The ghost of John Wayne

Learning tolerance from a dinosaur

A tall man in a wide brimmed hat stands a doorway, the bright western light behind him, his right forearm across his body, the hand holding his left elbow. A six-gun hangs low on his hip. His expression says he’s seen and he knows. He stands there for several seconds then slowly turns and walks away into the landscape with a slightly lob-sided gait.

John Wayne has become a forgotten movie star. It’s difficult, now, to describe how huge his fame was to anyone under 30, so you’ll just have to trust me; his face and his movements were instantly recognisable to a global audience until the 1980s. He was the very definition of a movie star.

He’s forgotten partly because that’s the nature of cinema, partly because the kind of masculinity he epitomised is out of fashion now, but also as a result of modern discomfort with his political views.

I’m not going to concern myself with the details of his politics here. I wouldn’t agree with him, but I’ve never felt disagreement should be a bar to discourse – unlike so many these days. It seems acceptable, indeed expected, now for someone with a political affiliation to simply ignore anyone with a differing idea. Which is a genuine tragedy.

Things haven’t always been that way; Wayne is a good example. He was a right-wing conservative, but one of his best friends in later years was Katharine Hepburn, his polar opposite politically.

A Hollywood dinosaur, but maybe there are things we can learn from when such beasts walked the earth.


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Tragedy and farce

Historic parallels are not difficult to find if you look for them, but some are more striking than others

To reference Marx, who was referencing Hegel:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

It’s an interesting idea to contemplate, and one that, in my all too frequent idle moments, I am apt to.

For instance:

A German leader, having given his soldiery vital experience of combat in the Spanish civil war, increased his power over Austria, then invaded Czechoslovakia — while other powerful nations did nothing to prevent him. Using the existence of German ethnic minorities as an excuse he built up a massive military force on the borders of Poland and then invaded.

And then consider:

A Russian leader, having given his soldiery vital experience of combat in the Syrian civil war, increased his power over Belarus, then invaded Crimea — while other powerful states did nothing to prevent him. Using the existence of Russian ethnic minorities as an excuse he built up a massive military force on the borders of Ukraine and then…

Tragedy or farce? I guess we’ll see. But the western powers have clearly decided, by not allowing Ukraine to join NATO, that a full blown Russian invasion of Ukraine is not worth a military confrontation with Moscow. Maybe the Ukraine is Bohemia, not Poland.


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Absolution

Three years, the blink of an eye, and a return to blogging.

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It appears it’s been precisely three years since my last confession. Believe it or not the fact that I stumbled upon Toadstool today was purely accidental; if thought provoking. Precisely three years. Astonishing. 

Reading what I wrote three years ago, the person I was then, what interested me, is fascinating. I wonder what it will mean to people in, say, thirty years? Not much I suspect. It’s unlikely to concern me anyhow, since I’ll be worm food long before then.

But what three years they’ve been. One year into my little holiday from this blog there was a sweet little baby virus detected that the World Health Organisation became concerned enough about to name: COronaVIrus Disease 2019. It would be fair to say that COVID-19 has dominated our lives ever since.

Some people have taken exception to this domination, and have responded by simply pretending that it doesn’t exist. It’s the invention of, oh, I don’t know — an international cabal of pedophiles I think. Or Boris Johnson. Or the liberal elite. Whatever.

Anyway, these folk have decided that, since it’s a fake virus, we need not take precautions against it. We need not lock-down, or restrict travel, or wear face masks — and we certainly shouldn’t vaccinate ourselves.

We’ve all learned more that we cared to about viruses in the last few years, but the element of the situation that has struck me is how a virus can only be combatted through concerted community action. Whether an individual gets vaccinated or not is not just of importance to them, but to all of us. To be anti-vac is to be anti-social. Criminally so.


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The White Room

An invite to an exhibition opening exacerbates my cultural numbness.

Another November night, another private view for an exhibition that makes no sense to me apart from free booze. They’ve got the thermostat turned up to thirty and I’ve arrived in a clearly ill-judged suit appropriate for the season. I should have worn beachwear.

As a rule I dislike shows that require sheets of paper to tell me what’s going on, but tonight I find myself asking the charming woman who pours the vodka if there’s anything that can help me make sense of this. She doesn’t have any literature that can help but, ignoring the plaintive looks of the usual suspects chasing a glass of warm Prosecco, she gamely leaves her station behind the booze table to give me some guidance.

“All the pictures are different,” she tells me, “taken in different places.” I’m beginning to get that feeling of ironic uncertainly again. “He told me the key is to see the work in there,” she says, pointing to a circular wall, off centre in the room, which I’d previously taken to be some form of unavoidable void.

“I didn’t know there was something in there,” I offer. Her expression shows no sign of irony or humour – so often the case with the young. She’s very willing to help me achieve understanding, but the Prosecco hungry crowd is growing and I take pity on them. They’re going to need it. “Thank you,” I say – her expression is almost pleading – “I’ll have a look in there.”

I go ‘in there’, which involves waiting with the rest of the sadly curious until a young woman dressed head to toe in black, with long straight black hair, pale skin and round glasses, senses the moment is appropriate to open the curved door and allow us entry.

It doesn’t offer any enlightenment. The projected work is presented in such a way that necessitates a constant turning of the observer’s body, inducing a nauseating dizziness in your correspondent. The small circular room is heated even more than the rest of the gallery.

I escape the small room and see a man in shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. Wise.


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A break from the norm

A bike trip to the seaside, an escape from the Smoke, and a religious surprise

Small town. I came out of the supermarket to find two fourteen year old schoolgirls sitting on my bike. When I was at school the nymphettes would roll their already short skirts up at the waistband so as to raise the hem as much as possible. These two were probably their great granddaughters, the technique having been handed down. At least they moved off when asked, giggling.

The town itself is strikingly beautiful; famously so. Generations of painters have hymned to its light and colours. Brightly clothed families, with dogs and children in perpetual fear of seagulls, still attest.

Even Hollywood’s most cliched set wouldn’t look as picturesque as the pubs, seeping with the genuine stature of age. No one ever created sky and sea so perfectly in balance, or such a breeze – strong enough to cool, but gentle, so as to stroke the skin.

I came here for a break from London; booked a hotel online and jumped on the bike. It seems it’ll be more of a break than I planned – inadvertently, I booked myself into a Christian hotel. The doors are locked at 9pm, the WiFi has parental controls. There are prayer meetings morning and evening.

I’ve just been out to buy a bottle of whisky. It’s going to be an interesting couple of days.


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Lascivious nods

Come with me on a trip back to my shameful youth

Rose Street played a small but memorable role in my younger life; what cultural commentators like to call a ‘rite of passage’.

For in a pub there – now, I hope and trust, long vanished – I witnessed my first and last stripper.

It was lunchtime, and my friend Andy decided this was the place to spend it. Not for want of alternatives – Rose Street had, I think, even more pubs then than it does now – but possibly because he’d spotted a seductive sign in the window, the promise of naked flesh with your pint.

And so we pushed open the old wooden door and quit the bright street for the dark, sparse, tobacco smoke scented den of iniquity. I recall a few solemn tables near the walls, and a few solemn men venerating their pints with more smoke, and – a surprise this, since I’d missed the sign in the window – one corner of the dark panelled room which was covered in mirror tiles. It called to mind a makeshift shower area built for a narcissist. “There’s a stripper,” said Andy.

As we moved towards the bar, monitored without interest by some of the solemn men, Andy nudged me. I glanced at his lasciviously grinning face – he really was much more enthusiastic and confident about all this than I was – he nodded towards Mirror Corner: “Look at the tiles on the left there.”

My eyes, slowly becoming accustomed to the gloom, studied the mirror and saw nothing of note until suddenly the impression left by a pair of oiled breasts sprung out at me. I can’t deny a thrill of excitement; teenaged obsession with the female breast was strong in me. Andy broke my reverie, handing me a pint. The lascivious nod again, toward the bar’s end.

I followed his gaze to where a heavily made up woman with dark curly hair stood, a shawl draped casually over her nakedness, drinking a pint. The man next to her had an arm resting lewdly across her shoulders.

I felt no attraction to her – she probably seemed from another planet – but will admit to a strong curiosity. Some music started. She stepped up on to the small raised platform in Mirror Corner and, in an utterly disinterested way, removed her shawl and her g-string over the next two minutes. She then stepped off the platform, finished her pint, and, still naked, walked around the room waving the empty glass at the solemn men, some of whom put money in it. Andy and I were among them.


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Convenience

Who are told that so many things should be allowed because they will offer us things that we want, but there’s always a cost

I’m told this blog lingers on the failings of the modern world and how much better things were back in the day, and I suppose it does. Put it down your aged correspondent’s accumulated wisdom, hard won over the long years.

For the record, some things were better in the past and some things were worse; the fact is that when one looks back into one’s own past from the perspective of age there is the inevitable danger of subjectivity brought on by wistful longings for lost youth.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we only left behind the bad things, and only brought with us the good and worthwhile? It doesn’t happen that way, which leaves room for grumpy old bastards like me to irritate everyone with stories from the good old days. It’s always been that way of course; even the phrase ‘the good old days’ seems to have originated in the early part of the virtuous Victoria’s reign, when people would look back with misty eyes to the days of the debauched Georges. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Which brings me to Tesco Metro (not just Tesco, of course, all the supermarkets are equally guilty) and their elimination of local competition. The idea of a supermarket around the corner that stocks all the things you need at cheap prices is, of course, great, and I for one will admit to using them. But then the small shops close, and you regret it but you say ‘that’s progress’ as you walk past. Then the supermarket starts to reduce it’s range, getting rid of it’s less popular lines according to modern retail philosophy. And then you realize that one of the lines they’ve dropped is something you use every day, and so the convenience of the local supermarket is now irrelevant, since the local shop where you used to buy it has closed and you’ve got to walk to another part of town to get it.


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Insidious torpor

God I feel awful

What is ‘a cold’? It’s such a feeble illness, so pathetic, so humiliating to admit to, that many simply refuse to suffer from it; calling it ‘the flu’. You see? It doesn’t even get to use the definite article, it’s only ‘a cold’, whereas it’s ‘the flu’.

As a result I’m never quite prepared for how unmitigatedly shitty a cold makes me feel. Attentive readers of the toadstool will know how pure and healthy my lifestyle is and so will be unsurprised that I suffer from colds infrequently; but when I do – stand back, close the blinds, clear the room, evacuate the building and do not return unless bearing LemSip.

And yet I’m always surprised when it hits. As I write I’ve just emerged from one such bout; from the moment when I reluctantly accept that mucus production has increased to unprecedented levels, and fuzzy-headedness drives me to my bed, I live in a bewildered state. Constantly surprised that I feel so incapacitated and trying to remember where I put all the bottles of syrup, pills, sachets, sprays and extra strength tissues I haven’t used since the last time.

Eventually, once I’ve gathered everything around me, so that I only need stir from my bed for calls of nature – or to pour boiling water on another dose of the life-giving LemSip – I nest. Radio 4 reminds me that there is a world beyond my darkened windows as I drift in and out of consciousness for around 48 hours.

The worst of it is that, while the initial descent into torpidity is rapid, the ascent back to humanity is slow and punctuated with reminders that you’re not yet fit to be released into polite society.

And yet, eventually, one day you realise you can take breath without an eruption of coughing, and it’s gone. You’re free. And you forget immediately how ghastly the whole episode was, allowing you to pour disdain on the next unfortunate acquaintance who cancels on you because they’ve got ‘a cold’.


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Royal decree, number 1

London

Two streets away, the thumping annoyed. One street away it reached intolerable. Once the source was in plain view it got no louder until I was close enough to understand; the backing track for a steel drummer standing outside Boots.

Appreciator of steel percussion I may be, enjoyer of banging beats played loudly in public I am not.

When I’m king we’ll have no more of this. I’m all in favour of street musicians – even the ones I don’t like – but standing on the street playing recorded music on an amp doesn’t make you a street musician. It makes you a public nuisance.

This is true, only more so, in tube stations. I understand TfL carries out auditions for those keen to express themselves musically on the underground network. I can’t imagine what this consists of, but can I suggest that they establish whether an applicant can actually make music? Or is it considered a sufficient skill to plug an iPhone into a battery powered amp?

There would be an exception written into my royal decree though: for electric guitars. It’s an instrument, after all, that doesn’t make much sense without an amp. Then you must allow electric violins, I hear you all cry. No. The electric guitar is a distinct instrument from the acoustic, with a separate repertoire. Let that be the criteria. Your king has spoken.


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It’s Strephon

London

No stranger to the Coliseum Theatre is your correspondent, and while I by and large enjoy the English National Opera productions, many of which are superb, I’d never seen any of the quintessential Gilbert and Sullivan. That changed the other night.

G&S, as I’m now qualified to call them, inhabit an uncomfortable slice of the opera spectrum, with a reputation as being middle-class, middle-England, and middle-of-the-road; one foot in the lifeboat of political satire and the other on the dwindling iceberg of frivolous entertainment. Enough with the metaphors.

I’m making ‘entertainment’ sound beneath contempt, which isn’t my intention; being simply entertaining is a great skill, and indeed this production of Iolanthe achieved it – and a lot more besides.

Also refreshing to see the Coliseum full. It’s a large house and I’ve seen great performances of Mozart and Puccini, Strauss and Delibes, playing to two-thirds capacity. Perhaps back-to-back G&S is what the ENO’s needs to end it’s constant flirtation with financial disaster.

Hardly the youthful audience the ENO dreams of though; I’m in my mid-fifties, and it’s unusual that I lower the average age of any gathering, but this was certainly an exception. The assembled snowbirds didn’t necessarily get what they were expecting, judging by the reaction of the stony faced couple next to me who seemed determinedly unamused. A dancing peer-of-the-realm falling spectacularly off the roof of a full scale stream train: not a glimmer of a smile. An irrelevant pantomime cow wanders across the stage and joins in the chorus: nothing. Another peer with a badly behaved terrier glove-puppet (memories, for me, of Spit the Dog): nada.

Even my favourite gag of the night, the Fairy Queen’s constant mispronunciation of the leading character’s name ‘Strephon’ as ‘Strapon’ – which if you ask me got more hilarious every time – didn’t crack their granite expressions.

Nonetheless, you can now count me as a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. The skilful combination of wit and charm, especially in the hands of such an accomplished company, nailed it.


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