Idle Eye 119 : The Things He Left Behind

In November 1922, Howard Carter & Lord Caernavon peered into the newly discovered tomb of Tutankhamun for the first time in over 3000 years, inside which were treasures beyond their wildest dreams. An incredible collection of objects were piled high in every chamber, patiently waiting for their passage to the afterlife where the owner would be judged on the quality of his offerings. Sadly, this was not the case when Chris’s House Clearance turned up at my dad’s gaff in Wales last week:

Chris:  Can you see anything?

Helper:  Yeah, loads. There’s about 80 teddies, some Xena Warrior Princess videos, a packet of Fisherman’s Friend, quite a lot of cardboard and a vibrating bed.

Chris:  A vibrating bed?

Helper:  Yep. And it’s got a remote. One for Sue Ryder, I reckon. Dirty sod.

He wasn’t far wrong. We all get assessed by the things we leave behind, and poor old dad didn’t do himself any favours in this department. And whilst I feel duty-bound to protect the modesty of my late father, it must be said that we, as a family, drew some not inconsiderable hilarity from the tale of the aforementioned bed. Apparently he bought it from a door-to-door salesman, on the understanding that it had massaging pads that would take care of his aching muscles as he lay recumbent. And for a few extra pounds, he could also purchase an attachment that opened the curtains at roughly the same speed that the head zone would raise itself up to a 90 degree position, affording the end user a magnificent view of the Welsh countryside as he made the transition from Nod to the new day. Which, of course, he did.

And yet it is some of the less significant items that remain the most poignant. The electronic alcohol sensor tucked discretely inside his medical bag, the WW1 ‘Magnapole’ compass that must have belonged to his grandfather (with his initials crudely scratched onto the face), the letter he wrote to his own father declaring gratitude and love despite their fiery differences, the half-eaten bag of Sports Mixture that came back from the hospital with his belongings. All these minuscule moments that say more about the man than what the lawyers cooly refer to as ‘chattels’, as if a life only has meaning by its monetary value.

I let Chris fill his boot(s). There was nothing at all left that really mattered, that I felt strongly enough to hang onto, that wouldn’t be served better by a new owner. But I did spend half a day sifting through photographs and selecting what I figured was an accurate, if edited, representation of a career spent largely under the public gaze. And a couple that weren’t. Ones in which we were actually touching when I was a child, something that didn’t happen much afterwards. And the big stuff I left for him. He’ll probably need it out there.

Idle Eye 97 : The Census

One of the more unexpected items jammed through my letterbox this Christmas, in amongst a flurry of festive flyers inviting me to dial a ‘pizza hotline’ or vote in some hairless Herbert at Croydon Council as the next brown bin czar, was a windowed envelope from the Welsh Government, redirected from my father’s country seat. It looked too bland to be ignored so I opened it, not without some trepidation, and steeled myself for the worst. But instead of the usual bureaucratic rhetoric demanding its pound of flesh (Dear Sir/Madam, To the Executor of the Estate of Blah, To whom it may concern), this one flashed its knickers with Dear sheep and/or goat keeper. All of a sudden I’m listening.

To be honest, my knowledge of Welsh livestock rostering is at best rudimentary, so the timing of this particular bulletin could not have been more fortuitous. With its handy factsheet, Q&As and helpful bilingual tips I was up to speed in no time, implicitly understanding the subtle difference between Single Payment and Rural Development Scheme claims and the concessions available to double-tagged older animals. But then came the crunch: My father had a holding number, which meant I had to fill out a form. As an executor this has now become familiar territory, but I was stumped at question three and indeed, beyond:

3. What is your main occupation?

A) Farmer (full time)
B) Farmer (part time)

No C), just a green chasm suggesting that if you can’t answer this one, you really shouldn’t be raising sheep and/or goats. I decided to leave this one blank.

4. Please indicate the purpose(s) for keeping the animals.

A) Meat
B) Dairy
C) Breeding
D) Wool
E) Other (please explain)

Quite scary. I knew he had three lady sheep (all named after the Beverley Sisters) that just loafed about in the field above his house, taking up space. He was fond of them and never had them clipped as he thought it was cruel. A) to D) out then, which left me with E). So, how to explain other to the Welsh authorities. Peccadillo? Or worse still, matrimonial? I decided to leave this one blank.

Then there was the minor matter of electronic tagging, introduced in 2010 and no doubt useful for ovine identification. Unfortunately for the suits at Rural Affairs, each and every sister resembles Gnasher off of the Beano (their halcyon hairdays now a distant memory) and no amount of government-funded electrickery would help tell them apart. I decided to postpone the whole shooting match and found something creative to drink instead.

And so we wind up the year. I’ll probably dribble out something next week in between the pies and the port (and who knows, I might even go as far as a post), but in the meantime, thank you for reading thus far and I wish you all appropriate seasonal greetings. And here’s to an outstanding 2014.

Idle Eye 92 : The Blue Pill

Regular readers of the filth I throw up every week will almost certainly have my little ruses down by now. Bung my father into the tags and up go the hits, regular as clockwork. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, and you can rest assured I shall be milking this remarkable stroke of luck until it dries up. Thanks for your understanding.

This being the case, let’s trawl back over the last seven days. I went to Wales with my youngest sibling Emma, if for no better reason than to muster some undeserved interest from your good selves, but actually to sort some shit out. Yes, we administered the estate in a manner appropriate to those thrust unwittingly into a position of responsibility. And yes, we said and did stuff that sounded good and proper to those not in the know. But the truth of the matter is that we, like so many others in a similar spot, winged it. Never more so than when, after an exhausting day of admin and delegation, we discovered a sealed bag from the hospital on the kitchen table which contained a well-worn wallet begging for attention. Yes, like in the Grudge. I looked at Emma. Emma looked at me. Open it, she seemed to go, although she probably actually said it and I pretended she didn’t for dramatic effect. So I opened it.

It contained a plethora of post-it notes and business cards, too disturbing to go into here (I shall be scarred for life, remember where you read it first). But amongst these was a small, quadrilateral blue pill which requires no further explanation, especially not to you lot. Needless to say, it was effectively useless to my sister and so, squaring up to my role as responsible eldest, I agreed to take it home for research purposes. It had been a long day and I wanted nothing more than a quick shower and an early night, so without a second thought I necked the confounded thing, washing it down with 75cls of a 2009 New Zealand Marlborough Pinot Noir, and waited for the dawn to rise. Dad may have been many things but a realist he was not, and this was to be my legacy.

I awoke in a state of shock. My bedclothes lay all around (and above) me, and as I peered inside the tent I had inadvertently made, I realised that my father had not entirely gone. That there was a message he was sending me from the beyond to take with me through the years I have left. That the blue pill I had nonchalantly swallowed was perhaps a bridge across the void, the Michelangelo touch that traverses this world and the next. And how he would have been proud of me, raising the game by writing all the bollocks I do, the very thing he loosely encouraged without ever really knowing where it would end up. But it ends up here. Dad, I hope you’re listening…

 

Idle Eye 79 : The Ashes

In the summer of 1992, I wrote a song for a young lady I was rather keen on who had returned to Australia, never to revisit to these shores. I was in my twenties, addicted to the romantic impossibility of the situation and, no doubt, getting off on its Byronic agony. The song was called ‘The Ashes’, and it allowed me the juxtaposition of an obvious cricketing analogy with what it might have been like to scatter the metaphorical chattels of our torn relationship across her homeland. I finished it with this:

Take back the Ashes, Jane
Cup them in your hands
Throw them in the face of my jealousy
and out across your land
And when the dust comes down again
blackened by the English rain
A hundred thousand miles will disappear
I can see it all from here…

I bring this up because yesterday Nibs, myself and my two sisters did the real thing. Not with the subject of the above, I hasten to add: I gather she is alive and well and enjoying life to the hilt. No, this was with the earthly remains of our father, who made it back to his cherished home inside a rather fetching purple box. Together with a neatly typed tag stating the exact moment of his departure: I think he would have approved.

It was one of life’s stranger moments, carrying around what was left of the man responsible for putting us on the planet as if we were sticking him out for the recycling. Which, in a curious way, I suppose we were. And, during the memorial service, the vicar bigged up his love of animals and suggested we scatter his beloved dog, Annie (who was in a carrier bag at the top of the stairs) at the same time. Sort of a BOGOF deal, I guess. So, fuelled by a bottle of 1990 Dom Perignon, we charged a small trinket with bits of dog and bits of Dad and threw them out across the Welsh valley that was the commanding view from his garden. Everyone had a go, said a quick goodbye and then we poured what was left into the brook that ran through it. It felt right and proper, particularly after a few more sherbets.

Now, alcohol and cremated fathers are traditionally not the most comfortable of bedfellows although, God knows, we did our best. Perhaps if we had known there was an incoming wind, we may have chosen our moment more carefully: We did not. Perhaps he was reluctant to leave: We ignored this. Let’s just say that to the outside eye, when the bags were empty and we sat together enjoying fine wine and nibbles, it must have looked like an Egyptologist’s lunch break. So bless you, Dad, you pretty much got what you wanted: 80% back to nature, 20% stubborn stain. Excellent odds, I reckon, and certainly enough to get you through them gates. See you on the flipside xx

Idle Eye 75 : The Cost Company

So anyway, Nibs and I are burning down the M4 at 121mph (on the way back from yet another trip to Wales), when he drops it in that we have to make a slight detour. Oh no, I’m thinking, is it a special lady friend? Or perhaps the steed needs a quick pit stop? Either of which will add a significant portion of gooseberry to my day. But, as it turns out, it was neither. As we approached Reading, the car re-orbited and we snaked our way through faceless, municipal landscaped roundabouts and grounded ourselves at the trolley park of what appeared to be yet another temple of worship to consumer greed. Every hackle that hadn’t already been irreversibly müllered by alcohol immediately rose up, but my fears were shortly to be assuaged: This was different. This was the future.

Have you ever been to one of these places? These vast cathedrals of corrugated aluminium that house your every culinary peccadillo and a few more besides? And for stupid money, as long as you’ve got an outhouse or live inside an Escher print? Well neither had I, but the minute I walked through the door they had me by the balls. For a start, right there in the foyer, they had delicious Apple stuff which had me salivating like a Cupertino campus nerd, but then as we crossed into widescreen an astonishing array of palleted goods, piled as high as the eye can feasibly take in, burst into ocular wonder. Over there on the left were thousands of discounted cases of NZ Marlborough Pinot Noir, and yet there on the right were more triple packs of Calvin Klein underpants than you could shake a stick at.

But this was just for starters: Mountains of Haribo, rivers of tequila and more snout than Strangeways all beckoned with their irresistible charms. And, in case you weren’t yet up to speed, helpful smiley staff clad in red and white were all there to assist with their immaculate speed-of-light timing of which I took full advantage:

‘Hello, could you help? I’m trying to figure out the sheet 2 wipe ratio saving I could make from your Syrian Red Cross Convenience industrial strength loo rolls?’

‘Certainly, Sir! Our statistics, based on an amalgam of the global meridian and the sheet 2 wipe average in your area suggest that you’ll be making a saving of approximately 7.2 pence per go. You have a nice day now.’

These guys were so on it I nearly wept. And, as Nibs and I swept through checkout, laden with a cargo utterly denied to those outside the club, I felt it necessary to fall to my knees and beg my own brother to sign me up. Which, bless him, he did, after making me watch him consume a hot dog and a litre of fizzy pop at £1.45 from the in-store café. Vile but necessary, as them French Resistance chicks would have said.

Idle Eye 73 : The Manner Born

Ok, that’s enough misery porn for now. Whilst I’m touched that you’ve doubled my hit rate over the last couple of weeks, the time has come for us to move on, grab whatever remains of our time on the planet and wring it for all its worth. And now that I’ve got a few more of you on board, perhaps I can cynically manipulate your touching empathy into full-blown, squalid addiction to the kind of weekly whimsy you can normally expect to find here. Let’s face it, it’s a brutal old world and your humble blogger, being the lowest of the low on the battlefield of journalism, must resort to any means necessary.

Anyway, Nibs and I have been down in Wales for the past few days. Quite strange really, going through the things our father left behind that add up to a life. Small things, touching things, insignificant things. Things of value. Distressing things. But all just things, nonetheless. And we had agreed, as a family, that we wouldn’t take anything until such time as we all felt less raw about it. But then, as Nibs searched the kitchen cupboards for something vaguely edible and I squirrelled about in the cellar for a bottle of wine, I hauled up a bottle of Chateau Leoville Barton 1998. ‘Bit good for packet pasta’, he went, ‘but have it if you want to.’ Now, anyone who knows me (or indeed had the poor fortune to read Idle Eye 20 : The Liquorice Nose) will implicitly understand how little these few words actually meant: If it’s red and it stays down usually means it’s past the post in my book. But, bowing to his superior knowledge of grape and the grain and my nascent understanding of his extensive wine list, I did indeed take it home.

Having a decent drop indoors is not unlike entertaining the Landed Gentry: You know you can’t treat him like all the others, but your frame of reference is somewhat limited and you don’t want to make a tit of yourself. Do I lay him down? And if so, for how long? Will he get upset that I don’t actually have a cellar and he’s reduced to hanging out with the proletariats next to the microwave? What exactly is the correct manner of address? And, as a vegetarian, will he blow a gasket if I skip the rack of lamb and opt instead for a family bag of Twiglets and a ramekin of humous? All these concerns of propriety had me scouring the net for hours. And, sadly, they just made matters worse: How will I know when the bastard has opened up? And when he’s forward on my tongue? Let’s face it, if you’re prepared to down a two-for-ten carstarter, the above has never applied and is never likely to. In the words of the late Bill Hicks, I’m like a dog being shown a card trick.

So, watch this space: London Luddite in Wine Legacy Shock. Coming soon to a tabloid near you.