Six get Spooked in Wales (well maybe just one of us)

Last night I dreamt I went to Murmur-y-Don again.  It seemed to me that I stood at the foot of the steep, rugged driveway, a fallen tree barring the entrance.  Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed, like a spirit, through the barrier before me.  This time I was alone, at midnight, instead of being driven in a second hand Peugeot estate at three in the afternoon.  The car had scraped badly against an unexpected bit of dry stone wall, which juts out alarmingly as you approach the top – such had been the driver’s haste to end a long car journey.  The owner of Murmur-y-Don (the whispering of the waves) had taken a dry stone walling course a few years back, and walled his own impressive garden (the dry stone walling certificate was placed in a prominent position on one hallway window ledge.)

In brilliant moonlight, I passed the un-mowed, sloping garden, filled with orange flowering shrubs, rhododendrons and mile high trees, which led steeply down to the road, which in turn led to the precipitous incline down to the sea.  Murmur-y-Don sits on the very top of a cliff you see.  Utterly alone, I approached the side door to the imposingly large house, with its curiously low hanging slate roof (a roof the ends of which I could touch) and again noticed the ramshackle and shabby appearance of the muddy brown pebble dashed wall and the ancient wooden, sickly green door; the paint flaking, and a door knob that wobbled loosely when turned, as though any moment it might fall off.  In my dream the door was open and beyond it I glimpsed the long, dark hallway leading off from the cavernous kitchen, a large pantry in one corner – the pantry with its own ancient wooden door, the one I feared unseen hands would shut behind me, and then lock, every time I put the dishes and cups away.  The long hallway led into a second hallway, ending in a large staircase.  Climbing it, it turned back on itself ending in a long, narrow, entirely empty corridor, from which various doors led off, into four bedrooms and one large bathroom, containing an original 1907 bath.

Moonlight can play odd tricks upon the fancy.  As I stood at the open door, hushed and still, the house an empty shell, a shadowy figure began walking towards me down the darkened hallway – I turned and fled.

*******

That’s enough of that and I’m no Rebecca.

I’ve just got back from a spooky seven day holiday in Wales, spent in a Hagrid-type house (complete with one conical roof) rented from Airbnb.

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It was filled up to the ceiling oak beams with gigantic old sideboards, dressers and cupboards.  In the study (it had a study) there was a presidential type desk, the kind you’d be alarmed to find Trump sitting behind in the Oval Office.  It was plonked in front of a massive brick fireplace and, opposite it, stood an upright piano which didn’t work.  The off key, deadened chiming of the defunct piano provided the perfect unsettling accompaniment to this house from another age (1907 with many of the original features preserved.)

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I tried coaxing a light and pleasant tune from it, to counteract the dark and heavy ‘sense of place’ which overflowed from every nook and cranny, and failed.  On top of the piano there was a huge pile of old board games.  Son no.1 however had brought along his own stash of modern board games – no Monopoly or Cluedo for him – but games called The Resistance and ‘Betrayal at house on the hill’ which was fittingly about building a haunted house.  I was coerced into playing The Resistance by accusations of being a killjoy and the most boring person on the planet (as a side-note to myself, this is exactly what the sister used to call my teenage self – although substitute ‘party pooper’ for ‘killjoy.’)

During my 30 minutes of Resistance play (and I was resistant) I never got the hang of it at all and failed miserably when it was my turn to be a ‘spy.’  You see, each player received a card which told them they were either a goody or a baddy (spy). There were two spies and each player’s job was to unmask the spies via deduction.  Play began with every player closing his/her eyes and the two spies were then asked to open their eyes only.  During every round I’d been ‘good,’ so the eye opening bit had sort of gone over my head.  When I eventually got a spy card, I opened my eyes as instructed, found another person with their peepers also open (looking furtively around) and immediately laughed hysterically, practically falling off the settee with the hilarity of it all, causing the other person to also break down with mirth, and the game was UP before it even got started.  I am a useless spy and even worse at deduction.

Leaving complex board games aside, imagine you’re a film location scout (this is a job) charged by the surreally weird Tim Burton to go forth and find him the perfect setting for his re-make of The Turn of the Screw/The Woman in Black (any unsettling gothic tale will do.)  And further imagine your delight when you happen upon Murmur-y-Don, set within the ancient town of Harlech, and within a stone’s throw of a gigantic, forbidding castle, perched on an equally gigantic rock.

Within the house you find dark, oak wood floors, which curiously echo the sound of footsteps, so that more than once you thought someone was walking up behind you, when they were, in fact, walking about in another room.  This unnerving sensation caused you to frequently turn around in mild consternation, to find no-one there.

You find dark, forbidding furniture lining every wall.  Furniture which seems to ‘own’ the place, so that you wonder if it all comes to life after dark and makes dastardly plans against you, its unwelcome cohabitant.  You resolve to stay the night and find many ancient, multi paned windows, with equally ancient latches, and spend your evening obsessively checking that all these windows are latched and their casement stays locked in place.  You find that the back door, with the wobbly door knob, has three bolts on it (presumably to make up for the wobbly door knob) which need to be bolted at night.  You fasten the bolts, on what fails to ever feel like a particularly sturdy door, and then return to the door repeatedly, just to check your bolts are in place – for the owner, in his entertaining house manual, provides the comforting information that yes, the house has been burgled via the study door.

You, however, do not live in fear of burglars; your fear is based in the life hereafter.  To this end you never go in the study again, feeling that this room is particularly ghost ridden.  When you go into the depths of the pantry, you turn its light on and leave the door wide open so you can make a quick getaway.  Whilst hanging your mug up on its ancient hook, attached to an ancient black wooden shelf, your hair tends to rise up on the nape of your neck, at the thought of what else is out there in the cavernous kitchen (according to the husband there’s a mouse in the kitchen, which he didn’t tell me until we got home.)

There is a circular dining room, jutting out from the main house, from which you can see the entire surrounding view through multi-paned windows.  And what a view it is – a cinematographer’s dream.

A nearly deserted sandy beach sweeps from right to left (or left to right) in a majestic inward curve.  In the distance, across the wide expanse of aquamarine sea, there’s an undulating ridge of Lord of the Rings’ type mountains, which make their way inland, getting larger and larger as far as the eye can see.  A line of low hanging cloud sits permanently above these mountains, even when the rest of the sky is blue, bright and clear.  You think that maybe there’s a Welsh dragon up there roaring out his smoke and fire.

When you go upstairs into the blue bedroom (where the husband and I slept, and from where the husband heard a door slam in the middle of the night, leading him to believe in the ghosts) you find a door leading out onto an ancient wooden balcony.  You stand on this balcony feeling that you could be on the deck of the Titanic (being of a pessimistic disposition this is where your thoughts naturally turn) as the sea is immediately below you, but you also take great care not to lean on the wooden railing, which is looking non too safe.

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There is also a pink bedroom, a green bedroom and a yellow bedroom.  All hung with unnerving religious paintings – the kind that warn you about Hell and suchlike – and painted in that scarily Medieval fashion, the ones with anatomically incorrect animals and hideously grotesque people, guaranteed to give you nightmares just as you’re nodding off.  There’s also a giant painting of an Elizabethan looking woman in the lounge, her head turned coquettishly towards you, her eyes following you around the room and, freakishly, down the hallway too.

*****

But enough use of the second person – I’m getting quite befuddled.

One disconcerting aspect of staying at Murmur-y-Don was that I couldn’t stay in the house alone.  I have a history of this kind of thing, dating back to teenage years when, if everyone else was out of the house, I would have to keep a back door open or, occasionally, rush out of the house.  I don’t know what it is about being in a vast house alone that is just so plain scary – all those out of sight, maybe not so empty rooms?

On a couple of days the husband went fishing and the sons went off coasteering and climbing mountains; being into neither of those things (the one is too boring, the other too dangerous) I opted to stay at home and then realised I couldn’t actually ‘stay at home’.  Thanks goodness we had such brilliantly sunny weather.  My solution was to sit out on a rock hard, white metal garden chair, in the lovely garden, and read a book entitled ‘A Century of Creepy Stories.’

Murmur-y-Don had about six gigantic bookcases, filled with 1500 books.  Our host is, amongst other things, an author, having written many books on architectural Follies, type fonts and the game Mahjong.  Two of his books could be found in his bookcases, he informed us in the house manual and both, according to his wife, are guaranteed cures for insomnia.  Out of his impressive book selection, my eyes managed to pick out a thick, musty smelling book filled to the gills with ghosts and, fool that I am, I chose it as my holiday reading.  Occasionally I felt in need of sustenance and so made a sort of mad dash, via the circular dining room, through the lounge, down the creepy hallway and into the kitchen, poured out a drink and then rushed out again.  Oh, what self-inflicted traumas I put myself through.

The other major trauma was the six hour drive to the house which, unbeknownst to us all, involved the husband driving up the side of a mountain.  It took a few seconds to register that this was happening.  One moment we were on a normal road, the next I noticed the road curving steeply away and upwards; a thin low hedge, and a few trees, being all that was between me and a truly mind blowing vertical drop.  I was on the left side, inches away from the drop, the husband was in a psychologically more reassuring position on the right, near the mountain face.  Immediately I grabbed the door handle in absolute terror, starting squealing like a stuck pig, when I wasn’t making rapid panting noises like a dog in hot weather, and demanded to be let out of the car.  There were several cars behind us and the husband refused to stop, requesting, through gritted teeth, that I close my eyes, until it was over.  I didn’t close my eyes, I find not overseeing what’s happening even more discombobulating.  Son No.2 got his phone out, pulled up a Google map (you can get internet up a mountain!) and informed me that we’d soon be going back down again, into a valley.  Ten minutes later we were back at sea level and I swore I’d never drive to Harlech EVER AGAIN.

The week was spent:

1 – In walking down the 88 vertical steps to the beach, which ended with a railway track curving round the coastline – quite stunning and also quite scary, being that you had to cross it to get to the beach.

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The train came every two hours and always announced its arrival via a loud horn.  To get to the steps you first had to cross the extremely dangerous road.  The road curved at both sides, which meant you couldn’t see oncoming traffic and had to rely on sound.  This would have been fine, except the local drivers were filled with murderous intent.  The speed at which they came round the corners was terrifying – I once got three quarters of the way across before a car appeared suddenly, from nowhere, and would have driven into me had I not broken out into a run.  It didn’t slow down at all.  My modus operandi was that the husband and sons crossed first and then told me when to cross.  However, I couldn’t quite trust them, and found myself on the pavement, hopping about from one foot to the next before breaking out into a sudden mad dash across the road.  Son no.2 regretted not filming this performance and the mad look on my face.

2 – In visiting Tesco in Porthmadog, which the husband referred to as ‘Port-mad-dog’, some 8 miles away, for supplies until I realised that the very local Premier shop stocked just about everything.

3 – In walking to the other side of the beach, in search of fishing ground for the husband, where I happened upon a very old church (c 485AD) right on the beach.  I forced the husband and two of the sons to go in for a gander, finding a tiny, whitewashed stone interior filled with about eight sets of pews and an altar made from a table covered with an Anglo Saxon looking woven cloth.  Various stone relics lay near the altar, claiming to be significant, ancient stones from the original church site – looked just like your average pebble on the nearby beach to me.  This prompted the husband to suggest that he could probably flog some stones from down our local harbour on Ebay, as ancient artefacts from the local castle.  But holidays should never be about cynicism.

To the husband’s great misfortune I noticed a leaflet pinned to the church gate, which announced a Celtic concert to be given that very evening.  I took this as a stroke of great serendipity and immediately whinged to go. The husband and sons stood around in male solidarity, unified in their moment of distress, unable to contemplate further church related torture.  The husband, however, agreed to accompany his wife to hear a duo performing on the harp, bagpipes, flute, whistle and mandolin – musical heaven, I say.  The sons were exempt.

We were to be found that evening at 7 pm, amongst an audience of precisely 31 (I counted) sat on rock hard, 6 inch deep pews; two iron work candelabras, filled with actual candles, hanging above our heads and every nook and cranny of the church walls also filled with candles.  The air was filled with burning incense and the husband was filled with a burning desire to leave the premises.  However, as soon as one of the duo (Ben Walker, a bloke capable of playing every instrument known to man) started blowing into his north African (I think) flute, the husband settled back, occasionally whispering that the whole thing sounded very like John Denver (which it most definitely didn’t) but that made everything alright; being that JD was the husband’s long ago musical hero.

We left during the interval, due to time constraints and a long walk back to the house, having not realised I’d subjected us to 90 minutes worth of wailing bagpipes and suffocating incense, but without much feeling of guilt, being the entrance fee had cost fourteen quid.

4 – In spotting very large jellyfish, left stranded on the beach by the tide each day.  My first encounter had been on day one, when I’d spotted what I thought was a black rock on the beach.  Going up to it, the black ‘rock’ suddenly flew away.  It turned out to be a poor stranded jellyfish completed covered in sandflies which were devouring it alive – absolutely YUKK and a perfect example of why I hate the natural world so much.  There’s oh so much violence, death and disease lurking beneath the picturesque surface.  I avoided jellyfish at all costs after that but the husband had a curious compulsion to go up to every single one and poke it about or nudge it with his foot.  He was also strangely drawn to a spectacular pile of massive blue stones on the beach, at the bottom of the cliff.  Here he would clamber about on their wet, slimy, seaweed covered surfaces, losing his footing, nearly breaking his legs, and slipping off into rock pools.  No amount of stern remonstrance from me stopped him from doing it.

5 – In visiting Harlech castle, where we found the tiny, ancient town of Harlech next to it; full of old fashioned sweet shops, ‘hand crafted’ ice cream shops, coffee shops etc.  The castle was a complete surprise.  It’s an impressive sight, perched right on top of a cliff as it is but, from the roadside, hadn’t looked as though it had much to offer.  But it was well worth a visit.  The tour begins at the gift shop, where you turn into a small cinema to watch a film mounted on three walls, giving a rapid historic rundown.  There’s an impressive, modern bridge to get to the castle.  There are corkscrew stone steps inside two turrets of the castle – we walked up these to find ourselves out on its top wall, able to walk all the way around, a mighty drop just feet away, but a fantastic 360o view of the entire area. Strangely, walking around a precipice does not fill the heart with the same fear as being driven along one.

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There’s also a giant model dragon in the bailey (the space inside the castle walls) with a smaller dragon acting as a water fountain.  The best bit was the entrance fee – just £6 per person and a quid less than the smashing Celtic duo!

6 – In being cooked for by son no.1 and his gf.  Every evening the Amazonian warrior gf would stride purposefully, her cute nose and chin in the air, from the kitchen to dining table bringing in dishes filled with gorgeous food.  The husband and sons were in eating heaven, as opposed to eating Hell, being that I’ve never had much interest in developing culinary skills.

The gf presents her food, instead of just throwing it onto the plates, never sparing a thought for her diners’ artistic sensibilities.  Therefore the veg and salad arrived arranged in separate dishes to be spooned onto the plate.  The tomatoes were peeled and sliced (I chuck mine whole on the plate, sometimes complete with stalk.)  The guacamole (for a Mexican) was homemade.  Everything was seasoned and tasteful and bountiful. At my house, you get what you’re given and, if supplies run short – hard luck.

The gf also kept things warm by actually using our host’s hotplate (this thought would never have occurred to me.)  A jug of water was always placed on the table.  We were catered for as to dietary requirements.  In short, the gf (and her sous-chef, son no.1) were impressive whirlwinds of domestic  energy.

I could go on and on, further testing your blog reading patience, but over 3,000 words is stretching it a bit, even for me.

This account of our holiday may seem to be filled with what son no.1 would say is my constitutional negativity but Murmur-y-Don, and the surrounding area, is a lovely, magical, if haunted place – I’m still struggling to return to oh so crappy normality.

A Violin with Tea and Cake

The free, church summer concerts are on again.  Seems like they only just finished. Time is up to his old tricks again.  I went along last Thursday with my Christian friend.  The performers were a duo; a Japanese violinist accompanied by a pianist with four Masters’ degrees in piano, harpsichord, conducting and composition (four Masters) and a Bachelor’s degree in Physics, which he knocked off whilst finishing the Masters.  The programme began with a violin solo by Bach.

The audience was comprised of the retired and the church going.  I fitted right in, with my white hair and my M&S elasticated slacks (from their Classics section for frumpy old women.)  In fact, at 56, I was alarmed to find how seamlessly I fitted in (mind you I’ve always been middle-aged in my head.)  As the violinist began I adopted a pose which I felt suited the rarefied pursuit of listening to ancient classical music.  I sat bolt upright (this wasn’t difficult in a rock hard wooden pew) my hands clasped together in my lap, my head slightly raised and my eyes closed, as though in rapt concentration.

The first few notes were drawn out and pure, rising up to the church rafters, and then the violin bloke launched into a typically rapid Bachian melody.  I opened my peepers to see that many audience members had adopted my pose of the intelligent, thoughtful person caught up in the dream-like beauty of listening to a bit of Bach.  Closing them again, the violin made a sudden sweeping screech, in which I definitely heard what sounded like a duff note.  This was followed by what seemed to be a run of duff notes.  Now, I’d never heard Bach’s violin music before and immediately surmised that maybe Bach had churned out some pretty crap violin music and that this bloke was merely following a score in which Bach had temporarily lost the plot.  I opened my eyes, to see how other people were reacting to what could only be described as the alarming juxtaposition of watching a semi-professional violinist repeatedly playing the wrong notes – for surely one of the greatest composers who ever lived would not have written something which was beginning to sound like two cats having a fight.

But no, the audience were as one in their rapt attention.  Must be me then, thought I.  The Bach solo finished to polite applause, the kind you get at the more cerebral entertainment venues, along with much appreciative nodding of heads.  The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I’d lost my musical sense and had been hearing ear wincing notes where there were none.

The second piece was another violin solo written by the player himself.  It went by a Japanese title so I have no idea what it was supposed to be about.  But imagine, if you will, the worst school kids’ concert you were ever forced to sit through, where some star kid violinist scratched his/her way through ‘Twinkle, Twinkle little Star,’ whilst its parents looked on in adoration.  You recognised the tune but it’s as though someone put it through a clothes mangler, and it came out all flat (off key) with the life taken out of it.  And so it was with this little self-penned ditty.  The whole thing seemed to be made up of surreal notes from an alternate violin playing universe, finishing so suddenly on an unexpectedly short lived, sort of high  pitched ‘plonk,’  that the audience sat stupefied and forgot to clap.  Ah, maybe I’m not the only one, thought I.

The third piece was an altogether more enjoyable affair as the pianist joined in.  We were on much safer ground here, as he effortlessly bashed the keys in all the right order – those five degrees had not gone to waste.  But even here, the violin occasionally introduced a jarring note into the proceedings, but I was determined to enjoy it and equally determined not to be snobbishly critical.

There was a time, in my younger days, when I would be critical of just about everything.  But oh how I’ve mellowed with age.  Now you can throw anything at me.  You can sing off key.  You can knit the most revolting garment.  You can bake me a rock hard cake.  You can write me emails, or texts, full of spelling and grammar mistakes and I won’t bat a non-critical eyelid.

Afterwards the friend and I ran for our pot of tea and cake, in order to beat the masses close at our heels.  ‘Go grab a table,’ she screamed at me from the counter, and ‘what cake do you want?’  Five minutes later we could be found chatting away in a corner.  Well, my friend chatted whilst I dutifully listened.  There was a time when I used to monopolise conversations but the further mellowing effects of age mean that I’m now a very good listener, even if the eyes do sometimes glass over.

My friend had recently come back from a religious tour of Israel.  At 68 I marvelled at her bravery and keen interest in life.  Of course, the talk was full of her close personal friend Jesus and how she’d visited the lake of Galilee and did you know that you can even hire a boat, which is a replica of the exact one Jesus used when he calmed the storm!  Suppressing some mirth at the idea of all those gullible Christian tourists forking out a few quid to ride on the same boat as Jesus, particularly since the Jews don’t believe he was the Messiah, I ooh’d and aahh’d in all the right places.  My friend had a particularly well-told tale in which she had turned in the boat, to look back at the shore, and could have sworn she saw Jesus sitting there cooking some fish over a fire!  I asked what Jesus looked like in this vision.  ‘You know, how he always looks’ was the reply.  That being the long haired, bearded and very white Western version.  Many years ago I would have pulled her up on this, noting that Jesus was middle eastern and would therefore not have been white, or even had long flowing locks, but my friend was in the midst of holy raptures and not open to rational suggestion.

As we talked, I raised some pertinent questions, whilst stressing that I understood her feelings, and put into words some of the things about her religion that she couldn’t quite explain.  Towards the end of tea and cake she suddenly sat back in her chair with a look of revelation on her face; the sort of look I fancied comes over her when she’s engaged in nightly prayers.

‘Susan! I do love these discussions we have after the concerts!  You ask questions that nobody else asks.  Nobody questions anything in the church because we’re all Christians and we’re all sure, but you make me think about things.  The way you explained blah blah blah is what I’ve been thinking for years!  Can I tell my friends on Sunday?’

Feeling pleased and clever re: my powers of religious exposition, but still somewhat surprised, I gave her my blessing to spread the atheist’s word.

Our other topic of conversation was the music.  ‘What did you think?’ my friend seemed to tentatively ask.  I took the plunge.  ‘I’m not sure, I think the violinist was off key for a lot of the time.  I’m thinking maybe he didn’t tune up properly or something.  But he was playing like he knew what he was doing so I kept thinking the problem was me.’  ‘Phew,’ my friend said, ‘I thought I was the only one.’  So, it turned out the violin player was a bit rubbish but, due to a friendly politeness, we’d all clapped like he was the best thing since sliced bread.  Well, at least the concert was FREE.

In other news, I’ve started painting the lounge with, what is called to those of us in the know, a mist coat.  This is watered down matt paint to seal the new plaster.  The problem with that is that it splashes everywhere, and the second problem with that is that I wear my normal clothes whilst painting, so I currently have an M&S top covered in delightful splatters of paint.  I should wear overalls but it’s just too hot for that kind of thing.

I’ve also been emailing Will Self….. as you do (well a thread of 4 emails to be exact.)  My current obsession with the highly political, controversial, opinionated Mr Self led me to finding his email on the ‘world wide web’ (as he likes to call it.)  I fired off one of my lengthy missives without expecting a reply and good old Will replied.  What a nice, previously drug addled person he must be.  In the manner of Henry Root (from years ago) I’ve got into the habit of contacting famous people, seemingly for the hell of it.

I have also been persuaded to become a member of the Committee on one of my choirs.  I explained that ,with my stammer and my lack of knowledge of, well, anything  that I’d be a pretty useless Committee member and most likely a spare part, but they must be desperate.

In two weeks we’re off to Wales.  I must hope that the heel pain I suddenly developed two days ago will have eased by then.  I looked up heel pain on the world wide web to find something called Plantar Fasciitis, which can last up to a year.  The husband had a bout of that, he said, a while ago, which lasted 4 months, and what’s more had it in both heels, years ago, when his ankylosing spondylitis had been at its torturous peak.  That episode had lasted years.

Putting worries aside of a more sinister cause of the heel pain (and that it could go on for years) I must get back on the ladder and apply more of that mist coat.

 

What I’ve been Doing

Dear Blog

I’ve neglected you, but you don’t mind do you?   Or perhaps you do, which is why you suddenly disappeared a week ago, walking off in a huff out of the blogging ether.  Thankfully, this was only because I had to renew my DNS fee, a thing I discovered in mild panic when chatting with a Happiness Engineer (oh the wonderful, there-at-a-moment’s-notice HE’s.)   However put out you are, dearest blog, you’re my dependable little friend; always there for a catch up, even if I don’t drop in for simply ages and ages.

So many busy things have been happening.  I’m approaching the last bit of wallpaper that needs scraping off the lounge walls.  For two months the lounge has resembled the sort of room you’d find in one of those telly cleaning programmes where the occupants appear to be living in a nuclear fallout zone.  Not that I’ve seen those kinds of programmes for the past two months, because I haven’t watched TV for two whole months!  Yes, our TV had to have every snarled up power lead unplugged and then TV and stand were banished to the back room, unable to be used since the Sky lead and bog standard aerial are in the lounge.  Two months ago Son No.3 wandered into the lounge with his evening snack, noticed the chairs were all out of whack, plonked himself down on one and stared off into the general direction of the TV, to find a gaping TV-less hole.  The look of gobsmacked surprise on his face surpassed anything you could gawp at on your TV.  ‘Where’s the TV?’  he managed to blurt out.  He couldn’t have been more shocked if he’d come home from work to find his parents had absconded.  ‘Sorry, it’s gone until I get the lounge sorted out,’ I replied.  Since then he can be found morosely chomping on his favourite post-dinner evening snacks, forlornly gazing at iPlayer on his laptop (cornettos, Sainsbury choc chip cookies, babybel cheeses, apples – these are all consumed steadily, one after the other.)

But the eye opener, the absolute revelation (comparable to Paul’s on the road to Damascus) is that I haven’t missed the telly one bit, and neither has the husband.  Of course, this will have something to do with the internet and all its browsing loveliness (new suites for the lounge, knitting blogs etc) but a laptop certainly doesn’t compare to your average HD flat screen telly, and yet I haven’t missed anything about the TV talking heads at all.

And I haven’t been doing much laptop gazing either.  For I have been doing important community spirit type things, like taking part in the local primary school’s Last night of the Proms concert.  This was due to my limited role as children’s choir helper, and being a member of the newly created school adult choir.  Our leader had dreamed up the idea for this overly ambitious concert several months ago and had whispered in my ear, at the first rehearsal, that would I sing the solo bits on The Lord is my Shepherd from The Vicar of Dibley.  I whispered back ‘yes’ immediately, since the concert had been 5 months away, so what did I care at that actual moment in time?  In the ensuing weeks I tended to think of The Solo as something that wouldn’t actually happen; that it was all a figment of my overwrought imagination, until we started rehearsing the song and I was instructed to begin with my solo bit.  Due to a strange blocking out of The Solo, I hadn’t even looked at the sheet music and so launched into the shakiest, breathiest, weirdest solo bit you ever heard.  The Solo bits improved over time and I became less fearful of singing alone in the middle of a bunch of choristers, but still I barely practiced at home, preferring to believe that The Solo was happening in some sort of alternate universe and would be sung by somebody who looked like me but wasn’t actually me.

The day of the concert came and mid-morning it suddenly dawned on me that I would have to sing The Solo to an audience of roughly 250 people.  On previously informing Son No.1 that I was going to be singing in the school concert he got all pretend excited and said you might be another Susan Boyle and become a star on the local church circuit (the idea of there being a ‘church circuit’ tickled us pink.)  The comparison with Susan Boyle did not instil confidence.  I LOVED Susan Boyle at the peak of her BGT fame, but did I want to be thought of as a frumpy, grey haired, pre-makeover Ms Boyle?  Banishing such a vision, and with panic rising, I found some vocal exercises on YouTube and stood in the kitchen, vibrating my lips together whilst humming and turning my head from side to side – this exercise took some time to master; particularly the vibrating lips bit which was just plain stupid.  Desperately hoping the neighbours weren’t listening, I moved on to ‘slight coughs,’ followed by rapid arpeggios that rose up the scale, followed by the bending and straightening of the knees.

When The Solo came around, I discovered I had to stand forward of the rest of the choir and sing into a standing mic that was connected to a proper sound system.  And what a sound system it was. At a rapid rehearsal 30 minutes before the concert, I discovered that the mic made things sort of effortless.  What a wonderful sensation it was to warble into this mic and find that your voice magnified to operatic proportions and bounced off the walls.  My tiny rehearsal weirdly settled most of the nerves (knowing that the mic would take up most of the slack) and The Solo went off without a hitch, although Son No.3 (playing guitar in the concert due to pressure from his mother) did point out that there was a definite crack in the voice midway through, due to nerves.  But what care I?  I sang a solo in front of an audience, for the first time in years, and survived the strange out of body experience.  The downside was seeing myself doing it at the next rehearsal, as our leader’s son had filmed the concert on his phone.  Any pluses, like the fact I’d managed to sing and not just emit a terrified squeak, were immediately negated by watching the overweight, grey haired, fugly (not a typo) vision on screen.  Still, the way to overcome that is to count your blessings.

And the concert was a surprisingly enjoyable experience, a thing I hadn’t counted on, not being a fan of amateur productions or having much community spirit.  There was much flag waving and plenty of Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory, which nearly brought a tear to my eyes.  Afterwards, everyone was on a high and my Facebook feed was littered with how wonderful and life affirming it had all been.

The next community thing I did was lead the school’s gala procession.  I didn’t know I was going to lead it until I arrived at the meeting place, which struck me as ridiculous, considering the tiny contribution I make to the school’s life.  I felt like a total imposter.  ‘They obviously can’t get the staff,’ was my one thought as I walked, at a snail’s pace, down to the local castle in weather that was so hot I felt I’d melt away into a puddle, just like the W W of the W.  I carried the school’s all- purpose banner, with help from the lady who organises the gala every year, and for whom it’s an obsession (our theme was Peter Pan and she made all the props – ‘bless her,’ as she would say.)  But the highlight for me was realising that a bloke walking directly in front of me, with a local kids’ drama group, had been a member of a brilliant singing group on our last P&O mini-cruise to Belgium.  We’d stood in the ship’s lift with this four man group, one evening on our way up to dinner, and the husband got chatting (like he always does) and we found out that one of them lived in our town, and we didn’t quite believe him – but there he was, walking in front of me at the gala!

I left, as soon as we got to the castle, due to the intense heat and I had other things to do.  The getting away proved very difficult, as I was badgered into staying to hear the result, but I felt too withered and knackered.  The next day I was told we’d won (like we did the past two years.)  I would have said ‘they’ won, but my community-minded friends always refer to everything as ‘we.’  As a side note, ‘they’ tried to force the husband into walking with the procession when he came to take photos of me in my fairy outfit (yes, I was a fairy, but it’s best not to go there) at the meeting place.  The husband said ‘No,’ six times (I counted) in a firm and manly manner.  If only I could say ‘No’ to things with that degree of unabashed certainty, thought I.

Community things and choir things are not the only things I’ve been doing.  I’ve been helping to write cover letters and job applications.  The latest job application requested that you DO NOT send us a bog standard CV and oh so dreary cover letter, but make your application stand out, you dimwits!!!  So, that’s what they got, a cover letter which will fully test just what they meant by ‘not dreary.’

And the other thing I’ve been doing is reading.  Oh the joy of reading. I at last got my reading mojo back.  In the past two months I’ve read:

Lewis Carroll; The Man and his Circle
In the Shadow of the Dreamchild
Lewis Carroll A Biography
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Through the Looking Glass
The Essex Serpent
After me comes The Flood

You will see an obsessive Lewis Carroll element here, or the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, or ‘my dearest Charlie,’ as his mother called him – but more of that in future posts.  You will also note an obsession with Victoriana – I was born in the wrong era – well, only if I’d been born into the upper middle classes where they had things like water closets (loos) and plenty of servants.

Yes, reading words that are written on bits of paper is here to stay.  My laptop will never replace the loveliness of turning a page or breathing in the woody perfume of the paper.

And the last thing I’ve been doing is watching the gloriously hang dog, slightly haggard and strangely Victorian looking Will Self on YouTube, who at 17 was addled with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, a streptococcus infection eating part of his face and worked as a council road sweeper.  The man is a walking dictionary.  If you want to widen your vocabulary (and you do don’t you) then watch the strangely hypnotic Will in full flow, the unheard of before words falling from his lips like nuggets of oral gold.  Words I now know the actual meaning of, because Will is now my free YouTube tutor.  Every time he emits a word that sounds decidedly foreign, I pause my video, look it up via Google then press play, feeling so much cleverer.  Words like:

Paradigm
Gnosticism
Efficients
Anomic
Fissiparous
Agglomeration
Notionally
Contingent
Egregious
Hegemont

The remarkable thing (Will would probably never lower himself by ever using the word ‘thing’) is that Will never draws breath.  He never has to pause and say ‘oh what’s the word I’m looking for?’  He simply knows every single word out there.  I wonder if he spends his evenings going through Roget’s Thesaurus?  Will Self is now Professor of Contemporary Thought (what a wonderful job title that is) at the University of Brunel.

Well, that’s it, it’s time for me to leave, expeditiously.

 

Oculus Rift

It’s Eurovision again.  I wonder how many Eurovision’s have been and gone since I started writing this blog?   Probably just two, but it seems like an awful lot more.  Surely once a year is maybe once too often to inflict a series of mundane but increasingly loopy pop songs upon us.  Maybe not.  The Euro lot seem to be loving it.  Anyway from one alternate reality to another………….

The husband got an Oculus Rift about 3 weeks ago.  Son No. 2 had spent two months debating whether to get one (unknown to us) and then took the plunge, at a hefty £700, plus a graphics card capable of handling the visual doodahs and various extra special USB sticks.  (If any computer experts out there find themselves unfortunately misdirected to this blog, maybe they could explain what I mean by ‘doodahs’ and ‘extra special’, ‘cos I have no idea.)

The son brought his Oculus home and set it up in the lounge.  This necessitated the bringing down of son No. 3’s computer, from upstairs, and hooking it up to the telly, where it sat marooned in the middle of the lounge floor looking very forlorn and out of place.  Then one VR sensor was placed on a table and the other perched on top of the mantelpiece.  The sensors detect head movement and also define the VR space, which appears to be 360o, being that you can turn all the way around.  I think that’s what the sensors do; it’s all something to do with LED lights and infrared and such like.  There were also two hand held controllers, around which your hands fit snuggly and quite naturally.

(Since I first used the Oculus I’ve become slightly worried about sitting within a field of radiation, whilst resting my peepers about a millimetre away from two screens (resembling a pair of really, really thick spectacle lenses) which must also be emitting some kind of awful radiation, and all the while encased in a claustrophobic, slightly heavy headset.  But such are the demands of embracing a futuristic lifestyle.)

Son No. 2 had prepared the way for VR via Facebook posts, in which he’d taken screen shots of his Oculus experiences and posted them.  I’d seen these images and been distinctly underwhelmed, forgetting that these images were in 2D.  When the Oculus was all set up I placed the headset on my head (obviously) and immediately found myself standing in a small room on what was obviously a spaceship, while a little Wall-E type robot hovered in the air a few feet away from me.  He was blinking his cute round eyes at me and then he waved, holding up a sign with a waving hand on it, beckoning me to wave back.  Now this was the first time I’d ever experienced a VR set-up and I couldn’t work out what had happened.  I lifted the headset from my eyes to check where I was.  Yes, I was in the lounge, facing the TV.  ‘I was on a spaceship,’ I said to no-one in particular.  I put the headset back on and there I was, standing in front of a sort of desk while my robot friend hovered.  I took the headset off again, my non-VR brain obviously unable to process what was happening.  ‘It’s a training thing,’ said son No.2, ‘it’s to teach you how to use the hand controllers.’  The headset went on again.

Someone else on the net must have drawn this comparison.  But do you remember the transporter in the old Star Trek series.  They’d all stand on round circles on the transporter, then a wiggly, shimmering light would cover their bodies and the next thing you knew there they were, standing on an alien planet which was conveniently full of oxygen.  That’s exactly what happened, minus the squiggly lines.  One minute, nay  one second, I was standing in the lounge, whilst the husband and sons sat around watching the TV screen, the next moment I was TRANSPORTED to another place.

Back on the dimly lit spaceship I got my bearings and began turning my head to look around.  There was a 3D printer to my left; a sort of old style computer to my right; drink cans littered the desk; there was a door behind me.  The robot handed me a floppy disk, which I had to place into the 3D printer, using my new ethereal, blue, VR hands.  On insertion the printer sprang into life and printed off a child’s rattle with bells.  I had to pick it up using my VR hands (difficult manoeuvre to get used to) and then spin it around – it made the sound of jingling bells!  Then butterflies appeared and I held out my blue hands, and a fluorescent pink butterfly landed on one finger.  I could fill this description of what happened with loads of exclamation marks, because if anything deserves the exclamation mark, it’s the Oculus Rift.

The husband had a go and was also transported, this time with delight and uncontainable excitement, when son No.2 loaded up something called Ultra Wings, which allowed the husband to fly a plane.  We rushed a kitchen chair into the room, so he could feel that he was actually sitting in the plane.  It must be said that the imagery on Ultra Wings is animated and very basic but it was as though the husband was in his own personal seventh heaven.  ‘I’m flying, it feels like I’m really flying,’ he kept SHOUTING.  This is a minor side effect of using the Oculus Rift.  When you’re in the headset you suddenly start shouting at everyone.  Being in a virtual spaceship, or plane, makes the brain think it really is on a spaceship, or plane, and therefore miles away from its present position, so you’ve got to shout from across the virtual miles.

This introduction to the Oculus Rift made the husband (and myself) determined to get one.  And luckily the price had come down (somewhat.)  We got the Oculus for £598 but then had to fork out £350 on a graphics card, but it was WORTH IT I say (and like I also say, VR makes you shout) – just so long as they don’t find any detrimental, mutant radiation affects in the future.

Since that first go, we’ve downloaded loads of FREE entertainment videos, because I like nice animated films (although it must be said that a lot of the films suffer from a tendency to be morbid.)  The husband has downloaded a few fairly innocuous shooting games.  And today I went on a tour of the White House given by Barack and Michelle Obama.  There I was, sitting in the loft, the home of our Oculus set-up, but virtually sitting on the lawn in front of the White House, which was lit up in a pink evening glow.  Son No. 3 was sitting next to me on his computer.

My chair gently glided through the doors of the White House and into a hallway with a lectern.  Barack Obama’s voice filled my ears, as he began the tour.  I looked up and down the red carpeted hallway and up at the ceiling.  It must be said here that the images on the Oculus are not always crystal clear, particularly objects in the distance, but at this stage in VR’s development that’s probably a minor criticism.  The screen then went black and a fraction of a second later Barack Obama was sitting directly in front of me, large as life and twice as natural, looking directly into my eyes and welcoming me to the White House.  I nearly fell of my chair.  AAAHHHHH!!!!  I screamed.  AAAHHH,  AAAHHHH – I took off the headset and started laughing hysterically.  Son No.3, who’d been watching the tour via the TV screen, joined in the hysteria, simply because his mother was HYSTERICAL.  ‘It’s Obama,’ I screamed, ‘he just suddenly appeared – he looks REAL!!’  I put the headset back on.  I could have reached out and touched him (I tried.)  He was still chatting on, pointing things out in the room.  ‘He’s so thin,’ I continued, ‘and he looks so nice,’  Then I was off again, materialising in the next room and the screen went dark again and suddenly I was sitting opposite Michelle Obama, at a highly polished antique table.  ‘She’s so thin,’ I said, repeating myself, inwardly noticing her nail polish, and her watch, and her hair, as she burbled on, pointing out pictures hanging in the room.  I was so taken up with the fact that I appeared to be in discussion with the Obamas that I didn’t take in a word either of them said.

It was an experience to rival the first time I’d tried the headset.  When it ended, I found another Obama experience which I feverishly downloaded, eager to be in the presidential presence again.  This time he was guiding me around Yosemite national park.

Well, Eurovision is nearly over and so is this post.  It looks like Portugal is going to win – has the world, or rather Europe, lost all musical sense?  And isn’t reality beginning to look just a little suspect?

Never mind, tomorrow I can put on my headset and escape back to the virtual world.

Afternoon Tea

I’ve been busy here and there, although ‘being busy’ is definitely a relative term when you’re a housewife.  For instance, I think going to Sainsbury’s means I’m ‘busy,’ or wafting a duster around, or going along to my various choirs.  It’s true that if you want something doing, ask a busy person; don’t ask me, you’re liable to give me a mini- breakdown, should you threaten me with the making of phone calls or the taking on of too much responsibility.  But I’ve been busy researching things and worrying about things (worrying is a full-time job) and not writing on my blog.

Joining various musical based activities means that, over time, you’re sometimes asked along to things non-group related.  And so I found myself going along for tea, or coffee, and cake, just over a week ago, with some of the singing ladies.  I didn’t want to go. I never want to go to group social thingies, especially when the other members have known each other for years.  But I made myself go.  And there I sat on a Thursday afternoon, round about 2.30 pm, while our hostess carried in a tray full of home-made fairy cakes (what a throwback that was, haven’t had a fairy cake in years), flapjacks and assorted biscuits.  She brandished a fairy cake in my face, urging me to take it.  ‘Sorry, I’m on a diet,’ I said, ‘due to having just had a holiday up north, where I stuffed myself with cake on an hourly basis.’  ‘Nonsense, take one,’ she urged.  And so the five of us sat around, on a couple of white settees and one accent, checked armchair, stuffing fairy cakes and measuring out our lives in coffee spoons.

The social chatter began with a whinging on about a recent Ofsted report (the ladies are teachers/assistants) which had unexpectedly criticised the staff’s efforts, causing a severe lack of morale.  I do a tiny bit of volunteer helping at the school and didn’t have a clue what, or who, they were talking about, but did begin to understand what stressful lives people lead, who actually do worthwhile jobs.  How they are so much at the mercy of ticking all the right boxes, of filling out mountains of paperwork, of doing their job, whilst under the scrutiny of inspectors taking just a snapshot of a school’s day to day life.  There must come a point when the teaching profession, as with so many other professions, becomes a thankless task.  The short time I spend in this school, on a weekly basis, is an experience entirely contrary to the results of their Ofsted report, which leads me to believe (in my complete ignorance) that Ofsted reports are a load of bollocks.

After a prolonged discussion concerning Ofsted and its effects on staff  – there was mass weeping in the corridors, which certainly seems counter-productive – and appropriate interjections by me, in the form of murmurs of sympathy (as though someone had died) the conversation suddenly moved onto Death, which seemed in keeping.

I’m still unsure how this happened.  One minute I was licking buttercream icing from my fingers and thinking ‘social gatherings aren’t that bad, I just have to nod and smile in the right places,’  when B, sitting to my right, mentioned that she was looking into donating her body to medical science, to spare her children funeral expenses.  This was apropos of absolutely nothing.  Her only problem was that Northampton, the place she was hoping to wind up dead, would only take bodies in possession of ‘most of their bits.’   ‘I’ve had two hip replacements, something put in my shoulder, bits of my elbow taken out and I just know my knees are beginning to go,’ she chimed enthusiastically, before excusing herself to rush to the loo.  As she left the room her exit was followed by four pairs of mystified eyes.  Suddenly, a revolting noise emanated from an imposing bookcase, lining one of the lounge walls, and those eyes, full of further alarmed mystification, focused in on the sound.  It came from a luridly green plastic clock, where several species of bird took the place of the numbers.  It was three o’clock and the noise was the grating and very loud ‘caw-caw’ of a crow, ringing out three times.  ‘Sorry,’ the hostess (A) cried and jumped across the room, ‘it’s my RSPB clock, makes different bird calls on the hour and half hour; that was supposed to be a woodpecker.’  ‘That was a crow,’ R informed her.  ‘It was, wasn’t it?’ said A, and fiddled about with a knob on the back, whereupon a gentle tapping sound filled the air.  ‘That’s better,’ A said, ‘and I’ve turned down the volume.’ Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  ‘Can I take a flapjack,’ enquired R, her hand already outstretched, just as came back from the loo.  As though the previous conversation had never paused, B continued on with the saga of her missing bits and that she retained the hope that her knees might hold up, so that medical trainees could perform practice knee replacement surgery on her dead legs.  The fairy cakes A was continuing to ply me with were beginning to lose their appeal.   B made the point that her family were very upset with her for bringing up her future demise, but R, S and A all agreed that it’s something you’ve got to think about isn’t it?  (No.  I go with a policy of blissful ignorance regarding life’s two great subjects – Politics and Death – unknowingly I was about to be hit with the Politics.)  The thinking about it prompted A to give a heartfelt speech concerning her own death wish-list.

‘Have you ever looked into those Humanist burials?’  she chirped, her face positively beaming, as the clock on the bookcase also chirped (blue tit) – for it was half past three.  ‘There’s a new one where, when you die, they manoeuvre you into the foetal position (here I gently gagged on the remains of a flapjack) and then they put you in a sack and bury you in the ground.  Then they plant a tree directly on top of you so you’re helping the tree to grow.  I think that’s a lovely idea!’  R, B and S couldn’t contain their excitement, agreeing that this was a simply super idea.  I was still trying to get past ‘foetal position.’  ‘But there’s another even better one I think,’ A continued, from her hostess position of power in the imposing checked armchair.  ‘I recently went to a funeral, up on the hill, where they put you in a wicker coffin.  They’re beautifully made and look so much nicer than the normal ones (this rather requires the notion that when you’re dead, you’re aware of being in a ‘nice’ coffin. ) There were about five, laid out in a row, when we went.  They say a few words and then you leave before the coffins are put in the ground.  That’s much nicer don’t you think, than having to watch them being lowered into a hole.’  ‘I agree,’ said B fervently (we appeared to be on her favourite topic of conversation here) nothing worse than having to watch the coffins go into the ground and all that throwing of dirt and things.’   I took a swig of now cold coffee, in an attempt to divert my mind from the vision of five coffins in a row, even if they did look like  lovely wicker baskets.  Presumably the Humanists go in for job lots.

Sadly, there was no-one present with whom I could exchange sympathetic glances of mutual confusion and bewilderment, for all around me was an evangelical-type enthusiasm for Death.  Suddenly B reverted back to the school topic and asked if any of us remembered the awful loos back in the day.  Did they remember having to go in a bucket filled with some kind of chemical, and there were just a couple of loos for the entire school?  At this point all further thoughts of eating, or drinking, fled.  ‘I remember that!’ cried R (as though it were a cherished memory) and we weren’t bothered were we?  Didn’t even notice.’  I mentioned being completely unable to recall the loo situation at school.  ‘Ah, but you’re young,’ remarked R, ‘when did you start primary school?’  ‘About 1966.’ I said, (it’s a joyous moment when you’re considered ‘young’ at 56.)  ‘Ah, well, we were at school a good 7-10 years earlier, things had changed.’  Thanking my lucky stars that school toilets had not etched themselves into my memory, we were suddenly onto that other major Life topic of conversation – Politics.

B mentioned her hero Corbyn (in relation to school toilets I think; where the connection was I couldn’t begin to say) as a mournfully hooting owl announced that it was now four o’clock.  There was much blather about the current awful government, and much blather about our awful local government and their plan to build new houses on a patch of land dear to the ladies’ hearts.  I hesitantly mentioned that young people need houses too and A mentioned the local election coming up, where we’d be all having our say.  ‘What local election?’ I said, in an unprecedented and ill-advised move of stupidity.  Jaws dropped in unison.  ‘The election on May 4th, haven’t you had your cards through?’  (I probably had but they were probably lying abandoned in some drawer, never to surface again.)  ‘There’s a general election coming up too,’ A continued.  This was such news to me that unfortunately I repeated the former move of stupidity (which now had a precedent) and cried, ‘What general election?’   This was met by a silence so complete that the nightingale, announcing that it was now 4.30 pm, caused a collective jump.  There followed a lecture on the importance of being politically aware; on turning up to vote; on the suffragette movement (had I been to that movie about suffragettes, the one with Meryl Streep?  It was brilliant!) These bygone women had fought and died so I could have the vote!  You couldn’t argue with the righteous sentiments expressed.  R then left, having somewhere important to go and, after a rapid tour of A’s lovely garden, I left, before an eagle got a chance to announce that it was 5 pm.

I left with the feeling that I’d failed miserably, in terms of toilet-related repartee; in the formulation of funeral arrangements and in keeping up with current events; but very glad that housewives don’t get Ofsted inspected (I’d fail miserably) and with a yearning to own an RSPB clock.