Last month began badly. One of my favourite cousins died at the ridiculously early age of 59. As children, she and her younger sister were the nearest thing I had to siblings, then as adults, we discovered that we had a natural rapport.
I heard the news from her husband, who wept as he spoke. I’d never witnessed such a raw, visceral grief before and felt utterly impotent, unable to think of anything to say other than “I’m so sorry”. Privately, I could only wonder at the cruelty of a universe in which a random mutation can separate a couple who had loved each other deeply.
I was reminded of the famous Kurt Vonnegut quote and felt in a very bleak mood, so when my wife started getting excited about the opening of a new cinema in Lewes, I really didn’t want to know. What was so special about a cinema? I told my wife that I wouldn’t be joining her and her friends on the opening night.
But on the day I suddenly had a change of heart. It was a beautiful, airy afternoon and the thought of staying indoors didn’t appeal, so as our older son was having one of his relatively saner days, we decided to leave him in charge (hoping that the house wouldn’t be a smouldering ruin when we returned).
I liked The Depot cinema as soon as I saw it, although the sign needs changing.
The building is in the usual postmodern style, but the addition of local flint adds a nice vernacular touch. To the left of the photo, there is an outdoor seating area with sofas and tables, but there’s also plenty of space inside:
We joined some friends for a drink and for the first time in ages, I felt my mood lift.
In hindsight, I suppose I’d become increasingly weighed down by a sense that life was, as they say, one damned thing after another. In the past, I dealt with feelings like this by having an adventure – I once alleviated the horrors of working in Slough by flying to Chile on a whim – but my childcare duties now made this strategy impossible. I felt stuck in a rut.
However, sitting in the sun, talking about Hitchcock films with a neighbour and planning which films we were going to see was all I needed to break the spell. Suddenly, I had things to look forward to again. A sense that life was full of possibilities as well as challenges.
As for the cinema, it has three screens and a wonderful Dolby sound system, with the added bonus of no adverts before the films. This is because the cinema is run as a non-profit making charity, thanks to a very healthy donation by a local philanthropist.
The films shown are a mixture of modern independent productions, mainstream features like Alien Covenant and classics from the era of Hitchcock’s The Birds, which my son and I are going to see tomorrow. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing old favourites as they were meant to be seen, on the big screen.
I also enjoyed watching Mad to Be Normal, a surprisingly funny new film about the controversial psychiatrist RD Laing (there was some confusion when my wife told someone that I’d been to see a movie about KD Lang).
I’ve no doubt that half of the films I’ll see are available on YouTube or Netflix, but I’ve realised that the movie itself is only part of the pleasure of going to The Depot. For me, the 15-minute walk there and back and the experience of sitting in a dark room with no interruptions are just as important.
As well as the delights of sitting in a dark room, I’ve been enjoying the light of the South Downs:
I first got to know this landscape when I was 11. I was living in a sanitorium at the time and one morning, the nurses suddenly announced that we would be going for a walk.
It was a rare treat to be allowed outside and I assumed that we were going to visit a local playground. Instead, we walked through a succession of dull, residential roads with identical 1930s houses, many of which had twee names like ‘Ashdene’ and ‘Haymede’.
Several of us began to quietly complain to each other that this was a bit of a ‘swiz’ when suddenly, we reached a high wall with a narrow, iron gate. One of the nurses pushed the gate open and as we walked through, we found ourselves in open downland with views of rolling hills and the sea in the distance. It was an exhilarating moment and I’ve loved the Downs ever since.
In between looking after my sons and watching episodes of The Brothers (a programme that deserves its own blog post), I’ve been reading quite a lot recently. The discovery of Barbara Pym has been a particular pleasure and I also really enjoyed Sister Carrie. I hadn’t heard of the novel until, many years ago, a girl of about 14 asked me if our bookshop had a copy in stock. I assumed it must be some sort of jolly Louisa M Allcott-style story for young ladies, or perhaps a wholesome tale about a nun.
How wrong I was. For the 1900s, it is positively shocking and I can imagine that many early readers were scandalised by its contents. Perhaps they were also expecting a wholesome tale about a nun.
In addition to all of the above, I also briefly escaped to the 15th century:
But that’s another story.
Last month I decided to do something I’d never done before and didn’t think I ever would. I don’t know whether the decision to do it was the result of becoming more broad-minded, or simply because I’ve given up caring.
I read a Stephen King novel.
I picked ‘The Stand’ because it was a post-apocalyptic story rather than a supernatural one. At least, that’s what I thought. Sadly, after reading several hundred pages, the Devil appeared and it all got a bit silly. But King can write and I can now see why a friend at university decided to make him the subject of his dissertation, even if I probably won’t try another of his books.
I decided to try ‘The Stand’ because I wanted a big doorstep of a novel that would provide some escapism from the stresses of daily life, particularly the recent death of a friend. Sometimes I worry that I’m turning into my father, whose tastes became increasingly lowbrow with age.
On one occasion, when I was 15 or 16, I was enjoying watching an interview with Jonathan Miller when my dad suddenly muttered something under his breath and changed channels, to a programme featuring dancing girls. I was furious.
“But I was watching that! It was…educational” I said, trying to imply that my exam results might be vaguely compromised unless we switched back to Miller.
My dad sighed. “It was flippin’ talk talk talk. I don’t want to be educated, I want to be entertained.” I felt a visceral horror at his shameless philistinism.
I can’t remember what I said in reply, but I have a feeling it reached new heights of pubescent prigishness and pomposity. After making an eloquent defence of western civilisation, I stomped out of the room and played Beethoven, loudly.
Over three decades on, I’m now the man who often can’t face watching an hour-long BBC4 documentary, but will happily make time for ‘The Walking Dead’. I don’t want to be educated. I want to be entertained.
Of course, that’s not strictly true. I still read challenging books and enjoy listening to BBC podcasts of programmes like Start the Week, but there are other areas where I feel I don’t want to know any more, because what I already know is depressing enough. Indeed, there are some things that I wish that I could unlearn.
My friend’s funeral took place a couple of weeks ago, in a wood in Surrey (designated for burials rather than just some random woodland – you can’t bury bodies anywhere as that might spark a murder investigation). We were asked to wear stripes rather than formal clothes and I donned a Breton fisherman’s shirt for the first time since 1992.
I was dreading the funeral, but also looking forward to the opportunity to share our grief with others. Sadly, less than 20 minutes into the journey, my car came out in sympathy and also died. We never made it to Surrey.
My car was in good condition and should have had several years ahead of it, but by some stroke of bad luck, a seal broke and the oil started to leak into the fuel. This caused the engine to start burning the oil as well as the diesel, so that even when I took my foot off the accelerator pedal, the car kept getting faster and faster. At one point, I felt as if I was Keanu Reeves in Speed.
Luckily, as we edged towards 100mph, I saw a layby up ahead, and was able to flip the gear into neutral and coast to safety. My wife was thankfully oblivious to how much danger we were in. The AA man was clearly bemused to find two middle-aged people dressed like pirates, but he was the epitome of quiet professionalism.
The car was towed back to Lewes and later I received the good news, “Yes, we can replace the engine” followed by the bad news, “But it will cost twice the market value of the car”.
In the end, I sold a perfectly good car (engine excepted) for scrap. I received £300.
I did contemplate replacing my car with something completely impractical but great fun (I saw a lovely 2001 Jag on sale at an affordable price). Then I remembered that a friend had bought a Saab convertible (with 130,000 miles on the clock) to cheer herself up. She enjoyed ten blissful weeks of driving around Brighton before the car blew up.
I think that was also sold for scrap.
By now, you will have realised that there is no theme to this post. It is just a stream of consciousness, typed in haste before one of my sons issues a request for either food or company. That is my entire life at the moment, but come September, when they will both hopefully walk to school and college, I will be free to start doing things again and clear away the cobwebs.
I met a very interesting woman in the pub the other day who asked me what I liked about my jobs. I told her and without pausing for thought, she replied “You should be a life coach”.
I was baffled. “Surely there’s an element of ‘Physician heal thyself’ isn’t there?” I said.
“It doesn’t matter. I can tell you’d be good at it.”
There are three possibilities. One is that she’s wrong. Two is that she tells everyone that they should be a life coach. Three is that she has a point. But I’d always dismissed it as one of those silly, made-up jobs, in which the bullshitter preys on the gullible.
Perhaps that was her point. I hope not.
A few weeks before my mother died, she asked me if I could find out whether her oldest sister had been conceived out of wedlock. If the sister was illegitimate, it would explain why her parents had been unnaturally reticent about their past. It might also account for their rather Calvinist sense of morality, atoning for past sins.
My mother must have known about it for years, but suddenly had a greater sense of urgency, as if she realised that her time was drawing to an end. Later that day, I went online and discovered how easy it was to track people down, even when their surname was Smith.
Within less than an hour, I was able to confirm that my maternal grandparents had indeed given in to the heat of the moment (actually, it must have been quite a long moment, as those whalebone corsets are a devil to get off). They tried to cover their tracks with a snap wedding, but my great-aunt ruined it all by arriving a month early. It caused a scandal within the family.
I rang my mother and told her that it was all true. I think she was secretly delighted that her family life echoed the plot of one of her beloved romance novels.
After looking up various birth, death and marriage certificates on a family history website, I started being bombarded with adverts for ancestry DNA tests. At first I ignored them, as it seemed a rather frivolous way of spending £100. Then a special offer arrived and like my grandparents, I succumbed to temptation.
I’d always been a little sceptical about the value of ancestry DNA tests, but the technology has improved and I thought it would be fun to see if the results bore any relation to the person I believed I was.
All I knew about my family was that we were all English on both sides, right down to the last third cousin, twice removed. But the phrase ‘pure English’ is, of course, an oxymoron. The latest research suggests that it means very different things, depending on what part of the country you’re in.
The traditional narratives may have claimed that the English were Germanic invaders, who had pushed the native Britons to the western fringes of Britain. However, recent findings point to a more complex picture of continuity and assimilation. The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, added to the gene pool, but hadn’t radically changed it.
I expected to be largely descended from the forgotten prehistoric peoples who came here after the ice age, with some Anglo-Saxon and a little Viking. I secretly hoped for something a little more exotic – perhaps even some Neanderthal – but was resigned to being Mr Average.
The results came as something of a surprise:
It was a shock to discover that I was only 21% British (and where did the 11% Irish come from?). However, the biggest bombshell was learning that I was two-thirds continental European. In addition, I was also more Western European than the average Western European. How did that happen?
I dug deeper and learned that my European ancestors were largely from Holland and northern Germany, with a soupçon of Scandinavian and Mediterranean. It would seem that the English were the 5th century’s equivalent of EU migrants.
Further back, I am also descended from a 5,000 years old gentleman in Stuttgart, whose bones were found in a cave. I went through Stuttgart once on a sleeper train, but didn’t have any strange dreams about killing wolves.
As for the smigdeon of Irish, apparenly it could be Scottish, but I think I’ll be like those blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who identify as Native American and invent a new Hibernian identity for myself. Come St Patrick’s Day, I’ll be cracking open the Guinness and singing Danny Boy with the rest of them.
Ancestry DNA tests are just a bit of fun, but there is a serious aspect to it too. I can imagine how the Nazis would have eagerly embraced this technology as a tool to measure racial purity, only to discover, to their horror, that we are all descended from immigrants.
We are ‘the other’. Mr Trump take note.
In the meantime, I shall be deporting myself back to Europe as soon as a vacancy arises for a hunter-gatherer. If you’re aware of any caves going free in the Stuttgart area, please let me know.