A is for Aunty

Some people never have the joy of having grandparents. I was lucky enough to know all of mine, although both grandfathers died relatively young. I did however have effectively three grandmothers.

Not being the result of weird 1970s fertility experiment, this was largely because I had a Great Aunt who effectively adopted me as a grandson. She was my dad’s aunt and the next one down in age order from my actual grandmother and one of many siblings, who first exposed me to the kind of kindred mafia that can occur in bit families, the kind of thing that can be summarised as treating each other on a spectrum of toleration to outright conflict between the siblings, but woe be tide anyone from outside the clan that dared to criticise; and instant, instinctive, closing of ranks and a momentary forgetfulness of ongoing bitter feuds in the face of a common attack on the Family.

So, my Great Aunt lived across the road from myself and my parents (I’m an only child, if you do not count the dogs). I have no idea, thinking back, how this state of affairs came to be, as the family did not come from the Chester-le-Street area, coming mainly from Gateshead and South Shields. I never questioned it as a child and I do not know if it was coincidence (highly unlikely) or whether she moved to be close to my parents – and me – which is much more likely.

My Great Aunt had an interesting life. Like my grandmother, and most of the clan, she left school early as the important thing was getting some work to help ends meet and they both worked in one of a small chain of fruiter’s shops in the North East (many were the horror stories of large and terrifying spiders etc. crawling out of the bananas; apparently, there was only one young man who worked in the store and he got the unenviable job of dealing with the unwelcome stowaways). What changed things was that for reasons unreported, my Great Aunt ended up married to the man who owned the chain of shops.

Suddenly, she had status and money, and there are several pictures I have of her dressed up at meetings and conferences in the south of France or Rome. One of my most treasured possessions is large bronze medallion she gave me, an award her husband had received at one of these do’s. they had no children together, which is why she ‘adopted’ me. When he died young, he left her with a generous allowance but left the real money to a daughter from a previous marriage. She never got on with his daughter; as far as I remember she never even mentioned her in the twenty years I knew her and only found out about she existed from the comments from my dad when he was executor to her will.

Of course, this ‘good fortune’ meant that the relationships with siblings became extremely strained. She had broken ranks and was now ‘above herself’. The only siblings she ever stayed on speaking terms with was her younger brother – and he was the sweetest and gentlest of men, I was always fond of Uncle Albert – and my grandmother – although in the latter case this was largely by necessity as they had to share me. I remember many Christmas days, which would have a section where my grandmother would go over to my Great Aunt’s house for sherry and cake (suspiciously without my parents, my mum could be cunning when she wanted to be!) and I would sit and watch the tension build to the point we would leave just before the outbreak of actual hostilities.

But I loved my Great Aunt; she was always kind to me, happily let me play with her collection for brass ornaments with my sticky fingers without complaint, and they would be shiny and clean the next day ready for me to abuse them once more. She made wonderful scones and her apple pie was, and I mean this, ambrosia; I so regret never getting her recipe for it, because I have never tasted better. With hindsight, I was the grandson she never had; and I’m proud to add her to my roster of grandparents. I think she’d be very happy to know that.


This week’s soundtrack: ‘A Lady of a Certain Age’ by The Divine Comedy, not because of the sentiments but because it’s a bloody good song.


Unexpected Excitements

Well, Fulham is certainly full of character.

Let me explain that Fulham is a region of London to the West of the city and near to Hammersmith and Chelsea. I must say I have never been before, and we were only staying there because there was a cheap hotel a mile and a bit from Hammersmith Apollo, one of the iconic London music venues Well, strictly is currently the Evertim Hammersmith, but surely no one calls it that outside of Evertim employees so the renaming is vaguely ludicrous, at least Shepherds Bush Empire and Brixton Academy, comparable venues, only have to put up with ‘O2’ blighting their name, which is conveniently forgotten about by anyone who actually, as I do, loves those venues. We were there to see Californian pop/rock band Train but although the gig was great – it is always good to see a band that can properly entertain – not just play, entertain – live, some of the most memorable moments were not at the Apollo at all.

I’ve harped on about looking up and around before, and London has much opportunity for moments where you stop and go, ‘will you look at that?’. As you walk from Fulham High Road towards Hammersmith it is quite noticeable that the area, while hardly a slum now, has seen better days, as grand Victorian terraces look out on the four busy lanes of the A4, where perhaps there was a quiet lane and a park when they were first built. A slightly battered Georgian townhouse hides, recessed, from the Kebab and chicken shops. The entrance to Barons Court Station certainly would do justice to any member of the minor aristocracy who considered on a whim to investigate the station attributed to them.

Best of all is St Paul’s Studios, a whole row of buildings built in Arts and Crafts style in 1891 to designs by the architect Frederick Wheeler; they are private houses now, but were built as artist’ s studios for bachelor artists, and have magnificent arched glass roofs to provide maximum light to the studio space; not at all what we expected to see but quite magnificent (find out more if you are interested at https://baldwinhamey.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/st-pauls-studios/ )

So, there is plenty to enjoy even when slogging through London to get to a gig. Mind you, you do have to be a bit cautious, especially later when there are fewer people around. We had to negotiate the group of teenagers who seemed to have developed an urge to through live fireworks at each other; never a recommended pastime (to be fair, they took no interest in us, seemingly content to maim each other, but even so). We walked briskly on as the police car glided into sight.

Weirder was the serenade early in the morning. As I lay trying to sleep, the wavering voice of a woman came through the open window, from somewhere unseen in the street (I am making the broad assumption of an older lady). She was, quite incongruously singing ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ in an accent that was almost out of Dick Van Dyke cliché (and no, I was not dreaming this). She went on to go through several verses that she may have made up, but seemed perfectly to fit. Then there was a rattle – going through bins, I thought – and then no more. It was quite surreal. It is hard not for me to think that she comes outside the Travelodge every day at the same time looking for what she can scavenge, and in the process, beats out some ditty or other. The question is does she sing the same thing every day? I guess I will never know, but there is a story there.

Almost Unreal

What is real and what is not? Good question I think, and one that harks back to long evening – or rather early mornings – in university rooms over cans of cheap lager and tea. I think that in broad terms most of us walk through life in a mix, grounded in one way with what is immovable and fixed but away with the fairies in our own heads. At times, one or the other dominates. Sometimes it is cold reality time – the exhaust fell off the car and no amount of daydreaming is going to fix it (or pay for the inevitable repair bill). Then there are the times when what exists within our heads dominates what is outside, because we want it to, as we delude ourselves that the object of our desire really does love us (tomorrow she’ll change her mind and come around, obviously) or actually that coat you bought on a whim and makes people physically sick when they see it will eventually come into fashion.

The musings on this largely comes from finally catching up – ten years late – with the excellent ‘Life on Mars’, the main pleasure of which (apart from the wonderful creation that is Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt) I having a good discussion with the Lovely Wife afterwards on what the blessed sakes it was all about and what was real and what was not, and whether in fact the whole point is more that what you perceive as being real is more important than any empirical measure that might exist. You believe that something is real, then, to you at least, it is indeed real.

The fact of the matter is that none of us has the identical view of what is real – we cannot have. We might generally agree on some broad approximations by conscious or unconscious consensus but if you dig into the detail we will eventually disagree. As I am writing this I am wearing a blue T-shirt. I think it is quite a pale, bright, blue. But it is not blue, I am perceiving it as blue, and a shade. My eyes are picking up the light signals and my brain translating those as this specific shade of blue, and therein lies the source of difference. Anyone else seeing this T shirt might pick up the same data (let’s assume our eyesight is equivalent) but that other person is not going to see the same shade of blue. They may not even see it as blue at all, depending on how their brain processes the data. We do not, cannot, have the same view of ‘reality’ and while in the interests of fairness I might say that both of our views of reality might be valid, in the final reckoning they are not. For me, only one reality is valid, and it is the one that my brain has cooked up. The rest of you are deluded, poor things.

In many ways, I would love to see how someone else perceives the world, and to be able to compare world views, but I do not think that is ever possible as it will always be through the filter of my own grey matter that would distort any such input. I would be fascinated to know how those with elements of synaesthesia perceive the world; this is where the perception of sense is different from that seen by the majority; people talk of ‘hearing’ colour or ‘tasting’ music. I have always thought that would be fascinating, and again it all relates to that processing by the brain. But, as I say, I’ll just have to use my imagination.


This week’s soundtrack: ‘Even Better that the Real Thing’ by U2

Hot & Cold

I’m impressed by moderation. I appreciate it does not seem the most obvious sentiment to express, but the context is in being able to apply moderation as a way of life. If people possess a skill you do not feel you have there is a tendency towards one of two positions; to hate them for it or to be impressed by it. I find practising moderation difficult, so I am impressed with people who can and do live life with more balance. Usually I am either on or off, happy or sad, full of beans or ready for bed. I do not do inbetween, and as a result live with both the advantages and the drawbacks.

Helpfully for me I have disciplined and controlled people in my life or else I would be all over the place. Personally, I can go from one extreme to another in a matter of minutes. I am not good at hitting the sweet spot in the middle, at least not first time. I usually need at least three attempts to get it right – note, those who know me, have patience, please – probably best epitomised by my driving test experience which was the definition of ‘goldilocks’. First test failed largely on being too hesitant, second one failed on being too aggressive and third one passed as just right. There are other areas of my life that have taken a similar porridge temperature trajectory (although the bears have not come home to catch me, at least not yet). It would be nice to hit the sweet spot first time, but I suppose personally I need the practice.

What can bother me more is getting a handle on my swings of mood, and I suspect those close to me put up a lot with them too. I can get cross very quickly, but calm down just as fast. I also have a good line in panic, although on this one I have worked out that letting a minute or two of ‘oh goodness sake what do I do now?’ is often rewarded by a sustained follow up of cool practical thought and action as to best save the situation or at least initiate a decent attempt at damage limitation. I refer longer term readers to the Mount Fuji experience as a key example of turning something potential disastrous (and, to be honest, dangerous) into something that, as the cliché goes, you end up laughing about. Acting instinctively can be helpful at times, and at least you know what is going on with me, I’m terribly bad at hiding what I am feeling at any one time, unlike some whose inner thoughts and feelings are hidden behind a mask that really, really, should be in use playing high stakes poker, if they were not so disinclined.

Of course, both types work together. I get them to jump off the cliff into the clear, warm water when otherwise they’d probably never go, spending too much time considering whether it was worth it or not. Mind you, they’ve already paused long enough to take the time to (1) check that the water is deep enough for it to be safe and (2) checked that the sharks are not circling waiting for a free meal to drop in on them. A win-win scenario for us both I feel, and yes I feel annoyed with myself for using ‘win-win scenario’ in something not written about my corporate work life. Time to sign off when I’m behind, I feel…


This week’s soundtrack: ‘I Go to Extremes’ by Billy Joel, off the 1989 album ‘Storm Front’ – right back to being 18 and my first year at University.