter rather dismissively said. “I can deal with it. We met at an opening in Manchester, I don’t know what he was doing there, guest of the mayor or something… you know the sort of thing? Anyway we got talking and it came about… likes to deal directly with people… meant to tell you last time, but with all that interior decoration crap, it went out of my mind”.

Henry made some more notes.

“Mm… how much was it?”

“Eighteen thousand”

“Good… he paid yet?”

“Yes, all up front.”

“Why? I mean, how did he know your work? I’d have thought boats and sunsets in a fancy gold frame was more Frank Butter”

‘Bloody snob’ thought Peter.

“He’d seen that piece in the Times, which surprised me. He wanted something painting about where he grew up… we come from the same area so knew some of the same places. He knew my dad.”

“Ri-i-ght… He’s been very quiet lately. Must be doing well… D’you mind if we contact him, see if there’s any more business?” Henry was sort of shaking his head as he spoke as if he expected to hear ‘no’.

“I doubt it” Peter replied.

“Look I have to dash, I’m due back at the gallery… Let me know when you’ve finished that for Butter. We could show it before he gets it, have an opening, could be a nice little event, if he’d allow it.”

“I doubt it, but I’ll ask… it’s all done and ready”

Henry finished his wine.

Peter wanted to buy some books before getting his train, so they were both keen to be off. He still hadn’t rung Clare. Looking at his watch he thought – ‘Too late now’.

The 6.15 train was surprisingly empty. His fellow travellers looked tired and gaunt in the hard green and yellow shadows of the station’s strip lit underworld. Passengers were reading work papers, writing notes from meetings, and looking through bulging bags at what they’d bought.

Peter took off his jacket and settled himself at an empty table. He threw the Socialist Worker and Big Issue he’d bought to ease his conscience under the seat, then leafed through some of the books he’d bought on water-colour painting, in his mind putting together his talk and drifting off into the possibilities the fluid transparent medium held for his own work. The idea of the ballet set intrigued him the two ideas merged together into layers of paint and fabrics blending together.

By the time they arrived at Watford he was staring at the lights of houses, thinking of the opportunities Henry had put before him. ‘I bet he’s selling them like wallpaper’ he thought ‘ perhaps I should move down, I’ll put it to Mari she’d enjoy being back down here, lots of friends’.

He dozed off, the rush of a train in the dark woke him up. ‘Better ring’ he thought and went to the buffet car. He bought a £5 phone card and rang home, the noise and crackle were almost too much to hear anything. Marianne answered.

“It’s me” he shouted above the crackle, “should be home by eight thirty’

“Peter…” the sound broke up “…is in hospital”

“What Marianne? Who did you say is in hospital? You broke up”

The line went clear.

“Bill, Bill is in hospital, his lungs or liver or something”

“Oh…” said Peter, stunned.

“I’m off to Angela to look after….” the line broke up.

“I didn’t hear …” Peter shouted, then the line cleared and Marianne’s exasperation could easily be heard.

“When you get back, you go straight to the Infirmary, then meet me at Angela’s later, I’m off soon, she’s worried about the Royal Family….”

The phone went dead as the card ran out. Peter bought another and re-dialled, but only got his answer phone. He bought a couple of miniatures of scotch and went back to his seat.

Peter stared out of the window at the blackness and the reflection of the carriage mixed with dots and splashes of orange and white lights of houses, cars, small towns and villages.

He sat back and drifted back to when his father was in hospital eleven years previous.

An urgent phone call had interrupted a tutorial on a blistering summer day near the end of term, he remembered that students were packed into their darkened common room watching Wimbledon. His mother, not distraught or upset told him, ‘Your Dad’s had to go in to the Royal, they said it’s just as a precaution’. Peter hurriedly made arrangements at the college and drove over the sunlit Pennines.

When he arrived in the ward he saw a man whose only attachment to life was through a series of tubes, electronic probes, and bleeping machines, quite abstract to the reality of his experience. His mother was sitting next to the bed reading a magazine, his father was awake his face covered with an oxygen mask, they weren’t talking, they never really did, just the questions and answers that get through life. His mother was pleased when she saw Peter, his father stared at the ceiling.

A goods train thundered past the train window. Peter looked at his watch, only half an hour to go. He looked at the back cover of one of his new books and wondered why he was thinking of his father and not of Bill, perhaps he was making sure the shock of seeing Bill in hospital was lessened through experience. It annoyed him that there was nothing he could do to hurry the journey up. He drank the second miniature, it was bitter poor quality whiskey. He wondered why he’d bothered. The light in the carriage window reminding him of the sharp hospital lights when he had to go and see his father’s body and pick up a grey plastic bag of possessions.

Dad was in and out of hospital for eighteen months, lung cancer had spread and he ended up looking like a skeleton. When he died his mother was more relieved than sad. Peter had gone over twice a week, she’d gone to the hospital each day, three bus rides from the Highlands estate.

Then the funeral.

God that was awful. All of dads ‘mates’ from the Legion were there, in their berets and blazers, their army badges and medals, they even brought the flag. ‘Old George’ had lived for the Legion, he was ‘the cornerstone’ they time and again told him, and they were there to give him a proper send off. Peter and his mother declined the offer to go to on afterwards. Peter wondered if his mother had ever been there, he didn’t think so.

The only person missing was Frank.

That thought made the dozing Peter sit up with a jerk, ‘…but he wouldn’t have known’ he thought, ‘how could he?’. He recalled how Frank Butter and his Dad knew each other. Not really friends but as a lad Frank helped out at the club, did errands, collected glasses, moved barrels, painted walls, anything he’d get paid for. Then suddenly he was gone.

The train sped past a power station lit up with sharp blue white lights. Almost home, ten minutes. He breathed deeply and thought how Bill must have been suffering whilst he was gossiping at lunch with Henry.

“You know I quite fancy doing that ballet set” he said out loud as he doodled ideas on what remained of his newspaper.



Last night at Renegades Writers Group we read out pieces to read at a free event at 7pm on Thursday September 5th at Gladstone Pottery Museum, in Longton (there is an amazing collection of toilets there). It was to time the pieces to make sure everyone was able to read within the two hour time limit. I thoroughly enjoyed it, many of the pieces I had not heard before, the theme loosely based around the city of Stoke-on-Trent. My piece very loosely, I performed Singles Night at ASDA, which I began after visiting the Wolstanton store on my way home after work many years ago and stumbling on this odd event. As ever people enjoyed my reading, it has in the past even been requested by more than one person and I have dragged it out at events all over the place; very oddly once in Germany when I had a person translating after each ‘verse’, and I remember the total silence at an event organised by the Welsh Academy, I then tried Arthur Thickett’s joke about New Labour/Neuted Labour and that went down even worse! It was a piece I wrote when I had nothing to perform at events, and was deliberately aimed for people to enjoy rather than my usual self-analysis. It has been developed over 20 years taking note and making changes when I hear where people laugh or see them smile. There are plenty of ‘Carry On’ bits and as was noted last night, a British melancholy in the end. I once rewrote it for an American audience (Singles Night at Wal-Mart) which I read in Washington and Philadelphia, but they preferred the original when requested. If you wish to read it, it can be found by clicking Poetry above. I thoroughly enjoy performing and show off appallingly, remembering how much once upon a time I would have liked to be an actor. I hope to record it one day soon, which I’m sure will be a platinum seller!

What really impressed me last night was the breadth and quality of writing. I loved a couple of very short pieces of stories handed down by a mother about life in Burslem, they were so concise in the way they captured those fleeting memories. Peter’s rather spooky tale of bottle kilns would be great told out in the museum yard in the dark with candlelight.

It should be a great night. Let’s just hope we writers are not the only audience.

Today’s photograph is  Self-Portrait with Roses I took in 1986-87 when I had moved to Lincolnshire from a slide I recently had digitised.