Thursday, 28 May 2015

Of The Cost Of Washing Duvets And Of Redeeming My Immortal Soul

Since living on the boat I have got rid of most of my clothes, towels and bedding.  I'm pretty certain there is more I could donate to the charity shops, but I don't know what might come in handy one day.  I didn't think I would need two duvets, but having two is useful.

Like many people I am sometimes constrained to use a laundrette.  During the winter I sometimes use a laundrette's driers if I can't dry wet items otherwise.  I have a compact washing machine on the boat which sees regular service and is perfectly adequate for most of my needs, but large items, like duvets, need a larger washing machine.  For quite long enough I had put off washing my two duvets (the summer and the winter ones - combined in more extreme cold periods) and my pillow.  Colder weather seems to have intruded further into this year than last and I had failed to keep up with this task.  Some tasks get to a stage where they can no longer be delayed.  This was that stage.

A laundrette is an excellent example of a microcosm.  There is nearly always some entertainment to be had or some community interaction, even if the makeup of the community is constantly shifting.  Every time I go I find someone with whom I can mardle.  If I go on a Sunday evening the other customers are nearly always men out on their own.  I experience a mixture of delight and dismay to observe that they all seem to be growing increasingly younger than me.  I'm not in the market, and I shall probably never find out, but I suspect there may be pick-up potential and it would make such an interesting study.  Being that this trip was during a Friday daytime, though, the only other person in the shop was the woman who works there.  Apparently she has pre-defined working hours, although I am never sure what they are.  She's the Dot Cotton of the Fens, proprietorial and slightly scary, but if approached with a smile and appropriate deference she is incredibly helpful and takes pride in the service she provides.  I was hoping to catch her because I thought her advice on which machines and how much of my expensive, concentrated ecological laundry liquid to use, would be helpful.  I had expected to go to the corner shop across the road to get some change, but she was anxious to change my twenty pound note herself.  She helpfully advised me on which machine to use - or in this case which two washing machines.  I had failed to force the two duvets with their covers, the pillow and the bottom sheet along with sundry items of clothing into the large machine, no matter how much I grunted and tutted.  She also explained how not to end up spending more on feeding the machines with pound coins than I needed to and she was very keen to help me reload my grubby laundry.  This made me uncomfortable.  It is one thing to change one's duvet cover in the privacy of one's own cabin, but to have someone insist on helping remove it in public made me anxious.  I didn't know what might be uncovered.  Every stain tells a story.  In this public setting all I wanted to do was to shove my two duvets in the big machine and not risk being confronted with any proof of human frailty or indiscretion.

Each time I have used this laundrette I have pondered the large handwritten sign above the big washing machine declaring, "NO HORsE BLANKETs".  Such is our fenland environment that warnings like this need to be articulated in NO UNCERTAIN TERMs.  Yesterday I noticed a helpful addendum.  She, for I assume it was she, had added "cat or dog" in a space on the bottom of the notice.  I felt some relief that my duvets have been forbidden from acquiring the taint of horse or of dog or cat, even in homeopathic dilutions.  As I brandished my bottle of expensive ecological laundry liquid she grabbed it from me, saying, "I'll do that for you."  My delight spun on a sixpence to dismay.  A bottle of laundry liquid generally lasts me at least a few months.  I always measure out carefully one capful per wash-load.  I know this must work because I smell the evidence of lightly perfumed country freshness after each wash.  Using her professional judgement and expertise she tipped the bottle and generously shared about £5-worth of the precious liquid between the powder encrudded dispensing trays of the two machines.  I felt faint.

From the row of smaller machines not already in use, she had selected one in particular.  "If you use this one for the smaller items it will finish at the same time as the big one," she explained.  Thanking her for her help I watched as she shared nine of my pound coins between the two machines.  I sat to watch the show.  Watching the laundry pirouette I also became aware of the bright green stuff that seemed to be growing around the inside of the washing machine doors.  Once again I was brought face to face with the marvels of natural selection that there is even something that will grow in the hostile environment of a commercial washing machine.  I did some sums.  £6 plus £3 plus £5.  This wash had cost me £14 so far and I had no grasp of how the driers had been adjusted since my last visit.  I came to the conclusion a while ago that a single pound coins buys less drying time than it used to.  The small machine finished a good ten minutes before the larger one.  Maybe her methods of calculating time were as accurate as her methods of measuring capacity.  Whether she applied some personal quantum theory or not she clearly approached measurement in a way that differed from my own.  I mused upon this, still stinging from the abandon with which she had dosed the machines with liquid.  I transferred the contents of the small machine to one of the driers and waited for the duvets to finish.  Eventually the duvets completed their own cycle, although during the fourth and final rinse I watched and fretted about the concentration of suds that were still being coaxed from the gyrating cotton and polyester.  I was certain that by the fourth rinse I should be seeing only plain water.  I anticipated months of allergic reaction alleviated only by the visualisation in horribly graphic detail that on one hot summer night in the very near future I was going to die in Quatermassive terror, suffocated in an attack of bright green, sweat-rehydrated soap suds.

I could not cram all the contents into one drier.  As I was coming to the realisation of the futility of continuing my attempts, Fenland Dot emerged from her room at the rear and watched me.  I knew that a helpful observation was forthcoming.  In the kind of voice reserved for idiots and small children (and possibly elderly men I realised ruefully) she explained that I was going to need two driers.  If I persisted in using one drier I would end up pumping in more money and still fail to dry the spun-damp laundry.  "Damp items need air and space to circulate, you see."  I saw.  I redistributed the contents.  She dived in to help.  The relief that I had earlier washed my smalls on the boat and left them pegged out on the line by the river bank was immediate and almost tangible.  Following her advice (and after breaking down further one of my pound coins) I, or rather she, put £2.50 into each machine.  New total, £19.

Drying clothes in a laundrette drier is an art, or a science, or possibly arcane magic.  Pretending I knew what I was doing I paused the machines every few minutes to rearrange the contents, allowing the heat to work its own magic on all the damp bits.  "You do know the clock is still ticking when you pause the machines?" Fenland Dot offered helpfully.  I responded that I assumed that would be the case and thanked her again.  I wondered, not for the first time I realised, why commercial driers don't change direction, like the Reversamatic my mother used when I was growing up, and tumble clothes in both directions to unwind all the knots they make.  Instead I was forced to reach into the drum and stifle yelps of pain as I faffed about trying to rearrange and redistribute searing hot laundry.  The drier containing the summer duvet finished within the allotted £2.50.  Everything, bar bits of the winter duvet, had also dried in the other tumble drier, so I removed the dry items and put another pound in the slot.  I folded my clothes and bedding and waited.  New total, £20.  However, the laundrette experience is not really what I wanted to comment about.

At some point during the proceedings Fenland Dot emerged from the back room and tossed a magazine on to the window sill.  I was curious, but resisted the temptation the see what it was ... for a while.  When I gave in and finally picked it up it turned out to be a copy of The Watchtower along with its twin, Awake.  I've always avoided reading these in the past, knowing they would probably do little for my blood pressure.  This time the curiosity was strong.  As I read about the end of the world being nigh and that it was something to anticipate with joy, not fear, I wondered who had generated these assertions, clearly unfounded and certainly untainted by anything resembling evidence.  I imagine one is supposed to assume it was Jehovah himself, but in the absence of a byline I couldn't be certain.  Perhaps in the same way that the Queen never needs to carry cash, God doesn't need to autograph magazine articles?  Whoever, or whatever, had done that smugly irritating thing of quoting verses from the Bible as though everyone else shares the conviction that bible verses alone constitute sufficient evidence for everything.  Not for the first time I wondered what it is about this arbitrary collection of politically edited fables, bizarre rules and tales of horror and magic carrying so much power that, in the eyes and minds of many, makes it self-justifying.   How is it that quoting Bible verses is seen as some kind of justification for the most absurd ideas?  It took me back to the days when I did the same thing.  Maybe it is embarrassment at my own gullibility that irritates me so much.  Mormons don't just have The Holy Bible as their unimpeachable source of evidence.  They also have The Book Of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, The Pearl of Great Price, church magazines and conference talks delivered by the brethren.  There is something to write about each of these and I may get round to it sometime.  As teenagers we were encouraged to engage in "scripture chases" - a pointless activity involving the memorisation of scriptures and their locations within the standard works.  We were pitted in competition against our peers from other areas to see who had remembered the most pointless information.  How is it that I Nephi 3:7 "I will go and do the thing that the Lord hath commanded for I know that the Lord giveth no commandment save he shall prepare a way for them to accomplish that which he hath commanded ..." is still embedded?  Did I get it right?  Do I win the point?  Forty-five years later that crap is still in my head.  I sometimes wish that washing the brain clean of unwanted knowledge could be as simple as washing the brain clean of the freedom to think and act for oneself.  You just never know what might come in handy one day.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Of Hugging and Shouting

Yesterday was my regular weekly day in schools, two schools.  At the end of the morning a five-year-old girl threw her arms round my neck to give me a hug.  This was not normal for her and not really for me, although it does happen from time to time.  As a professional in the school I am required to keep a physical distance.  As a man I feel that society sees my default position as that of potential abuser.  I keep my distance, because anything else is inappropriate.  This girl felt that she had enjoyed her time in the workshop so much that she could not contain her joy.  How else does a five year-old express a joy that comes from the soul?  I found myself pulling away with my arms outstretched so as not to be seen to be complicit in this simple act of communication, although I wanted to hug her back to say thank you in return.  It is a delicate balance to receive the exuberance of children "professionally".  One is required to reject the gesture without rejecting the child.

Yesterday I heard three adults shout at children.  In my own schooldays this was normal practice.  Teachers often got their own way by intimidation or that's how it seemed.  Hearing adults shout at children yesterday brought me up short because I'm no longer used to hearing that sound.  Neither of the schools are "shouty" schools and, although some of those do still exist, they seem to be much rarer than they used to be ... or is it that I am just not getting about like I used to?

I have always hated shouting.  If, as a child, I was shouted at, it scared me and made me resentful.  I may have become acquiescent, but I always felt that scaring me into compliance was never necessary.  I would have coped with doing more or less what the teacher wanted if they had explained things to me.  It's not as though I was one of those classically "naughty" children.  I tried never to be in situations where I would be on the receiving end of an adult's tirade. As an adult I still hate being shouted at and I dislike being forced to be a witness.  I also hate being a shouter, so I continue to avoid shouting.  Shouting hurts my voice and after spending five months mute in the 1990s I refuse to do it.  The mute period came about after a week at a folk festival running twice-daily singing and dancing workshops and sessions for both adults and children; of also dancing outdoors with a morris side and, without the support of amplification, being the front man introducing our group and each dance.  The week was stressful and exacting.  I was frequently timetabled to be at the next event before finishing the one I was doing.  One month later I was running a workshop for teachers and during a song my voice left me.  I remember exactly where I was along with the feeling of dismay and confusion I experienced.  I was making a sound, but I didn't recognise it and it wasn't my voice.  It was a voice I had never heard before.  I had no control whatsoever over the noise I made.  Those were the last vocalised sounds I made for the next five months and I spent the next decade recovering.  That was frightening.  My voice was the main tool of my trade and I thought I had lost it forever.  I don't ever want to return to that place, so I continue to avoid shouting.

When working with children in schools I wait.  I give clear signals and I wait.  I'm good at waiting.  I have been told many times how patient I am when working with children, so I know I'm good at waiting.  That doesn't mean I like having to do it though.  If the waiting has to go on too long the pace of the workshop suffers.  I like to get on with things and my kicks come from seeing and hearing children achieve results and of seeing their faces when they know they have done well.  Achievement  never happens in waiting time.  Time is always precious and we rarely use time well enough to achieve our potential.  In my workshops I expect cooperation and, as I've mentioned before, listening is fundamental to how I operate.  Sometimes, though, one feels the need to do something unexpected to get attention.  Raising the voice sharply is an option.  For me it is always a conscious act and for me it is always a last resort.  As soon as I have the attention I require I drop my voice again.  The shouting I heard yesterday was the sustained full flow I remember from my childhood.  On two occasions the shouting was directed at individual pupils.  On the third it was directed at the class (my class, as it happens, by the teaching assistant who felt the children's discourteous behaviour had made me wait long enough).  I do not know the circumstances of the two individual children.  I do not know whether the adult was consciously applying some sort of strategy, but in both those cases the adult seemed to have lost control.  Had they lost control so completely that intervention was necessary?  I don't know.  None of the other adults present intervened.  I was only a visitor.  Maybe I should have intervened.  In my class the T.A. intervened, splitting the allegiance of the children.  To whom were they supposed to give more attention now?

Teaching is a job.  One does the job and gets paid for it.  Learning is a messy process and does not happen the same way for everyone.  Emotion puts down some of its roots in a place I think of as the soul.  Does a teacher earn enough to invest their soul in the job?  Does a manager or an organisation have the right to demand the soul as well as the time and the skills of the employee?  Children clearly don't worry about such matters.  Their expressions are often spontaneous and can erupt from deep places as well as somewhere more superficial.  Many teachers feel that teaching is also a vocation and invest some deep part of themselves every day.  I know that something clicks when our own aspirations are unmet or are frustrated when they have to function in the technical way demanded by every uncomprehending Secretary of State for Education since at least the time of Keith Joseph.

Most teachers are competent, industrious, dedicated professionals.  A good teacher, though, is priceless.  Every once in a while I see an expert teacher and I am in awe of their abilities.  I love to watch a good teacher at work and, unlike the government or their management spies, I am not convinced that what they have can actually be bottled and sold on to the next newcomer to the profession.  There is something about a "good" teacher that I have never felt able to copy.  In forty years I have never developed, for example, "the glare" that some teachers use so effectively.  I daren't try it either, because I think it would look ridiculous and I would burst out laughing ... although maybe that would not be so bad?  What I do know is that I am certainly not going to compensate for my shortcomings by making children feel frightened.  Wouldn't we all much rather risk receiving a hug?

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Thankfully, one of the impositions not required by Mormons is circumcision.  During the course of the sequence of lessons, generally known as the missionary discussions, from the visiting elders in the early 1960s my mother apparently asked them if "the boys" would have to be circumcised.  I have sometimes wondered what made her ask this. I suspect it may have been something to do with the many references to Jews and to the House of Israel that crop up in discussion of Mormon doctrine.  For example, people in receipt of a patriarchal blessing (a Mormon version of fortune telling, which of course is not fortune telling at all!) will normally be told from which one of the tribes of Israel they are descended.  I never found out whether my mother was just worried about my brothers and me, or whether she thought she might have to break the news to our father as well.  As well as relieved, though, I am  in some ways a little surprised that circumcision is not a requirement, since male circumcision is also very common in the USA, where it seems there could be half to a million male genital cuttings carried out each year.  I can't help thinking that Joseph Smith's extraordinary imagination probably stopped short before coming up with the idea, but would have been an excellent way to get men to prove their loyalty.  It certainly worked for Abraham.  The practice became more popular in the USA and the UK later on in the nineteenth century.

Since adolescence, when I discovered that the penis can be a lot more fun than previously imagined, I have been grateful that my parents left me intact.  I always felt a little sad for one of my brothers who had a medically recommended procedure in childhood.  These days there is more understanding of child development and we know that many cases of phimosis have been misdiagnosed.  Invariably the foreskin will retract given time.  This is normal development.

Many years ago I joined a campaign to work for an end to the cutting of boys - essentially male genital mutilation.  I have had many discussions with people about the issue.  Usually the conversations follow similar paths.  If I am talking to a woman, the conversation will nearly always  be turned round to the subject of the barbarity of female genital mutilation and how men cannot possibly suffer in the same way.  I agree, female genital mutilation is utterly barbaric and everything that can be done should be done to discourage and wipe out this horrible practice.  It is also illegal in our country.  On the other hand I am frequently shocked by the way that male genital mutilation is trivialised.  It is not only legal it is endemic in some cultures and perfectly permissible for parents to have their baby boys, or children, or adolescents, mutilated in this way.  It is sometimes the subject of humour in a way that for FGM would rightly be considered unthinkable.   We had to invent a name for a uniquely functioning part of the penis in order to treat it separately.  In the USA, circumcision is not only not illegal, it is apparently normal to offer new mothers the procedure for their baby boys.  Is there any other operation performed purely on social grounds and where permission is granted with none of the necessary discussions about the procedure itself, after-care, the risks, the pros and the cons that routinely happen before any other operation is carried out?  Germany tried to introduce a ban on MGM recently and found that the uproar the move created, particularly among some of its ethnic minorities, raised too many problems resulting in the plans being shelved.  Sadly another generation of baby boys will be tortured for no reason other than the whims of parents and pressure from cultural and religious leaders.

Just in case there is any doubt, circumcision
  • removes a unique part of a healthy organ
  • results in a lifelong loss of function 
  • is the removal of the most sensitive and responsive part of the penis
  • is a form of social surgery and not usually carried out as a medical treatment
  • is performed on minors who cannot give informed consent
  • is illegal on girls, but may be promoted for boys
  • carries the risk of significant complications ranging from scarring (in every case) to severe permanent disability or death
  • is part of an industry that sells babies' foreskins to companies that use them in biomedical research, skin grafting technology and high-end cosmetics.

The risks during and after male genital mutilation seem to outweigh vastly any imagined good it might do.  How can "looking like dad" or not looking different in the school changing room be sufficient reason for so drastic a procedure?  The NHS in the UK used to offer genital cutting to parents (parents, not the little boys, I note) before the issue of fourteen deaths a year from complications was raised.  This is when circumcision took place in hospitals.  I have no idea how many are carried out outside medical establishments. 

P., who feels as strongly as I do on this issue, sent me a link this morning to "An Elephant In The Hospital".  If one person watches this presentation by Ryan McAllister and can change their mind on the issue, I shall be pleased.  I warn that part of it reduced both P and me to tears.

For years I have been trying to write a song about this issue.  It is one of two subjects I have started and dropped several times over the past five years.  I couldn't find the words to express what was in my head and in my heart.  Eventually, last year, the song began to come together.  It is interesting how different it is from what I imagined it might be when I first started thinking about it.

by Marshlander (2014)

You’ve heard of him before, but at the risk of being a bore
There’s more to say about a certain Mister;
As a dad he was despotic, as a husband quite exotic
He “knew” the maid and lied his wife was his sister.
When his longed-for son was born, he reacted true to form
And one day took him out to sacrifice him.
In his head there spoke a voice offering a better choice,
“Don’t kill him; here’s an idea … why not circumcise him?”

The father of three major world religions
Dwelt in a tent and travelled north and south throughout the land.
He really set the cat among the pigeons
When he eschewed blood sacrifice and called a prepuce ban.
He said the voices in his head demanded
The permanent disfigurement of helpless little boys.
I really fail to understand commandments that demand
That society absorbs and normalises
What should be abhorred, is somehow “glory to the lord”
And acceptance to the tribe when it circumcises.

Circumcision!  Circumcision!
An antiquated, barbaric tradition.
Circumcision!  Circumcision!
Shame on you for stealing his volition.
Circumcision!  Circumcision!
Tribes around the world commit this crime
You may worship a creator, but I call you, mutilator
For child abuse like this you should do time. 

Gentlemen in Queen Victoria’s day
Said she disapproved of forms of adolescent play.
The reverend said that self-love was a sin;
Onan was despised and sex should only come within
The bonds of wedlock ‘twixt man and his wife.
Morality was soon restored with the surgeon’s knife.
One third of penile skin, twenty thousand nerve endings,
The price to pay for this abomination
God used the surgeon’s skills as the cure for manly ills,
Syphilis, spermatorrhoea … masturbation!

Circumcision!  Circumcision!
The devil hides in culture and religion.
Circumcision!  Circumcision!
Them and us, society's division.
Circumcision!  Circumcision!
Lies about poor hygiene and infection.
Soap and water keep it clean and a condom, evergreen;
Preparing for that short-arm inspection. 

An opportunity for turning profit
Has now become an industry, so much for rights of man.
Once mothers kept the foreskin in a locket,
But now the bits can be sold off in some disgusting plan.
Some people spend a fortune on cosmetics.
Some have no conscience when they buy the products that they crave,
But do they know the origin of the ingredients within 
And the price that little boys have had to pay?
Can stolen stem cells mitigate the pain they propagate
For the baby penis face cream that they slap on each day? 

Circumcision.  Circumcision.
The cutting edge of cultural collision.
Circumcision.  Circumcision.
Maiming little boys demands derision.
Circumcision.  Circumcision.
You interfere with what could bring him joy.
How can you wield the knife that will forever change his life?
Don’t mutilate the manhood of your boy.

Even in this present century
Barbarity persists under the flag of being free.
Grievously this torture still goes on,
Doctors offer cutting when a baby boy is born.
A father thinks his son should look like him
And so the shame perpetuates.  On and on and on.
You cut him for the lies you’re told of health and cleanliness
And ignorance of physiology.
A baby has no voice. Let him grow up to make a choice.
Perhaps the greatest cost is that he’ll never know what he’s lost.

Circumcision.  Circumcision.
It ought to be his free, informed decision.
Circumcision.  Circumcision.
You think you’re free to cut.  That needs revision.
Circumcision.  Circumcision.
Time to make this act a rarity.
Join a swelling throng who think this practice is all wrong … and work for
Children’s physical integrity.

"Circumcision" Copyright Marshlander.  

After I included it in a set a few months ago two women wanted to discuss it.  Immediately they raised the subject of FGM and they went on to suggest that since cutting only removes a small amount of tissue it can't make much difference to boys ... surely?  In other words they trivialised the subject.  There is still a lot of work to do.

 I often find that when discussed, the implications for the baby are rarely treated seriously.  Many men who were circumcised in infancy seem not to think it an issue either.  I have had discussions with many Americans who think it looks nicer and they have swallowed the lie about it being more "hygienic".  The men I have spoken to cannot get their heads around the idea that this unnecessary procedure is a human rights issue.  Every individual should be able to make decisions about their own bodies, not have these decisions taken by others, except in extreme medical situations of course.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Reflections On Life In A Cult 1

I was raised in a cult.  My parents joined the Mormons in 1961.  They were previously in a mixed marriage, Church of England and Roman Catholic, not that either were regular churchgoers, but it was those forms of Christian belief that shaped the rituals of their lives.  In order to prevent me being sent to a Roman Catholic school my mother invited in the two young Mormon boys who knocked on the front door one day to talk to her about the religion they felt was so important they had travelled all the way from America to share it.  I'm not sure my father was strong on the belief, but somehow he succumbed and they were both baptised members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the showcase chapel across the road from the Science Museum in London.  I suspect that my mother was the main driver in trying to fix the holes that a mixed marriage caused in a relationship.  Sadly, I was to do the same thing many years later except that the mixture in my marriage was one of different sexual orientations.

I married in the faith, in a Mormon temple to an LDS woman when I was nineteen.  We had been best friends for three years.  At nineteen I should have been one of those young men giving up two years of my life to preach the gospel full time.  Being a missionary requires the young person to be cut off from their loved ones for the duration of their assignment and connected only by a weekly written letter and a phone call home on Christmas Day and Mother's Day.  Any other contact would have to go through the mission president's office.  Nothing is allowed to interfere with the work of the missionary.  Even significant family events like weddings and funerals are never an excuse to take a break from missions.  

Apart from being unable to recognise and acknowledge my sexuality my marriage started with at least one other failure.  I carried a huge extra burden of guilt of having been called up in front of a congregation when I was fourteen years old and pressured publicly into promising to serve a mission once I turned nineteen.  This congregation of several hundred people were being entertained by the *prophet*, Spencer W. Kimball.  During his talk he called on all fourteen year-olds present to stand and come to the front.  He lined us up and asked us what we were going to do when we were nineteen.  The pressure to promise to serve a mission was irresistible.   He gave each of us ten shillings to start saving for our mission funds - the money we would need to sustain us over those two years.  I sometimes wonder how many of us kept our promises.  By the time I reached nineteen I could not face the thought of a mission.  Luckily in those days the system was not as mature in the UK as it was in the USA where resistance really was futile.  I took what would have been seen as the coward's way out and married instead.  If that sounds as though I was not committed to marriage that was not the case.  I loved my best friend dearly and loved being with her - most of the time.  We spent hours on the phone each week and all available waking hours together even though we lived several miles apart.  Fellow congregants oohed and aahed and smiled benignly as they tried to nudge us into engagement and after that into marriage.  Spending so much time together we were at risk of sexual sin and it was far better for us to be married than to risk our eternal salvation.  

Her father was a hard-line authoritarian who was very well-suited to the Mormon ideal of family.  I was desperate to get her away from him and into a place of love and safety.  I have no doubt he loved his children, but his ways of showing his love were not what I had been used to when growing up.  She had a spark of independence that caused the most dramatic firework displays when they were in the same room.  During one argument he threw her out of the house in a fit of righteous temper.  She came to live with us for three months because neither of them would back down.  Somehow my parents became the villains who had lured another man's daughter away.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  They had been placed in an untenable position.  How could they see a teenager put out into the street and not do anything to help?  After we married we went on to have children, something I desperately wanted and had dreamed about many times.  Our children were raised third generation Mormons and some even gave up two years of their lives to serve missions around parts of Europe.  They are the ones upon which the cult has maintained its firmest grasp.

Mormons do not have the vocabulary to entertain the idea that the "restored gospel of Jesus Christ", their "one true religion", is a cult.  They deny it in the strongest terms possible given the newspeak that straitens their language.  I was a good Mormon boy.  I accepted that what I was told by my leaders was the truth.  Mormons are very hot on things being "true"; it is one of the words they have redefined.  "Knowledge" is another.  Mormons are also very hierarchical.  Growing up in the cult means that one will very likely defer to the "elders", and even more especially the "Brethren", without the possibility of a valid, alternative point of view.  Faithful Mormons see nothing wrong with pronouncements such as, "some truths are not very useful" or "when the prophet speaks the discussion is over".  The written word is either "uplifting" (i.e. reinforces loyalty to the cult) or it is "anti" (i.e. inspired by the devil to wean the faithful away from "the truth").  

Mormons are proud of their victim status.  They love tales of the bravery of nineteenth century pioneers who were driven by persecution to travel westward across the United States.  Today they revel in being "a peculiar people" whose ways are not the ways of the world.  They espouse higher moral standards than the rest of us.  Contrarily, while anti-Mormon literature usually has more integrity the Mormon who reads it is on the road to hell.  They put their testimony at risk.  From the cradle Mormons are taught that their testimonies are the most precious things in their lives.  Testimonies are the deep-rooted hopes and beliefs that Mormons call "knowledge".  Only a weak person believes the church to be true.  A faithful member knows it is true.  Some truths, though, do not promote faith and are therefore not very useful to the organisation.  Hapless academics who uncover and report historically verifiable events often find their memberships terminated in so-called "courts of love".  These intimidating kangaroo courts are usually reserved for deciding the fate of those perceived to have sinned.  Sins leading to disfellowship, or the more extreme sanction, excommunication, usually involve sexual activity outside marriage or speaking against the church.  Since the LDS church actively opposes same-sex marriage gays and lesbians in relationships are automatically considered sinners and subject to excommunication if they won't betray their partners and repent.   During what used to be called a "Bishop's Court" the hapless member is pitted against the local high council of up to fifteen elders.  There is no representation and no appeal.  For a faithful Mormon to lose his or her membership the results can be devastating.  A whole network of friends, support, often family, and many of the details of life's infrastructure are suddenly chopped away.  Even those who feel liberated by the experience may suffer symptoms similar to bereavement as they try to rebuild a normal life.  For anyone living in places where LDS membership outweighs the number of non-members one can only imagine the consequences, because it will also affect their employment prospects.  The ex-Mormon is not celebrated as someone with integrity and courage, but rather as someone who has betrayed god, their family and who can no longer be trusted.  Being a Mormon ticks nearly every box for being a member of a cult.

Mormons have constructed an extraordinarily powerful system of holding on to their members.  It is based around reinforcing ideas that they have been chosen to be special, that they can be together with their families for eternity, that blessings will come to them if they carry out their time-consuming duties with the appropriate commitment, are obedient to the commandments, endure persecution, remain faithful to the oaths and covenants they undertake, that they keep paying their tithes and offerings, that they attend the temple regularly, fulfil obligations to keep an eye on their assigned fellow members through regular monthly visits to their homes and so on.  The list of requirements is extensive.  Any deviation from the strait and narrow path causes the guilt to kick in.  This guilt is a powerful motivator.  If you don't see the point of doing something you do it because the brethren require it and if you can't manage that you obviously don't care enough about your family enough to be with them in the afterlife.  Many is the time I have seen adults speaking publicly in tears because their spouse is either a non-member or has become less active.  Mormons are conditioned to believe that, unless the husband and wife have been properly married in the temple and go forward in the faith together, their future together is doomed.  Only members in good standing are permitted to enter temples.  One of the most cherished documents in a faithful Mormon's possession is the *temple recommend* - the annually acquired ticket that affirms that the member is of good standing including being up to date on paying their tithes and offerings.  The temple recommend affirms, after satisfactory interviews with local and regional leaders, that the member is worthy enough to enter the temple and participate in the masonic rituals that take place within - not that any Mormon would or could ever be able to acknowledge the uncanny links between Freemasonry and Mormonism.  Unless the state requires a civil ceremony Mormons get married in their temples only.  This means that only good-enough Mormons of an appropriate age might be considered worthy enough to witness family weddings.  When one of my children married a Utahn only half the family were allowed to attend the wedding ceremony.  The rest of us waited outside.  I was one of the very few adults present and was therefore left babysitting dozens of children of people I'd never met and who didn't know me.  It would cause chaos if Mormons had to submit to Criminal Records Bureau checks before being allowed to be with children.

"Families can be together forever" is an important theme.  Three year-olds sing it on Sundays in Primary and Sunday School.  However, indoctrination begins even before that age.  It begins from birth when families are required to hold weekly family home evenings - a mixture of indoctrination and popcorn for the whole family.  Families that actually manage to hold regular FHEs are admired.  I suspect the failure to hold proper family home evenings regularly is far higher than members dare admit.  Formal indoctrination begins when babies are eighteen months old and taken into "nursery" on Sundays, where they "sing" songs about the prophet and about being good Mormons.  In the meantime older family members are separated from each other and attend "lessons" designed to keep them faithful.  From the age of twelve onwards, boys and girls are taught separately for part of the time and this separation continues into adulthood.  Mormon women do not hold positions in the priesthood.  Their lives are channelled into becoming good wives and mothers.  Men are taught to believe they head  their families and are some sort of intermediary between individual family members and Jesus who, nominally, is the head of the church.

After nearly two hundred years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become a sophisticated organisation with many distinctive beliefs and characteristics.  Faithful members try to live honest, productive lives and many could be wonderful friends ... to their own kind.  Beyond that one is usually useful only as a potential new recruit.  A short step outside the boundaries however is enough to reveal how the church might be seen as a cult.  With its requirements of obedience, an aversion to difficult questions, injunctions not to read beyond approved texts, constant updating of its own stories, the indoctrination of children, reinforcing a sense of being special, encouraging a fear and mistrust of anything outside the church, well-established routines for promoting guilt, insistence that it alone has the answers, interference with (and management of) the most personal lives of its members and its glorification of being persecuted by an unbelieving world beyond, the official Mormon church is a cult.  That's before one even begins to look at the spin-off churches, many of which stick to its more fundamentalist doctrines that the mainstream has found convenient to abandon over the years.  Joseph Smith would not recognise the church he founded were he to come back today.  Not one of the teachings of the second president, Brigham Young, is currently officially recognised as doctrine - thankfully.  Whilst it may no longer officially use extreme measures associated with more infamous cults practising today to encourage loyalty, the one true church of an eternal god who never changes has changed beyond recognition since its inception and is still a cult.

Many stories of the early days of Mormonism have been obscured, suppressed or altered.  I came across the story of a young man called Thomas Lewis in my researches a few years ago in John D Lee's 1877 book, "Mormonism Unveiled".  Although the version I read was not recorded until some twenty years after the events were alleged to have taken place in Manti, Utah in 1857, I found the story compelling and affecting and it wouldn't leave me alone until I had done something about it.  I wrote "The Ballad of Thomas Lewis" to give news of these events a little nudge.  Although I perform to very small audiences I hope that poor Thomas' fate does not disappear into obscurity.  We learn something fundamental about the Mormons in the actions of the polygamous Bishop Warren S. Snow and of the better known polygamist, the so-called prophet Brigham Young who, on hearing from one of his brothers, Joseph, about these events told him that he was "of a mind to sustain" the bishop.  He told Joseph to say no more about the matter and let it die away among the people.  That statement alone was my red rag.  I have taken some liberties in the ballad.  For example, I cannot find any reference to the name of the fiancĂ©e of Thomas Lewis, so to help tell the story I have called her, "Mary".  The harvest references are also my fancy.  I think that one day I should annotate the song, because it contains many references the specific meanings of which will only be fully appreciated by people very familiar with concepts and language used among Mormons.  Many present day Mormons will have no idea about some of these concepts and I suspect that most Mormons today will never have even heard the story.  A piece of social history I wanted to reference was the utter callousness shown within many polygamous relationships.  I had certainly never heard of the revered early missionary, Heber C. Kimball, (who was responsible for converting many British people and encouraging them to emigrate to Zion)referring to his wives as his "cattle" until I started to read more widely.  If any of this is true, it is certainly no longer useful.

The Ballad Of Thomas Lewis 
by Marshlander (2010)

1. Manti, in Utah, eighteen fifty-seven.
Frontier thinking tainted by the cult.
The one true faith where brethren hold the aces
Hope, toil and zeal etched in saintly faces.
Young Thomas courted Mary.  So in love
Was he, he swore there’d be no other.  She
To him returned the promise.  They’d be wed
When harvest’s safely home, they said.

2. Bishop Snow “lived his religion”.  Kimball’s
“Cows” – his own herd growing like them.  Humble
Never his demeanour.  Even crueller
His approach.  He was no godly fellow.
The Bishop sought an increase to his herd;
He, too, began to woo young Thomas’s love;
But faithful Mary turned the old man down
The chase became the gossip all round town.

3. Several wives were clearly not enough.  He, 
“Builder of the Kingdom”, here on earth.  While
Shoring up the promise for hereafter.
Only misery; no hint of laughter.
He pursued his prize with gifts and jewels
She was flattered but refused each one.
He told her she would be first resurrected
On the morning of the most elect.

4. Faithful to her sweetheart she refused
Once again his wheedling and his cant.
The old priest swore an oath in tones so chill
That she would be his bride.  It was God’s will.
And when this clumsy pressure failed to change
The young girl’s mind, the Bishop grew more mad.
He told her, if she obstinate remained, 
That God’s will would be done and she be blamed.

5. He told her that young Thomas could be sent 
To serve the Lord in missions far away.
He told her, never would she see him more
If she continued to refuse God’s law.
When she again demurred he took him then
Straightway to see young Thomas in his rage.
He threatened excommunication.  Still
The lad refused to bend before his will.

6. By now the Bishop, thunderous with lust,
Called faithful men to counsel late one night.
When Thomas entered in that meeting hall
He surely never saw what would befall.
When he came in the lamps went out and all
the heavy men piled in; then held him down.
The Bishop, with his knife and n’er a nay,
Fast severed off Tom’s manhood where he lay.

7. He snarled and spat, “I gave you every chance
To let me have young Mary for my own.
As punishment for thwarting of God’s plan
She won’t want you now you’re not a man!”
The butchers left the scene with Thomas still
Left lying on the table in his shame.
But Snow stopped in one final act of gall
To nail the severed trophy to the wall.

8. “Let all men learn obedience to God.
The Lord will not be mocked by any man.
Celestial marriage and eternal life,
My just reward, with Mary as my wife!”
Let the matter drop and say no more about it
He was called of God as a Judge In Israel
Let the matter drop and the people soon will doubt it
Ever came to pass, ever came to pass, ever came to pass ...

"The Ballad of Thomas Lewis" Copyright Marshlander.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Of Small Triumphs!

As I was contemplating the cheese chiller yesterday in LiDL I was tapped on the shoulder.  I turned and there was the engineer.  Of course it was a delight to see him, specially since he has been so unwell.  He said he had been back in hospital since our last exchange of messages and came home the day before yesterday.  This virus won't leave him alone and now others on the farm have gone down with it too.  His boss has been trying to shake it off for the past nine weeks.  This virulent affliction would, apparently, have become pneumonia, or pleurisy, or some other foul lung-clogging condition had it not been for the "water tablets".  Adam's ale scores again or is that not how water tablets work?

He mentioned the boat and I rehearsed my latest woes.  "I'll be round in the morning," he said, "ten o'clock suit you?"  Of course, ten o'clock would suit me, specially since it was a "work at home" day although I really didn't want to be responsible for making him feel ill again, or more ill than he felt in the supermarket.

Let these wires that have been joined together in continuity
let no man or engine vibration put asunder.
Today, at ten o'clock, he arrived.  I lifted the board that covered the engine and he saw the problem immediately.  At some point he had extended a red wire with a length of yellow wire.  I vaguely remembered something of the sort happening now he mentioned it and it was pretty obvious that the two wires had come apart, no doubt rent asunder by the vibration of the engine.  I wouldn't have noticed when I last used the boat because the starter would not have been needed once the engine had started.  It must have happened when I was practising  reversing manoeuvres in the wind and picking rubbish out of the river on the opposite side.  I had been fed up with looking at the accumulation of plastic jetsam in the reeds and decided to do something about it during that brief window when I thought the boat was working properly.  Once connected the starter coughed into action on demand.  That is all I was hoping for.  The fibre washers I bought to try and deal with the leak in the stopcock in the fuel pipe were the wrong size so he'll bring his box of washers down next time he comes.  He didn't want to stay long, because he had to go to the surgery and give a blood sample and he didn't want to pass on the virus, which he thought must still be active since the American farm labourer had just caught it.  He only stayed for another hour to tell me about a bunch of rugby players from his village who had decided he was going to be the designated driver to get them to a dinner.  He tells a good tale, but it is his tale to tell so I shan't include it here.  Instead here are some other photographs of my boat's engine.

This one clearly shows the new spill rail we put on a few months ago and some other wiggly bits of tube attached to useful engine bits.  Also there are more red wires while in the background you can see the yellow wire.

This one shows one of the fuel leaks I failed to stop last Sunday.  It's not the worst one by any means, but it will need to be sorted.  I've tightened the nut as much as seems prudent.  Will it be enough or will action of a different order be required?

The day has turned out quite nicely and the sun is shining brilliantly.  Time to get some bread baking and get on with a coat of primer on the most recently discovered patches of rust I have been treating.

Then more song practice I think.  Today is the last day of my sixth decade.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Of Thrills And Spills

... which is not to say I wouldn't like to be able to use the boat's engine and move around from time to time.  In the three and a half years I've been on this boat I have had a total of about forty hours travelling.  If I've done the sums correctly this amounts to 0.1% of my use of this boat has been to travel.  This is not to do with idleness on my part nor indeed a lack of desire nor, sadly, of being overworked with paid employment.  My confinement has mostly been the result of engine problems.  Most of the problems have involved the spillage of various liquids into the bilge.  Being the least likely mechanic in the world I have been stuck.  Attempts to follow the logic of each system have eluded me, although I now know the names of a few of the thingamijigs under the boards in the engine bay.

Unsupported attempts to fix things have, in my experience,  generally made them worse.  Before I was introduced to the mechanic I had stayed put for two years.  At least, with the mechanic's help I felt that I was gradually working through the problems.  The only two trips I have taken of any substance occurred over the past couple of months.  Not one of my attempts to travel has been problem free.  On the first few trips along the river, I had a recurring problem with the engine overheating.  Occasionally I had to pull over and moor up in an even more remote place than my own mooring to allow the engine to cool down sufficiently to add more coolant which would always end up in the engine tray.  With the mechanic's help I replaced the thermostat, the cylinder head gasket, any number of hoses, clips and pipes.  I went through gallons of antifreeze and replaced the coolant cap with one requiring a lower pressure.  Who knew that the caps on engine cooling systems come in different ratings?  A little knowledge is said to be a dangerous thing.  I don't even feel I know what I don't know.

I thought I was getting to the end of the problems.  After all the fuel leaks we have managed to fix I have found fuel leaking and now suspect the fuel tank may have a small rupture near the outlet pipe taking fuel into the engine.  That might account for the fifty odd pounds worth of diesel that was swilling around in the engine tray after my last trip which was the only time I have ever filled the tank.  I filled the tank because I thought we had cured all the leaks.  Each time I take the boat out, another problem reveals itself.  Sadly, the engineer is still unwell.  He looks like being out of commission for a while longer, so today I decided to take matters into my own hands.  Over the weekend I had reached the end of my list of jobs to do apart from some painting, and the engine problem.  Optional jobs, such as writing blog entries and working on updating my websites, are lower down the list of priorities and to be avoided if possible.  This morning I have put a second coat of primer on the rust spots I have been treating.  Then I noticed more rust bubbling through.  I took the scraper to the paint and uncovered another large area of rust on the roof.  So the process begins again with the new rust.  I have decided that however bad one suspects a rust problem to be, it will always be worse.  Even my books for the current financial year's accounts are up to date.  I must be desperate to avoid putting my head back in the engine bay.

I took up the boards that cover the engine and lifted the cover on the rear deck on my trad style narrowboat.  I felt around the pipes to and from the fuel tank and found what I thought was the leak.  The last time I tried to fix this by tightening a nut I crushed an o-ring and made the problem worse, much worse.  This time I needed to be more careful.  However, I couldn't find a way of being sure I was dealing with the problem without risking making it worse again.  That is when I made THE DECISION.  After all this time I would take the boat to the boat yard and have them take care of it.  Expensive I am sure, but these problems are beginning to get me down.  I should be out on the river and exploring.  I am embarrassed that I have yet to go any further than a distance that would take me thirty minutes in the van.  Why else have a boat?

I didn't think the leak was as bad as before and that I would be losing as much fuel as previously.  I could do the ninety-minute trip on the fuel I had left.  Then I looked in the engine tray and decided that what was in there didn't look like it was only diesel.  I took the cap off the heat exchanger and there was no coolant visible!  I could not believe I was back to square one.  After almost bursting into tears of frustration I filled a five-litre bottle with water from the standpipe in the farmyard and three litres of water went into the cooling system.  I don't think we are likely to get a freeze today, so I shall forego the antifreeze.  I thought it might be handy to fire up the engine and see if I can find the cause of the coolant leak.  Ignition, glow plugs, starter button ... NOTHING!  My engine that always fires first time did not even turn over.  Not even a snidey click from the starter motor.  Just silence.  The engineer would know immediately what to do.  I am guessing a wire has come loose somewhere, but what on earth  (maybe literally) would I attach it to if I found it?  A little knowledge is a hell of a frustration and I despite what I have learned from the engineer I still seem to have such little knowledge.

In less than a week I'll be embarking on my seventh decade.  Is sixty too old to take a course in basic diesel engine mechanics and electrics?

Of River Rats

I love the place where my boat is moored.  I rent fifty feet of river bank from a farmer.  The farm has been in his family for at least two generations.  It is very much a family business.  I am unqualified to pass comment on its agricultural advantages, but for me the best part of this place is the solitude.  There used to be other people living on boats nearby, but they left more than a year ago.  There is another man living aboard his boat, but he is two or three hundred metres away.  There are five other boats, but most of the time the owners are not here.  Two of those are the size of rowing boats, two are small motor cruisers and one is ... well, I'm not exactly sure, but I think it will become a houseboat at some stage.  It looks like a shed on a raft and the owner has been working on it since before I arrived here late in 2011.  Just because there are only two of us living here on the river doesn't mean we are completely isolated.  I am always astonished how nothing and no one gets past the farmer, his sister (the horse lady), the horse-trainer and their respective partners.

"Did you see that boat?" asked the horse lady and her partner yesterday pulling up in their ancient golf buggy.  I knew immediately which boat they meant.  A dull-reddish and off-white boat, looking even less kempt than mine went by about a week ago.  It came back again the day before yesterday.  Most of the time I am irritated by boats going by too fast.  Their wash tugs at my boat, which tugs on the ropes tying it to the mooring's woodwork.  I fear that one time when I am not here the ropes might give under the tugging of excessive wash and the boat float away, or the posts be pulled from the mud which would have a similar effect plus that of pulling the jetty to bits.  Also as the boat is rubbed along the side of the jetty by vessels passing at high-speed (this is a comparative notion - on the river 5mph is very high speed) paint is rubbed off the hull.  Any paint needs to be replaced and I am terrible at doing that.

The red and white boat in question though, was not going too fast at all.  In fact, it was moving incredibly slowly.  It was the slow speed that made it unusual; that and him passing close by my boat on the wrong side of the river.  I watched as he moved downstream to the fireman's old mooring, now only used for angling, and he looked as though he was manoeuvring to moor there.  However, instead of mooring he seemed to change his mind and passed it very slowly.  Then as he moved over to the right-hand side of the river (boaters drive on the right, of course) he opened the throttle a little and disappeared round the sunrise bend.  I thought it weird, but was pleased he had moved on.  I have come to appreciate my solitude and I wondered whether he might be looking for a mooring.  Of course I would not be able to object should the farmer wish to rent some more riverbank.  I was on the same mission nearly four years ago, when I finally began to come to terms with the fact that I was going to have to move out of my father's house after he died.  However, the excitement wasn't over.  The red and white boat had obviously used the slightly wider stretch of river round the bend to turn round and come back;  this time, of course it was on the correct side of the river to pass the moored boats very close and very slowly, which it did.  The owner seemed to be paying each boat and mooring very close attention.  This made me uncomfortable.  I have never liked people peering through my windows.  He continued passing very close to the other liveaboard, the lorry-driver's boat, and I thought he was now on his way back from whence he came, but no.  He turned round at the confluence and passed by a third time exhibiting the same odd behaviour.  By that time I needed to get to work, I had to collect my instruments and p.a. from the lock-up miles away and had a hotel porch in which to unload and shiver.

In conversation with the horse lady and her partner yesterday I learned that the "river rat" (as the partner called him) had indeed moored up at the fireman's old mooring and was not very keen to move on.  The farmer went to have a word.  These are private moorings and Ratty was trespassing.  I don't think I have mentioned this before, but the farmer fears no one and is known amongst all the local characterati for not tolerating nonsense.  The fiercest amongst these would not choose to cross the farmer.  The farmer and his sister (the horse lady) make a truly formidable team.  I am relieved that I get on with them both.  I would not care to cross either.  Some people manage to have an air of persuasion about them.  I am pretty certain it is something I have never cultivated, specially not in my years as a teacher where it could have been useful.  Maybe I've never recovered from the embarrassment of being listed, in my second teaching job, as one of the "weak" staff.  That, in turn, may have been due in part to being stabbed in the face with a ball-point pen during my first week there.  Ratty claimed to have some problem with an overheating clutch and that he wanted to give it chance to cool down, so he would finish his smoke first ... and so on.  The farmer persuaded him to move.  Had he not, the horse lady would have cut him adrift anyway.

I saw Ratty moored up in the village a few days later.  He was pointing in the direction of the farm again, so I expected him to come past within a day or two, which he did, still travelling dead slow and examining boats and moorings.  I don't know whether he was searching for loose stuff to sell on as seemed to be the consensus of the others, but he has queered his pitch if he was only looking for a mooring.

For an area inhabited by just nine people, a lot happens.  Yes, I love it here ...

Friday, 8 May 2015

Of The Best Time Of The Day

At 6am this morning I was sitting on the prow of my narrowboat home and enjoying the sights, the sounds and the touch of the morning.  It feels as though spring has crept up on us this year.  Traditional displays of the year's flora seem to have sneaked through under cover of the cold, the wind and the rain.  This morning, though, was beautiful.  I quite forgot to check on the election results.

 There being much less wind than we have experienced over the past few days there was not much sound from the two-dozen-plus wind turbines that stalk across the adjacent farm.  The most dominant sound was of birds calling, singing, trilling, chirping, chuntering ...  I realised, certainly not for the first time, how rich the English language is when we are describing things we can see and yet how much less well-equipped we are to describe sound.  No longer being first thing in the morning, the birds had calmed down and were not engaging in the frantic, quotidian competition that begins before dawn.  That first utterance of the day feels so aggressive.  Maybe my drummer/ornithologist friend is right when he asserts that bird song is often about the self-advertising of sexual prowess; that it's about marking out territory and asserting ownership.  This morning's six a.m. sounds wove into a far more subtle soundscape.

I recognised some of the voices, even though I couldn't see the choristers.  I watched how different birds seemed to favour flying at different levels.  The blackbird often finds the highest twig on a tree from which to share his extensive repertoire.  The buntings were gently murmuring in the reeds and long grass on the slopes of the bank.  The sparrows were trying to out-chirp each other, hidden amongst the growing and increasingly greening elder, while the wren was like a small child, fussing and carrying on in a voice out of all proportion to its size.  I think I heard the robin, but I didn't see him.  Then I heard a familiar thin "peep" and looked toward the willow roots that are exposed at the river's edge opposite knowing I would see the kingfisher either setting out from, or returning to, the nest.  Both kingfishers were flying in single file and at speed, inches from the surface of the river.  At the final second they banked in sharp arcs to land on separate perches just outside the nest.  Seconds later a pair of ducks quacked their way overhead, while from the field on the opposite side of the river a pheasant klaxoned his good mornings.  I heard many other bird sounds too - chirps, chiffs, squawks, caws, whistles and tweets among a few more intricately composed arias.  I listened out for the moorhens, but despite their huge repertoire of sounds they seem to prefer to remain more discreet at this time of the year.  From above the bank behind me I heard a woodpecker.  I knew that amongst the choir would be some of the finches and tits that I have seen returning after their long migrations, but I have yet to acquire the knowledge of the drummer/ornithologist, who identifies many birds through sound alone.  I have also seen one or two swallows in the past week.  They have not begun to gather in the intimidating numbers that we'll see in the summer when they will see how close they can dive-bomb as they spin and sweep through the air.  High above, a single tern flew to wherever might be its destination.  Its plaintive voice sounded like a cry for help.  Maybe it was lost.  Despite the large number resident I was not aware of any wood-pigeons and perhaps it wasn't the right time of day for the skylark, although I know there are some nearby, having seen and heard five of them on the wing, in full song, on a recent trip out along the river.

 I looked towards the sun rising beyond the stern of the boat and out of its golden light a single swan appeared.  It had swum into view around the bend of the river and was moving fast.  It seemed to be using one leg to power forward in surges.  Its wings were raised like the sides of a child's cot and the outer feathers stretched into display.  I don't know if this style of movement or self-presentation is related to mating imperatives, but I have watched many normally placid and inquisitive swans moving in this fashion several times recently.  The swans that pass by in pairs, or some still en famille with last year's late developers, usually break ranks to have a chat with me.  I refuse to believe that they are only curious to see if I bear them food.  This swan spurned my greetings.  It clearly had more pressing business to which to attend.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

May Day 3

This has been a busy weekend.  After getting to bed at 2.30ish for two nights running I am surprised to find myself awake and alert at 6.15am.  Living on a narrowboat does not make the storage of percussion and p.a. easy.  I rent a lock-up, stacked floor to ceiling, front to back, with musical equipment.  It is, unfortunately, several miles away and often in the wrong direction from where I would prefer to be heading.

Following last night's wedding reception gig at the hotel I took a chance and left the gear in the van.  I don't like to do this, but since I was barely going to have time to sleep I took the chance.  I need an early start to get to the lock-up, stow the p.a. and exchange it for percussion because today, my friends, is SAMBA.  I need to get to the performance area early because roads will be closed.  My samba band has been booked to accompany the pounding feet of a thousand runners.  As I load up the van the only pounding apparent is the rain.  The rain continues - pounding, pounding, pounding.

The gig is outdoors and we do not have shelter.  This year will be our third year playing for this event and shelter has never been offered.  It seems a little pointless raising the subject, since we are simply a noisy spectacle quite incidental to the business of the thousand-plus runners who will be punishing their bodies running ten kilometres past the visitor attractions of our coastal market town and heritage port.  They are doing charitable works.  The fastest will complete the course in half an hour.  We are hitting drums and dancing without stopping for three hours, when the last stragglers make it to the finish having walked and sweated their way round the course.  I am in awe of people who are prepared to undertake such exertions.  In previous years we have been more at risk from heat exhaustion or wind erosion than deliquescence.  We Brits love our weather and if we don't always feel the love, we learn to tolerate it.  I am not convinced that our Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish performers feel the same.

I have referred in a previous post to our mercurial dancers.  I never know who is coming and every time we perform people I have never before seen appear amongst the troupe.  Today they do not disappoint.  Several of them have travelled some hundred miles or more to be with us.  Most of them have been at a party till gone 4am and they decided to come straight over.  This means they have actually been here in town since about 6am.  Two people I was expecting have apparently hit the caipirinha so hard they are in a state of collapse on another coast that hundred miles away.  The ones that spill and bubble along the street towards where I have decided we are playing today look amazing.  Feathers, beads and the amount of flesh on display exceed all previous records.  Once again it won't matter a damn how well or poorly the band plays; no one will be paying attention ... or so I think.

The arrangement with the race organiser has always been for us to play for a while in the market square where runners, well-wishers and spectators mingle.  This year more music has been booked, so there will be a choice of acts for us to drown out.  Fifteen minutes before the race we are expected to make our way to a bandstand platform on the quayside where we normally remain until the last runner returns.  The rain is still pouring out of the sky like a bucket being emptied and I am worried about my instruments and the costumes.  I realise that birds are built to withstand a certain amount of precipitation, but I am not so sure about the dyes used in the feathers or the beads and minimal fabrics to which they are attached.  Shrinkage is not an option one could decently contemplate.  Fortunately one of our musicians has been restoring and has recently moved into a listed property on the route very close to the start and finish line.  Her house is adjacent to a brickwork archway leading into the yard of what was, many decades ago, a foundry.  It will provide us with a perfect base for performance offering shelter, nearness to a source of refreshment and an acoustic reinforcement for the modest sound produced by our shrinking number of players.  It also has the advantage of allowing us to be audible from both sound stages where we are expected to play AND, apart from our musician, no one else lives close enough to be bothered by the sound.  The only other buildings are occupied by estate agencies, solicitors' offices and the local council, none of whom are likely to be bothered much by us on a Sunday morning.  I don't know why we didn't do this years ago.  I think this will be our spot for this gig from now on.

As we assemble I begin a drum groove.  It surprises me that so many people fail to recognise that what we do is samba.  I've lost count of the number of times we have received booking enquiries for "the steel band".  My drumming is soon locked into by others in the band.  The exhaustion of all night revelry is shrugged off as feathers and beads begin to sway and rotate.  I give the whistle call for one of our more moderately paced rhythms and we're off.  The groove of this trance rhythm from Bahia is infectious.  The band sounds great.  I encourage the dancers to push through the band to where they can more easily be seen.  They form a nine-strong line in front of us.  After we've been going for a while one of the women surprises me by dancing out on to the pavement and into the rain and that sets the tone for the rest of the performance.  They are everything an exotic dance group should be, smooth, slinky, overwhelmingly charming with the adults amongst them appropriately (or inappropriately?) sexy.  Everyone is smiling and I know once again precisely why I put myself through the anxiety of doing these events.

As we play, spectators smile and sway as they cheer on the runners.  It is interesting to watch the response of the runners.  It is on the return that the biggest differences are noticeable.  The leaders are clearly very dedicated to their own performances and are not obviously distracted by our presence.  As the later arrivals approach us many respond by running in time or breaking into dancing, skipping, leaping or twisting steps, they applaud us as they run by and they smile. Not surprisingly a number of people, mostly men of course, are distracted enough by the dancers to risk breaking their own flow.  At least one man turns his head and runs without looking where he is going with near calamitous results amongst the pack.  One disdainful spectator manages also to look appalled and disgusted as he walks by on the pavement ... several times.

When everything is over, many people take the trouble to come back to our spot and thank us for the cheer we brought to the event.  As it happens the weather has deterred all the other expected musical interruptions.  There was no acoustic guitar music in the square, no string quartet in the park.  I don't know whether the amazing sax man turned up to play outside Argos as he told me last night he would be doing.  The organiser is fulsome in his appreciation of our performance.  We have done a good job and I am proud of everyone in the group.  I make sure I speak to them all to thank them.

Two days later I receive an e-mail from the organiser.  He has received A Complaint From a Member of The Public.  The organiser passed the message on to me because he thought it was funny.   I read the message and feel rather sad.  I thought it was going to be the usual complaint about the decadence of our dancers. We don't perform to upset people deliberately.  I put myself in the Mr Angry's situation and have some sympathy although I do wonder why anyone who does not like the effects of annual festivals, fairs, races and special commemorative celebrations would buy property in a place subject to road closures, diversions and the inconvenience of regular and frequent celebratory ambient sound.  Mr Angry had been forced to "accept grudgingly" that the road closures had trapped him in his house for four hours.  Far worse than that though was that he had "been subjected to an incessant racket from that Samba band in *** St."  Having believed for years that no one paid attention to the "steel band" music when the dancers were around I have to admit I am rather pleased that someone  not only heard the music, but recognised it as samba.  2-0, I think.