Thursday, 29 November 2012

Marks and Spencer

It was Saturday morning and I was in my local Tesco, wire basket in hand. I'd collected some bananas and was heading to the vegetables when I bumped into a friend from the town. We smiled, stood and chatted, wire baskets dangling beside our knees.

The first topic was the local Pantomime, we were both going to help out there in the evening. Then we got on to what we were going to do that afternoon. I said I would be watching the rugby international on TV - Ireland v Argentina. 'Should be a good match', I added. He grinned and nodded.

'How about you?' I said, expecting him to be doing the same as I knew he was a keen follower of the sport.

He shook his head, 'I'm going to Marks and Spencer', he said ruefully.

'OK', I said, a little quizzically.

'I've been told I've got to get a new jacket', he said with resignation, glancing down at the carrots in his basket.

I nodded sympathetically.

'They've got a sale on', he shrugged, '25% off', and studied the carrots again. 'My wife keeps her eye on these things', he added quietly and then looked up.

I nodded again. Our eyes met. We said nothing.

'Oh well', I said, 'you can always record it'.

He nodded brightly. Then he paused. 'But I don't know when I'd get to watch it', he said, scanning the row of shiny vegetables beside us.

'OK', I said, glancing down at my basket.

'Better get on', he said and lifted his basket to check the contents.

'Fine', I said, raising my hand in a wave, 'see you later'.

'Sure', he smiled and turned towards the cheese aisle.

As I wandered away I thought about the very hard year I'd had since Joanne left. How at times it had got so painful and tough that, despite all the problems we had, I would have welcomed her back. Then I thought again about how far I'd come over that year. A journey of real growth in so many ways. A journey that I'd needed to take alone.

Joanne had been regularly critical of a whole series of things: most often it was my home and then it was my clothes. I smiled and strode up to the checkout. I was glad I wasn't being compelled to spend my Saturday afternoons in Marks and Spencer.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


My father ran away from home and joined the Army. He was just 14. The third eldest of nine, he was tall for his age and passed for 16. After basic training he joined The King's Own Hussars and was posted to Egypt. Each week he sent money home.

The regiment did a lot of reconnaissance, long expeditions into the desert in Riley armoured cars to explore the terrain and make maps. He enjoyed this work and was good at it: he got promoted to corporal and sergeant, climbed the pyramids, learned how to deal with scorpions, drank mint tea. Then the war began. He became a 'Desert Rat', fighting a series of losing battles against Rommel as the 8th Army retreated across North Africa towards Cairo. My father distinguished himself under fire and rose rapidly through the ranks to Major, with command of a squadron of tanks.

The decisive battle of the campaign took place at El Alamein in 1942. At the opening of the battle my father was ordered to undertake a night attack on the German lines. His squadron of tanks were caught in an artillery crossfire and most were destroyed. A shell exploded into my father's tank: the gunner and driver were killed, he was blown clear. Half of his unit were killed in the attack, the rest were captured. He later learned that this attack was diversionary and all of his unit were deemed expendable. He never forgave Montgomery.

Wounded, my father was captured and sent to a transit camp near Bari in Italy. After months of only pumpkin soup, the prisoners were loaded into railway cattle-trucks and taken to Germany. At first he was held in a large camp Stalag VIIIB (in Silesia) then he was transferred to a smaller camp Oflag VA (in the Black Forest). Here he spent three years as a POW until the camp was liberated by Patton: he recalled him standing on the bonnet of a jeep with two ivory-handled revolvers. The American soldiers gave the prisoners bars of chocolate, which they wolfed down and then were violently sick. After years of starvation their stomachs just couldn’t cope with the rich food.

After the war he was slowly squeezed out of the Army. The British class system reasserted itself: the son of a village milkman couldn't really be a senior member of the officer class. He tried a range of jobs but didn't find anything that suited him. He ended up working in a nylon factory, got married and had three sons.

'What did you do in the war, Dad?' As a kid, I asked him again and again. Often as we sat together in the front room watching war films on TV: John Wayne, John Mills, et al, being heroic. But he would always leave me unsatisfied, only saying that he had fought in the desert and had been a POW. He never disclosed any other details. When pressed he would shake his head and say 'it's nothing like in the films - a lot of good men never came back', then he would leave the room. And when at mealtimes, I or one of my brothers would say, 'I'm starving!' He would snap, 'you don’t know what starving is'. Cowed, we would stare at our plates as mother dished out the spuds.

I left home, became a student, took drugs and grew my hair long, identifying with anti-establishment figures such as John Lennon. My father's Army career was an embarrassment. We became estranged.

Much later I read Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi, books that brought home to me the horrors of incarceration in camps and the desperate everyday struggle for survival. I bought copies of them for my father. He thanked me for the books. Next time I asked him what he thought. He said he didn’t get on with reading them.

I tried another tack. Buying him a lined journal and pens, I suggested he could write down some memories. Secretly I hoped he would use his neat, precise handwriting to describe the story of his life. Again he thanked me for the present, but on my next visit I noticed the pages of the journal were still blank.

My father's place was outside, especially the garage. This was his workshop: stuffed with timber and carpentry tools, sweet with wood-shavings and sawdust. Here he smoked his 'forbidden' cigarettes, cupped furtively in his hand, and designed the pieces of furniture he would make.

Deeply troubled by my own past, I sought him out. Gill, the woman I was going to marry, had been killed in an accident. After burying the pain for a decade, I was going through therapy. Slowly I unfolded the story of my loss to him. He listened raptly, nodding and pursing his lips. When I stopped, he reached into his pocket and offered me a cigarette. I smiled and shook my head.

Then he started towards me and began to speak. How he ran away from home because he had been made to go to work as an assistant in a draper's. How he joined the cavalry because he loved horses, but they changed them for armoured cars and tanks. How the desert became so cold at night and the sky would be sparking with stars.

His stories spilled out across the workshop. Mine did too. Belated confidences offered like treasure. We spent hours talking and then went indoors. My mother knew something was happening, but couldn't work out what it was. We kept our exchanges to ourselves. The next morning he went out to the workshop, I joined him and we did it all over again.

I came home regularly that Autumn and sojourned with him in the workshop. On New Year's Day I got a call from my brother, my father was in hospital after a massive stroke. I rushed to his bedside. He was paralysed down one side and had lost the power of speech. He remained in hospital, but never spoke again. My father died three months later.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Belfast Festival

The Festival is in its fiftieth year and still going strong. For a couple of weeks in the Autumn the city is packed with arts events. A veritable portmanteau that I always look forward to sampling.

In case of sell-outs, I booked all my tickets before I went off to England. Then, over the Festival, I went down with a bad cold and bronchitus: but wrapped up well, I still managed to attend most of the events I'd booked. The highlights for me were:

Junk Ensemble (The Falling Song). Very inventive contemporary dance: quirky and full of ideas. They employed live percussion, piles of mattresses, a children's choir and ten kilos of apples in the show.

Gregory Porter. Soulful New York Jazz. Gregory, a big black guy, does ballads with power and feeling. His sidemen play fast and super-cool.

Buena Vista Orchestra. The Cuban oldies are still going strong (without Ry Cooder). They might have to sit down to last out the set, but boy can they play. The Ulster Hall was swinging with son.

Polyphony. Pitch and tone-perfect choral ensemble performing works from Britten and Whitacre in Clonard on Halloween, fireworks exploding all around.

WillFred Theatre (Follow). A marvellous one man show around the theme of deafness. Shane O'Reilly does inspired physical theatre.

The main disappointment was the Michael Clark Company. A big reputation but a timid and tedious show.

Finally a mention for The Moving Word, a live poetry, music and image extravaganza from the Heaney Centre. 25 poets and musicians filling an afternoon in the Queen's Film Theatre. I was one of these poets. A well attended show with a good mix of performances.

I'm sad to say that it's all over for another year. But pleased to report that the cold and cough is on the way out.